Michael Mumisa takes aim at Satoshi Kanazawa and shoots himself in the foot

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

Today is the first time I have come across the works of Sheikh Michael Mumisa of Cambridge and Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics. One is a South African Quranic scholar and Ph.D. candidate in literature, the other a Japanese evolutionary psychologist and reader in management. Both are of non-European origin but think remarkably like each other, it seems. Mumisa’s discussion of the problems he sees in Kanazawa’s work come across as not substantially different from what he criticises. The irony is that these two non-Westerners both subscribe to an Enlightenment view of history as progress and of a moral hierarchy between racial (Kanazawa) or ethnic groups (Mumisa). Both are, as far as I can see, profoundly European, even Anglo-American, thinkers. It is a silly family quarrel between an African and an Asian son of the enlightenment, and Mumisa’s attack on Kanazawa leads nowhere because their reasoning is very similar.

Michael Mumisa asks his readers “Why does LSE academic Satoshi Kanazawa seem to hate women and black people?” The answer he gives is just as disturbing as Dr. Kanazawa’s apparent racism and misogyny. Mumisa’s answer in short seems to be “because he is Japanese.” The argument can be summarised as:

1.A tacit taken for granted assumption that racism and sexism are evil. This is so obvious that Mumisa does not need to spell it out.
2.The evil Japanese are more racist and sexist than other people.
3.Satoshi Kanazawa is Japanese and therefore a racist and sexist.

Being Japanese supposedly makes him more susceptible to the errors of evolutionary psychology than bearers of other cultural traditions. Ironically, Mumisa thus seems to be guilty of exactly what he accuses Kanazawa of – racism wrapped up in a dubious underlying philosophy of history as evolution or moral progress.

Like I presume Mr. Mumisa does, I take for granted that most people who read this value rational argument and fairness and therefore oppose racism and sexism as irrational and unethical doctrines. To claim that one is a racist and sexist is beyond the pale of contemporary public discourse. I also agree with Mumisa that the pseudo-scientific views attributed to Satoshi Kanazawa are reprehensible and that evolutionary psychology is “a pernicious political ideology which masquerades as science.” There is, however, a curious imbalance and self-undermining logical flaw in Mr. Mumisa’s short article.

It takes the author a long time to get to what should be the point – the intellectually and ethically problematic status of Dr. Kanazawa’s statement that “Black women are objectively less attractive than non-Black women” and especially how this relates to his theoretical views on humanity and society. Just over half of the article (383 out of 758 words) discusses the problem of pervasive racism in modern Japanese culture and its historical roots. This is highly relevant in the analysis of Japanese culture and politics, but the question is how relevant it is to the case at hand – Satoshi Kanazawa’s views on race and gender.

Mumisa is right that racial stereotyping and discrimination are widespread in Japan and partly right that some of the sources, or perhaps amplifiers, have historically been Social Darwinism and the white supremacism of European-American imperial ideology. But his account neglects the indigenous sources of racism in Japanese and wider East Asian traditions of thought, where Shinto notions of purity and pollution, the divine origins of the Japanese nation and Confucian notions of hierarchy play an important part. Besides the originally British doctrines of Social Darwinism and utilitarianism, another equally if not more important element in the 19th century Japanese re-encounter with Western thought was German romanticism. But the assimilation of “blood and soil” national romanticism was possible because of cultural conditions favourable to its reception. Japan is not some tabula rasa onto which Western ideas are transcribed and exist in an unchanged form. It is made up of thinking people with a dynamic culture of their own.

What is missing from Mumisa’s treatment of racism in modern Japanese culture is any sense of its indigenous roots and of Japanese historical agency. The reader is left with the impression that the Japanese “aped” Western Social Darwinism, which is precisely the general Western stereotype of East Asians and the Japanese in particular. When we are told that “the ideas advanced by Social Darwinism and eugenics remain influential today in Japanese intellectual life and popular culture”, the silent referent is contemporary Britain or the generalised West, against which Japan is compared unfavourably. Japan may have been late in revoking its last piece of eugenic legislation, but only some 20 years later than Sweden, which is generally held up as the paradigm case of enlightened, progressive European modernity. Mumisa seems to be suggesting that Japan is stuck in backward 19th century modes of thinking, which more enlightened parts of the world have evolved beyond! By saying that the ideas he disapproves of “remain influential” he is portraying Japan as relatively backward and morally inferior. It would seem that the ghosts of Darwin, Hegel and Marx haunt the author too.

The first half of Mumisa’s text sets the stage for the denunciation of Kanazawa and evolutionary psychology that follows. He builds up a picture of Japan as somehow more racist than a silent and idealised referent, the West/Britain. The extent of the socio-political phenomenon we call racism is empirically difficult to compare, as there are both quantitative and qualitative aspects to it.1 Racism in Japan manifests itself differently and is often not recognised as such by its perpetrators. There is a general tendency to think of it exclusively as racism against the Japanese and a failure to think of Japanese racism against others. My impression as a Japanese-European who grew up in Africa is that racism is more pervasive in Japan than in the UK or US but no more so than in countries like Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands or France.

It is also curious that Mumisa mentions Emobile’s Obama monkey ad, as the decision to withdraw it can be seen as an illustration that racism is considered unacceptable and that Japan is thus a much more “normal” and enlightened country than he makes it out to be. So Japanese companies are clearly receptive to foreign concerns about racism and deal with in a responsible manner. If we accept that the ad was racist, the response by the company does not support Mumisa’s argument.2 But it is questionable whether the ad in question was racist at all:

E-mobile has used this cute Japanese macaque as their mascot in commercials before this one (in the last one the monkey listened to headphones while using a PC), so it would be hard to claim that they just pulled this monkey out of nowhere so they could make a racist joke (this is not the same as Mandom’s ad). The monkey’s previous commercials had him acting like a human, so it was already established that E-mobile’s mascot is a cute monkey that mimics people. With this latest ad, they were probably trying to make a cute commercial that brings attention to the benefits of changing to E-mobile’s service, and a parody of Obama’s “Change” slogan was most likely included without a thought of race issues. I doubt that most Japanese people would even understand how a pink-faced grey monkey native to Japan could be equated to African people.3

A newspaper article does not leave enough room to discuss in depth the complexity of the Japan and racism problematic. But what Mumisa overlooks is that, even if they were accorded “honorary white” status in Apartheid-era South Africa, the Japanese are not white. Japan’s historical experience of racism is both as victims of European and American racism and as colonisers and perpetrators of racism against other Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans. The US had its “Oriental Exclusion Act”, interned its citizens of Japanese ancestry, and waged racist “war without mercy” against Japan, Korea and Vietnam. My own mother was denied a visa to Australia in the 1970s. The Japanese have been both victims and perpetrators of racism. Another aspect of this complexity, which Mumisa fails to mention is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, Japan was seen as a champion of the non-white world by some Indian and Burmese nationalists, anti-colonial liberation movements in the Malay world and Middle East and by elements of the movement for racial equality in the US. The first attempt to enshrine racial equality in international law was by the Japanese delegation to the Versailles Summit. Japan wanted the preamble to the League of Nations founding treaty to state that all races were equal, but this was blocked by the “white” powers. These are well-known historical facts, so one wonders why Mumisa paints a one-sided picture of a Japan that imports and imitates Western racism. Is it ignorance or a determination to misrepresent?

Japan is by no means unique in having its share of racists, but more importantly, Dr. Kanazawa is an individual with certain objectionable views. He happens to be Japanese, but he does not necessarily hold his views by virtue of his ethnicity. Yet this is what Mr. Mumisa claims when his text moves from an essentialist attack on Japanese culture as such to state that the individual Kanazawa represents Japanese racism:

Nowhere is this more evident than in Satoshi Kanawaza’s work at the London School of Economics where he has been reproducing and disseminating medieval and early modern Japanese views about blacks and women through the new medium of evolutionary psychology.

This is where Mumisa commits the category error of equating being Japanese with being a racist and misogynist. Kanazawa may be all three things, but is he a racist and misogynist because he is Japanese? And is this not itself a racist argument?

Another question is the “essential” Japaneseness of Dr. Kanazawa and the dubious theories he peddles. He is a reader in management at the London School of Economics. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Arizona in 1994 and has, as far as I have been able to establish, never held an academic position in Japan. Judging from his publication record, the “gateway drug” to his life of abusing harder, Darwinian, theory was rational choice theory and structural functionalist sociology. Along with the pioneer of sociobiology, Westermarck, Kanazawa proudly parades Talcott Parsons, Bronislaw Malinowski and Robert Merton as his intellectual grandfathers, his “father” being his Ph.D. supervisor Michael Hechter.4

Anybody familiar with Japanese intellectual history, and especially the social sciences in the 20th and 21st centuries, will know that it has mainly been Marxist and Weberian in orientation, sensitive to historical and cultural particularity and inherited a certain anti-positivist tendency from the mainly German intellectual currents it engaged most strongly with – Weber’s interpretive sociology, neo-Kantianism, Lukacsian historicist Marxism and the “fateful encounter” (Heidegger) with phenomenology and existentialism. Kanazawa is far from a typical Japanese social scientist, and this is underlined by the fact that he works abroad and publishes in English. Where the German and Japanese traditions have been idiographic in orientation, Kanazawa is much closer to contemporary Anglo-American and historically French (Destutt de Tracy, Comte among others) ambitions for a cumulative, unitary science of society and nature. As he is atypical of the Japanese social science profession, was educated and works outside Japan, the source of his views is more likely to be that he is one of “Helena’s cronies” (a colleague of the neo-Darwinist star Helena Cronin) rather than his Japanese ethnicity. The real problem is not Japan but positivism and neo-Darwinism in the social sciences, of which the LSE is the main propaganda centre.

To argue that he is “reproducing and disseminating medieval and early modern Japanese views” and to imply that he is a racist and misogynist because he conforms to Mumisa’s stereotype of what the Japanese are essentially like is mistaken. Dr. Kanazawa’s ideas are very British and represent one of the most influential streams in recent Anglophone thought, i.e. the re-application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to society and culture. Rather than waste half his article on showing how his Japanese culture makes Kanazawa a racist, Mumisa should have spent more energy on exactly why “the claims of evolutionary psychology rest on shaky empirical evidence, flawed premises, and unexamined political presuppositions.” By failing to pursue what is the real argument, and by arguing in the irresponsible way way he does, he undermines his own purpose. A person’s ideas are undoubtedly a product of historical circumstances. This goes for Kanazawa, Mumisa and myself. To understand and criticise a thinker must involve some consideration of the social and historical context, including culture and ethnicity. But one has to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant context. By emphasising Dr. Kanazawa’s Japanese ethnicity, explicitly misrepresenting Japanese culture and implicitly idealising the British culture that Kanazawa operates in, Mumia misses the point. I am not familiar with the rest of Mumia’s authorship, but just as there is very little of Japan in Kanazawa’s views, this article reflects an unthinking Eurocentrism and internalisation of the social evolutionism he opposes. There is little in it that seems to reflect South Africa or Islam, both of which are part of Mumisa’s biography. This is far from unusual. Like Dr. Kanazawa, he lives in Britain and works in one of that country’s elite universities. Intellectually, both are “brown sahibs”, and it is difficult not to be one in a post-colonial but still imperialist world. It may arguably be the Hegelian master-slave dialectic in operation.


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