Before I started studying Japanese, I never got asked – “Do you identify as Japanese… or as American?” Now I cannot escape the question. And I’m not really sure how to answer.
Growing up I had no idea I was Japanese
When I was a kid, I am sure people guessed at my Asian background. After all, I have a shadow of Japanese-ness to my face (thanks to my mom’s Japanese American genes). But when I was a kid – before I started studying Japanese or traveling frequently to Japan – there was little hint of Japanese culture in the food I ate, the activities I did, or the way I spoke. I was raised in the United States by two English-speaking parents, who also grew up in the United States.
I did not even realize that my mom was Asian until I was well into elementary school. She was my mom, unique and special to me. I knew her face so well, that I could not judge her from an objective perspective. The day she told me she was Japanese-American, I was pretty surprised. Then followed the realization that if she was Japanese, that meant I was half-Japanese.
From that point on, I occasionally thought about being “half-Japanese” but more as a descriptive fact about myself rather than a deep part of my identity. Like – my name is Jessy, my hair is brown, my eyes are brown, and I am half-Japanese. I grew up surrounded by other mixed kids and I never felt excluded or bullied.
Then… a lot of things changed.
- I majored in Japanese in college.
- I traveled to Japan for the first time.
- I received a grant to live in Japan for 1 year.
- I began to develop certain Japanese mannerisms.
- I started to accumulate Japanese objects.
- I began dating someone from Japan.
- I traveled to Japan again… and again.. and again. (Currently the count is 10x.)
Now how can I explain myself.
By my own calculations, I have spent nearly 8% of my life in Japan. I definitely do not feel Japanese. Whenever I visit Japan, it is clear that most people see me as a foreigner. I do not have the cultural prowess or native language fluency to fully pass. At the same time, depending on my company in Japan, people notice me less. If you open my kitchen cabinets in the U.S., there are numerous bottles with Japanese ingredients. My cookbooks are mostly written in Japanese. My closet is full of clothes that I bought in Japan. I regularly speak Japanese with my boyfriend.
Even I cannot help asking myself – Jessy! Seriously are you trying to be Japanese??
Just asking these questions of identity surprise and slightly irritate me. I never pictured that I would become the kind of person who questioned my cultural identity. But increasingly, I find myself wrapped up in questions about identity and how to successfully negotiate multiple cultural backgrounds and experiences.
4 Lessons on Being “Japanese”
A couple weeks ago I attended the U.S.-Japan Council 2016 convention in Silicon Valley. The council aims to contribute to “strengthening U.S.-Japan relations by bringing together diverse leadership, engaging stakeholders and exploring issues that benefit communities, businesses and government entities on both sides of the Pacific.”
During my trip, I met two people and two companies at similar intersections between multiple countries and cultures. Here are insights from their stories.
1. Super Dry – The more the merrier!
Super Dry is a British clothing brand inspired by Japan. Their tagline is – “Japanese Inspired, British Made.” Two British guys created the brand, which is a mash up of vintage Americana, Japanese graphics, and Chinese characters. The brand name “Super Dry” comes from the Japanese beer brand Asahi.
I have long been fascinated by the brand. I am not a big fan of sports wear. But I do love the cultural medley. When I was living in Japan, I saw the brand for the first time. Based on the Japanese graphics, I thought it might be Japanese. The brand seemed to be especially popular with Asian tourists visiting Japan. Super Dry has received some criticism for its nonsensical use of Chinese characters. The name itself – Super Dry – written in four Chinese characters is understandable but slightly off. I admire the brand’s mix of styles that cheerfully ignore cultural boundaries – here is a Chinese tourist in Japan wearing a British brand riffing on American sports wear emblazoned with Japanese graphics. Sure, why not! One word I heard a lot at the USJC conference was “inclusive.” The USJC board had recently set goals for the organization to become more welcoming of diverse people from broad backgrounds. Like Super Dry – why can’t Americana play happily with Japanese design in a clothing store in Australia.
2. Blue Bottle Coffee – Admire the best from everywhere.
One of the presenters at the USJC conference was Brian Meehan from Blue Bottle Coffee, a coffee shop founded by James Friedman in 2004 in San Francisco. Blue Bottle recently opened six locations in Tokyo with another 25 locations in the U.S. According to Brian, when James founded Blue Bottle, he had no ambition to a create an internationally successful cult classic coffee house. James just wanted to make excellent coffee. Towards that goal, James was inspired by the Japanese kissaten. In Japan, kissaten are teahouses that also sell coffee and sweets. The interior is typically dark with wood paneling and the air is often thick with cigarette smoke. The menu is simple – coffee, toast, eggs. Basically, these kissaten are the opposite of the flashy, trendy Starbucks cafes taking over Japan (and the rest of the world) and pushing kissaten out of business.
Initially living in Japan, I was not a fan of kissaten. I found them shabby and outdated. Then my friend took me to one in the small mountain town where he was living. The only thing on the menu was a “breakfast set” with half a piece of toast, one boiled egg, and a cup of coffee. The shop was run by an Elfin-looking woman with a sparkle in her eye and her husband. The shop was humble and tiny with just three tables. Every time the door opened, my friend and I received a blast of negative 4 degree air from outside. But the coffee was the best I have ever had – lovingly crafted and immensely satisfying. I ordered a second breakfast just to get another cup of that coffee.
James, the founder of Blue Bottle, also recognized and respected the purity and precision of kissaten coffee. So he made Blue Bottle coffee pure and unadultered. After many years, the fame of Blue Bottle reached back to Japan, its original inspiration. Brian described visiting Tokyo and flipping through Japanese magazines in Tsutaya and finding articles about Blue Bottle. When he would visit local coffee shops wearing his “Blue Bottle” pin, baristas would point with recognition, “Blue BOTTLE!” It was like a circle of admiration – James admiring Japanese coffee culture and the Japanese baristas admiring James admiration. I felt inspired by this story of mutual respect between cultures. Every culture has good points and bad points. Wouldn’t it be great to learn about every culture and respectfully incorporate the best points from the other side.
3. Scott Fujita – Your cultural background is what you choose.
Before I went to the conference, I flipped through the program. I saw that a featured speaker was a half-Japanese-American former NFL player named Scott Fujita. Kosuke and I were excited, since (…. I don’t mean to overgeneralize here but) Japanese people are not typically built like NFL players. Then Scott Fujita got up on the stage and I was a bit surprised. It turns out that Scott Fujita was adopted by an international couple – his mom is American and his dad was born in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Scott recounted growing up in the U.S. and proudly declaring to his friends that he was half-Japanese. He strongly identified with lessons that he learned from his Japanese grandmother. I like to flatter myself by thinking that I am a pretty open-minded person. But listening to Scott’s story, I realized I still have so many assumptions about how a person develops their cultural identity. Here was person who physically did not look Japanese, who spoke little (to no Japanese), who had not lived in Japan for a long time, who biologically was not Japanese, and yet identified as Japanese. Cultural identity is even more flexible and diverse that I ever could have imagined. And that seems like a lot more fun than thinking in narrow categories and boxes.
LeClair Kobayashi – If people are confused, just change your name!
Okay this point is kind of a joke, but also kind of not. I mean, we all know “not to judge a book by its cover” and that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But let’s be honest people do have a tendency to judge others by personal details like their name. When I get my list of students at the beginning of each quarter, it is not hard to start making assumptions about my students based on nothing but a list of names. Someone once told me that my first name “Jessy” is hard to remember because it does not match my face. This person suggested that a name like “Kiyoko” might be better suited to me. At the time I was offended but now I wonder if that person had a point. At the conference, I met someone with a fully Japanese name. I will call her “Sachiko Yamamoto.” Although she had been born in Japan she lived lots of other places in the world and was now attending school in the United States. She had married an American and her last name had changed to something decidedly not Japanese, on the level of “Smith.” She said her new American last name actually made things easier when she interacted with Japanese people. As soon as they saw her name, they assumed that she was somewhat “Westernized” and was less surprised when they interacted with her. I certainly do not hope that I make unfounded assumptions about other people based on just their name. But it does make me think twice about the importance of names to identity.
Thanks for stopping by! What culture do you identify with? Why? Leave any thoughts or comments below.