Monday, 23 April 2007

Changing Japan

Japan is changing. International marriages used to be rather rare in Japan, and the only people who spoke Japanese were those who looked Japanese. But the peoples of the world are gradually coming together, and although the Japanese have traditionally been a little behind when it comes to mixing, they've been doing some catching up in the past few decades.

Back in 1980, I still remember doing a double take as I watched a traditionally dressed young couple get on a bus in Tokyo one evening. The husband was wearing a grey suit and looked every inch the conventional Japanese businessman he probably was. His wife, a few inches shorter than her husband, was wearing a gold and yellow kimono with a bright scarlet and green obi. What made me take another look was the fact that she was African.

Years later, I met another interesting international couple, of sorts.

The young woman in the baby changing area couldn't have been older than fifteen. She was Caucasian, so I assumed that she must speak English, even though the baby she was changing was obviously Asian. "How old is he?" I said in English, indicating her baby. She flushed and looked down in embarrassment. "Sumimasen, eigo ga dekinakute..." she said softly, explaining that she spoke no English. Her Japanese sounded absolutely perfect.

I stared at her. This girl looked 115% Caucasian. She had straight brown hair and brown eyes, and if I'd introduced her as my much-younger sister, no one would have batted an eye.

"I'm sorry," I said in Japanese, very embarrassed, "it's just that you look so --"

"I know," she put in. "My father was American." The term 'American' is almost exclusively used to mean 'Caucasian' in Japan. This mistaken assumption used to drive me wild, but I did not take this girl to task for it.

That one of her parents was foreign was a foregone conclusion, but I nodded. "I see. You must have a lot of people wondering why your Japanese is so good."

The girl nodded rather miserably. "I do."

"And you obviously grew up here, given how perfect your Japanese is."

She nodded again. "And foreigners are always approaching me and talking to me in English too -- asking directions, I suppose. And I feel awful because I don't know any English at all. Most of them don't know Japanese, and sometimes they won't believe me when I tell them that I don't speak English."

I nodded again, thinking to myself that I had barely believed her myself at first. "So your father didn't teach you any English?" I asked.

Again, she looked embarrassed. "I've never met my father."

Now it was my turn to look embarrassed. In fact, I felt like kicking myself for my nosiness.

"I am so sorry," I began, but the girl shook her head. "Not at all, really." She smiled and held up the freshly changed baby. "This is Tatsuya, my little brother.

I nodded and smiled, profoundly relieved to know that this girl, whose life must be hard enough given her situation, wasn't the mother of a nine-month old baby too.

Later I thought about this girl. She was one of a small group to be sure, but over the time I lived in Japan I met at least a dozen people whose native language was Japanese, but who didn't look the slightest bit Asian. My own kids had a tough enough time in Japan as it was, even though they were bilingual; I can't imagine what life was like for this girl. Like my kids, she was probably fine in her own neighborhood, where everyone knew who she was and that she could speak and understand Japanese. But when this girl left the area where she was known, she'd get cat-called and openly discussed. And that must have been unpleasant for her, understanding every single word that was said, as she did.

My Japanese-American friends living in Japan had the opposite problem.

"It's so annoying!" said my friend Karen. "I ask for directions in my best Japanese and they motor-mouth their reply. Or they write the directions out in Japanese, which is no use to me at all." I wanted to sympathize, but since it always took me a good five minutes to convince Japanese people that I could read instructions written in Japanese, I felt a little envious of her. Another Japanese-American friend of mine used to go out with her Japanese-speaking Caucasian husband and claimed that she felt like a ventriloquist's dummy. "They look at me while he's talking! They ask me questions and he answers, but they never seem to figure it out. I just stand there while they talk over my head. I have to wait for him to translate what they say. It's just so weird."

It really is pretty weird, I suppose, when someone who looks like an Iowa farm girl speaks perfect Japanese and a girl who looks like she ought to be able to speak Japanese, can't. But the world is becoming so international that stories like this are becoming commonplace. And slowly but surely, even Japan is changing.


Brian said...

I fear that though it is declining now , there is still a lot of intense dislike for Japan and the Japanese among some of our community.

A neighbour ( ex-serviceman ) at our Bay place would not buy anything that could be remotely attributed to Japanese manufacture , Memories of the Burma railway and torture and death marches were strong .

On the other hand , tourism has brought a softening of attitude , and it is interesting to see Japanese couples celebrating their weddings here . And they just adore koalas !


Mary Witzl said...

As a lot of people more knowledgable about history than I have pointed out, the Japanese involvement in WWII was given a quick air-brushing after the war when it was noted that the emperor hated communism as much as the U.S. Japan was the perfect Cold War ally. Never mind the fact that we had just firebombed their major cities to ruins, forget all that business about the massacres in China and other Asian countries, and forget the Bataan Death March. And the Burma Railway? Did that even happen? I have heard POWs of the Japanese, many starved to half their body weight and riddled with disease, being forced to sign papers stating that they would not speak of what had happened to them to the people back home. And it wasn't the Japanese who were forcing them to do this, but the American military. Many good opportunities for closure were lost in the scramble to secure Japan as a Cold War ally. The fact that many Japanese people continue to live in denial can be traced to this immediate post-war whitewashing.

But that was then, this is now. The young people of Japan are as ignorant of all that as I was when I first started studying Japanese.
Up until quite recently, elementary school teachers could get into trouble for teaching about Japanese aggression in WWII. The whole issue of the comfort women, unit 731, and all the excesses of the Imperial Japanese Army were whisked under the carpet, and though a few brave souls have tried to educate the general public, they have had to combat decades of ignorance and denial.

With such an attitude prevailing, I can understand why your neighbor is reluctant to buy Japanese products and still nurtures grievances. It is hard enough forgiving when someone has admitted doing wrong; imagine having to forgive when your enemy has failed to apologize.

A Japanese boy I knew went to study in Australia for six months. On one occasion, he ordered a beer in a pub there and when some older men asked him if he was Chinese, he innocently said 'No, I'm Japanese.' The poor lad ended up getting his beer thrown in his face, and when trying to find out why those men had taken such exception to his nationality, he got the education he should have had in school, about the hellships, the Burma railway, POW camps, etc. I am happy to say that this particular boy ended up marrying an Australian woman and settling down somewhere in Sydney, so there was at least a happy ending to that story.

avocadoinparadise said...

That's so interesting! I just started dating an asian guy, as a typical american girl, and feel all kinds of unexpected judgement. It's like other americans don't like it. And it's making me want to do it more.

Brian said...

Points well made and well taken , Mary .
Any comments from me would apply to the whole futility of war -- and I have always known that atrocities are committed by both sides . I have heard some horrifying tales from returned servicemen -- some boasting of their vicious deeds .
The area I live in is becoming dominated by Asians of many nationalities-- and it worries me not a jot. They are generally welcome.
The economics of it all are tricky in Australia though.


Mary Witzl said...

Avocadoinparadise -- Welcome to my blog. I like your cat, and your name. My father used to grow avocadoes, and I have spent many a long, hot afternoon with a pith helmet and a picking pole, dodging falling avocadoes as I collected them in the pocket of a huge apron.

I was an equal-opportunity dater and single for quite some time; I think I've probably covered just about every race and quite a few nationalities. Still, I would tell you to date men for their personalities and not for their nationality or ethnicity. That said, it is amazing how many people react to the sight of a Caucasian woman and a man of an obviously different race -- Asian or otherwise. The other way around doesn't bother people quite so much. In Miami, Florida, I once saw a perfectly respectable-looking elderly Caucasian man spit on a white woman walking down the street with a black man.

Brian -- I've met so many young Australians who knew as little about what happened during the war as I did, even though their fathers were involved in it. One Australian WWII veteran told me that he never tried to prejudice his children against the Japanese, that he kept his negative feelings to himself, reasoning that the young people had nothing to do with the war. I think he was right not to pass on his grievance, but I still believe that the young should know what happened during the war. Japan would do well to follow Germany's example.

One thing I find interesting was that towards the end of the war, Australian soldiers almost hated General MacArthur and his men than they did the Japanese -- with very good reason, as it turns out. I have heard that Australian soldiers got most of the grunt work, particularly when it was dangerous, and a lot less of the glory. MacArthur not only pardoned a number of Japanese war criminals who should have spent the rest of their lives behind bars, he actually worked and fraternized with them, and because of that there are many Chinese, among others, who do not view him as a hero, to say the very least.

Eryl Shields said...

Japanese culture sounds so fascinating. I've never been to Japan and before discovering your blog my only experience - if it can be called that - of the way of life there was sushi bars, Madame Butterfly and the film Lost in Translation.

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Eryl. Japan really is a fascinating country, and you should go there if you ever get a chance. Sushi bars and Puccini are great, (I can't say that I loved 'Lost in Translation' personally) but none of those will give you a good idea of Japan, unfortunately.

Last year there was a Japanese cultural day in Edinburgh, in early May. I went my with eldest daughter and we had a blast. I'll let you know if anything like that comes up again.

Eryl Shields said...

Please do let me know, it sounds great.

I have a mental list of places I'd like to visit and Japan is pretty near the top. The time and the money are all I'm waiting for.

Wonderwood said...

Hi Mary! Thanks for dropping by my blog. I really enjoyed that post. Interesting stories well told. The story of the caucasian girl gave me a new perspective to consider. I look forward to dropping by often.

Kim Ayres said...

You know there's something going on when the comments are longer than the post!

Don't think I can add much here, but I enjoyed the post (and comments)

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Kim.

When I write about Japan's wartime past I worry that people might take a look at what I have written and assume that I have a grudge against the Japanese. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Because I lived in Japan for 17 years, I actually feel as though I am partly Japanese. I'm not under any illusions about ever fitting in; I know I look like a foreigner and seem like one, too, to most Japanese people, but after you spend a certain amount of time in a country, you begin to feel a part of it -- even if you do happen to stand out in every possible way. And given that situation, I feel as though I have a right to criticize things that I don't much like about Japan just as I have a right to criticize things that I don't like about my own country of origin, as I frequently do.

I believe that the U.S. cover-up of Japan's wartime atrocities was a war crime in its own right. Too many young Japanese people are blissfully unaware of their country's past history of aggression thanks to this cover-up and Japan's subsequent post-war policy of omitting this from the history curriculum. You could say the same about the young people in America too, but we are a little better informed than the youth of Japan about our own country's misdeeds. I know that plenty of Japanese people would agree with me on this point; they are the ones who told me about all of this in the first place.

One of my heroes is a man named Saburo Ienaga (1913-2002) who campaigned relentlessly for textbook reform in Japan, but perhaps I will save him for another blog!