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Reviewed by:
  • From White to Yellow: The Japanese in European Racial Thought, 1300–1735 by Rotem Kowner
  • Michael Keevak
From White to Yellow: The Japanese in European Racial Thought, 1300–1735 by Rotem Kowner. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Pp. xxv + 678. $125.00 cloth, $39.95 paper.

I would like to begin this review with a comment on collegiality, since it also has a bearing on the book itself, which is a new study of the development of the concept of a “yellow race” in the European imagination. I first wrote to Rotem Kowner when working on my own study of this same subject nearly ten years ago and received much helpful and friendly advice, without any indication that he had already been toiling in this area for at least fifteen years and was eventually planning to publish a comprehensive treatment. It was only a number of years later, after finally meeting him in person, that he confessed to me his trepidation upon receiving my initial communications. How many of us have found ourselves in a similar position, but how many of us have reacted with such grace and generosity? Although he and I were delving into much the same material, our approaches, it turned out, are very different, as well as a number of our conclusions. But rather than try to foreclose on the question, Kowner remained receptive, open, and willing to bring me into the conversation. This quality of affability, clarity, and [End Page 480] forthrightness also comes through in his prose, and it is one of the book’s strongest points.

Kowner’s book is very ambitious. It proposes to describe the gradual movement from “white” to “yellow” in Western writing, as Europeans’ initial surprise and gratification that East Asians were “white people” like themselves transitioned to a much more racially virulent and derogatory color designation that eventually came to be known as “yellow.” But the book also attempts to ground this movement in a larger context that encompasses race in general as well as the entire history of European exploration from Marco Polo (ca. 1300) to Carolus Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1735), when Homo asiaticus was first lumped together as a single taxonomic group and identified as fuscus or dark.

Moreover, Kowner intends not only to analyze Europeans’ classification of Japanese people, his ostensible subject, but also to put that classification into larger contexts. First, he compares the fate of the Japanese to other East Asians, especially the Chinese. Second, he examines many influences on Europeans’ racial classification, including colonies East and West, Christian evangelization, travel knowledge and travel literature, slavery and its contributions to imperial economies, scientific taxonomy, and a host of other topics. Given the breadth of this analysis, one might even say that the book’s 678 pages are too short, particularly when the text proper, once all its ancillary matter has been removed, is only half that length. Clearly, Kowner is aiming for completeness—and, I might add, this is only the first of a planned two-volume work!—but the real question is whether all of this expansiveness explains what he has set out to accomplish.

The basic organization is sensible and promising. Following in the footsteps of such pathbreaking racial studies as Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black and the multivolume series The Image of the Black in Western Art, Kowner realizes that one cannot begin analyzing how Japanese people were viewed simply by starting with actual encounters; instead, one must begin with earlier stereotypical images that continued to speak through any real-life experience.1 Thus, Kowner [End Page 481] starts, not with the first Europeans to reach Japan during the sixteenth century, but with Marco Polo’s brief and highly fantasized description of the mysterious island of “Cipangu,” whose residents were characterized as white, civilized, and in possession of an infinite supply of gold. Kowner divides his subsequent analysis into three major periods: the “prehistory” of knowledge about the Japanese, an era of initial encounter during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and finally a period of “reconsideration,” during which, as he argues, one can find “antecedents of a mature [racialized] discourse” (p...


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