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39th Racism: Structural Discrimination

Read "Racism in America"

Even today, discrimination and conflict over "race" continues to occur all over the world. In particular, in the United States, which has been called the "melting pot of races," incidents that appear to be discrimination and prejudice against black and Asian people occur repeatedly. For Japanese Americans, who are a minority in American society, this is an issue that cannot be ignored.

Why do these racial problems occur? What exactly is race? How has American society perceived race up until now? What are racial issues for Japanese Americans and Japanese American communities, and how have they responded to them? Published in February of this year, "American Racism: The Formation and Transformation of Categories/Identities" (Nagoya University Press) is a cultural anthropological study of the major theme of race in American society, where the concept of race can be considered an ideology.

Author Yasuko Takezawa is a professor at the Kansai Gaidai University Institute of International Studies, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University, and president of the Japanese Society for Immigration Studies. She specializes in cultural anthropology, and her main research themes are race and ethnicity theory and immigration studies. She is also the author of "Japanese American Ethnicity: Changes through Internment and the Reparations Movement" (University of Tokyo Press, 1994, winner of the Shibusawa Prize).

This book, which the author describes as "the culmination of my American studies," is a masterpiece in which he has significantly revised and expanded the papers and writings he published from his student days to the present day, and examines American "racism" with a clear sense of the problem.

"Race" Has No Biological Substance

American society has carried out structural discrimination against minorities based on race. How have minorities, including Japanese Americans, lived in this environment while balancing their identities? The book covers a wide range of topics, from immigration history to popular culture history, natural sciences, law, sociology, and art, making full use of the results of its interdisciplinary research.

In particular, while focusing on cultural anthropology, it differs from typical humanities research in Japan in that it traces the history of American anthropology from the perspective of physical anthropology and reexamines race scientifically.

Generally speaking, if you were to ask what the definition of race is, you would probably be at a loss for an answer. The dictionary I have on hand explains "race" as "a type of human beings on Earth that are differentiated based on physical characteristics such as bone structure, skin color, and hair shape. Usually, they are divided into three major groups: white, black, and yellow, but there are many groups that cannot be classified" (Daijirin).

However, this is a summary of the common belief, and if we think about it in depth, we question whether it is appropriate to judge someone as a certain race based on "discrimination based on physical characteristics." For example, is a Japanese person with a fair complexion, thin face, high nose, clear eyes, and silky hair white?

The mistaken assumption that "race" is scientifically defined, when there is no scientific basis for it, can lead people to prejudice and discrimination, so a correct understanding of "race" is essential. This book explains the scientific view that "race has no biological substance" from the perspectives of genetics and physical anthropology.

Viewed from the perspective of artworks and artists

This book is composed of the following chapters: "Chapter 1: Racial stereotypes in advertisements and jokes", "Chapter 2: Stereotypes and interracial relations in advertisements", "Chapter 3: Race in the history of American anthropology", "Chapter 4: Evolutionary theory and American anthropology - focusing on the late 19th century", "Chapter 5: Reconsidering the census", "Chapter 6: The boundary between whiteness and Asians in naturalization rights - racial categories established by the courts", "Chapter 7: Japanese American experiences and identity", "Chapter 8: The transformation of community organizations in San Francisco's Japantown - 1877-2000", "Chapter 9: From identity politics to post-identity - based on the works and stories of young Asian artists in the 2000s", "Chapter 10: Racial categories faced by mixed-race people - based on the works and stories of Roger Shimomura, Laura Kina, and Shizu Saldamand", and "Final chapter: Towards a future opened by 'unravelling' and 'connecting' - based on the works and stories of Yoko Inoue and Jean Shin".

In chapters 1 and 2, we look at how the fixed racial stereotypes that people have in their minds, often mixed with prejudice, such as "black people are like...", "Jews are like...", and "because they are Native Americans...", appear in commercial media such as advertising and in jokes that are circulated in society.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the scientific debate about "race" mentioned above in the context of the history of anthropology and changes in American society.

The fifth chapter, "Census," refers to the population census in Japan, and examines race and ethnicity, which are one of the purposes of the survey. The census is basic data on citizens that a nation uses to govern its people. In this, society is seen from the perspective of a nation that is trying to understand race, and citizens who question their identity by answering the census.

Chapter 6 examines the relationship between naturalization and race, based on court decisions regarding Asian immigrants and naturalization laws. Chapter 7 focuses on the history of Japanese Americans who were forcibly evicted and interned during the war due to racism because of their Japanese ancestry, as well as prewar exclusion and events during the Japan-US trade friction in the 1980s.

From Chapter 9 onwards, we will look at the direction of Asian American identity, minority solidarity, and the attitude of questioning the hegemonic nation of America through the world of art. We will introduce the works and methods of expression of Asian Americans who are active at the forefront of the times, in their own words, and how they relate to their respective identities.

Among these artists, there is a strong awareness of their Asian or Japanese identities and they reflect this in their work, but there is also a desire to be American and an awareness of distancing oneself as much as possible from a minority identity, making for an interesting and varied approach.

What racism has in common

According to the afterword, the author's turning point in life was when he learned in graduate school in Seattle that the experiences of Japanese Americans during wartime internment were unbearable memories, and he became involved with the issue of racism. When he thought about how he could use the skills he had gained from studying the experiences of Japanese Americans in academia and society, he recalled the prejudice and discrimination he had seen and heard as a child against the Burakumin and Korean residents in Japan, and it seemed to him that the prejudice and discrimination against them was rooted in the same racism against Japanese Americans and black people.

This opened his eyes to racism towards various minorities, and he writes that "it became my life's work to find ways to promote the issue of racism as something common to all." In another passage, he also stresses the importance of viewing discrimination as a structural problem and seeking connections with people who share this awareness.

Although this book is a specialized text, it encourages broad reflection on how to deal with discrimination such as racism, in an age when people are divided and hostility is becoming more and more frequent along racial, national, ethnic, and religious differences.

© 2023 Ryusuke Kawai

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About this series

What is Nikkei? Ryusuke Kawai, a non-fiction writer who translated "No-No Boy," covers a variety of topics related to Nikkei, including people, history, books, movies, and music, focusing on his own involvement with Nikkei.

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About the Author

Journalist and non-fiction writer. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture. Graduated from the Faculty of Law at Keio University, he worked as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun before going independent. His books include "Yamato Colony: The Men Who Left Japan in Florida" (Shunpousha). He translated the monumental work of Japanese American literature, "No-No Boy" (Shunpousha). The English version of "Yamato Colony," won the 2021 Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award for the best book on ethnic groups or social issues from the Florida Historical Society.

(Updated November 2021)

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