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A Japanese American in Japan

First and foremost, a little about myself. I’m one of those “self proclaimed” fourth-generation Japanese Americans, but as it is, I’m culturally more similar to a second. My father was born in the States, but he grew up in postwar Japan, along with a handful of siblings under the guidance of my barely-Japanese-speaking grandmother. My mother is an Issei, a naturalized Japanese-born American, who came over to the States in her twenties.

That being said, I grew up in a house of misoshiru and fish, as well as hamburgers and pizza. Three to four days a week were dedicated to Nihonshoku, Japanese cuisine, and the rest were dedicated to Ameshoku—American cuisine. The cultural ties I have to Japan are probably most strongly reflected in the insistence of my work ethic, and my cultural Americanism is probably most strongly reflected in my brash intellectual independence.

However, as closely tied as I feel to Japanese culture, after spending three and a half years in this country; enough is enough, it’s time to go home.

Let me explain.

You see, there are expectations of foreigners in Japan: to not speak Japanese well, to be socially unwieldy and overly outspoken, to possess a certain ignorance when it comes to the general Japanese population and their social customs, and even to be uncertain of something as simple as food.

These expectations are applied to me by people in direct correlation to how aware they are of my status as a foreigner. This ability to at least partially blend in exacerbates the awareness of the differences in how one is treated based on those expectations...

So, in a general kind of breakdown, there are three reigning perceptions of my background.

1. The first, and easily the most prevalent, is that I’m half Japanese, half Caucasian, colloquially known as Hapa. From a factual perspective, this is simply not true, as I have not a drop of Caucasian or any other non-Japanese stock running through my veins. And yet, even after I tell people this, they will come up with elaborate theories about how the different muscles in my face used in speaking English give me a not-so-Japanese face. (I understand that this is mostly in jest, but does this really require even a humorous explication?)

2. The second most prevalent perspective is genealogically correct, but misses a certain social understanding of what being Nikkei means to me in particular. They get that my forefathers immigrated to the States from Japan, but are amazed at my chopstick proficiency, or even my Japanese language proficiency, at how natural my speech is, or that I can read a fairly reasonable amount of kanji…to them, a foreigner is a foreigner is a foreigner, if you were born and raised somewhere else, you must not know anything about this island nation.

3. The third and last, are the people who mistake me for an actual Japanese person. The expectations for me to look over a menu in a fraction of a second, or understand the light-speed keigo (honorific language) of a telephone operator (that doesn’t believe me when I say in perfect Japanese that I’m not a native speaker), or even the blank are-you-serious-it’s-posted-right-in-front-of-you stare that the bus station attendant gave me in my early years here when I asked when the buses ran until, before I could read Japanese.

The reality of this existence is, as a concept, I am difficult to nail down; I look a certain way, talk a different way, and react yet an entirely different way than most anyone expects or anticipates. At least with a generalizable Gaijin-foreigner, those expectations hold true to some degree—but as a nearly inevitable consequence of my unfamiliarity, most conversations with people I’ve just met tend to revolve around the anomaly that is my existence.

The simple fact of the matter is, in my experience in this country, there are few people who deal with me in a respectful and courteous way. In most situations, the childlike impulse to squee at something amusing overtakes even the imperturbable Japanese psyche, and forces questions to come bubbling to the front of their minds.

Now, as it turns out, I am not the only foreign national of Japanese ancestry that I know or know of in Japan. Apparently, everyone has their own way of dealing with this gap in perception. For instance, one older lady I know makes it a point to speak Japanese with an American accent (her actual pronunciation is impeccable, but her vocabulary and brevity are lacking) in order to communicate to other people with all due haste the reality of her nationality.

Myself, I have taken the opposite route, effectively mastering the rudiments of both kanji and colloquial speech in just a few short years, steaming onward to the edge of the world, where in short conversation, if one has an expectation for the other to speak fluent Japanese, it would require a fair stretch of the imagination to even suspect that something is amiss.

In the end, though, especially after prolonged conversation, I am bound to be ousted, and then I start feeling socially obligated to present my well-rehearsed explanation for what may be the millionth time, while my onlooker gazes at me with marked interest, perhaps exploring my face for signs of Caucasian heritage.

One of the things that is, in my opinion, direly important to note, is that the full experience of what it is to be a Japanese American in Japan is impossible to transcribe in a few short pages, or even a few hundred pages. I make use of categorical reasoning to divide the perceptions people have of me into discrete, easily explainable units, but in reality, the way each person sees me is as varied as the individuals themselves. Indeed, to be bound to this categorization of the Japanese perception of foreigners would be to be guilty of the same crime as the accused.

Now, as human beings, we are guided by the teachers of both spiritual and scholastic pursuits to attempt to categorize the world in order to more easily digest information, in order to respond more appropriately to the changes in our environments. I understand this, I really do. But, I cannot, in good conscience, leave this categorical construction on the page with my watermark without adding at least a few stipulations that suggest the truth is much more complex. Indeed, when we were children, the bar for the suspension of disbelief was set much lower than it is for us now; in the emergent information age, how we interpolate new ideas and thoughts into our self-concepts is ever-becoming a more pressing concern.

I for one, feel that as a bicultural member of a monocultural society, it behooves me to spread word of my situation and existence, one Japanese person at a time, for the admittedly lofty goal of increasing the amount of multicultural tolerance in the Japanese mentality. I wouldn’t be a teacher (or academic) if I wasn’t a bit idealistic. That being said, it would be almost a grievous offence to be a bicultural member of a multicultural society and not possess the kind of understanding that I’d come to want to expect from the Japanese people I meet.

Due to this, I can say in no uncertain terms, my tenure in Japan will certainly prove to be a transformative point in my life. While the often cliched use of the expression “a learning experience” is often used to express a mistake that you can learn from, I hope that you, as the reader, can ignore that bit of literary undertone (an exercise that you will do a lot in Japan!) when I say, living in Japan has been a learning experience.

Despite the realities of misguided expectations in both directions of the multicultural divide, it is an experience that I would recommend to everyone who is looking to better understand the world, whether they have roots in this country or not.

© 2011 Mike Omoto

bicultural gaijin identity Japan japanese american language nikkei yonsei