The first time I had a white kid in my English class, I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was floating among a sea of Asian faces in our sweaty, countryside classroom. I rattled my head and gazed briefly out the window. Steam was rising from the mountains in the distance, and in the foreground a line of wild monkeys dashed across the schoolyard, heading for the pool. Japan’s a weird place. I looked back at Keita, with his curly blonde hair, struggling to pronounce the U.S. states.
“Flolida,” he said.
“Florida,” I repeated, like Please tell me you’re joking.
“Folida?” he said earnestly, his little eyes welling with tears.
“Can you say ‘Miami’?
“Perfect. From now on, just say that.”
The first time I had a black kid in class, it was pretty much the same thing. I stared like I’d never seen a black person before.
“What sport?” I asked intently, holding up a picture card.
“Almost. Table tennis. How ‘bout this?
“Pool!” he said with confidence.
“Well, swimming, but, uh, nice effort.”
Yet since then, I’ve had dozens of white, black, brown, and miscellaneous Asian students, who were all Japanese. And over the years, it brought me to a stunningly obvious conclusion:
“Japanese” is a nationality, not a race or ethnicity.
This is the “Who’s gay?” of the new millennium, a secret seemingly too terrible to utter, and one the world’s not ready to hear. Can’t we just stay in that simpler time, when being Japanese meant, you know, looking Japaneeese? You know what I mean, like Bruce Lee and David Carradine.
Turning Japanese? Not quite
So I was at this izakaya in Hiroshima with Hiroshima girlfriend. She’s the one from Hiroshima, in case that’s not clear. And we were sitting at the counter having ice cold sake and fiery hot agedashi tofu which, aside from immediately sticking to the roof of your mouth and scorching it with blistering pain, is pretty tasty. Anyway, next to us were three very approachable college girls from Gunma prefecture, so naturally we started talking with them. Okay, naturally I started talking with them, whatever. Then after a few minutes where the five us conversed in Japanese between bites of chicken skewers and grilled mountain yam, I heard a familiar refrain:
“Wow, your Japanese is so good.
I sighed. I hear this all day, every day. And just as I was about to grimace through the awkwardness and offer a “Gee, thanks,” Hiroshima girlfriend said, “You mean me?”
I looked up, chicken skewer hanging out of my mouth. They weren’t looking at me, but her.
“Yeah,” they said, “you sound almost like a Japanese.
“I am Japanese,” she said indignantly.
With long, jet-black hair and almond-shaped eyes, you’d be hard-pressed to find an individual more “Japanese”-looking than Hiroshima girlfriend. The Gunma girls just laughed. ”Oh,” they said. That’s what passes for a Japanese apology.
I’ve seen this on several occasions. The first time was when an old man in front of me at the 100-yen shop turned to the cashier and said, apropos of absolutely nothing, “Your Japanese is so good.”
“I am Japanese,” the cashier replied. I looked at him. Old Japanese guy. Then at her, young Japanese gal.
“Ooh, that’s very good,” he continued, and my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing—-two Japanese people having an argument about who’s really Japanese.
“I am Japanese!” she said.
Japan’s Most Empty Phrase
“Your Japanese is so good” echoes through the valleys of the nation thousands of times each day, and it doesn’t seem much of a compliment. Rather, it reflects the pair of deep-seated beliefs all Japanese people are born with: one Truth and one Fear.
The Truth is that there’s such a thing as the “pure” Japanese person. Japanese folks love this notion, and cling to it with a tenaciousness that would make the Aryan Nations cringe. The Fear is simply the flip-side—-that they might not be one of them.
Everyone runs around constantly assessing how “Japanese” everybody else is, because they clearly don’t look alike. Certainly no more than, say, white Americans do. Maybe Japanese folks think all white people look the same, I don’t know. Okay, actually I do, but I’m gonna let it go. At any rate, white people certainly know they aren’t all the same. Some families came from Italy, others from Poland, or Switzerland, Ireland, Israel, Greece, wherever. Get over it. For Japanese people, it’s no different. After a while, you can see it too, faces that reflect heritage: Filipino, Mongolian, Korean, Portuguese, Brazilian, Russian. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Sorry, did I say that twenty years too soon? Apparently. Sure, in the U.S., it’s no longer publicly acceptable to say that “American” is a race or ethnicity. That just sounds, well, racist. But it’s fine to call a person “Japanese.” Hey, nothing wrong with that. Everyone knows “Japanese” means one homogeneous race living on, uh, six thousand different islands.
Draw the Map. Great, Now Draw it Again
Did you know Guam’s part of the U.S.? Japanese people do. I asked Yamanashi girlfriend if she’d ever been to the U.S. She’s the one from Yamanashi, just to be clear. And she said, “Sure, I went to Guam last year.” I had to Wikipedia it. Freaking true. Anybody can be American, for real.
But then who else might be “Japanese”? Taiwanese people? Well, they were in the past, but now they’re not. North and South Koreans? Okay, they were Japanese too, and then they weren’t, like magic. Chinese? Japanese. Then not again, presto. Okinawans? Not Japanese. Then were, then weren’t. Now are. So it’s all pretty clear, is what we can conclude.
Dealing with Gaijin
Look, I get it. It’s not easy dealing with “you people.” Whenever I meet a white person, I don’t know what to do either. Should I shake hands? Speak Japanese? What if I’m asked a question in English? The whole thing’s terrifying, to be honest.
There’s a white guy who works at my local convenience store, and we don’t know what the hell to do with each other. I laid out a six-pack of beer, two hard-boiled eggs, and a seafood salad on the counter. Welcome to Ken Seeroi’s balanced lunch. He looked at me, then at the balanced lunch. I looked back, like What? We didn’t say anything. Then he rang me up in Japanese, and asked if he should put the beer in a separate bag. Oh, his Japanese was very good. I wanted to say that. But instead I just mumbled No in Japanese, then took my stuff and ran out. I try to go when he’s not working.
Japanese Secret or Secret Japanese?
Over the years, one after another, Japanese people have approached me privately to confess, as though a “foreign” person were the only one with whom they could share their shameful truth:
“My mother’s British.
“My great-grandmother came from Korea.
“They say my grandfather was an American soldier.
“I have Russian blood.
“My family’s from the Philippines.
“I was born in Germany.”
One thing’s for sure: Japanese folks are terrified of revealing their backgrounds. It is something to be ashamed of. If you look overly un-“Japanese,” then you’re labeled a “half.” Otherwise, you keep your mouth shut. But the fact is, nobody has any idea how mixed or pure anybody is, since the government census doesn’t track race. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a been lot of mixing, and even more covering it up. But if there’s no way to tell who’s absolutely “Japanese,” then at least there are convenient methods to establish who’s relatively more Japanese: false hospitality and backhanded compliments.
Welcome to Japan
So I found myself at a yatai in Fukuoka last weekend, sitting on a wobbly stool and trying not to let my new purple shirt come in contact with anything greasy. They have really good gyoza, filled with cod roe. Quite crispy and delicious. The guy who runs the stand is from Korea, although you might assume he’s Japanese. The customers too. Because everyone’s Asian, although most were from China, a few from Korea, and one couple from Japan. I sat down and ordered the gyoza and a bowl of ramen, extra onions. Hey, I’m on vacation; I don’t care how my breath smells. And out of all those people, I’m the only one whose order was met with,
“Wow, your Japanese is so good.”
And this coming from the Korean guy. Everyone turned and stared at me. Damn, I wish I’d said it first. But, beaten to the punch, I simply replied,
“Plus one bottle of Asahi.”
And everybody laughed. Oh, such friendly people, those Japanese. Honestly, I don’t know how I’d survive in this country if the snacks and booze weren’t so amazing. Anyway, I’m just glad fall is finally coming to Japan. The days are getting shorter, the north wind a bit colder, and the leaves turning a lovely red and gold, perfectly complementing my ramen-stained shirt. God knows we’re well overdue for a change of seasons.