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Is ethnic passing finally becoming passe?

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Just about the time Bliss Broyard’s book “One Drop” came out last year, I received the latest book from my prolific friend Inuhiko Yomota, “Japan’s Marrano Literature.”

In her book, Broyard deals with “racial passing” — a detailed exploration of why her father, the late literary critic for the New York Times Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), refused to tell his children, even in the face of impending death from cancer, that he was partly black.

Yomota’s book deals with class and ethnic passing in Japan. To explain marrano (Spanish for “pig”) in the title, Yomota, ever up-to-date, begins by questioning Michel Foucault’s semiotic assessment of “Don Quixote.” It was the first modern work of Western literature, Foucault wrote, because in it “things are only what they are . . . without contents” (elles ne sont plus ce qu’elles sont . . . sans contenu).

Yomota takes a more humanistic view, as is propounded by Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, and regards the novel as “a lament over the loss of the tolerance” that had prevailed during the late Umayyad period when “Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together unperturbed.”

The impetus for this view appears to be the notion that Cervantes was a cristiano nuevo, rather than a regular Spaniard, and one textual clue appears to be Part I, Chapter IX, of “Don Quixote.” That is where Cervantes tries to “obfuscate” his authorship by saying that the novel is actually a translation of an Arabic text he came upon in a marketplace.

When he got hold of it, he hired a “Spanish-speaking Moor” who happened by to do the translation. The Moor “fell to laughing” when he opened the manuscript. Asked why, he pointed to a note in the margin and translated it: “This Dulcinea del Toboso, so often referred to, is said to have been the best hand at salting pigs of any woman in all La Mancha.”

Dulcinea del Toboso is, of course, the farm girl to whom Don Quixote has determined to dedicate his whole chivalrous being. But why did the Moor laugh? Weren’t most farmhands in Spain expected to be able to salt pigs?

He laughed because, the conjecture goes, the annotator saw at once that Dulcinea was a cristiana nueva overdoing her job to hide the fact. Those who tried to hide their Jewish identity during the Inquisition were despised as Marranos, hence “Marrano literature.” Is there something similar in Japan? Yomota’s answer is yes.

Class passing, if we may call it that, first occurred with social outcasts innocuously termed buraku people, with buraku simply meaning “village.” The phenomenon was most ably described by Toson Shimazaki (1872-1943) in “Hakai” (The Broken Commandment), his novel of 1906. In it, Shimazaki, though from a nonburaku lineage, depicted a schoolteacher who tries to conceal his buraku origin, fails, apologizes to his students for having not been more forthright, and leaves the school.

More recently, Kenji Nakagami (1946-1992) did not make his own buraku identity public until he was nearly 40, openly likening himself to someone who is “attracted to the crippled, deformed, and diseased with a wish to cure them.”

With Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, the Marrano problem came to the fore as an ethnic issue. A great many among the Koreans and people of Korean descent who moved to Japan or were born there have achieved fame in various fields in Japan even as some have tried to obfuscate or ignore their ethnic identify.

Yomota focuses on two such people: the writer Masaaki Tachihara (Gim Yungyu, 1926-1980) and the playwright-turned-movie-actor Yusaku Matsuda (Gim Wuja, 1949-1989) whose last role was that of a yakuza in Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain.” Here, let us look at Tachihara.

Tachihara, born in Korea, moved to Yokosuka when he was 11 and went on to become a popular writer who “embodied the essences of the most sophisticated elements of Japanese culture, from Japanese food, kimono, to Noh drama.” He was a connoisseur of Japanese antiques and loved to window-shop in Kamakura with a pretty kimono model, himself dressed in an elegant kimono. A gourmand who flaunted his impeccable taste, he was able to cut up fish in a classical Japanese style in a way that would dazzle any well-trained chef.

He lived “traditional Japan” so completely that, for one thing, Japanese writers of Korean descent to this day do not count Tachihara among themselves — an understandable position: Most of them grapple with their ethnicity in their writings. Not that Tachihara tried to hide his Korean roots. But when he mentioned the fact that he was born in Korea, he tended to embellish it in ethnically, historically questionable ways, a propensity that seemed to become more obvious as he became older.

Until he read a sympathetic biography of Tachihara, Yomota himself had taken a dim view of the writer as a case of “exaggerated anachronism.” After all, Yomota, a world traveler, has lived in a culture where “things fake and genuine have become so mixed up that asking for a distinction between them itself has become a delusional gesture.” But then came along the biography that showed, among other things, that during World War II Tachihara had developed such antagonism both to Japan and Korea that he “desperately wished the two countries to destroy themselves.”

More important, Yomota came upon Tachihara’s early story (1956) in which the writer’s alter ego, obviously someone of Korean descent though named Tsuda, declares, “I can be either one” — that is, leftwing or someone who has trashed the cause. “I’ll ride the wind of the moment,” Tsuda goes on. “I am one of the Japanese intellectuals. A man corrupt but capable, a man hypocritical but faithful to himself. A man who can use the powerless mass as a steppingstone at any time.”

So, we may ask, as Yomota does, what if Tachihara’s total disregard for his Korean roots and thorough remaking of himself as “a Japanese” were his way of dealing with himself? Wouldn’t that nullify talk of Marrano literature?

Bliss Broyard recollects how “thrilled” she was, how “pleased” her brother Todd was, when their mother, who had known “the secret” all along, finally broached it to them, shortly before her husband’s death. That was in 1990.

Since then the black and white racial dichotomy of the United States — “the two nations” in the sociologist Andrew Hacker’s formulation — seems to have been quickly becoming passe, as witness the popularity of Barack Obama. I’d like to imagine something similar has been happening to class and ethnic passing in Japan as well.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”