On June 11, 2021, the ninth lecture in the Academic Frontier series was delivered by Taro Tsurumi (University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) on the theme of “bad theories of races and ethnicities.” Tsurumi, a specialist in Russian Jewish history, began his argument by emphasizing the artificial and fictitious character inherent in the concepts of “race” (人種) and “ethnicity” (民族). Referring to early theorists such as Gobineau and Herder, he pointed out that both of these notions were originally advocated in protest at a certain social reality in their respective historical contexts (e.g., the alleged universality of Enlightenment ideas). Given the immense influence they exerted on the subsequent course of history, however, simply criticizing these notions as lacking in a scientific basis does not suffice. Rather, Tsurumi argued, we need to study carefully how they have been functioning in each concrete context.
To illustrate this point, the lecture moved on to the case of Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s. According to Tsurumi, the motives behind the emigration were mainly economic, and not necessarily related to ethnic consciousness. As a result of the Soviet Union’s longtime policy to divide people institutionally into different ethnicities (natsional’nost’), Jewishness had come to be understood among Russian Jewish residents as chiefly a matter of genealogy, rather than that of culture and tradition, so that it is reported that some of the immigrants had never even imagined the existence of Jewish people with a different skin color from theirs. This example shows that even if people of the same ethnicity engage in the same action, such as migration, it is misleading to interpret it as driven by a single ethnic consciousness. What is needed, Tsurumi emphasized, is a micro-level understanding of how the same ethnicity might take on different meanings in each individual’s circumstances.
In conclusion, Tsurumi maintained that rather than asserting that there are bad theories of races and ethnicities, we should accept that all theories based on races and ethnicities are generally dangerous. He also suggested that we should understand “ethnicity” not as something preceding and determining the nature of individuals, but as one of the diverse elements belonging to each individual. The lecture was followed by a lively discussion between students and the professor on various topics, such as the consequences of understanding ethnicity as an aspect of an individual, and the mechanism behind the formation of ethnic essentialism.
Reported by Yuki Ueda (EAA Research Assistant)