This paper was selected for publication in the AAA’s Anthropology News as part of the “Rethinking
Race and Human Variation” special editions of February and March 2006. The special editions
were sponsored by the Understanding Race and Human Variation project and funded by the Ford
Foundation. The Understanding Race and Human Variation project is a multi -year public education
effort funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation. This paper represents
the views of the author and not that of the AAA or the Understanding Race and Human Variation
Yasuko Takezawa, Ph.D.
Professor of Humanities
Institute for Research in Humanities
Kyoto University
Kyoto, Japan
Promoting global dialogues is necessary to fully understand race and
fight against racism across the world. While the need to globalize anthropology
is now recognized in the field—and Anthropology News this past fall had a
special series on the topic—the discussion should be extended to studies of race
and human variation. Not only will cross-cultural research on these issues by
anthropologists in many nations help us academically understand the concepts,
but these studies are necessary in informing socially just policies in international
To date there is an unbalanced understanding of the idea of race: the
predominant academic concept of race, established primarily by Western
intellectuals, has unevenly paid attention to perceived physical differences.
This is largely because in the past, theories of race have been heavily based on
European and American colonial experiences, most typically conceived as
“white”-“black” relationships.
Because of this history, theories and scholarly discussion about race
have often centered on two questions: Is the idea of race a modern Western
product? Or is it universal? My argument is that race is neither universal nor a
modern Western invention. There are a number of fascinating ethnographic
examples to support this, including the history of the burakumin in Japan.
© 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 2
Burakumin in Japan
Not all scholars agree on the origin of the burakumin. Currently most
accept that this group has been continuously recognized in Japanese history
from medieval and early modern times to after the Meiji Restoration in 1868,
although the group was called eta (literally “much polluted”) in pre -modern days.
Burakumin were officially designated as outcastes in the Tokugawa, or early
modern period in Japan, although caste systems were abolished a few years
after the Meiji Restoration. Burakumin are, in reality, physically identical with
other Japanese, and the only distinct markers have been residential districts and
occupations, socioeconomic variables of political economy.
For centuries, and among some even today, many in Japan assume the
burakumin have an alien racial origin, despite no scientific evidence for this.
Such beliefs can be traced all the way back to medieval literature. For example,
one document in the early 18th century states, “They are polluted due to being
different in species (race) origin [from us].” At the same time there are medieval
sources that show the institutionalized discrimination through codified laws. It
was not just that there were many discriminatory laws against “eta. A law in the
mid 16th century even stated that anyone who associated with eta would be
“punished by stones being piled on top of them.”
So, clearly both ideas about alien racial origin and practices of
institutionalized discrimination already existed in the pre -modern period in a
society outside the West, namely Japan, though they were later greatly
transformed in the modern period. Let me emphasize though that this does not
support a universalist claim about race,. Scholars of buraku history today agree
that the history of eta does not trace back to the ancient period.
Discrimination or Racism?
There are many other cross-cultural, ethnographic examples of groups
that have certain features in common with the burakumin: for instance, the
pekuchon of Korea, quho of Sichuan Province in China, and the low caste
people of the Toba Batak of Southeast Asia, the Yap of Micronesia, and the
untouchables of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. All of these groups have been
© 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 3
socially stigmatized, discriminated against and ranked low in social hierarchy
based on a folk belief that they are “impure,” and each is then recognized by
both themselves and others as having different descent. Further, the
discrimination against them is institutionalized, involving how land and other
kinds of resources are distributed.
Many of these groups have been traditionally recognized by state and
international governments only as religious minorities or former outcastes. At
least that is the justification the Indian government used when it refused a
proposal to include the historically discriminated Dalits, or in the past known as
“untouchables,” into the agenda of the 2001 UN World Conference Against
Racism held in Durban, South Africa. The Japanese government has also taken
the same position in the past, acknowledging the “discrimination,” but not
“racism,” the burakumin have suffered. Because these groups do not fit the
established concept of “race” primarily defined by Western scholars, it allows
governments and policymakers an excuse not to recognize them as having
experienced “racism,” and thus, to keep them from participating in global
discussions to address social injustices and how to institute better practices.
Three Dimensions of “Race”
All these groups mentioned above, I argue, are socially constructed
“races.” I distinguish three, interconnected historical dimensions of the idea of
race: lower case “race” (r); capitalized ”Race” (R); and “Race as Resistance”
What I call lowercase “race” (r) are cases when the concept has
emerged indigenously (but not universally), where differences between socially
differentiated groups are understood as those inherited and unalterable by the
environment and represented in political, economic and social institutions
accompanied by a clear hierarchy, and manifest an exclusive nature.
Capitalized “Race” (R), I define, as the circulation of the belief that it is
possible, in the name of science, to classify and map people around the world in
terms of universal languages and principles, including the one constructed first
by Westerners in modern, colonial times and the one reconfigured in some
© 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 4
genetic studies today.
“Race as Resistance” (RR) is a newer concept of “race,” constructed
with positive meanings. It is the result of proactive resistance against
hegemony and social domination. RR indicates the use of race as a discursive
strategy to expose existing (or contemporary) racial discrimination and to
operationalize identity politics.
Whether and How to Recognize Race
The distinction of “race” into these three dimensions helps us to
understand the concept in different forms across time and space, without falling
into the binary opposition of whether race is universal or a modern Western
product. It also elucidates the inseparable nature of these three dimensions of
race, without falling into the “color-blind” v “color-conscious” debate, another
binary opposition. E ven if race-as-resistance (RR) is seen as a threat to social
integration to some people, who instead seek a color-blind society, as long as
racism is grounded in either ”race” (r) or “Race” (R), these ideas will continue to
In today’s age of the genome, the three -dimensional theory of race also
traces historical continuities between scientific discourse in some genetic
studies and classical racial science. Even if the term “race” is rarely used, in a
number of genetic studies, “genetic differences” are scientifically discussed in
relation to groups labeled as “Africans,” “Europeans,” and “Asians”—this is so
even when the actual genetic samples were collected through specific methods
from more precisely described geographic locations—such as Ibadan—within
larger continents—like Africa. This is a form of capitalized “Race” (R) today.
On the other hand, there is growing awareness and efforts among some
scientists to attempt to represent their samples more accurately, to avoid any
possible misuse of their findings by racists. For example, at a recent international
press conference I attended, the completion of the International HapMap Project
was announced. In the newly released findings of this human DNA study project,
scientists have employed such labels as “YRI,” “JPT,” “CHB,” and “CEU” to refer to
samples collected from Yoruba in Ibadan, Japanese in Tokyo, Han Chinese in
© 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. 5
Beijing, and Utah residents with ancestry from northern and western Europe,
respectively. These labels replaced “African,” ”Japanese,” ”Chinese,”
and ”European” origin, which scientists were using even just a year ago. These new
labels are far more precise in naming particular genetic samples, for they consider
far more than simply the geographic continents from which they were derived. One
powerful way to further deconstruct capitalized “race” (R)—without simply saying
“race is a social construct”—would be to systematically collect and label genetic
samples through even further defined analytic dimensions, such as gender, class,
age and culture-related diet.
As global, collaborative scientific projects like the HapMap Project
develop, and as social injustices become international issues, it is all the more
important for anthropologists to promote our cross-cultural understanding of
“race” by discussing the ideas with colleagues across the disciplines and across
the globe.
Yasuko Takezawa is a professor in the Institute for Research in Humanities at
Kyoto University and currently a visiting professor at Harvard and MIT. She
recently edited the tentatively titled “The Idea of Race: Transcending the
Western Paradigm” and its Japanese original volume, Jinshu Gainen no
Huhensei wo Tou (2005).


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