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White guys to the rescue

by Florian Coulmas

OUTPOSTS OF CIVILIZATION: Race, Religion and the Formative Years of American-Japanese Relations, by Joseph M. Henning. New York and London: New York University Press, 2000, 243 pp., $35 (cloth).

U.S. foreign policy has a mission. Many American politicians or diplomats would be proud rather than hesitant to confess that they are missionaries at heart. They are convinced that the U.S. way of life is superior to all others and that they have a calling to spread this truth far and wide. The world would be a better place, they think, if only it were like the United States.

Testimonies to the truth of this proposition are not hard to find. Certain states are classified as rogues; most-favored-nation status is dependent on good behavior; governments the world over are indexed for their human-rights record.

When the U.S. first established relations with Japan, its representatives were acting on the basis of similar principles. In “Outposts of Civilization,” Joseph Henning describes the ideological backdrop against which U.S. attitudes toward Japan developed from first contact.

Two preconceptions were of central importance: race and religion. From Commodore Matthew Perry’s treaty negotiations on, the tenacity of the American faith in white, Christian superiority was the driving force behind U.S. dealings with Japan. As Henning demonstrates in admirable detail, it was the justification for imposing treaties on the Japanese government that curtailed Japan’s sovereign rights. Japan, as seen through American eyes, was not a civilized country and, therefore, did not not deserve to be treated as an equal.

To be civilized, at the time, meant to be Christian and white. But there was hope. The Americans not only opened Japan up for trade on terms highly beneficial to themselves, they also sent missionaries who would lift the Japanese out of their pitiful existence as childlike, underdeveloped heathens.

Racism was the bedrock of colonialism. It was common knowledge that there was a hierarchy of races, with Caucasians at the top, semi-civilized Mongols in the middle and dark-skinned savages at the bottom. The Japanese, then, belonged to the second group of semi-civilized people, as Townsend Harris, the first American envoy to Japan, described them.

Clearly, these people needed help. And help they should get. The missionaries would endure any hardship to make the Japanese see the light. Nor did they suffer from lack of support on the home front. In 1888, a number of prominent American women sent an open letter to the women of Japan advising them how to dress.

The force of Henning’s book comes from its wealth of examples. Through these, Henning not only exposes the arrogance of dividing the world into believers and nonbelievers, but he also shows how missionary ends were subservient to political goals.

The most interesting part of this reconstruction of the intellectual underpinnings of U.S.-Japanese relations is how they changed in response to changing conditions.

America’s perception of Japan as a curious, exotic land at the edge of the civilized world was seriously challenged when its semi-civilized, colored inhabitants proved their mettle at something only Christians were supposed to be really good at: war. Within a decade, the Japanese beat the Chinese and then the Russians. The latter campaign was the real blow, because Russians were both white and Christian — or were they?

The only way out of this predicament was the assumption that the American missionaries’ toil had borne fruit, transforming Japanese Sauls into Japanese Pauls.

Henning shows that this was exactly the line taken in the U.S. discourse on Japan after her victory over Russia. The Japanese were the good guys, the Russians the bad guys. The latter were Slavs and Orthodox, not quite Christian. In any event, the Japanese were more Christian than the Russians.

But there was more than that. To save the world view of white Christian superiority, white blood had to flow in the victors’ veins. Providence provided them with this precious juice through the Ainu, who were conveniently discovered to be the Caucasian forebears of the Japanese.

Despite all outward appearances, the Japanese had made it. They were white and Christian. But easy come, easy go. According to Henning’s compelling analysis, the Japanese were able to hold on to these blessings for no more than an instant. They could grow into a potential rival of the world’s missionary champions only at the cost of being transformed, once again — this time into a yellow peril.

“Outposts of Civilization” tells an insightful story about the role of race and religion in U.S. images of Japan, a story that, despite its twists and turns, preserves some recognizable leitmotifs. At the end of the book, the author quotes a recent CIA report that characterizes the Japanese as “an amoral race” — not Christian and not white.