"Race and Politics in Japan"

Ignorance in the guise of criticism

By William Wetherall

A review of
The Pacific Review
Volume 1, Number 1
Oxford University Press, 1988

A version of this article appeared as
"Catching the Pacific wave" in
Mainichi Daily News, 4 September 1988, page 9

Blue phrases were cut from the MDN version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the MDN version.

Eight articles and two "Issues in the News" features in the premier issue of this "new, lively, policy journal" run the gamut: Japanese Slogans, Images and Visions; Thailand: A Moving Equilibrium; Towards Taiwan's Independence; Comparing Soviet and Chinese Reforms; The Strategy of Pacific Asian Multinationals; Is Japan Ready to Become a Full Western Ally?; Race and Politics in Japan; Britain, Japan and the Pacific: Can Britain Compete?; Australia's New Defence Direction; The Importance of China's 13th Party Congress. Six books are reviewed.

New journals are greeted like new babies; joyful congratulations conceal concerns about over population and doubts about their future. Journal contributors, like baby-food producers, welcome more maws for their applesauce. But librarians need larger budgets to meet the increasing costs of new acquisitions, and like garbage disposal engineers, they must worry where to put the accumulating junk.

There are already journals like Pacific Affairs (Vancouver, B.C.), Pacific Historian (Stockton, Calif.), Pacific Historical Review (Berkeley, Calif.), Pacific Quarterly (Hamilton, New Zealand), and Pacific Viewpoint (Wellington, New Zealand). Though most of these began before the advent of Pacific Rim ideology and the creation of Pacific Studies departments and schools in colleges and universities, they have broadened their scopes to include the new field.

Left out

Apparently, though, Europe feels not only left out but superior. "Europeans may have come to recognize the Pacific Century a little later than the Japanese and the Americans," observes Oxford's press release, "but the more global perspective of the Europeans will provide an important balance to the narrower interests of some of the Pacific's local advocates."

It is easier to argue that Europe has been tardy in it's bid to ride the new Pacific wave, because it is still recovering from the shock of having its head pulled from the colonial sands of Asia and the Pacific, and even from parts of Latin America which, according to the editor's introduction to the premier issue, the journal will also cover in order to show how serious it is about "thinking Pacific". The journal seeks to "break down the barriers between areas of study and the worlds of academia, journalism, government and business" with a "controversial" approach and a "snappy" style. Unfortunately, its quality cannot be taken granted.

Despite the publisher's hype about the journal's "distinctive" editorial board, the premier issue offers only the usual mix of views, some inspired, most dull, at least one incredibly distorted.

The latter happens to be the most sensationally titled article, "Race and Politics in Japan", by Nathanial Thayer, impressively billed as "a Professor and the Director of Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University." Thayer's article is certainly controversial and its style pretends to be both snappy and, with 16 end notes, scholarly.

While Thayer covers a lot of ground, he is out of his field. Worse, editor Gerald Segal of the University of Bristol, and his 37-member tripartite (Britain, Europe, International) editorial board (which presumably reviewed Thayer's article and approved it for publication), apparently did not realize that Thayer is not well informed about subjects like nationality, race, and ethnicity in Japan (if in any country). Worse yet, it did not seem to bother the editors (assuming they knew) that Thayer is a long-time crony of former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, and he cannot be relied on to objectively assess Nakasone's four-decade contribution to Japan's racial politics.

Here is only a sample of the basic errors that Thayer makes in his undoubtedly well-intended effort to raise the important question with which his article ends: "Is it possible for Japan to assume leadership in a world towards whose people it is indifferent?"


Thayer -- "Who are the Ainu? No one knows. But they used to inhabit all the Japanese islands and they certainly look caucasoid."

Fact -- There is no evidence that the Ainu inhabited all of Japan; that Ainu people "look caucasoid" is a Meiji-era theory that has been disproved by postwar research on Ainu genetic affinities.

Japanese blood

Thayer -- "Now written into domestic law, the idea [that 'A Japanese is a Japanese . . . because he has within him Japanese blood'] has been long imbued in Japanese society."

Fact -- Never has the idea of blood in a racial or ethnic sense been written into Japanese law.


Thayer -- "These [konketsuji / mixed-blood] children are the issue of Japanese women and American soldiers."

Fact -- Most racially-mixed children in Japan are not the issue of such relationships.

Thayer -- "Even the Japanese government has viewed these children to be 'stateless foreigners' and has declared them to be ineligible for such benefits as public education, welfare, and health insurance."

Fact -- Race or ethnicity has never been a factor in the acquisition of nationality in Japan; in the past practically all racially-mixed children acquired the nationality of at least one of their parents; today most become dual nationals; while nationality has at times determined access to some forms of welfare and insurance, all children have been eligible to attend public schools.

Korea and Koreans

Thayer -- "In the first half of the twentieth century, the Japanese took over and then colonised the Korean peninsula. Forced off their land, most Korean farmers headed for Japan."

Fact -- Only a few Korean farmers were forced off their land, and most Koreans who came to Japan did so voluntarily -- and as Japanese.


Thayer -- "Though they get flak from the civil libertarians, the Japanese police insist on fingerprinting the Koreans (and other foreigners) every time they renew residency permits."

Fact -- Resident foreigners are fingerprinted in connection with alien registration, not renewal of residence permits; the Japanese police have nothing to do with the fingerprinting of foreigners for registration purposes; the law now requires prints only at the time of initial registration.

Dobun doshu

Thayer -- "Japanese do not identify racially with the Chinese."

Fact -- Not a few Japanese will invoke the phrase dobun doshu (same script, same race) when speaking of China-Japan relations.

Future issues

One hopes that future issues will improve. The first step will be to publish only articles that have been screened for accuracy.

William Wetherall is an independent scholar who specializes in social issues.


While Nakasone was in office, I had dinner with Thayer in the company of Karel van Wolferen at the counter of a small restaurant near Yoyogi Uehara station. When Nakasone made his racialist remarks about blacks and Puerto Ricans, and then about Ainu, Thayer defended Nakasone in a number of newspaper articles, and in the journal article reviewed here.

The journal article was full of basic errors about Japanese laws and policies concerning ethnic minorities -- a subject about which I had the impression Thayer knew next to nothing. The editorial board of scholars who accepted his piece for publication must have been equally ignorant in order to believe that Thayer must have known what he was writing about.

Calling Thayer's article "undoubtedly well-intended" was my way of giving him the benefit of doubt. Perhaps I should not have been more cynical. Perhaps his "good intentions" were ploys to get readers to take the bait hiding his less innocent hooks.

Because I was meeting Thayer socially at the invitation of a mutual friend, I did not press him for details about his relationship with Nakasone. He himself did not say much about Nakasone except that he had come to Japan to meet him.

Later, when I was asked to review the journal, Thayer's name -- and the title of his article -- lept off the page together. My first thought was to expect a thinly disguised justification for the government's stance toward Ainu under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The guise of criticism was thicker than I anticipated, but Thayer's ignorance of basic facts disappointed more than shocked me. Over the years, I have learned not to expect people with titles like "Director of Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies" to know very much about Ainu, the Nationality Law, or other subjects germane to "race and politics" in Japan.