In this article I examine problems with the application of the comparative method in cross-national studies of race and ethnic relations. I argue that the findings of different studies can be shaped in important ways by the way investigators specify the scope and scale of the core variable in the analysis – ‘race and ethnic relations’. Specifically, I argue that problems can arise when comparative analyses conceptualize race and ethnic relations in terms of a limited number of qualitatively distinct configurations rather than as a highly variable, multi-dimensional construct. The former approach often tempts investigators to ‘force’ cases to fit into an artificially limited set of categories. The latter approach not only admits the possibility that some dimensions of race and ethnic relations vary in qualitative ways while others vary quantitatively along a continuum, but it also entertains the possibility that these different dimensions can vary independently and do not necessarily occur in pre-determined configurations.
I argue that studies of race and ethnic relations in Japan have suffered from the problem of making a specific case fit into one of a limited number of qualitatively distinct types of ‘race and ethnic relations’. One area where this can be seen is in the common practice of analyzing ‘race and ethnic relations’ in Japan primarily in terms of ethnic stratification and minority-majority relations. This approach is better suited for the United States than it is for Japan. Thus, comparative analysis of the two systems of race and ethnic relations would be better served by recognizing that the ethnic stratification dimension of race and ethnic relations may be less central to the overall configuration of ethnic relations in Japan compared to the United States and then analyzing ethnic relations in Japan accordingly.