When I run into and get to know mixed-race American-Japanese people in the U.S., most of the time, they mention histories of being confused about who they were, their identity. Although, let’s say out of fifty persons I knew, seven or eight of them did not tell me that they questioned their identity, about confusion, the others did. I am one who never had any questions of who I was. But I also began noticing that those who questioned their identity, were mostly born in the United States, or left Japan as a child, before they could form too many sentences. Since American-ness is a place of individuals disconnected from communities, where people must craft their intimacies and friendships and relations, it began to dawn on me that this was not a surprise.
Equally so, was that I was quite sure of who I was and never questioned who I was or what I was.
I questioned my belonging on earth, in general, due to the violences I experienced in Japan, verbal and physical, as well as what my mother and our friends (childhood friends and their parents) experienced when I was around, or whenever I overheard.
When our family left Japan for the first time, in 1962, I had already begun learning English when we moved from the Japanese towns onto Tachikawa Air Force Base in the last year we lived there. So moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico was not as traumatic as it might have been. For my mother, it was probably more of a shock, especially because she had to leave her family.
Our family moved to Hawaii years later, then back to Japan in 1968.
During this second life in Japan, I encountered certain people that made me question identity itself. These questions did not trouble me or others, but I think they have helped me to early on, consider certain ways of thinking and forming conclusions and constructing my thinking today, about difference and social change/social justice. In 1968, I was 13 years old.
I began to befriend and become a part of a group of “outsiders.” One was a caucasian. Three others were mixed white-Japanese. Another was Japanese.
What puzzled me was the make-up of their families and my own assumptions. Until then, I had not encountered the “mix” of possibilities in the postwar period, especially.
My friend Francis, who was Caucasian, lived with his brother with a Japanese mother. Since he was not mixed-Japanese, this puzzled me. I had not heard of white children being adopted by Japanese families. But where was the father? I never found out what the issues were, as my friends were not forthcoming with their histories. I’m sure, since he did not want to tell me, that there were secrets and/or shame that had to be kept. They did not live on the military base but since the brothers attended the base school, it had something to do with the military. I had to walk about 40 minutes from where I lived, at the time, on the base, to get to their house. I remember that the last few times there, after seeing the cruel relationships between the mother and the two brothers, I thought that there was a history there, a resentment, that I best not ask further about and just be their friend.
My white Japanese friends lived with Japanese families, save one, whose white-American father lived with them. The father was stationed in Japan by a civilian company contracted by the military. One of these friends lived with an adoptive family, none of them related to him. The other was a mother who had re-married to a Japanese man after falling in love with an American military man who never returned to Japan once he was shipped out. From what I know from my research for my book, his not returning could be for one of several reasons, all the way from a short fling for the American, to his commanders forbidding him to return, or who died in the Korean War, and other such reasons.
My first African-American friend is pictured in this blog-post. It was one of my favorite friendships that I remember, from my entire life, although short-lived. He was the son of one of my Dad’s friends. We were friends for about a year, before our family moved from Japan to the United States. I never saw him again. In that friendship, it was unique in that Diz did not speak Japanese, and I did not speak English. But I remember that we picked up on each other intuitively. I think that kids learn and adapt quickly.
I have not had any close African-American friends until I lived in Upstate New York in the 1980s. I think this is in contrast to many of my Black-Japanese acquaintances who are heterosexual women and men, whose primary friendships and communities have been with African-Americans.
Even later, in my late 20s and into 2010, when I was in my 50s, as I had conversations about the past with my mother and father, I began to understand more, about how single identities do not tell the larger story of people’s lives, and also about relevance. If six generations back, there were people of a completely different heritage from what we consider ourselves, the difference this makes would be more about what kind of *benefit” we want out of this knowledge, whether this would change our lives or not. Often, in a colonial mentality, then becoming more “exotic” or more “complex” or “interesting” would feed our lack of self-esteem, or perhaps help us in a career through which we could climb out of poverty, for examples out of many other reasons. My mother’s mother having been of the Wu culture in the Chinese mainland, and this Chinese mother being the daughter of an Austrian missionary and a Wu mother, makes the story into something other than merely “Japanese.” Or put it more accurately in relation to understanding our relationship to labels and identities: what is “Japanese?” What is “identity” itself, of anyone, packed with? These questions, if put to myself when I watch my mother interact with Japanese women, compared to how she interacts with Chinese mainland women, or with Taiwanese or Korean women (which are all different from each other in watching and being with her in these encounters), explains alot and gives me hope. It gives me hope in that “understanding” how identities are created *does* have a role in making things more interesting, pleasant, unworrisome (or the opposite in some cases)–but in any case, gives us food to live much less ignorantly and appreciating difference. Without knowledges like this, I might not have noticed anything of her behavior and of different cultures and histories, or might have chalked it up to “psychological” and “personal” quirks and rationalities–which is so often the case with people who do not consider or acknowledge history or cultural difference in relations.
In so many ways, I have encountered difference, being “outside.” However, I was never confused. In fact, my identity was never a question because I didn’t really believe in “identity” per se, but more of relationships and heritages, communities and what people identify with. I had encountered too much to believe that what people consider themselves, what people consider others, and their knowledge of how their labels were formed (and when and in what conditions), were actually stable, set in stone, or even real or true, except that maybe they are real but only to that person and/or community. This doesn’t mean it’s an illusion or fake. We must deal with the reality of what we come with and don’t come with. Actually, all of reality is like this. This is where *difference* must be approached differently within, and without. What most of the world does now, is not working.
For me, these become fuel for thinking into different ways of making a different world in the long future. For right now, we must address the ways in which we consider and prioritize certain things in relation to others, including our relationships to history and time itself, and to know that much of the time, it is about survival and empowerment in worlds that may seek to forget us, or to annihilate us.