Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

'You're so Japanese': The compliment that triggered my identity crisis

by Shinab Shrestha

Contributing Writer

On April 1, it was announced that the name for the new Imperial era in Japan starting May 1 would be 令和 (Reiwa), whose official translation in English is “beautiful harmony.”

I have to say, though, I was hoping for something along the lines of 仁和 (Ninna), which lasted from 885 to 889 and translates along the lines of “humane harmony.” My reason for this would be to emphasize the “仁” idea of being kind to our neighbors, who, in the decades ahead, are less likely to fit the mold of what we’re used to thinking of as “Japanese.”

‘You’re so Japanese!’

One example of what it now means to be Japanese: Me, Shinab Shrestha, born and raised in Saitama Prefecture.

I had a great time growing up here and while I don’t remember too much of the advice my teachers at Harigaya Elementary School doled out to me back then, there was one remark that I’ve never been able to forget.

“Sugoi ne! Mō Nihonjin mitai” (“Incredible! You’re so Japanese!”), said my fourth-grade teacher during one lunch period more than 15 years ago. I can remember it clearly, the day started out like any other as I ran to school with my randoseru (leather knapsack for school) in tow and sat through a couple of hours of social studies and science. My classmates and I ate lunch in the classroom and afterward we had to clean up.

As I was lifting a table to the side of the room so we could sweep up the floor, I grunted out a “dokkoisho” to show how heavy the table was (and, how strong I was). The word “dokkoisho” is something Japanese people say when they’re exerting some kind of effort, like “heave-ho” in English. As I said it, I heard a chuckle from behind. I looked back to see my teacher watching me. She walked over, leaned down and told me I was “so Japanese” before patting my head and walking away. I was confused.

Take a whack: Shinab Shrestha learns about the Japanese tradition of mochi-tsuki — pounding rice into mochi — at his preschool.
Take a whack: Shinab Shrestha learns about the Japanese tradition of mochi-tsuki — pounding rice into mochi — at his preschool. | COURTESY OF SHINAB SHRESTHA

When I was an elementary student, I believed I was Japanese. My parents emigrated here from Nepal when they were fairly young, and I was born and raised here. I was familiar with my parents’ background at that age, but we spoke Japanese at home. So when my teacher told me I was “so Japanese,” I wasn’t sure what she meant by it. I mean, what else would I be?

On the walk home from school that day, I thought a lot about what she said. How did carrying a desk and saying “dokkoisho” make me Japanese? I thought that maybe she meant to say I was like an old man, the kind of guy in a headband and happi coat who carries a mikoshi (portable shrine) through the neighborhood during a summer festival. They’d say “dokkoisho” when they lifted the heavy shrine.

It was a compliment, I thought. She must have been praising my phenomenal work ethic and strength by comparing me to an adult. Perhaps I was what every one of her students should aspire to be … and that’s why she said I was “so Japanese” in front of them! However, despite my rationale, this compliment didn’t sit with me quite like other praise I’d received.

As I got older, I began to become more aware of my non-Japanese heritage and how I was “different” from most of my friends. I came back to that comment (“You’re so Japanese!”) and started to understand a different subtext: My teacher was pointing out that I, a non-Japanese person in her eyes, was trying to fit into Japanese society by mimicking the mannerisms.

Japanese is dependent on context and communication often requires the listener to kūki o yomu (read between the lines). When somebody tells you “you’re so Japanese,” you can receive it in a couple of different ways — good and bad. When said to someone who has just arrived in the country, it’s likely meant to be a harmless way of forging a connection. For someone who was born and grew up here, though, a comment like that can be received as a way to point out your innate difference. In a country that stresses conformity — something that I, a Japanese, valued in my youth as much as anyone else — that’s not so harmless.

My teacher was a good person and I understand that her intention was to express gratitude for my efforts. I do think back and wonder, though, if she had said, “That’s so Japanese” instead of “You’re so Japanese,” putting the focus on my efforts rather than my identity, would I have felt differently?

Getting festive: Shinab Shrestha (second from left) poses for a picture before carrying a child-size mikoshi (portable shrine) at a summer festival.
Getting festive: Shinab Shrestha (second from left) poses for a picture before carrying a child-size mikoshi (portable shrine) at a summer festival. | COURTESY OF SHINAB SHRESTHA

‘Go home’

The feeling was much different on a Friday night two years ago, when I caught the last train to get home after a night out in Tokyo. I stood in the middle of the car with my friend, trying to survive the human crush of weary workers. As the train slowly cleared out, stop after stop, I noticed a gray-haired man looking at us. He stood up slowly from the priority seats and wobbled close enough for me to tell he’d been drinking.

He stopped at a safe distance and started to grunt at my friend and I, trying to get our attention. Once we looked, he said, “Kaere, kaere” (“Go home, go home”) while waving his hand in the same manner that you’d swat at a mosquito.

I was aware of his hostility as soon as I caught him staring, though the comment caught my friend by surprise. We tried to ignore him as our station was close, but he kept staring at us and grunting. Finally, I told the guy, “I’m almost home, thank you” and laughed the whole thing off as I got off the train with my friend.

While my Japanese friend was slow to notice the guy’s aggressive behavior, I’ve learned that I need to catch this stuff early. I feel like there has been an uptick in hostility toward immigrants around the world, a message that gets amplified through social media. The result is that I’ve felt the need to be a bit more on guard when it comes to possible confrontations.

‘Yeah, I am Japanese’

One of my favorite things about living in Japan are the public celebrations, and nothing gets the public in more of a party mood than cherry blossoms. As the first blooms started to appear last month, two friends and I went down to Ueno to do some early hanami (cherry blossom viewing). We asked two Japanese women to take a picture of us in front of one of the trees.

Now, my friends and I kind of make fun of each other that’s just what our collective sense of humor is like. As we were posing for the picture, one of them blurted out, “Watch out, he’s a dangerous gaikokujin (foreigner),” which I laughed off with an awkward smile.

The woman somewhat surprisingly replied, “But he speaks Japanese fluently … so he must be Japanese, right?” My friends and I were taken aback at her response. This time I read between the lines and got the impression that the woman was having a go at my friend for trying to trick her. I felt a burst of confidence and replied, “Yeah, I am Japanese!”

To me, an interaction like this is progress. I’ve been experiencing it more and more, and I think that it comes down to the fact that people who don’t fit the traditional idea of what a “Japanese” is are interacting with their neighbors in one-on-one settings — at schools and in workplaces.

This is how my experience in Japan has been. In hindsight, the “so Japanese” comment was the first salvo in a different kind of education that taught me how to exist between being Japanese and non-Japanese. Personally, I’m fine with playing this role, I hope that I’ve been able to do my part in making this country a more benevolent one.

A broader frame of mind

If anything, I hope these stories can give Japan Times readers a peek into my experience as a Japanese of Nepalese heritage and how I have dealt with my identity in a place where identities are defined by factors I couldn’t control.

There are going to be people that will accept my Japanese identity and there are going to be people who won’t — and there are going to be people who change their mind over time. I think we’re at a point where we can be curious about each other and interested in our differences — not with the goal of creating an “other,” but with the goal of broadening the collective notion of who we already are. That means allowing people to make mistakes (my fourth-grade teacher) while making it clear that abusive behavior is unacceptable (the man on the train). If that’s how the Reiwa Era plays out, then it will be beautiful indeed.

Cool at school: Shinab Shrestha (right) poses for a picture after swimming lessons in kindergarten.
Cool at school: Shinab Shrestha (right) poses for a picture after swimming lessons in kindergarten. | COURTESY OF SHINAB SHRESTHA