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Ethnohistory 51.4 (2004) 751-778

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Skin as a Metaphor:

Early European Racial Views on Japan, 1548–1853

University of Haifa

The forced opening of Japan by an American squadron in 1853–54 provided the Western world with a long-awaited opportunity to freely inspect the land at the edge of the Orient. It was indeed a momentous event because for more than two centuries, only few Europeans had been able to catch a brief glimpse of the enigmatic archipelago and its legendary inhabitants. Like Napoleon, who enlisted several dozen savants for his Egyptian expedition, the squadron commander, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, recognized the historic importance of his voyage and brought along several scholars and curators to record the discovery.

Perry's scientific aspirations notwithstanding, Japan was in fact anything but unknown to the new explorers. Since medieval times, ongoing scholarship regarding Japan had existed in Europe, and however dated and inaccurate, detailed accounts of its people and their customs were widely available to would-be explorers. For three centuries of actual contact, pre-1853 European scholarship on Japan showed a growing interest in the racial make-up of the Japanese. As a whole, the racial perspectives on Japan were only an offshoot of a greater discourse, a new scientific worldview that placed mankind within a broader natural system and classified human variety in term of unequal races.

The discourse on Japan is fascinating precisely because it was limited and delayed; moreover, it demonstrates bluntly how in a relatively short time the racial image of a group may change, or even be invented, regardless of the group's own actions. At the turn of the eighteenth century, adverse attitudes to any nonwhite peoples started to affect European attitudes to the Japanese, despite the fact that there was almost no contact between the nations. The rising Western interest in Japan during the years [End Page 751] before its opening and the republication of old accounts suggest that the racial discourse on Japan exerted much influence on the mid-nineteenth-century visitors' perceptions and on their subsequent treatment of the Japanese. In the same vein, it appears that when Perry and other Western pioneers landed in Japan, their racial attitude toward the Japanese was already largely formed.

In this article, I examine the evolution of the European discourse on the Japanese race from the time the first Europeans had landed in the archipelago in the mid-sixteenth century to the end of Japan's isolation in the mid-nineteenth century. In a three-century period this discourse underwent a transition similar to that of attitudes to other non-European peoples. It certainly had some unique features as well, because the Japanese, as a result of particular political and geographical circumstances, escaped the fate of many other non-Europeans: they were neither colonized nor enslaved, they lost no battle with the Europeans, and they were not much affected in this period by Occidental culture and religion. For these reasons, European scholars refrained from referring to Japan in the same abusive language they used with other non-European cultures, and their discourse remained within almost a purely theoretical framework until the mid-nineteenth century.

Initial Observation: The Christian Century (1548–1640)

The Venetian commercial traveler Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324) was the first European to refer to Japan, and his thirteenth-century memoirs served as a precursor of early perceptions concerning the Japanese. On the basis of Chinese sources, Polo depicted the people of Chipangu as "white, civilised, and well-favoured."1 The color he chose to describe the Japanese was not without meaning: For Polo and his contemporaries, as well as for any other European explorer until the seventeenth century, the color white did not carry explicit racial connotations but signified culture, refinement, and a "just like us" designation.

The antiforeign sentiments that characterized the rise of the Ming dynasty in China, and more particularly the expansion of the Turks into Minor Asia, blocked most of the land routes previously used between Europe and Asia. The loss of the lucrative...


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pp. 751-778
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Archived 2004
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