Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Germany
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This paper examines how, during the Cold War, transpacific scientific research on Japanese and Korean women divers (J: ama; K: haenyeo) was formed in close dialogue with popular visual representations of Asian women circulating in the West. After the Italian ethnologist Fosco Maraini published a photographic collection of the female divers in Ishikawa, Japan, the naked bodies of these women quickly caught the attention of white male viewers in the capitalist world. The erotic imagery of the divers was soon adopted in making a 007 film and they also appeared as the first Asian model for the American magazine, Playboy. Around the same time, the prominent physiologist Herman Rahn at University at Buffalo began his physiological research on the divers. These women’s adaptability to cold sea environments and its applicability to naval training and aerospace medicine were his “scientific” contributions. Enjoying the support of the U.S. Navy and Air force, Rhan mobilized his former South Korean and Japanese students, both of whom had returned to their native countries as local collaborators and conducted fieldwork from 1964. The paper will reveal how gendered and racialized views of Asian womanhood defined Rhan’s encounter with his research subjects, following Maraini and the gaze of popular film: the white male scientist searched for the hidden truth of primitive Asian women in their naked bodies to advance his scientific enterprise. This gendered orientalist perspective not only influenced Rhan’s practices of knowledge production, but also related forms of gender and race identification of his local collaborators.