Jared Diamond on “The Japanese Race”

At Savage Minds, an anthropology group blog that I contribute to, a heated debate has erupted over Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a book that explains European imperialism by geography and ecology. This work has been made into a recently aired three-part documentary on PBS. The posts, now three in number (here and here and here) with endless comments, has spilled over to Crooked Timber and picked up by individual bloggers elsewhere. While some of the debates have moved to discussions on the minute details of Diamond’s argument, the impetus that triggered so much blogger enthusiam was the question of whether the assumptions behind his argument are racist despite his public denunciation of racism.

I tend to agree with my fellow anthropologists at Savage Minds. But for the most part I have stayed out of the discussion because I have neither read his book nor seen the television program.

Today, though, I found this article by Jared Diamond titled “The Japanese Roots” originally published in the June 1998 (vol.19) issue of Discover (via cbuddha’s del.icio.us tag for japanese anthropology). Curious, I read it right away. Now I am compelled to comment on this article, not because I study “Japan,” and not because I carry a Japanese passport, but because I now understand why my fellow bloggers felt so impassioned to critique Diamond.

In this article, Diamond explores the origin of the Japanese race. By slowly moving through archaeological, historical, linguistic, and genetic evidence, and punctuating his sub-arguments with discussions dealing with body hair, pottery shards, and the domestication of animals (among others), he arrives at the conclusion that “Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood.” That is to say, the Japanese race, and the knowledge of rice cultivation, came from the Korean peninsula. As a good scientist he admits that he cannot conclusively and exactly reconstruct what happened — that would require more evidence. But he focuses on one particular concept: that rice cultuvation was of a higher stage of development and thus gave whomever was growing this staple crop an advantage over others during military encounters. (Here I don’t follow him: I don’t understand why rice agriculture necessarily gives people more military might.)

I won’t go into detail here all of his arguments — it would be much faster for the reader to plunge into the article herself.

In reading this article I realized why there is such a fierce debate over Jared Diamond. If Guns, Germs, and Steel is anything similar in tone to this short Discover article, I can see why many people would find him appealing. His heart is in the right place and he believes that scientific investigation, such as the ones he conducts, can bring to light historical truths and mend geopolitical conflicts. Here is his concluding paragraph:

History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.

No wonder he is liked. Just like the way Diamond at the end of the PBS special reportedly shed tears in an African hospital filled with dying children (as noted by Ozma here), the ending of this short article also appeals to a sentimental justification of his science. This mention of the “enmity” between Koreans and Japanese (which by the way should not and cannot be compare to the conflict in the Middle East) is an appeal to one of the moral dilemmas facing humanity today: how can we stop people from fighting each other?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but he seems quite naive to think that whatever “truth” he will uncover in his field will solve geopolitical problems. If that is truly what he is seeking to accomplish, I believe he needs to re-examine the political history of his own discipline.

This post is getting way long, so I’ll stick to the article at hand. Take this excerpt, from the secong paragraph of this essay:

UNEARTHING THE ORIGINS OF THE JAPANESE IS A MUCH HARDER TASK THAN YOU MIGHT GUESS. AMONG WORLD POWERS TODAY, THE JAPANESE ARE THE MOST DISTINCTIVE IN THEIR CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT. THE ORIGINS OF THEIR LANGUAGE ARE one of the most disputed questions of linguistics. These questions are central to the self-image of the Japanese and to how they are viewed by other peoples. Japan’s rising dominance and touchy relations with its neighbors make it more important than ever to strip away myths and find answers.

Once again he explicitly frames the stakes of his research in geopolitical terms. But his hopes, I think, are already thwarted by his first two sentence in which he assumes without providing evidence that “the Japanese are the most distinctive in their culture and environment.” Stop right there, mister, because to those who know Japan’s modern history, he has just reproduced the rhetoric of Japanese imperialism!

I mean, why is Japanese culture perceived as the most unique? Where is the evidence? And how do you even measure cultural uniqueness, let alone compare it ?

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 danger here lies not so much in the conclusions given by Diamond, but in the biologism of his methodological assumption. Why does he rely so much on the concept of race? Why, for example, does he assume that Japanese all speak Japanese and only Japanese? Or if he finds evidence of rice cultivation in Japan it is immediate understood to be that it was left by those who came from Korea? That’s like finding, hundreds of years from now, chopsticks and wasabi tubes in New York City and saying, since so many people ate sushi, there must have been a mass migration of Japanese!

But that’s not even the point here, for what it boils down to is that 1. he perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits, and 2. he has some theory of civilizational stages in mind whereby rice cultivation gives a military advantage over hunter & gatherer people. This is just too simplistic, however statistically sound it may be. I mean didn’t people actually mix agriculture and hunting, as was often the case in medieval Japan (noted by Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko) and is often noted in anthropological literature?

Instead of reading these simplistic assumptions about race, technology, and stages of civilization, I’d rather wait for the release of Civilization 4, in which the game designers rely on the same assumptions.

And finally, what does Diamond say about Japan in Guns, Germs and Steel? Japan was never ostensibly “conquered” by the West and proved to be quite superior militarily and economically. If anything this should prove his eurocentrism and blast his racial categories altogether. But I will probably never read the book to find out.


  1. “I don’t understand why rice agriculture necessarily gives people more military might.”

    I think he might have left that part of the argument out due to space constraints or something. The point is that agriculture feeds far more people per acre than hunting and gathering. In a battle, 10 against 1 usually wins. Plus, farming also gives the farmers motive to expand (i.e., conquer): the population grows too rapidly for the farms to feed everyone, so they start looking for more land – and more land, and more land. This is not to deny, of course, as you rightly say, that people will often use a mix of farming and hunter-gathering (is that a word?). Indeed, it’s hard to see how people could have started farming in the first place without passing through a “transition” stage. Diamond explicitly notes this in GG&S, but perhaps was covering too much ground in this Discover article to give it proper treatment. But it seems plausible that as you move slightly more toward farming, you necessarily move slightly more toward a sedentary lifestyle and a more crowded population. The relationship may not be linear, but it exists. (Anyway, Diamond in this article points out that for a long time hunter-gathering was the more “effective” lifestyle in Japan, until the farmers finally developed more efficient farming techniques.)

    What I find questionable about the way Diamond frames his article is (as you point out) the idea that “the truth” about their prehistoric histories will allow peace between Korea and Japan, when it seems to me that all that conflict about who really conquered whom is just an epiphenomenon on rival nationalisms. The comparison to the Arab-Israeli conflict at the end highlights this absurdity: does anyone really think that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be settled by informing the participants that they have similar genes?

    PS, I love that the title of the blog is “Frog in a Well”! that is one of the few Chinese 4-character phrases that I know…(my mom used to call my dad “frog in a well”)

  2. But I will probably never read the book to find out.

    That’s too bad, because its not really ecological determinism in the simplistic sense you suggest. He does not, in the book, typologize people according to “race.” (I have not read the Discovery article.) Mostly he is looking at how envioromental factors prior to 1600 led to the development of very different types of societies on the Eurasian mainland than in the New World, Africa, and other places. I don’t think he says much at all about Japan. I thought the book was too popularized for my taste, and largely derivative of Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. I was not that impressed with the Savage Minds crew, as they seemed to be misreading the book (Actually, I think that most or all of them admited to not having read it), pointing out that Diamond is looking at enviromental factors and that racists look at enviomental factors. That is true, but not really to the point.

    It would be very interesting to see what someone like Elvin or Totman, who know something about the enviromental history of East Asia would say about Diamond and Crosby.

  3. I haven’t read the article you mention but I have read the book and I’d recommend that you read it.
    I’m currently reading his other book on the collapse of societies, and find it very good so far to, although
    not as entertaining a read. I think we could make too much of the offhand statement that Japanese culture is
    very unique. Of course, on the face of it, it’s quite a simplistic statement to make. Before the modern period, so
    many cultures throughout the world seem very different. But Japan is an island after all and so the cultural borrowings from
    Eurasia were more sporadic.

  4. Tak, I have been following all the exchanges on the book at Savage Minds, Brad’s blog, and Crooked Timber closely and saw also that you tentatively popped your head in here and there. I’m glad you found some time to post here. I think both of us were thinking many of the same things as we read about Diamonds book. Interestingly enough, I thought of the exact same two books you mentioned when I was reading about DIamond’s arguments: Watsuji Tetsurô’s Fûdo and Oguma Eiji’s brilliant book 『単一民族神話の起源―「日本人」の自画像の系譜』

    As you have already hinted at, the former points out what happens when things go way to far (and I know everyone is emphasizing how careful Diamond is on qualifying his claims to prevent him from embracing any raw env. determ.) in, as one Crooked Timber commenter noticed – attributing the causes of current circumstances to hugely distant environmental factors. Any of us familiar with Nihonjinron arguments of cultural nationalism and its predecessors in the imperial period have strong suspicions about anything which embraces the sort of teleological approaches based on environmental factors to get strong claims of causation that often float passed the intervening centuries and perhaps especially the transition to modernity. I’m reminded of the only slightly related but much more objectionable example of Edward O. Wilson’s “Consilience” which is probably the most shockingly brazen and frighteningly ignorant sample of how bad this can get in contemporary scholarship. Alan may well be right about Diamond and I think many of the readers of Diamond who have chimed in on the recent online discussion emphasize his careful qualifications and retreats from any determinist argument – but it hasn’t prevented the warning bells from ringing, and I think you simply can’t be careful enough in this territory.

    I would add 2 comments to your post Tak.

    1) You note the likability of a book like this, as the “heart” is in the right place. Books like this serve us well if for no other reason that they promote debate on these issues, or as the case may be, generate productive complaints that the very 問題式 or problematic of the approach betrays fallacious assumptions. Another reason why I suspect this kind of approach is very popular is that it bypasses the muddy waters of culture and the detailed contingencies of recent history that anthropologists and historians wade through in order to jump to the (ironically) more serene waters of qualitative data and the literally hard evidence of archeological findings – even when such information is still scarce in many cases. This kind of approach is certainly welcome but the framing of the questions and the consequences of proceeding certain ways in argumentation share similar dangers to our own discpline that may not be immediately obvious to those who believe they have found the path to greater simplicity and clarity.

    2) I think I interpreted Ogama’s argument a bit differently than you did. I took Ogama’s main point in this respect to be arguing that while one Japanese discourse of its origins in the prewar held everyone to be descendents of the emperor in fact the dominant discourse of identity in Imperial Japan (especially after its acquisition of colonies) emphasized the multi-ethnic (as opposed to the homogenous) nature of the Japanese nation (He shows this up front with two interesting quotes juxtaposed at the beginning of the book). Ogama notes in his conclusion (if I remember correctly, don’t have the book with me in Seoul) this multi-ethnic and more inclusive and flexible definition of Japanese identity is not necessarily better than the ridiculous notion (and myth, as his title suggests) that Japan is homogenous. I took him to argue that only in the postwar, stripped of its colonies did the myth of the homogenous nation truly topple its competing rivals.

    The result, however, is exactly the same: Scholars like Ogama Eiji (and Amino Yoshihiko, is perhaps another good example) have brought us a long way to considering the dangers of being less than very careful in carrying present day concepts of Japan and Japaneseness in the past. Diamond was usually careful in the article to discuss the diversity of both the Korean peninsula and the islands of Japan but I would, like you, challenge the very efficacy of the approach here. Many Koreans and Japanese are happy to admit some kind of racial connection between the two (although granted there were once many Japanese who riled at the idea) but in the historiography of the past century this kind of talk has only contributed to the mess… Japanese nationalists can easily claim “My ethnic group grew out of the stagnant and eventually despotic group that stayed on the peninsula and we grew to be strong and modern. Now we will save you our old brothers from yourselves.” (See Tanaka’s “Japan’s Orient”) and Koreans can say, “Haha, your ethnic group is just a derivative of us superior and more highly developed mainland peninsula types. We gave you everything you have! (I refer you to most old men I have spoken to in Korea about the topic of Japan)

    Rather than, as Diamond suggests, trying to convince both sides they are ethnic “twin brothers” I think that wasting ink on these kinds of debates is only feeding the flames and contributing to the ethnic essentialism and anachronistic silliness that the kind of “my ethnic group taught fire and farming to your ethnic group” or “my ethnic group conquered your island and developed into your ethnic group” which I believe should be excised from the entire discussion.

  5. Andrew: Thanks for explaining Diamond’s agricultural superiority argument. I guess it makes sense that more men are fed per acre with farms than hunting. But like in the game Civilization 4, as in real life, doesn’t tending to a farm require more labor power and resources than hunter-gathering (btw I like this phrase!)? Well, as you point out, he explains himself more clearly in GGS. Which leads me to…

    Alan & Karlo: I guess I should read GGS. I’m sure it is an engaging book, and from all the commentary I have read in the last few days it sounds like he is empiricist and detail oriented, which is something I always find admirable. Perhaps if I find it in a used bookstore I’ll pick it up for that rainy day or that long flight. Oh, and yes, it would be fascinating to hear from scholars well-versed in environmental history.

    Alan, one more thing. Learning about how differnt types of societies emerged from different environments is rewarding in and of itself, and when in the mood I love to watch documentaries on such topics. I have no problems with this aspect of Diamond’s scholarship. But 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. As Konrad put it so well in his comments, “this kind of talk has only contributed to the mess” rather than uproot the source of the problem.

    Konrad: Thanks for clarifying my very muddled and misinformed explanation of Oguma’s book!

    Your comments, though, made me think of another possible way to critique Diamond: the discursive history of social darwinism and the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century. I’m sure tons of books have been written about this topic (Julia Thomas’s book, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology), comes to mind in terms of Japanese history).

  6. Question (for anyone who wishes to comment): Would you describe a person as being racist for promulgating spurious beliefs about a culture; or would you only label a person racist if that person *maliciously* promulgated spurious beliefs about a culture? I tend to label people racist for the latter reason instead of the former. And I tend to label the former as just “misguided”. To my mind, if everyone who had a misinformed view of another culture (any culture) was racist, then I would have guess the entire population of this planet would fall within this category.

    Anyway, I’ve always categorized Jared Diamond’s arguments as little better than Marvin Harris’ cultural just-so stories. There seems to be a yearning by some within the field of Anthropology to explain away cultural differences using historical, technological, and economic arguments. I won’t deny that these factors may and do contribute to the evolution of culture, but I doubt if these factors are the entire story. I suspect those who argue the case of materialistic determinism are just looking for a simple answer (but I will entertain the notion that, depending on the proponent, they may have a racist, imperialist, religious or Marxist ax to grind).

    But if someone wants to argue that the modern American taboo against nose-picking is based on a cultural selection against the behaviors that facilitate the transmission of disease, I won’t label them racist. I’ll just label them silly 😉

    best regards,

  7. Diamond’s argument is that agriculture leads to higher densities of population. Agriculture can also be exploited by a hierachy much more than hunter-gathering. You can steal a weeks worth of food from a hunter-gather but you can steal a years worth of food from an agriculturist if you come at the right time. Agicultural based- hierachies can include a full time military to conquer other areas.

    The other point that Diamond makes is that because agriculturists are so exploited, people are better off (healthier taller) being hunter gatherers. But they are given no choice.

  8. The anthropological faith that our common origins can overwhelm our subsequent divergences is touching, but as yet unproven. The idea that recovering an accurate history of Japanese-Korean origins will have an effect on contemporary politics is a real leap of faith, ignoring 1500 years of independent competition/contact/conflict/colonialism/commerce, etc. If he’s serious about this, then he is engaging in the kind of essentialism that he’s accused of: only if race is a determinative category can the revelation of racial unity be determinative.

    The most interesting element of this article is the linguistic argument — the existence of dialects in pre-unification societies complicates our dating of language evolutions — but it’s conjectural. Also, I haven’t read any of the scholarship in this area recently, but I was under the impression that Korean and Japanese were much closer than his sources suggest. I’ve always been struck by the lack of translators or linguistic comments in the early chronicles, which suggests to me that the languages were pretty much mutually intelligible roughly 1500 years ago.

  9. doesn’t tending to a farm require more labor power and resources than hunter-gathering”

    Perhaps, but the relevant quantity is the amount of labor power and resources required *per calorie of food derived.* In that regard, farming is more “efficient” – put in X amount of energy plowing, sowing, irrigating, harvesting, etc. and get much more food out of that than if you had put X amount of energy into hunter-gathering. This is why farming can support a non-productive elite (artists, priests, etc.), because the non-producers live off (often, take by coercive force) the surplus generated by the farmers. In contrast, hunter-gatherers can only generate enough food to feed themselves, so everyone has to pull their weight. Of course, this is a generality – as Diamond says, until the Yayoi rice farmers developed good techniques of farming, the Jomon hunter-gatherer lifestyle was more “efficient” in the Japanese environment, because the Japanese archipelago was unusually fruitful in providing food for hunter-gatherers.

    Note that farming produces a lot of calories, but not necessarily healthy calories, depending on the crop. Hunter-gatherers were/are often a lot healthier than early farmers because they have/had a more diverse diet. But you can still live with vitamin deficiencies, so early agriculture tended to produce large but malnourished populations. [Diamond has called the adoption of agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” because it gave us malnourishment, famine, epidemic diseases, social inequality, etc etc etc.]

    Interesting factoid: the “energy efficiency” of food production is much higher for “traditional agriculture” than for hunter-gathering, but ironically, it is much lower for industrialized agriculture than for hunter-gathering, once you factor in all the energy put into food production that comes from fossil fuels (fertilizer production, farming machinery, transportation). Of course, since all the energy comes from fossil fuels and not human muscle, the efficiency of industrial agriculture is much, much higher in terms of amount of food produced per unit of human labor. Which is why modern societies can get away with having only a few percent of the population working in agriculture.

  10. Re: 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. I would take it just as the “hook” that he uses to catch the reader’s attention and make the article seem more relevant to a popular science magazine.

  11. [Andrew: Thanks for explaining Diamond’s agricultural superiority argument. I guess it makes sense that more men are fed per acre with farms than hunting. But like in the game Civilization 4, as in real life, doesn’t tending to a farm require more labor power and resources than hunter-gathering (btw I like this phrase!)?]

    Only for part of the year. Traditional peasant life usually meant lots of sitting around in between periods of frantic action…perfect for going off to hack people up! I don’t know much about Japanese or Korean history, but in European terms year-round warfare is essentially a recent innovation, born out of the industrial era. For example, one of the big problems for the leaders of the American Revolution was keeping significant numbers of troops in the field at all times, as huge numbers would melt away at harvest time.

  12. I’m happy someone else found a use for that link because it was too annoying and I couldn’t be bothered to blog about it. My all-time favorite theory of Japanese origin must be the Lost Tribe argument, and for the same reasons I found your “chopsticks and wasabi tubes” analogy particularly apt.

    Please keep up with the good work here.

  13. if he finds evidence of rice cultivation in Japan it is immediate understood to be that it was left by those who came from Korea?

    He doesn’t say that. In fact, he explicitly says that both migration and diffusion are plausible hypotheses for the spread of rice. Then he cites evidence from the physiology of the actual people involved (skeletal measurements and DNA) to resolve the issue in favor of the migration hypothesis.

  14. Discussion tends to focus on the secondary implications of Diamond’s historiographical(evolutionary) method, which is where the problem lies. The confusions of biological and cultural evolution have persisted since the time of Darwin, and yes, of course, Herbert Spencer, who first made all the basic mistakes, Darwin catching fleas from this and other sources. Darwin is exempted from scrutiny, while everyone else is subject (justifiably) to close quarters. The subtitle to Darwin’s text Origin should remind us that racial extermination lurks behind the cover of a scientific thesis on evolution.
    In this context Diamond is goodhearted, plays ball with the regime, but what is his claim to a theory of history? Close to zero. The confusing influence of reductionist biology and the debatable assumptions concerning Darwinian givens leaves nothing but ‘flat history’ approaches, and the resulting theories of competition and conflict. Diamond successfully coexists with this regime in a clever PR strategy, conscious or unconscious, by displacing historical dynamics to the silliest form of explanation, environmental determinism. The latter thesis simply makes no coherent sense of the development of global civilization which shows the heretical factor of directionality, although this is hard to detect/analyze in current methodologies. The great prize/stumbling block of historical theories is the rise of the modern, and it is interesting to consider Jim Blaut’s _Eight Eurocentric Historians_ for his acute (whatever one thinks of Blaut’s vies) dismantling of the theories current in this field. There Diamond’s thesis is really a non-thesis.

  15. I was almost done writing a lengthy comment when the screen disappeared. It can be frustrating sometimes 🙂 Anyway here was I meant to say in abbreviated form:

    1) I think it is unfair for you historians to be attacking a biologist’s popular work. Try to understand his discipline and criticze his work in a biology journal. And sorry, I don’t understand some of your historicisms.

    2) The crux of Jared Diamond’s argument is that the practice of agriculture when well managed creates societal surplus which the society can invest in cultural development, technological development, more agricultural development, etc. Further, efficient agriculture necessitats hierarchic governance which by definition requires a high level of organization.

    3) This premis is useful in the study of the clash of civilizations. In Guns, Germs and Steel, he looks at the clash of an agricultural society (Europe) and the hunter-gatherer society (American Indians or in the case of Mayans, highly less efficient agricultural societies). In Japan Origins which is the focus of this blog entry, Jared Diamond proposes the clash between possibly the Koguryo agricultural society of the 400 BC vs. the hunter gather Japanese Jomon. When societies are worlds apart as agricultural vs. hunter gatherer societies are apt to be, assimilation is less likely and atriction more likely (Jared Diamond’s second and third hypotheses see more plausible).

    4) I agree that Diamond’s premis is reductionist and deterministic. But theories are reductionist and deterministic by definition for with our theories we seek to surmise the world and predict it. Further, I think that his premis is also compelling. See SAHA, N. and J. S. TAY, 1992 Origin of the Koreans: a population genetic study. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 88:27-36 which concludes that “…the Koreans are more closely related to the Japanese and quite distant from the Chinese.”

    5) I agree that Diamond is delving into territory that he may not be expert (e.g., anthropology, history, genetics, technology diffusion theory, linguistics, etc.). But again remember that his intended audience is the lay public. Discover is not the American Journal of Phys(iogical?) Anthropology. And given the complexity of the issue, I think he finds it necessary to be integrating findings and arguments in many disciplines of which he is not expert. So it’s great if you find his side arguments interesting. And I think the public is well served by such integrationists when much of real science is inaccessible to them. Further, I don’t think it ill-serves the public political discourse since more information in such discourse is always better especially when the parties appear to be adhering to certain non-sensical mythos.

    6) Many of you accuse him of being a racist but I find the opposite (and I find your finding offensive). I don’t think, as Tak suggests, that he is saying that the Europeans were so superior because of their environment. Certainly, having visited the country, I know Japan to be very beautiful. But to suggest that the Japanese or any race are superior because of their natural endownments is silly. I do think what Diamond is saying is that the natural endowments allowed the Europeans who are otherwise no different from the rest of the world to develop surplus producing agriculture to a sufficient level to enable them to develop their guns, steel and social systems to conquer the world (they also inadvertently created germs also, since agriculture enabled crowding to occur). I think he is in accord with modern genetic anthropology which proposes that modern humans have a common African ancestor (not ancestry).

    7) Lastly, I think Jared Diamond does positively serve the current political debate between Japan and Korea. What is wrong with saying, “Hey you two, you are closer to eachother than you think.” when one brother throws out the garlic breath bear against the Sun Goddess? Maybe instead of thinking of themselves as descended of a garlic breath bear (extreme Korean nationalist?) or a pure race descended from a “Sun Goddess” (extreme Japanese nationalist?), thinking of eachother as brothers progresses the debate in the peaceful direction. If there is any universal political responsibility for the scientist or scholar, I think shedding lite on the current political debate is one of them, if done right (and so perhaps its time to open up the Imperial tombs). Of course, at the same time as I say this, I cringe to think about the origin of anti-semitism, the American racial studies and Japanese internment camps, the Nazi concentration camp doctors, live vivisections and germ research by Japanese scientists, etc. But I don’t see Jared Diamond who has love for the indigenous farmers of Indonesia as racist.

    Thanks Tak, as always. Now I can go to sleep…

  16. I wanted to quickly acknowledge everyone’s comments. I apologize for not taking the time to reply to everyone. I’ve been busy and just haven’t had time to respond. Thanks to those who have graciously filled me in about the link between rice cultivation and military strength. I have been enjoying the exchange.

    As the readers here probably know, this post has been taken up by Henry at Crooked Timber. The entry there has generated some good discussion. Check out the rebuttals by our own Jonathan and Konrad.

    For a list of links on the discussion generated by the posts at Savage Minds, see here.

    I am also mirroring here my response to Henry (comment #52), who I thought distorted some of my claims but also made some valid points. Charles, he makes similar points as you do.


    Hi Henry,

    I don’t mean any disrespect and I welcome any thoughts on my reading of Jared Diamond’s essay, but frankly speaking I’m a little disappointed at how mean-spirited this exchange has become. Perhaps my reading was sloppy and my argument weak, but does this warrant an attack of this magnitude?

    That being said, I am both stunned and excited that my post is being discussed on Crooked Timber. I honestly appreciate the chance to re-work my thoughts and to discover a new audience outside my disciplinary shelters. So here’s my second go at it, as crooked as this timber may be!

    First: I didn’t say that Jared Diamond was racist.

    I tried in my post over at Frog in a Well to be generous in my reading of his article, but it seems that I didn’t give that impression to some of my readers. I actually enjoyed it (I would not have read it otherwise). Well written and imaginative, his prose conjured up for me a panoramic view of the historical past. I especially found the details exhilarating, epecially the parts in the middle where he describes what they ate, how they procured food and stored it, what sort of language they spoke. In regards to parts I did not understand, such as his argument about the rice agriculture revolution that ushered in the Yayoi period, I was hoping that a kind reader or two would help me figure them out (as some did). In this regard, as you point out Henry, I am guilty of laziness.

    I also felt that he was sensitive, if only mildly, to the history of the politics surrounding the scholarship on the origin of the Japanese. His opening and closing sections led me to think that he intended his article to be a corrective to the widespread historical misunderstanding of how East Asian “peoples” came to be. (By the way, in this article he avoids the term “race” and instead uses “people,” e.g., “the Japanese people,” “the East Asian peoples,” and so on.) Reading him I did not think that he was racist. Rather he was trying to find a way to debunk the racist sentiment between Japanese and Korean by presenting several mediating layers of evidence (archaelogical, physical-anthropological, linguistic) and causal explanations (technology and the environment seems to be his favorites).

    Yet despite the things I liked about the article, I was disturbed by some of his assumptions, which in my opinion are the kind that help fuel the very racism abound in East Asia today. This is what I meant by him perpetuating racism. My beef with him is that I don’t think the enmity between Korea and Japan, which he casts in a simplistic narrative of the conqueror and the conquered, can be helped by “find[ing] common ground” in the intertwined prehistories of these peoples. I don’t think evidence is enough. As some others have already commented, I wanted Diamond to go a little further in thinking about the conceptual genealogy of the term “people,” which I read, quite naively at first but now confirmed by my second reading of the article, as “race.”

    I cringed when I read the following sentence (in the second paragraph of the Discover article): “Among world powers today, the Japanese are the most distinctive in their culture and environment.” This may seem innocuous to some, but it reminds me, and that of my fellow Frog in a Well contributors, of the same language used by Japan’s cultural nationalists. Although Diamond does provide evidence as to the environmental uniqueness of the archipelago, his statement about “culture” is touted as a given. Besides, what “culture” is not by definition unique, if the very terms for comparison must be defined according to the dictates of each individual culture? So without giving any evidence for Japan’s “unique culture,” he embarks on the twists and turns of the history of these peoples, all interacting among themselves, to beget the modern Japanese. Somehow this uniqueness is an essential part of the Japanese people from antiquity.

    Now, take this opening paragraph from the new middle-school textbook (in English, pdf) that was approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education earlier this year. This textbook was written by right-wing revisionist historians who are seeking to erase any mention of the Nanjing Massacre and sexual slavery, among other wartime and imperialist era details that cast Japan in a negative light, from the school curriculum. These textbooks have hence been the target of protests from governments and citizens in East Asia:

    The history you are about to study is the history of Japan. In other words, you will be familiarizing yourselves with the stories of your ancestors — your blood relatives. Your closest ancestors your parents, who were preceded by your four grandparents. As you go back further in time, number of ancestors increases with each generation. Then you realize that the humans populated the Japanese Archipelago are ancestors you share with the other students in classroom. In every era, Japanese history was made by ancestors common to all of us.

    This paragraph emphasizes the fact that these ancestors, from Jomon to the near-present, are “blood relatives.” I can say, from my own partial education in Japan and from the textbooks I have seen since, that this rhetoric of “ancestors” and “blood relatives” in classrooms did not exist prior to this textbook. And for students of Japanese history, these phrases come right out of Japan’s wartime propaganda.

    Diamond might respond by mentioning that Koreans, too, are “blood relatives.” Reportedly, here (in Japanese), the revisionist textbook’s take on the Jomon people falls into the first of the three theories of the Yayoi transformation considered by Diamond. But does that really matter to the Koreans and Japanese? As he himself notes in the second section, these facts are always interpreted to serve the respective nationalisms of the two (or three?) countries. Also there has been no proof so far that arguing on the basis of historical evidence has actually changed the minds of these revisionist historians. Diamond is attuned to this dilemma, but not enough.

    Henry, I can hear you saying that what I am claiming here—of a connection between Diamond and these revisionist historians—is based solely on resemblence and association. Sure, there is perhaps no direct connection between Diamond and these efforts by Japan’s revisionist historians, and I bet that Japanese archaeologists, and the textbook authors, do not read Diamond’s work (although Diamond relies heavily on Japanese scholarship). But I was suggesting that they, and me too in varying guises, drink from the same river of 19th century ethnology. Archaeology and ethnology in Japan share a history together with their Western counterparts, of which Diamond would probably consider himself to be a part.

    Piles of evidence shown to Japanese revisionist historians, including the research results of Japanese archaeologists and physical anthropologists which Diamond neatly synthesized in his essay, have not helped change their minds. This means that at least one item in the sometimes contentious relationship between Japan and her continental neighbors will never be resolved. Perhaps re-thinking the history of the concept of race, environment, and culture might be the next move.

  17. Stretching biological theory to the social sphere is never a good idea. Social Darwinism is a good example. Survival of the fittest in nature is based on the concept of the existence of genetic diversity and the resulting influence of these differences on the ability of organisms to thrive or perish in a given environment. Fitness is a fluid concept and is dependent on the environmental conditions of a given moment in time and space. As environmental change is constant, genetic traits that contribute to fitness under one set of conditions may lead to an evolutionary dead end under a different set of conditions. Social Darwinism ignores this fact, as well as the genetic disconnect in an industrialized society where humans can alter their environment and ‘fitness’ as measured in social success has more to do with social position than genetic makeup.

    Diamond is dangerously close to making the same mistake. His thesis of environmental determinism is Eurocentric at worst and Eurasiancentric at best. The constrast in the development of civilizations between agrarian societies and hunt-and-gathering societies is well made. Diamond also makes a convincing argument that the comparatively more nutritious and more easily stored cereals crops such as wheat and rice has allowed the agrarian societies of Eurasia to develope while the farmers in the highlands of New Guinea did not “develope’ beyond subsistence farming because their tuber crops such as taro are nutrient poor and are cannot be stored. However, where Diamond’s argument breaks down is in the Americas. Many parts of the Americas, especially in the temperate latitudes, are environmentally very similar to many parts of Eurasia. Agriculturally, corn is more productive than wheat and rice and the argument that MesoAmerican agriculture is less advanced is invalid.

    The Korean/Japanese ancestry debate is even more tenuous. Even if Diamond’s environmental theory is valid, it operates on a civilizational macro-scale that cannot possibly be applied to account for differences between Korea and Japan, which essentially are of the same civilization operating on similar technology. While Diamond is careful in referring to the Japanese and Koreans as ‘peoples’ and not ‘races’, this is still insufficient. A more explicit differentiation should be made regarding the cultural basis of ethnicity, which often times does not have a genetic basis.

  18. Good post, and it made me rethink my own opinion of Jared Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germs and Steel.” I also found the reference to “blood relatives” in the new textbook particularly troubling.

  19. The Japanese origins particularly in the are of Language was determined by African scientists during the 1960’s, language types were used to determine migration patterns. The prime minister of Senegal, the Foreign Minister of Papua New Guinea, the present Fijian Representative to Los Angeles, Runoko Rashidi http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/runoko.html and http://community.webtv.net/nubianem ) Ivan Van Sertima, and many others have pointed out that there were constant migrations from the African continent to India, then to Southern Asia all the way to Melanesia and Australia. Another migration took place from Africa to India to Central Asia then to Europe (after the ice finally melted about 20,000 years ago).

    Japan (according to ‘The Book of Ani’ one of hte most ancient African religious books dating to traditions that go to about 15,000 BC) state that in North Africa particularly the region between Dafur and Egypt, a Black race similar to Aboriginals and Africans called the Anu lived in the region. The Anu and other Africans in the Egyptian region were at war about 10,000 BC, says the ancient texts. The Anu and their heiracy including one Tera Neter lost out to the Black Egyptians who were of the same Black Negro race as the Anu.

    The Anu migrated from Africa to India, SE Asia, Southern China, the Pacific Islands and to Japan. Now who in Japan looks like a ‘pale-skinned’ version of the prehistoric Black Anu of Africa? It is the Ainu of Japan.

    Another group of Africoids settled in the southern part of Japan and that group was also found in Melanesia, Papua, Indonesia and parts of Polynesia. Eventually, after many centuries of mixing the aboriginal Black Anu and Black Oceanic Negro Africoids of Southern Japan became mixed and lightened till they became more Mongol.

    Genetic testing may or may not determine that, but one thing is very clear, Africans who head the Japanes language have concluded that it is basically an African language and they have determined that its ancient origins is East Africa and the Calabar region of Nigeria. In fact both Japanese and Korean ponit to that particular African region, see http://www.stewartsynopsis.com/links_to_japanese_and_african_la.htm

    Both Korean and Japanese map to African languages and it is facinating why people continue to say that Japanese is not related to any other language when the facts are right there in Africa for them to research, a research that Africans have done since the sixties ( see the references at “Susu Economics,” pub. by http://www.AuthorHouse.com )

    Furthermore, anyone who studies the very ancient Buddhist statues (including the Black one ) or the very ancient statues or the culture (including the round huts built by the prehistoric Blacks of Japan) one will find an African connection.

    As for Chinese, it also has its ancient varient in Africa in the region called Cameroon and in the Western Sudan, where many ethnic groups have names, phrases and other features that are identical to that of the Chinese. In fact, a few African tribes also have faces similar to many Chinese people. These include the !Kong, the Nama, the Mangbetu, some Zulu, some Twana, many Sahara Africans, the Mersi and others. These features we call ‘Mongoloid’ developed in very old Southern Africa’s high veldt or in the very hot by day and icy cold by night Sahara desert region. In fact, it is also in the Sahara that straight hair and kinky hair among Blacks developed during the ‘wet’ phase and the very dry and hot phase of the Sahara about 50,000 years ago.


    see “African Presence in Early Asia,” by Ivan Van Sertima

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.