- From White to Yellow: The Japanese in European Racial Thought, 1300–1735 by Rotem Kowner
Rotem Kowner questions the current theory that the concept of race is a modern idea that “took root in the eighteenth century and affected humanity in the course of the following two centuries.” Suggesting that the idea of race began to bud far before the age of western industrial modernity, Kowner strives to trace the building blocks of modern racial thought in early modern European ethnographic discourses on the Other. He challenges the dominant scholarship on this topic, which “has concentrated on the role of Africans, and to a lesser extent Amerindians in the evolution of the European idea of race outside the Continent, and on the role of Jews, and to some extent also Gypsies, within it,” by arguing that “the concept of race took shape as a result of the encounters with a much broader variety of groups and peoples.” In an attempt to examine the gamut of human variety that Europeans had encountered by 1735—the year the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) published the first edition of his Systema Naturae—Kowner explores European encounters in East Asia, focusing on Japan.
For Europeans, Japan remained a powerful and civilized Other that they could not even dream of conquering. However, the publication of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae provided them with a self-serving method of race-based classification, and this led to the rapid decline of the high status that had hitherto been accorded to Japan (as well as to China). The modern concept of race featured tenets that were absent from earlier ethnographic discourses. How did earlier European ethnographic descriptions of the Japanese differ from those of the mid-eighteenth century? And what enabled European ideas about the Japanese to be transformed so dramatically? These questions, argues Kowner, hold the key to understanding the rise of modern racial thought and its concomitant racism.
In trying to answer these questions, Kowner examines published and archival sources in some dozen languages and consults a large volume of secondary literature. All told, this research provided him with a bibliography of over 100 pages. He painstakingly examines the long evolution of European ideas about the Japanese, which he divides into three phases: “speculation” (ca. 1300–1543), “observation” (1543–1640), and “reconsideration” (1640–1735). It is an unsurpassable analysis redolent of superb scholarship. In the end, Kowner makes a strong case that, from 1300 to 1735, Europeans slowly arrived at a system that enabled them to present a universal hierarchical taxonomy of humankind—based on rudimentary notions of race—with themselves at its apex.
Why were Europeans so concerned with such a taxonomy? Kowner posits that Europeans needed this to control the Other (i.e., the Japanese) and to maintain a pattern that would promote their far-reaching objectives. This taxonomy enabled them to realize a scheme whereby they [End Page 533] could justify religious evangelization, economic exploitation, and sociopolitical domination. In other words, the European notion of race, which eventually brought down the powerful Other, was a tool for reaping “economic, sexual, and prestige gains from their domination.” Reminding us that, in premodern and early modern times, it was only Europeans who ruled territories and exploited others in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, Kowner concludes, “This increasingly massive, corrupt, and often inhuman exploitation required an elaborate system of intelligence gathering alongside a moral justification based on the notion that humans are collectively unequal.”
It becomes clear that racial discourses are, in the final analysis, an attempt to divide and rank different groups of people “for the practical ends of exploitation and domination.” Although it offers few specific historical instances of how Europeans sought these ends in Japan, From White to Yellow does help us to understand “the mechanisms that govern[ed] the rise and evolution of the concept of race in early modern times.” In doing so, it richly expands our perspective on the origins of race and racism.