Why do people think Japanese skin is yellow?

There was a fascinating discussion about this on the BBC Radio 4 sociology programme Thinking Allowed. Perhaps the most interesting thing was the story of a researcher who found convincing evidence that there was no particular yellow element to East Asian skin but ignored it because it was a racial assumption that he couldn’t change his mind about, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence behind it.

Apparently all early visitors to East Asia from Europe described the Japanese as white. The explanation for the later idea that they were yellow seems simply to be that yellow caused a nice round quartet with black, white and red.

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  1. MIKE said,

    May 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    first japanese people tend to have fair or white skin not fukn yellow n second the chinese have yellow skin.

  2. Jojo said,

    June 3, 2012 at 12:17 am

    When I first came to Japan (8 years ago) I was surprised to see that everyone was so pale. Pale as in not having reddish faces or pink cheeks. Their complexion just seemed very even to me. Now after many more visits and around 6 years living in the country with Jfriends and Jboyfriends I think I can say that caucasians have more pink and Japanese have more yellow pigments if you compare the palms of your hands or your feet.

    However I’ve met people that look whiter than me and when I tan I can look more yellow than Jfriends (I’m a typical Scandinavian blonde).

    I’d also like to add that some Japanese can really tan into a deep … purple(?) color. For you guys in Japan, please have a look at construction workers in summertime! They are not “yellow” in any way!!

  3. Russell Willmoth said,

    October 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    The Chinese and Japanese call themselves “yellow” so I think we can discount the 19th century story. In fact the 19th Century story is wrong anyway. The white tribe to which the story refers is a group in the Lana Kingdom of Thailand and Burma, not all Asians.

  4. alexcase said,

    October 20, 2013 at 2:29 am

    What 19th century story are you talking about?

    As far as I’m aware, the Japanese use of “yellow” is a direct borrowing from the West.

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