Are racial hierarchies a thing of the past in contemporary international society? This question is worth pondering in the context of a resurgence of interest in race within the discipline of International Relations (IR). In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of post-colonial works that have taken seriously the discipline’s links with imperialism and colonial policies, or the racism that undergirds the ‘foundational knowledge’ of our theorising of international politics. This paper contributes to this debate by examining the case of the ‘Japan threat’ thesis which emerged in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Through this particular case, this paper offers the following arguments. First, because existing studies focus on actors who have been obvious racial ‘others’, they do not always capture adequately the dynamic nature by which racial boundaries are redrawn. Japan was, on the other hand, treated as part of the ‘West’ during the Cold War, but found itself cast as an outsider during this period. Examining the Japanese case allows us to understand the dynamics of this process. Second, I suggest that the ‘redrawing of the global colour line’ is a reaction to ontological insecurities emanating from predominantly ‘white states’, who have traditionally (and continue to) enjoy pre-eminence in international politics. Apart from consolidating notions of superiority and purity of predominantly White states’ identity, treating the ‘non-white rising power’ as fundamentally alien has the effect of wiping out any shared identities both sides previously possessed. This makes it potentially easier to engage in violence to re-establish the hegemony of predominantly ‘white states’.
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