Living in Japan long enough will make anyone mental. I’m pretty sure I can convince you of this.
But let’s back up, to when I lived in the U.S. There, I dated a Taiwanese gal named Amy. She had long black hair, an incredibly tight body, and loved karaoke. She was quite good at it too, among other things. So on random Saturdays, I’d call up my buddy Steve and his buddy Warren Benter and the four of us would drink a mess of terrible Coors Light, pile into Benter’s van and head out singing. The only thing is, Amy’s name wasn’t really Amy. It was Chiaolauhu. And Steve’s was, in actuality, Esteban. And Benter’s family name originally sounded like someone with a terrible cough. When his grandfather came through Ellis Island, he shortened it by simply removing every other letter.
So this got me thinking—-why not take a Japanese name? This is the part where I prove to you I’m actually insane, because the more I think about this idea, the more I love it.
Now, the frequent lament of Westerners is “Japanese people never accept me, even though I speak perfect Japanese.” It’s understood that, unless you look “Japanese,” you’ll forever be an outsider. But how hard are you really trying to fit in when your Japanese self-introduction goes:
Hajime nanka。 Zachary McWhitey desu。Yoroshiku Onanka nanka.
See? Even if you nail the Japanese, you’re still screwing it up with your giant, white-ass name. Or black, brown, or whatever color you think your name represents. So how do you get around that? The way people have for millennia, by taking a name in line with the local culture. Because Ahmad Salib strolling through Kansas City wearing his dishdash and keffiyeh is going have dudes driving by in Hummers hurling Big Gulps and screaming that he’s a terrorist. But when he puts on a pair of boots and Wranglers and calls himself Ryan Whiteman, well, okay, same thing, but still, good effort, Ry. At least you’re trying.
Oh sure, that’s the U.S., but Japan’s different, right? I asked my coworker Ms. Tanaka about it. I like talking to her anyway, since she’s got such big eyes.
“Tanaka-san,” I said, “now, your family’s from Korea, right?
“Well, yes . . .” she replied hesitantly, as though I’d broached the subject of her criminal past.
“So your family name was originally something else then?
“Still is. With our relatives, we use the Korean name,” she said. God, she really did have great eyes.
“But in public, you’re Tanaka-san?
“Just easier, I guess.”
And that only makes sense. I mean, look at Caitlyn Jenner, right? I mean, jeez, literally. Cause now she’s got boobs and long hair and looks pretty good for a dude pushing seventy who used to huck a shot put. As radical as everything she’s done is, at least she got one thing right. She didn’t keep calling herself “Bruce.” Because that would be nuts. If you’re trying to fit in, fit in.
But You’re Not Like Us, Remember?
When I took French in high school, our teacher gave everyone a “French” name. When we were in French class, we were French. Marie, Chloe, Simon, and Luc. It gave us that identity. It’s hard to imagine the same thing in a Japanese classroom. Sure, it’s okay to speak the language, but to actually try to be, you know, one of them? Whoa, hold on there, Suzuki-san. Double-check that skin color.
So here’s my dream for the future: that when half a million foreign visitors descend upon Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics, not only will they try to use some Japanese, but they’ll actually try to fit in by using Japanese names. Chinese people do this the world over. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan—-we’ve all gotten used to it. Hell, I even knew a Japanese guy in California who went by “Bob.” His real name was something like Keiichi, but he didn’t walk around wearing a kimono and a coolie hat either. He wore shorts and flip flops, and nobody batted an eye.
If that happened in Japan—-a bunch of white, black, and brown people introducing themselves as Imada, Murakami, and Honda—-it’d blow people’s minds. And Japan’s a nation badly in need of a mind-blowing. Because really, everybody here is pretty mental. That’s how you know you’re Japanese.