Friday, April 13, 2007

Japan (This is going to get heavy.)

I've been sort of depressed recently, and this kind of all came to a head yesterday, when I ran into a student of mine and her younger brother, who's maybe 5 or 6. And he said "Didn't the Japanese attack the Chinese?"

It demonstrated with a problem I've been wrestling with for a long time. That would be my relationship to the motherland. How do I relate to a land that my family rejected, but we're still marked by, and a legacy which involves, as highlights, ethnic cleansing, imperialism, rape, mass murder, and wartime atrocities on a large scale?

I guess I'll start at the beginning and when I come to the end I'll stop. I remember as a kid, watching the Olympics. I was cheering for the Japanese, I mean they looked like me right? And my mom said, "You're not Japanese, you're American." It was set out for me pretty early on that there was a distinction, a separation between my family and our place of origin.

That of course would be World War 2, and my family's internment. The experience divided us, between those who had been interned and those who had not. It was portrayed to me as a difference between Japanese and American. The passive Asian people who went behind barbed wire without a struggle, and their righteous American children who made redress possible for them later. I only see now that this is quite racist against ourselves. But I digress, I was clearly marked, as American.

And there were the little things too, switching from saying "Banzai" at weddings to saying "Kampai" because Banzai recalled the kamikaze pilots in World War 2. And this was told to me in the 90s. But I kind of figured this was all over. My grandfathers had paid their dues by fighting against their cousins in World War 2. Showing America that we were American (yeah right).

However, when I was in middle school, I used to get a lot of Korean kids telling me they hated me, because I was Japanese. Once I found out why, I never really knew what to say. I couldn't deny that they had a very legitimate reason to be angry. And I still feel vaguely responsible, especially as Japan continues to deny that it has done. However I often also feel quite resentful, how many times has my family taken the fall for Japan? How many more times will we continue to take the fall for Japan? And what was the mother country done for us anyway?

It's weird to be the collateral descendant of the Japanese empire, with its host of war crimes. Should I feel guilty? I don't really benefit from Japanese imperialism. Arguably, I have in fact been disadvantaged by it. However I certainly look Japanese (I've also been told I look Chinese, by Chinese people, whatever), I've probably benefited in some ways. (Ok in concrete ways, the history geek in me will point out that due to the superior political position of the Japanese government they did enact the Gentlemen's Agreement which banned Japanese men from immigrating to America, but managed to keep a loophole open which allowed Japanese women to continue to immigrate, allowing the Japanese American population to grow significantly in comparison to Chinese, and Filipino populations of around the same time, whose countries had no such bargaining power with the US. Thank you Ronald Takaki.) However, at the same time, y'know, my grandparents did not kill those people, my grandparents' cousins killed those people. So where does that leave me?

What exactly is the right thing to do here?


exangelena said...

I hate to wade into the evil Japan controversy, but I think it is very unfair and simply racist to blame a Japanese-American for what imperial Japan did in the early 20th century. I don't think you can compare it to, say, nonwhite anger at whites in America, because whites have benefited from racism and white supremacy. Japanese-Americans did not benefit in any way from the atrocities committed by Japan during the war. Although it doesn't excuse racism, I think it is legitimate for anyone of any ethnicity to be angry at Japanese people who are in willful denial about their country's ugly history. It should be noted, however, that many Japanese people are not like that and even the emperor is fairly pro-Korean.
In my experience, Taiwanese people are generally more anti-PRC than anti-Japan - one of my Taiwanese friends even expressed shock that people didn't like Japan.

mark said...

Your posts on the/your issue of identity are deeply interesting. "The/your" - identity is both objective and subjective. You have a thorough knowledge of the objective history of the Japanese in America and how that shapes the Japanese-American experience, but this is simutaneously your own subjective experience. It's so complex, right at the heart of how identity works. Thanks for sharing.

lovelesscynic said...

Hey, thanks! I'm glad you liked it. Actually by the time I got off work, I kind of regretted posting it. But now my morning self has been vindicated.

The overlapping boundaries of personal and political is why Asian American studies will always be my first love. Even if I'm deeply committed to Chinese studies.

disreputable bird said...

It's pretty ignorant to blame or hate people for something they weren't even around to do. But then again, some people don't believe you can be Asian American unless one of your parents is white.

Conflicting loyalties caused a lot of pain for Nisei during WW2, and some even were angry at Japan because its actions were having a bad effect on their lives. Of course the connection was much closer for them.

A few years back someone asked me if I'd ever been to Japan, and when I said I hadn't, she told me that I really should go because I'd have the wonderful experience of homecoming. She was probably the 100th person to say something like that, or tell me I really should learn to speak Japanese or learn more about my beautiful culture, so I couldn't do the usual smile and nod. Instead I told her (without yelling) that if I were to find myself in Japan today, I'd probably feel out of place, since I don't speak the language and know nothing about its modern culture. I think she was surprised.

I'd like to go there someday, and it would be personally meaningful to me to visit the places where my grandparents lived and just soak up the sights and get a sense of the country, but I don't think I'd feel like I was going home. At the same time I don't always feel like I belong here either, especially when people compliment me on my English or assume I’m hesitating not because I’m trying to make up my mind but because I can't understand what they’re saying.

So what's left? Being in each space at different times and belonging exclusively in neither? Maybe this would be how others see us. I see myself as a person who lives in the American space and can also access - along the thread of family history - glimpses, experiences, stories, and traditions from another space, the Meiji era Japan of my farming grandparents, which exists only in that family history. I take it as a plus. There’s not much I can do about the ridiculous conclusions of other people, Asian and non-Asian, except offer my viewpoint, if I feel like it. (Btw, I liked what Nien said about the Mind of Mencia guy who complained that when he asked Asians up here where they were from, they all said “Bellevue.” I’m thinking of adopting that answer myself.)

nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez said...

this is fascinating. i often feel like this living here in america. ashamed of war and military might, imperialism, and the loathing of so many others. it is what makes me want to leave this land. which is my plan.

and this:

I remember as a kid, watching the Olympics. I was cheering for the Japanese, I mean they looked like me right? And my mom said, "You're not Japanese, you're American."

wow. that must have been something as a kid. i'm just trying to imagine.

on the other hand, sometimes i burn with anger and frustration to watch america strongarm and exploit Mexico. right here in front of me. while i benefit, as an american, from that exploitation. it really is hard at moments.

your whole post is really thought provoking. i loved reading it. thank you.

lovelesscynic said...

It's kind of weird as a person of color, I'm used to thinking of myself as oppressed in America in relation to the White Man. (And I am.) But then when I became aware of the history of my mother country, it became pretty clear that in fact, the motherland was another oppressive empire. At which point I thought something eloquent like "Well, fuck. Now what do I do?" Obviously my thoughts have evolved since then. But it's still kind of hard to figure out where I stand in relation to Japan. But it just doesn't feel right to root for them.

lovelesscynic said...

Aargh, sometimes things click in your head right after you hit the publish your comment button.

As an American (well by birth, not necessarily at heart) who hates America and currently lives abroad, I have to say, it's definitely brought into focus for me quite clearly both areas of my ideas where I am quite American, and also many part of my identity where I am not American.

If that's your plan, more power to you. My own experience has been a pretty personally instructive one.

exangelena said...

I doubt there's a nation in the world that hasn't done something horrible in its history.

disreputable bird said...

I always liked this Margaret Cho title: I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. My sentiments exactly.

nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez said...

yeah...exangelena. that's the problem with "nations." most have. then again, some are more often conquered and some are more often conquerors. mexico has a long history of being invaded and conquered by Europe nations. now, the USA has its CIA ops down there and its hands in the money, and basically manipulates the hell out of poor mexico.

and loveless, that is exactly what i'm talking of the big reasons i want to go. and i hear you about those nexuses of power and oppression. i feel like that...being of color in america, and yet male.

as you say...evolving...

disreputable bird said...

Great post, L. Cynic, and it's spun off a lot of conversations here.

One thing I've been thinking about is the difference between hating and feeling ashamed, because I've never been more ashamed of and angry at my country in my life, or at least my voting-age life, but I don't hate it. And the more I read, the more I find out about other appalling things we've done in the past, many times without the knowledge, let alone the informed consent, of the governed (Chalmers Johnson's famous term "blowback" comes to mind), and I get angrier and more ashamed. Maybe it's the difference between feeling a part of it and feeling separate from it? And seeing the big picture of our foreign policy history does make me wonder if we'll ever be able to change our way of operating in the world. Sometimes it seems overwhelming, and then I feel ashamed, angry, and depressed. Oh well.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking discussion.

disreputable bird said...

Oops, the CIA's term "blowback." Johnson used it for the title of his book.

little light said...


I remember wrestling hard with this when I learned about Spanish history, about the conquistadores, and about what that meant, running through my veins. And all of the complicated mess that comes of mestiza identity and being raised 'American' but with something else in there, and, and.

And then there's my own family history, which includes some pretty horrific incidents from the Japanese occupation of the Philippines early last century. I had at least a couple of relatives in the Bataan Death March. I have folk on that side of the family who refuse to stop using a certain familiar anti-Japanese slur. It's...a lot to process.

Thanks for this. I'm'a go mull it over some more.

lovelesscynic said...

Y'know, your comment reminded me of when my mom used to tell me about how my grandpa used to watch those horrible WWII movies over and over. She remembers in particular the one about the Bataan Death March.

My JA veteran grandfather watching racist WWII movies. Maybe to remember what he had been through over there. I don't think anyone knows why. I don't know what else would better epitomize the pretzel-like nature of our identity