Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928

Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928

by Andrea Geiger


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The Japanese immigrants who arrived in the North American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included people with historical ties to Japan's outcaste communities. In the only English-language book on the subject, Andrea Geiger examines the history of these and other Japanese immigrants in the United States and Canada and their encounters with two separate cultures of exclusion, one based in caste and the other in race.

Geiger reveals that the experiences of Japanese immigrants in North America were shaped in part by attitudes rooted in Japan's formal status system, mibunsei, decades after it was formally abolished. In the North American West, however, the immigrants' understanding of social status as caste-based collided with American and Canadian perceptions of status as primarily race-based. Geiger shows how the lingering influence of Japan's strict status system affected immigrants' perceptions and understandings of race in North America and informed their strategic responses to two increasingly complex systems of race-based exclusionary law and policy.

Editorial Reviews

Neil Foley

Andrea Geiger’s beautifully written narrative deftly describes how Japanese emigrants escaped the stigma of lower-caste status in Tokugawa Japan, only to encounter an even more malignant form of exclusion in the North American West based solely on one’s race. An important and absolutely fascinating read.”—Neil Foley, author of Quest for Equality: The Failed Promise of Black-Brown Solidarity

Patty Limerick

Examining the tangled convergence between North American racial prejudice and the Japanese denigration of outcastes, this book is strikingly innovative and intensely thought-provoking. Andrea Geiger’s work sets a model of historical research and analysis practiced as an extraordinary—and courageous—art.”—Patty Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest

K. Scott Wong

Elegantly written and deeply insightful, Geiger deftly combines an understanding of the law and racial formation and has offered a truly transnational history that blends Asian, Asian American, and broader issues of American immigration history."—K. Scott Wong, Williams College

Histoire Sociale/Social History - Yukari Takai

"[T]his book is altogether a welcome addition to the expanding field of Japanese migration and transnational American Studies. The book invites readers to think more critically across the national borders and class boundaries that have tended to confine the field of our study until recently."—Yukari Takai, Histoire Sociale/Social History

Joel Legassie

A particular strength of the book is Geiger’s analysis of the development of legal structures motivated by exclusionist sentiment as well as their response to immigrant strategies to “subvert exclusion” and the ramifications of the legal structures developed in neighboring jurisdictions for the same purpose.”—Joel Legassie, University of Victoria

Association for Asian American Studies - 2011 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award in the History category

Winner of the 2011 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award in the History category, given by the Association for Asian American Studies.

Gary Y. Okihiro

Refusing historiographical silences and caricatures of homogeneity and stasis, Subverting Exclusion insists upon the diversity and movement of Japanese migrants in a trans-Pacific, transnational world. In the process, this superbly conceived study succeeds in rendering its subjects as emphatically human.”— Gary Y. Okihiro, author of Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones

Immigration and Ethnic History Society - Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award

Winner of the 2012 Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award sponsored by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300212556
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/27/2015
Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Subverting Exclusion



Copyright © 2011 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16963-8

Chapter One

Caste, Status, Mibun

IN 1905, AS THE MEIJI ERA was drawing to a close, Japanese novelist Shimazaki Toson published a novel that raised the question of whether emigration to the North American West offered those descended from outcaste groups in Japan a chance to leave behind the stigma still associated with their status. Natsume Soseki, one of Japan's foremost novelists of the twentieth century, later called Shimazaki's work the "only genuine novel of the Meiji era." Hakai (The Broken Commandment) immediately became a best seller and has never been out of print. In Hakai, Shimazaki tells the story of a schoolteacher who had long been able to hide his outcaste descent in accordance with his father's proscription that he never disclose his identity. In time, however, he is forced by his own anxiety about his ancestry to reveal it in the wake of his father's death, resulting in his dismissal from the school at which he had taught for some years. The novel ends with another character's proposal that he emigrate to Texas because there his descent from an outcaste family would be irrelevant. Implicit in this suggestion was the assumption that emigration to the North American West offered a way to avoid caste-based discrimination because in North America, one need only identify oneself as a Japanese subject. Emigration, in other words, held out the promise that one could shed a stigma that continued to confront former outcastes and their children even in rapidly modernizing Japan during the early decades of the twentieth century.

The prejudice that Shimazaki proposed his protagonist escape by emigrating to North America was rooted in a status system established during the early seventeenth century as part of an effort by the Tokugawa shogunate (bakufu) to ensure the stability both of Japan and of its own rule. To that end, it imposed severe restrictions on travel within Japan and barred foreigners and Japanese subjects alike from entering or leaving Japan. The failure to comply with the prohibition was punishable by death, a sanction that remained in place through 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry's intrusion on behalf of the United States helped to set in motion the processes that led Japan to begin to open its borders to the West. Constraints on physical mobility within Japan and beyond its coastal boundaries were intended to work with parallel restraints on social mobility to fix members of Japanese society in place both geographically and in terms of social hierarchy.

The Tokugawa status system comprised four major status categories, or mibun; in descending order, they were samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Not included in these official status categories but also integral to the functioning of the Tokugawa system were outcaste groups, who provided the labor needed for tasks regarded as polluting by other Japanese. Although some scholars have argued that outcastes were essentially unclassified people, they were subject to strict legal constraints in many parts of Japan throughout the Tokugawa period. As David L. Howell and others have noted, the boundary between the four major status groups and the outcaste groups was qualitatively far more significant than that which existed between the four major status categories. Caste difference was regarded as immutable and adherent in blood, so the prohibition against marriage to members of outcaste groups was far more rigidly enforced than the prohibition against marriage between members of other status categories.

The social and legal position of outcastes as outside the four official categories was justified by reference to their engagement in forms of work regarded as polluting, which meant that they were regarded as polluted in turn. This projection was reflected in the official terms used to identify the two largest and most significant outcaste groups under Tokugawa law—ITLηITL and hinin. Generally translated into English as "full of filth" and "nonhuman," both terms are extremely pejorative. Hinin was the more fluid category, comprising not only beggars and people born into this category but also individuals who had been sentenced to hinin status as a result of conviction for certain crimes. As well, hinin included commoners who had committed certain kinds of civil infractions, including "family desertion, drunkenness, debauchery, making threats, juvenile delinquency, child abuse, and petty thievery." Those who married individuals in this category—knowingly or not—became hinin, as did some who divorced. Hinin also included samurai who had dishonored their families by failing to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) when that was viewed as the required response to a given situation. Those relegated to hinin status because they had dishonored their families or committed civil infractions could, if certain limited conditions were met, be readmitted to society over time, but readmission did not allow them to escape entirely the stigma of having once been hinin. In most areas, hinin, also regarded as outcastes, were considered higher in status than eta, which was the more inflexible of the two categories.

Eta status was inherited and was often tied to occupations regarded as polluting. It could not be shed by pursuing a different occupation or in any other way. Occupations associated with eta status varied to some degree from one region of Japan to another, but those involving the slaughter of animals or the handling of leather were relegated to people in this category in all parts of Japan. People categorized as eta included tanners, butchers, undertakers, executioners, and grave watchers. "Well diggers, palanquin bearers, gardeners, and toilet cleaners"—all of whom engaged in work regarded as defiling by others in Japan—were also included in this category in many areas. In some regions, textile dyers and craftspeople who produced bamboo articles such as baskets, tea whisks, umbrellas and writing brushes or straw products such as straw mats (tatami), sandals, clogs, rain capes, and baskets were also classified as outcastes. Other "dishonorable occupations" associated with eta or hinin status, according to one contemporary observer, were those held by "fortune tellers; dancers; beggars; actors; street singers; prostitutes; jailers; dealers in horse; pilgrims; story tellers; [and] jugglers." Elsewhere, drum makers, bathhouse attendants, sweepers, riverboat men, brothel keepers, ironworkers, and blacksmiths were included in these categories. The digging and selling of coal was also an occupation dominated by members of outcaste groups in certain areas, including parts of Fukuoka prefecture, on the island of Kyushu. And midwifery and fishing were occupations associated with outcaste status in still other parts of Japan.

Strict sumptuary laws dictating allowable clothing and hairstyles made social and legal barriers between different status groups visible, effectively racializing them. Difference was also graphically inscribed onto the bodies of people relegated to outcaste status through the propagation of popular myths that invoked animal imagery and suggested that outcastes were anatomically different from other people. According to Shigesaki Ninomiya, rumors of this kind included allegations that the skeletons of "eta" lacked a rib bone or included a dog bone, that their necks did not cast shadows in moonlight, and that dirt did not adhere to their bare feet, because they were less human than animal. Yet another common myth—still perpetuated today even though scholars have shown it to be untrue—is that buraku ju–min are descended not from Japanese but from Koreans or other foreigners brought to Japan at an earlier stage of its history.

While people in outcaste groups used words such as kawata (leatherworker) to describe themselves, expressions used by other Japanese, like the official terms ITLηITL and hinin, were often deeply pejorative and suggested, in accordance with popular myths and rumors, that members of outcaste groups were not fully human. Hugh H. Smythe and Yoshimasa Naitoh reported as late as 1953 that buraku ju–min were also often referred to by the numbers four, eight and nine (yotsu, yatsu, and kokonotsu), "all of which ... represent imperfection" in Japanese numerology. Implicit in the use of such terms, they argue, is the inference that eta were "'deformed' (despised) people." The numerical classifier historically used in official documents during the Tokugawa era to count members of outcaste groups reflected a similar perception. Whereas the classifier normally used to count human beings was nin, the one used to count outcastes was the same as that used to count animals—hiki. The vehement nature of the prejudices projected onto people in outcaste categories was such that they were regarded not only as defiled but also as defiling. "Bow once to an Eta," a Tokugawa-era proverb declared, "and you must not lift your head again for seven generations."

Negative attitudes were further reinforced through the spatial organization of difference, which found expression not only in terms of where those categorized as outcastes were required to live but in the way space itself was depicted on Tokugawa maps. Members of outcaste groups were often required to reside on marginal lands along rivers or at the edges of the towns and villages, one reason that some outcaste groups were often referred to as kawaramono or "river people." Nor did official Tokugawa government maps record the location of eta villages, and they excluded portions of any road that passed through an outcaste village from distance calculations. Bakufu policy, in short, sought quite literally to erase those categorized as outcastes from the social landscape, at least as it was imagined on official maps. Although hinin were also relegated to the periphery of society, the hinin population was generally more mobile, since they were permitted under Tokugawa law to move from one domain to another as long as they did not disguise their status and registered as hinin in each domain.

In addition to dictating where outcastes were permitted to live and travel, local sumptuary laws specified what kind of clothing and hairstyles people in different status categories were permitted to wear. Although rules of this kind applied to people at all levels of society, the weight of such proscriptions fell most heavily on outcaste groups. Harsh regulations combined with strict social taboos to define people classified as outcastes as "other" and made their status visible so that those in other categories could both identify and shun them. Marriage between members of outcaste groups and other Japanese was not only avoided as a matter of social custom but prohibited by law. Other edicts issued during the Tokugawa era restricted the kinds of work outcastes were permitted to do, forbade them to enter districts where higher status groups lived, and specified the architectural details of their houses so that their status would be immediately apparent to anyone approaching their homes. Smythe and Naitoh summarize the range of legal prohibitions enforced against members of outcaste groups under Tokugawa law as follows:

[Eta] were forbidden to live in the same house or eat with other Japanese. They could not enter castle farms or the homes of non-Eta, or even the front gates of the latter's yards ... The Sho–gunate in 1723 decreed that either the Eta had to shave their heads or wear their hair in a special style to distinguish them from other Japanese, while women Eta were prohibited from tying the obi (kimono sash) as other Japanese women. They were forced to go barefooted and not allowed to wear the wooden clogs, geta, or wear headgear even in inclement weather. An ordinance in 1778 provided severe punishment for any Eta caught wearing the costume of farmers or merchants ...

Further, the severity of Tokugawa regulations restricted the Eta to certain sections of cities and towns. Only in these areas were they allowed to beg for food, clothes, and money; and their personal movements without official permission were limited. Crimes against them by non-Eta were not recognized as criminal acts, since the Eta were considered as having practically non-human status.

By the early nineteenth century, the legal reinforcement of caste categories for over two centuries had resulted in a deep social divide between those categorized as heimin (commoners) and outcaste groups. The institutionalization of the caste system during the Tokugawa period, in Cullen Tadao Hayashida's words, effectively locked the "ritually polluted pariah ... in place both territorially and hierarchically." "Occupational specialization, residential segregation, and enforced endogamy," he adds, acted together to create an "impassable barrier." As the Tokugawa era entered its final decades, however, people at every level of society began to chafe at the status restrictions that bound them. Even among samurai, restrictions of rank had become a source of significant tension, to the point where historians have identified the frustration of lower-level samurai as a major factor leading to the Meiji Restoration. Restrictions on travel broke down as increasing numbers of dekasegi laborers (temporary labor migrants) traveled to such growing urban centers as Osaka and Edo. By the end of the Tokugawa period, the rigid social system created to ensure the regime's stability had begun to break down, largely as a result of social tensions and economic developments produced by the system's codifiers themselves.

Tokugawa authorities responded to the growing social unrest by imposing still stricter sumptuary laws and rigorously enforcing existing laws. Various domains also implemented legal measures to prevent the erosion of the social barrier maintained between outcastes and commoners. In 1819 and 1820, for example, the daimyo of Tosa on the island of Shikoku issued edicts proscribing the sale of land to "eta" and forbidding them to walk down the middle of the street or enter commoners' homes. Even after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the newly reconstituted "modern" government of Wakayama prefecture viewed the regulation of those classified as outcastes as key to maintaining the continued stability of society in Japan and promulgated a series of regulations in December 1870 to reinforce the subordinate position of outcaste groups:

1. In using public thoroughfares, Eta must walk at the extreme sides of the road and move out of the way of other Japanese at all times, and they must never be discourteous to other Japanese at any time, either in their own communities or in the cities and villages.

2. Between sunset and dawn Eta are prohibited from entering and moving about in any non-Eta community, and they must refrain from such movement even on the outskirts of such communities during this curfew period. Except at festival times, they are prohibited from moving about after nightfall within their own communities.

3. They are forbidden to eat or drink in non-Eta communities.

4. Eta are forbidden to wear headgear, except during inclement weather.

5. They are forbidden to wear any kind of footgear except zori [straw sandals].

Edicts such as these may well be evidence that people categorized as eta or hinin had begun to challenge the legal constraints imposed on them during the Tokugawa period and that domain officials feared that existing social barriers between outcastes and others might erode. Domain governments that adopted such oppressive solutions, however, soon found themselves at odds with the new Meiji leaders.


The unwelcome advent of Perry's ships off Yokohama in 1854 and the imposition of semicolonial status on Japan via a series of unequal treaties with the United States and others combined with growing social and political tensions to bring about the Meiji Restoration fourteen years later. Recognizing that Japan lacked the technological ability to resist American or European pressure, the Meiji government embarked almost immediately on a comprehensive effort to develop Japan's industrial capacity. Meiji leaders also quickly concluded that modernization—understood as the importation of Western technology, culture, and civic institutions—was critical to meeting Japan's goals of resisting Western encroachment and securing recognition as a nation equal in status to those of the West. In Hayashida's words, the Meiji government was determined that Japanese stop "being treated as an uncivilized people" and that Japan "regain control over its own destiny." Advocates of rapid industrialization viewed the West, by virtue of its advanced technologies, as—at least temporarily—higher on the scale of scientific achievement in the hierarchy of nations and civilization in the modern world. Both the commitment to technological advancement and Japan's adoption of bunmei kaika, "civilization and enlightenment," were also key elements of its larger quest to win acceptance as an equal by the West and to secure the removal of the unequal treaties imposed by Western nations.


Excerpted from Subverting Exclusion by ANDREA GEIGER Copyright © 2011 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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