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A son echoes his father’s questions about identity in Japan

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Contributing Writer

In his 1971 song “Imagine,” John Lennon asks listeners to imagine living in a world where all mankind can live together in peace. Speaking recently before Princess Hisako at an event in Tokyo organized by the Asiatic Society of Japan, Chuk Besher asked attendees to imagine the same.

Besher had come to talk about social diversity in Japan. The nation, he says, is more diverse and multicultural than most Japanese know or would care to admit. With a little imagination, people can come to accept others who look, think and act differently.

Besher was born in Kobe in 1962 to stateless Russian refugee parents. He received Japanese nationality at birth but is Caucasian, which means everyone assumes he’s Western.

Because he looks so different, sometimes he feels excluded from Japanese society. Besher is even told by people he loves that he doesn’t fit in.

“Being born and growing up in Japan, where I am often called a gaijin (foreigner), made me want to know what is meant by ‘Nihonjin‘ (Japanese) — the group of people I am often told I don’t belong to,” he explains. “Why am I welcome to live in, but do not belong to, the people of my own country?”

Last year Besher’s 8-year-old son, Noah, approached his father. “Papa,” he asked. “What does hāfu mean?”

Noah had been called hāfu (half-Japanese) by a second-grade classmate at the local Japanese public school he attends. This was the first question he had ever asked his father about identity.

Growing up, Besher had also given much thought to his own identity and that of his countrymen. He even went to graduate school at Columbia University to study Japan and the subject of its origins. How was he to reply to Noah’s question?

From Europe to the Far East

Other than in terms of appearance, Besher is little different from other Japanese citizens. Most are naturalized from intermingled people who immigrated to Japan from the Eurasian continent.

Besher’s maternal ancestors were Huguenots who fled religious persecution, moving from France to Germany and then on to Moscow. His paternal ancestors were likely Russian landed gentry who lived somewhere along the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s border with Russia during the 17th century. Besher’s maternal grandparents immigrated to Harbin in China for work and to escape persecution in Russia around the time the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917. Each stayed, in order to avoid near-certain death.

His parents met in Harbin in the 1930s. Located in far eastern China, Harbin was mostly comprised of immigrants from the former Russian Empire. The couple married and gave birth to Besher’s two older brothers. They lived in a Russian community within the city, spoke Russian and attended Russian Orthodox Church. Besher’s parents considered themselves “white Russians in exile,” even though they held Republic of China and Manchurian passports at various times.

Four years after the end of World War II, when Mao Zedong’s new communist government forced people of European descent to leave China, the family fled Harbin as refugees, traveling on Red Cross travel documents. They took with them two small children and Besher’s grandmother, along with whatever possessions and valuables would fit into carry bags and pockets of clothing.

It took the family four years to get to Japan — moving across China to Hong Kong, crossing the sea to Australia, before finally arriving in Yokohama in 1953. The family settled in Kobe, where Besher was born 10 years later.

Early lessons in belonging

For lack of a better explanation, Besher considers himself Russo-Japanese. He grew up in a bicultural family, speaking Russian to his parents, grandmother and brothers, while speaking Japanese to his sister and nanny. Largely, he grew up just like other Japanese boys. For example, he attended a local Buddhist kindergarten and a public elementary school.

Although happy and contented, Besher never quite fit in with the other children. Mostly he was treated with kindness by his fellow countrymen. Other times he was picked on, usually by older kids.

His mother enrolled him in the local police judo class to learn self-defense, discipline and respect for self and others. The class helped settle disputes. Once, he says, he pinned down a bully, shouting, “I am not a gaijin! Do you want to be friends or do you want to die?” Wisely, the bully chose the former.

On another occasion, when he was in third grade, Besher got on a public bus in Kobe and greeted the driver in the traditional Japanese way. Astonished by the boy’s unusual appearance and behavior, the driver responded: “You speak perfect Japanese. How cute!”

A few stops later a Japanese-looking girl, probably in her teens, got on the bus and fumbled with her change. The driver, irritated as he became aware that she spoke little or no Japanese, insulted the girl. “Are you Korean, Chinese or what?” he shouted. She started to cry. Nobody on the bus said a word. Besher felt ashamed and angry.

Many Japanese become uncomfortable when they cannot accurately distinguish someone as being Japanese merely by looking at them. Besher wonders if it brings to mind questions about their own identity and ancestral roots. About one-third of the population of Kobe is of Korean or Chinese descent, he says, according to his own research on the topic.

Whenever Besher came home upset about having been called a gaijin on the street or at school, his nanny, Chiyo Hirata, would console him. She would say: “Ignore them. They don’t know what they are telling you. You are more Japanese then they are. You are even more Japanese than I am,” citing as justifications Besher’s good education and better language skills.

Hirata provided Besher with an early window into Japan’s not-so-obvious social diversity. She came from the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture. Before returning home on vacations, Hirata would often say “Kuni ni kaerimasu” (“I’m going back to my country”).

In public, Hirata would greet new acquaintances by asking them “What kuni (country) are you from?” It was the accepted way of asking where in the Japanese archipelago a person’s roots lay, says Besher. The greeting, she told him, was a vestige of pre-Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japan, when travelers referred to their home according to its han (feudal domain), with each having its own ruler, distinct culture, creeds, loyalties, language or dialect.

In the late 19th century, the Meiji state began passing laws to unify inherently diverse regional populations. To create a single state of loyal subjects, they enacted nationality laws — the same laws that, coincidentally, granted citizenship to Besher and other children born to stateless parents. Modern-day policymakers continue to describe Japan as having “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race,” as did gaffe-prone minister Taro Aso in October 2005. Such myths may be a unifying source of national pride and identity, but they are best oversimplifications. At worst they are divisive.

A mixed-up archipelago

Ironically, the Ministry of Education more accurately described the myth of Japan’s supposed mono-ethnic culture in a paper titled “The Road to Social Integration” released in 1942, while the Pacific War was raging: “The Japanese people are not monoethnic (tan’ichi minzoku). … We came to be ‘one people’ from a strong belief under the process of imperialization (sumeragi-ka). We have all been naturalized and intermingled from many peoples — indigenous, immigrants from the continent, and people from other places.”

In fact, nobody living on the archipelago is “Japanese-Japanese.” Stone age hunter-gatherers from the Eurasian continent started arriving in Japan as early as 35,000 years ago, during the last ice age. Most crossed into Japan on foot until about 20,000 years ago, when the polar ice caps melted and the sea levels rose to separate Japan from the continent. Others also likely came by boat, traveling along the chain of islands linking Taiwan, Okinawa and Kyushu. Thus, Japan is a country comprised of migrants who arrived on the archipelago through the ages from diverse origins — long before Japan was established as a modern state in 1868.

Alas, humankind may not have evolved sufficiently for people to accept this broader view. People still treat others based on how they look, speak and behave. They strive to define themselves as being part of the in-group, denying the legitimacy of other people. Political leaders continue to spin narratives that unite one group of people — with sometimes violent consequences — against other groups.

Besher closed his talk by returning to Noah’s question: “Papa, what does hāfu mean?” Noah reasoned: “You and Mama are both Japanese, right? Am I not Japanese too? Am I not furu (full)?”

After a pause, Besher responded: “When they ask ‘Are you hāfu?’ tell them, ‘Yes, you are hāfu. Everyone is hāfu, because everyone is half mama and half papa,'” he advised.

His answer gives hope to the next generation of truly global citizens. If enough people join Besher and his family, perhaps someday what Lennon could only imagine might be realized.

Richard Solomon posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net.

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Besher’s Japanese life less ordinary

Chuk Besher is the youngest of four children, separated by 15 years from youngest to eldest. When Besher was 14 years old in 1976, the family moved to San Francisco, where most of his siblings had settled. Speaking little English, Besher experienced a whole new set of challenges adapting to U.S. culture as he began attending a private junior high.

Later, he obtained a liberal arts degree at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where he studied the classics — from the Greeks through to the 20th-century thinkers in philosophy, math and science. On a Watson Fellowship, he spent two years traveling through Russia and Japan tracing both countries’ attitudes toward foreigners. Besher holds a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in East Asian studies and communication.

Today Besher works for Gree in media and advertising. His career spans politics, marketing, broadcasting and government relations. Most recently, he was in charge of Coca-Cola Japan’s communication planning for two Olympics and a FIFA World Cup, as well as public affairs and sustainability. Besher lives in Tokyo with his wife and two sons.

Ancestral ties: A long and winding road

Chuk Besher’s mother, Helen (Elena in Russian), was born in 1921 in Blagoveshchensk, a town in the Soviet Union’s far east, close to the Chinese border along the Amur River. Her father, Alexander, was a chemist associated with the Russian imperial government. Helen’s mother, Agrippina, was a nurse in Blagoveshchensk who worked at a Russian Army hospital.

Alexander fled St. Petersburg via Blagoveshchensk, married Agrippina, and then fled to Harbin with the family to escape persecution. Helen grew up and went to Russian and international schools in Harbin, where she met and married Joseph (Ioseph in Russian).

Joseph was born in Harbin in 1919. His father was a Moscow-educated engineer who worked for the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was later posted to Harbin to work on the railroad before the Russian Revolution. He remained there to avoid persecution, due to his Imperial Russian ties.

Joseph was adopted by his aunt when he was 7, after his father died. Joseph never knew his mother, only once referring to her as “some woman who showed up at his father’s funeral and caused a commotion,” according to Chuk.

After marrying Helen and graduating from college, Joseph worked as a journalist, writing about the arts. Later, he became a tradesman. He traveled to Japan in the 1930s as a journalist and on business, developing friends and an interest in the country. Joseph was determined to make Japan his new home after his family was forced to flee Harbin for their lives.