Ok, I don’t want to be a Diamond fan, but…

Jared Diamond seems to irk everybody. I’ve had problems with him because, as a natural scientist, he assumes economics follows ecological rules. He’s a Malthusian (boo, hiss).

Apparently, historians and anthropologist don’t like him for a very different reason. The fact that he’s after the truth seems to get their goad. From the comments here:

…The idea that recovering an accurate history of Japanese-Korean origins will have an effect on contemporary politics is a real leap of faith…

Because politics has its own logic, a logic that is completely disassociated with reality? Facts play no part in political discourse? Really?

…I would be bit worried if the methods and conclusions of his research are taken up in the political sphere, as is what he seems to be suggesting in the essay I read. If understood without a critical eye, it can essentialize cultural difference and possibly provide justification for ethnic conflict…

The truth might be used for bad purposes. Therefore, we shouldn’t seek it. Right.

…the idea that revealing the truth about the prehistoric past will end Japan-Korea tensions – upon further reflection, this idea is so outlandish that I can’t really even believe that Diamond himself takes it seriously…

Wait. So everyone that wants to effect change through political process should pack up and go home? How exactly does one go about easing tensions between Japan and Korea? Have a wrestling match? Spitting contest? Oh, I know… get both sides to sit down and try to figure out what the hell Foucault was talking about! (It will at least keep ‘em busy.)

And finally, from the body of the post comes my biggest complaint. It may be a complaint about the whole field of Japanese Anthropology, but I’ll just take the one small bite here. Here’s the quote:

The myth of racial homogeneity has been dismantled by Japan historians, most recently by Eiji Oguma in his A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Image, a translation of the 1995 discipline-defining work 『単一民族神話の起源―「日本人」の自画像の系譜』. This racism, which snugly fit with the emperor cult of seeing all Japanese subjects as having a common ancestor, is generally understood to have peaked during Japanese imperialism.

There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond. Take the example of Watsuji Tetsuro, who despite his engagement with Heidegger’s critique of ontology (or perhaps because of it), produced his 1936 work 『風土 人間学的考察』 (translated as Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study). Some Japanese critics have interpreted this book as using the argument of environmental determinism to claim Japanese racial superiority: he writes that certain climatic factors lend themselves better to philosophical and ethical inquiry. And of course, the monsoon climate, with which the Japanese race nourished itself, allowed for the highest form of cultural development. Sounds pretty racist.

Now Diamond does not argue this. But he shares with Watsuji a basic methodology of relying on environmental factors as a way to typologize groups of people according to “race.”

The issue of the uniqueness of Japan is popular in Japanese scholarship. How is Japan “uniquely unique”? How isn’t it? Why is asking whether or not its unique missing the point and counterproductive? And so on and so forth.

One of the ways that Japan is seen to be unique is the supposed ethnic homogeneity of the people. All kinds of things are supposed to be a result of the “pure blood” of the Japanese people. Their ‘miraculous’ economic growth or their uncanny ability to get along to name a few.

The problem is that there isn’t an objective Japanese race, of course. The point about homogeneity is moot. But let’s say you could define a Japanese race… ummm… let’s say if you’re 99.999% genetically similar to Prime Minister Koizumi, then you’re Japanese. Even then, the fact is there are large groups of minorities (Korean, Chinese, Okinawan, Ainu, etc) on the Japanese archipelago and there’s many more Japanese speakers around the world. So Japanese ethnic homogeneity is a myth. Great.

Great, but so what! Does that mean we can’t talk about Japan or the Japanese people? I hope not. I consider myself a budding Japanese scholar. I’d be disappointed to find out that my subject doesn’t exist (or worse, it does, but I can’t talk about it).

I think many folks make the mistake of assuming that because there are fuzzy lines between social objects (e.g. race, nations, countries, political borders, languages, professions, institutions, histories, genders, social classes, generations, markets, games, cultures, individuals(!), etc), we can’t talk about them. Or worse… they counter an argument that uses one of the objects as a unit of analysis by saying that the unit of analysis doesn’t exist objectively. Well, duh!

The question is: do social scientists admit that their objects of study are “socially constructed” and then give up because they can’t be objectively studied? Or do they admit that they are social constructed and continue on, hoping to shed some light on the human condition? I vote for the latter and further, I hope that social scientist can expose so much truth about their subjects that that truth would be used for positive change in… gasp… the political process.

In other words, if Diamond says “the Japanese do X and here’s why”, he’s not saying that every person that may be considered Japanese or that might consider themselves Japanese (or however else you might define Japaneseness) does X. He is making a simplifying assumption to help explain a phenomenon that happens in and around many people that are considered or that consider themselves Japanese. This seems useful in a context where we talk about “Japanese Korean tensions.” (Did you notice how the word “Japanese” plays a prominent role in that phrase? Yeah, it might be useful to understand the social object behind that word.)

Of course I’m not saying that he’s right in the assertions he makes. In fact, I’ve said that he’s wrong. However, he’s wrong for the right reasons.

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