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It’s time to turn over a new leaf in the sheaf of identities we carry with us

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Far be it from me to put soot in Santa’s chimney, but there is a pet peeve I’ve just got to get off my chest.

There’s a word a lot of people bandy about that I would like to see banned from the English language. And now the Japanese have adopted it, too! So, clearly, it’s going to take a double-whammy of a ban to expunge this scourge.

I bring this up, mind you, solely in the interests of setting a positive tone for the upcoming year and our confused century. Once this absurd word is out of the way, we all might be able to settle down and relate to each other as we are, in a manner the Japanese term hadaka no tsukiai — literally, “naked association.”

So, here it comes. The word is … “identity.” It bothers me so much that even as I type it I am barely able to look at it glaring at me from my computer screen.

It would be fine if it really existed as a concept to define what people are like; but the fact is, we just don’t have one of these, not a definable one, at least.

I have a friend who was born in Japan and whose parents are Chinese. As an adult, he took Japanese citizenship. Now, he rotates between weeks spent in India, Singapore and Tokyo. I myself was born of Jewish-American parents but am an Australian citizen living in Japan.

The notion that there is a set identity that people are born with appeals to nationalists everywhere. Some countries want to claim people by persuading them to “identify” with their “homeland.”

I almost choked on my kreplach (Jewish won ton) when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned his compatriots against marrying U.S. Jews. (So it’s all right for them to marry Australian or Armenian or Moroccan Jews, or what?)

Which brings me smack up against another word I find equally distasteful: “diaspora.”

This term has become quite trendy in recent years. Everybody and his uncle who lives away from the place where they happened to be born have suddenly found themselves in a diaspora. The word comes from the Greek meaning “dispersion.” We who have left home are, presumably, the dispersed. Well, then, the whole world is one big diaspora. If we had not dispersed, we’d all be living in Africa.

This concept is based on a very flimsy premise, namely that the place where you are born defines you.

Again this term suits those nationalists who want to claim as many adherents to their raucous causes as possible.

Israel is no more the home of the Jews than the Vatican City is the home of the Roman Catholics. And the wide variety of ethnicities-from Azeris to Tibetans to Zimbabweans-living outside the borders of the nation states they were born in may or may not call their country “home.” They write their own “identity” papers.

I said I wanted to launch the year in a positive tone, and you cannot get more positive than this: It is you who decides what and who you are, not self-serving leaders of a country at any particular point in its history.

Our world in the 21st century is going to be shaped by people who are able to identify with others from many ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, and who understand the complex ties and loyalties that motivate them. There is no negation here of the pull of ethnicity, culture and religion. On the contrary, these are among the factors that constitute the makeup of the individual. But to automatically view members of any grouping as representatives of that grouping is the thing that leads us all down the path of prejudice and violence.

Tying these complex emotional ties artificially to a stereotype of “identity” (often a misinformed and biased one), or to a notion of dispersal from some magnetic homeland may very well cause you to misunderstand the motives, urges and desires of the people you are dealing with. Their narrative does not come out of the microphone on the leader’s podium.

“Citizenship” itself derives from the word for “city.” One was a member of such a community, be it in Venice, Boston, Sendai or wherever. Only much later, well into the 19th century, did the modern nation state begin to require your loyalty as a citizen — an identification that facilitated the acquisition of imperial power.

The passport became the little document that identified you as a citizen. These were very hard to come by if you were not born in a country. They symbolized your loyalty to the causes of the nation.

The notion of nationality began to gradually change its definition. In the early 20th century, “nationality” referred to your ethnic background, that is, the “nation” you were born into. (The very word “nation” comes from the Latin word that means “born.”) The old Soviet passports had a space for “Nationality.” You were a Soviet citizen, but your nationality was Russian or Uzbek or Latvian or Jewish, or one of many others.

Now, however, nationality generally refers to your country of origin. Ask Americans what their nationality is and I am sure virtually all of them would say “American,” not “Italian” or “Japanese” — or wherever their “roots” are.

All of this has immense bearing on how we will be looking at ourselves and the people around us in the 21st century. If we want to understand people’s behavior — and our own, for that matter — we have to take a multitude of factors into account. There are so many of these, in fact, that any idea of fixed identity becomes meaningless.

We are the sum of our background, our gender, our age and, above all, our individual choices. We are not “dispersed” from some core definition of what we are meant to represent. We represent ourselves, with the full knowledge of everything that has gone into us and will continue to change us.

Which brings me to Japan and its future.

If Japanese people are to come to terms with what is happening in this country and the world, they are going to have to drop their narrow notion of what it means to be “a Japanese.” Up till now, they have not been able to make a distinction between Japanese as an ethnicity, a racial grouping (the most highly specious of all criteria), a cultural framework or a citizenship.

But what are my many friends with one Japanese parent and the other from elsewhere to do? How to make themselves understood in this country, where “if you are not one of us, you’re not really Japanese” is the primitive definition of nationality?

How are Japanese people going to have everyday contact with others who, in their own minds, inhabit a number of homelands, a variety of ethnicities, an array of cultures? This is our world circa 2012 … and there’s no going back.

These are my thoughts for this Christmas Day: We must realize that we fashion our character and personality ourselves and make our choices in life based on that individuality. Or course, we are the product of what we inherit and of what we are nurtured to be, as well.

But let no leader dictate our most vital choices to us based on an outdated notion of allegiance that comes from identity and dispersion, notions used ultimately to manipulate people to live, love and die “for some god — and country.”

The reality today is that Japan is already a multiethnic society. The Japanese people have just not recognized it. This absence of recognition, more than anything, is anchoring them to the bedrock of 19th- and 20th-century self-awareness. This is the thing that is holding them back.

Merry Christmas, everyone.