Yellow Face, White Face: Race in Russian and Japanese Modernism

Susanna Lim, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper will focus on cross-cultural perceptions between Russia and Japan in the Modernist period, when the two nations came into closer contact specifically through the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and the Japanese intervention in the Russian Far East in the 1920s. 

Both Russia and Japan represent atypical instances in the context of postcolonial theory, and each nation’s perceptions about the other often reflect its own racial fantasies and cultural ambiguity between East and West.

I wish to treat here not only the most common notion of postcolonial discourse, Orientalism, which is the construction of the East by the West, but also what I propose to describe as “Occidentalism,” or the construction of the West by the East. Race here serves not only the political function of power and control but also an aesthetic function, as each side appropriates the other’s image not only to empower itself but also to create new identities that transcend fixed boundaries.

Attempts to highlight the mutual aspects in the encounter of the West and its colonies, such as Mary Louise Pratt’s notion of a “contact zone” and “autoethnography,” and Robert Stam’s discussion of hybridity and an “aesthetics of garbage,” have shown how postcolonial theory can go beyond the common narrative of the Western conquest of the East. While such notions have been used to describe the European experience in its colonies in Africa or South America, the paper aims to show how such a perspective can be applicable to the discussion of the East in Russian Modernism, where pan-Mongolism and Eurasianism became an aesthetic mask challenging the West, as Russia at the turn of the twentieth century was faced with the fateful choice to go East or West.

I begin by examining the representations of Japan or Asia in Russian Modernist texts. In both Andrej Belyj’s Peterburg and Fedor Sologub’s Melkij bes, the symbolist penchant for the play between reality and irreality is given a racial twist in the writers’ use of “yellow face.” Another related theme is gender transformation, where the East is used as a space where European conventions of gender and sex can be subverted. But this feminization and emasculation of the East, which is pervasive enough in Orientalism in general, is completely reversed in Boris Pil’njak’s short story “Rasskaz o tom, kak sozdajutsja rasskazy” (1926), in the portrayal of a Japanese writer and his Russian wife. Pil’njak’s interweaving of themes of gender and sex with meta-literary questions is remarkable in that it highlights not only the gender/sex exchange between Russia and Japan but also the literary exchange between the two cultures. 

Pil’njak’s story yields interesting comparison to the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel Naomi (1926), where, in relation to the Japanese longing for whiteness, Russia figures as the very vision of European refinement. The paper addresses Russian artists’ awareness of Russia as simultaneously a subject and object of imaginary constructions and also examines Russia in relation to Occidentalism, a project that could be undertaken in the East only by Japan, at the time the only modernized and industrialized nation in Asia.