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It’s not skin color, it’s every way you’re different

by Hiroaki Sato

Guido, my new friend, asks: “My girlfriend Ranko rejects the idea of raising our kids — if we had any — in Japan, saying it would be too severe for them because they’re different. What do you think?”

Guido, an African American who spent some years on the Special Forces, says he has “dealt with many very harsh conditions” and he has “a tough skin.”

I left Japan in the late 1960s and am not current with the pulse of my compatriots. So I asked four Japanese friends of mine who spent three to a dozen years in New York before going back to Japan. Here’s how they responded.

Kazuo, who worked in my office for five years before he was assigned back to Japan, thinks that, if Ranko and Guido had children and raised them in Japan, the children would be treated differently, but that would not be because they have black blood. Rather, it would be because the Japanese have some kind of “allergy to foreign people” and, in that, they are “xenophobic.”

Some Japanese may shed that particular “allergy” if they have a chance to spend some time abroad, as he did, but the overall Japanese attitude “cannot be avoided” for now, he thinks, because the country is packed with members of — here, he uses an obsolete term — “the Yellow Race.” He is sometimes surprised by this fact himself, as he was on a train that morning.

Kazuo observes that the same attitude extends to those with “foreign airs.” He recently met a friend of his who grew up in Los Angeles and spent two decades there but now works in Tokyo. His friend saw a fellow walking down a street in a cool pair of shoes, so he asked, “Where did you get them?” The fellow so addressed looked at him as if he was someone weird, and quickly walked away.

Hiroshi, who spent a dozen years in Manhattan, began by citing himself as an example. Now a manager of three companies in Tokyo, he sometimes finds himself “looking at” a mother and child because the child’s father is evidently African.

He thinks he ends up doing this despite his experience in New York, because the child is “cute,” Hiroshi wrote, but he can well imagine Japanese children won’t be that discreet, and a half-dark child would be “troubled by it.”

What to do?

“It would be nice if the parents were well-to-do enough to send their child to an outstanding private school or one of the American Schools,” Hiroshi said, “but if they aren’t, they must expect their child to suffer.”

There may be “no crude discrimination,” he added, “but I think there does exist the inclination among the Japanese to keep something unusual at arm’s length, a sad attitude of differentiation.”

My third respondent, Akiko, wrote: “Because children are cruel, I think they never failed to bully or make fun of anyone with a different face” when she was in school.

Akiko studied at New York University, spent six more years working in this city, then went back to her hometown up north, near a large U.S. air base.

“Misawa, like Okinawa and Yokosuka, is one of the few places in Japan where there are relatively many children of mixed race,” she said. “When I was a girl, both the elementary school and junior high school had several of them each year.”

Akiko wonders if children in the U.S. or any other country are very different. Still, she thinks of the son of one of her classmates, her best friend. A high school dropout, her friend married a white American soldier on the base, had a boy, and the boy used to misbehave. Sometimes he was arrested by the police.

“The boy surely must have felt the unreasonableness of it all that he couldn’t do anything about.”

As it happened, she had just read a collection of essays by some children of mixed race who are “neither cute nor cool.”

Spoiling good-looking children of mixed race, treating them as celebrities of some sort, has been part of Japan’s long-standing tradition. But those who “don’t look anything particular and speak any other language than Japanese are treated as people with questionable roots,” the contributors to the book wrote. “They don’t know where they ought to place themselves.”

“The Japanese have yearnings for Europeans, which means that, when they come across someone who doesn’t fit the idealized image, they shunt the person aside the way they wouldn’t otherwise,” Akiko concluded.

My fourth respondent, Takeshi, differs from these three friends. He is the son of a Japanese and an African. Somewhat like Barack Obama, his father left after making his mother pregnant. He grew up in Japan, came to New York several years ago, tried to make it as a performer, but went back to Japan last year.

“I do not know much about racism (assuming New York is not the U.S.),” Takeshi wrote. “But I would say that ‘racial discrimination’ may be worse or deeper-rooted in the U.S. where people of all races gather and where all sorts of problems are inevitable. I was lucky to live in New York and learn that racial discrimination occurs anywhere you go on earth.”

In contrast, “in Japan, there’s little sense of ‘racial discrimination,’ I think,” Takeshi went on to say. In fact, if the term must be used, the prejudice “may be more pronounced toward people from Asia, such as South and North Korea, and China.”

“Rather, what exists in Japanese society, it seems to me, is the common tendency among the majority to exclude people with different features and characteristics, to put a lid on them.

“I suppose that many Japanese think, ‘What we’re doing is no good,’ but because the society as a whole moves in that direction, they go along, can’t help doing so. After all, Japan is an island nation, so this will probably not change for many decades, for many centuries.”

Ever an optimistic soul — with an easy smile and pleasant chuckle — Takeshi concludes: “After all, I’m finding that it is not in the U.S., but in Japan, that I can develop my personality 200 percent.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” was published last fall.