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Review

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

By Andrea A.E. Geiger

November 4, 2013

Review By Joel Legassie

In 1871 in the process of dismantling the mibun or caste system that had been the basis of Japanese politics and society for hundreds of years, the fledgling Meiji government emancipated the buraku jūmin, or outcastes, making them citizens of the newborn Japanese nation-state. Unfortunately, this decree could not erase hundreds of years of fear and prejudice directed at the people formally designated as outcaste. This prejudice, and the ideas about human social relations underpinning them, were carried across the Pacific Ocean by Japanese migrants to British Columbia, and other parts of Western North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Subverting Exclusion, Andrea Geiger draws on deep cross-cultural and linguistic fluency to illustrate how the ideology of caste encountered various expressions of white racism in western North American jurisdictions. She makes a compelling case that these ways of understanding difference came together in a cross-Pacific dialogue where fluid constructs of identity were negotiated in a process of appropriation and refraction across ideological, linguistic, and cultural lines. Skillfully weaving together public and private sources from four countries, Geiger demonstrates that neither the Japanese immigrant community, nor those who expressed racist and exclusionary sentiments, were homogenous groups operating within static and exclusive domains of communication.

Geiger provides a number of perspectives on this dialogue and its consequences. She shows how preoccupation with caste-based status by Japanese officials undermined possibilities of a collective Japanese response to white racism. These officials tried to protect Japan’s reputation as a civilized nation by blaming racist sentiment on the behaviour of low status migrants. They attempted to manage migrant behaviour through the control of passports, and finally agreed to severely restrict emigration to Canada and the United States to forestall humiliating exclusionary legislation. Caste and race also interacted within Japanese communities in North America, sometimes undermining traditional prejudices, as in in attempts to lose outcaste family histories in the new society, which did not differentiate among Japanese groups; and sometimes preserving them, as in the practice of inquiring into the family histories of potential marriage partners to protect the purity of a blood lines. Another interesting example is the Japanese Shoemakers Association in San Francisco, which fought both white racism and caste prejudice by protecting the rights of entrepreneurs in a trade traditionally associated with the buraku jÅ«min. A particular strength of the book is Geiger’s analysis of the development of legal structures motivated by exclusionist sentiment, as well as their responses to immigrant strategies to “subvert exclusion” and the ramifications of the legal structures developed in neighbouring jurisdictions for the same purpose.

These well-researched examples contribute to a growing literature that corrects portrayals of Asian communities in British Columbia as static and homogenous others cut off from the dominant white society. More specifically, Geiger has challenged a deep silence about the ideology of caste differentiation within Japanese communities on both sides of the Pacific. She rejects the argument that this silence protects the descendants of buraku jūmin by providing them a measure of anonymity. Instead, silence leaves the prejudice and the framework of thought behind it unchallenged, while it is perpetuated through code words and euphemisms. By bringing this ideology into the open, Geiger hopes to contribute to its subversion. While it is beyond the scope of this review to judge her success in this endeavour, the book provides a perspective that highlights the dynamic agency, not to mention courage, of the 270,000 Japanese men and women who crossed thousands of miles of ocean to carve out new lives in a foreign and often hostile land.

Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928
By Andrea A.E. Geiger 
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 304 pp. $45.00 cloth.