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Reviewed by:
  • Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543- 1900
  • Susan L. Burns
Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543- 1900. By Gary P. Leupp. London: Continuum, 2003. 384 pages. Hardcover $125.00/£85.00.

In his preface to this work, Gary Leupp announces his intention to write an "enjoyable, readable work of social and cultural history, avoiding the pompous jargon and pretentious citation of 'theory' that surrounds much fashionable ('postmodern') scholarship" (p. xi). Leupp's desire to produce an accessible work that is a "good read" is admirable, although the demands of theoretical rigor and good prose are hardly irreconcilable. At $125.00 this book is unlikely to find many casual readers, but for such a readership, Leupp provides a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests that over the course of four hundred years early modern Japanese society was largely tolerant of sex between Japanese women and cultural Others, both Asian and Western, and that Western men were attracted to Japanese women and showed widely varying degrees of affection and commitment towards both their sexual partners and the children that resulted from such unions.

The greatest contribution of this work is its implicit challenge to characterizations of Japan as an insular, ethnically homogenous society. I say "implicit," because Leupp himself denies this evaluation of his evidence: in his afterword, he evokes the tired old stereotype of monocultural Japan when he remarks upon the "insularity" and "xenophobic" tendencies of Japanese, their accommodation of "interracial intimacy" notwithstanding (p. 222). Even more disappointing for anyone with a serious interest in issues of race, gender, and sexuality is Leupp's failure to engage critically with any of these topics. In fact, he succeeds only in essentializing the very categories he sets out to interrogate. Readability hardly compensates for the shortcomings of the book.

At the outset, Leupp pays dutiful attention to the task of historicizing conceptions of race and sexuality on the part of both Japanese and Europeans. He notes that race was an evolving social construct in Europe and that the Japanese, in particular, occupied an unstable position in relation to the opposition of black/white that ordered Western racial discourse from the biblically oriented discussions of the sixteenth century through the scientific racism of the nineteenth. Leupp argues, as well, that in Japan until the 1870s "there was no concept of 'race'" and that it was the Confucian conception of civilization that shaped the categorization of cultural Others (p. 6). In contrast to his more nuanced discussion of conceptions of race in the West (based on secondary sources), Leupp's discussion of Japanese attitudes towards Europeans is reductive, to say the least: "tolerance" before Tokugawa hegemony gave way to "dehumanization" after the beginning of "national isolation" (Leupp may want to rethink his reliance on this term), until the rise of Dutch Learning brought "renewed respect" that was tempered by "distaste" from those with Kokugaku leanings.

Interestingly, whatever the prevailing Japanese view of Europeans, it seems to have had no impact upon the practice of allowing Dutch traders access to Japanese women, although Leupp does not pursue the seeming disconnect between evolving cultural perceptions of Europeans and tolerance for sexual relationships with them. Moreover, in spite of his initial discussion of the problems inherent in the term "race," he deploys it indiscriminately throughout the book, speaking of "racial tolerance," "mixed race" [End Page 265] children, and "interracial marriage," thereby reifying precisely the category he claims to be interrogating. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Leupp's uncritical resort to James Murdoch's translation of a 1639 bakufu edict as stating "[we] Japanese desire no such intermixture of races" (p. 66), this in spite of the book's earlier statement that the concept of race was absent before Meiji. The same teleological approach can be seen in the tendency to resort to words such as "condescension," "praise," "contempt," and "admiration" to assess what Leupp terms "attitudes."

If Leupp's treatment of race as a concept is problematic, equally so is his discussion of sex and sexuality. In explaining Japanese accommodation of Western men's sexual desire, Leupp relies on tried-and-true generalizations about Japanese affirmation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 265-267
Launched on MUSE
2005-07-25
Open Access
No
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