One Japanese American’s Lessons from Living In Japan

Recently, I finished a history monograph by a friend of mine, Jeff Bayliss, who is a professor of Japanese History.  The monograph is on discrimination of two minority groups, the burakumin and the Koreans, during the pre-War and Wartime Japan.  I enjoyed the book, and will write a more detailed review soon enough, but what I’m writing here is a perhaps context for that review.

All eight of my great-grandparents arrived in the Territory of Hawaii from late 1899 through about 1910.  For me, that decade or so marks the beginning of my family in America, and what follows is a Japanese American story.  More or less everything happens in Hawaii and California.  When I thought of Japan, I thought of a place I saw on movies and children shows, but I also saw a place that my great-grandparents came from, a place years in the past.

And because of this I felt a kind of odd separation from Japan.  Not that Japan didn’t have a place in my mind or that is was somehow completely foreign, but more like it was veiled, like a curtain separating me from the Holy-of-Holies.  Japan was not something to be reached for and Japanese-ness was not something to aspire to.  Rather, Japan and Japanese-ness were things I was rooted to in a way I couldn’t quite understand.  Again, like I was looking at something behind a veil, the image was there, but partially obscured.

I’m mixing my metaphors, but that’s okay, because it also gives you a sense of the confusion I felt growing up.  A confusion that didn’t get any clearer as I grew older, because I started to see that other Nikkei had very different ideas of Japan and Japanese-ness from me.  Going to back to the plant image, I was only one small branch, but there were thousands of others and none of us were the same.  But why was I confused by that?  It’s a strong tendency to view the “other” group as one monolithic, self-serving behemoth.  It is a defining facet of American views on race.  And growing up, like all of us, I was indoctrinated into this sort of thinking.  But groups aren’t like that.  They are individuals and it’s okay for us all to disagree on certain, and often many, points.  It’s this last part I had to get comfortable with.  Living the first half of my childhood on the Mainland US, I had different views of the world than many of my classmates in Hawaii in the second half of my childhood.  I was out of step, and I had to accept that that was okay.

But still, the problem of Japan remained.  And so I went.  For three years I lived in Japan, and I had a pretty good time.  My hope was to remove the veil.  The reality was that the Japan of my great-grandparents was long gone.  Modernization, the War, the Occupation, the bubble economy of the 80’s, and when I arrived, the long, slow recession made for a long century.  What I came away with was something very different from what I went there to find, which was “my Japan,” the Japan of my personal experience.  Not quaint, not imaginary, but a real place where I had at least a temporary niche.

In some aspects, I left Japan even farther away from my great-grandparents than when I had arrived.  But in others, I wasn’t closer, but rather, I had a better appreciation of them.  My view of home, of what I left behind gave me more common footing with the six (because two did return to Japan) that stayed, had a family, and died far from home.  Living away from America was a good thing for me, and I returned home, admiring my great-grandparents not in the vague way we make our ancestors heroic,  but a more emotional way, a more visceral, a more tangible way.

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