First of all, I want to start by wishing all Black Eye readers a happy new year. Thank you for your ongoing support of me and my “little column that could.” One of my favorite things about writing it is that I’ve had the chance to interact with so many types of people, and I appreciate every one of you.
In fact, the other day I connected with one such Japanese acquaintance regarding the kind of topics that I cover. The email, which I’ll include a written snippet of here with the author’s permission, read:
“At a networking party in 2019 the following occurred: One of the attendees, a Japanese man, asked a woman, ‘Are you a hāfu?’ The woman responded by explaining her background, that she was indeed a hāfu. Another attendee, a young woman, said, ‘Being hāfu is so cool! I envy you!’
We persuaded the two that asking someone you just met for the first time, ‘Are you a hāfu,’ is unsuitable. And that the myth ‘being hāfu is cool’ sometimes bothers biracial people. According to the information I’ve read, some people commit suicide due to the image of hāfu. And comments like, ‘hāfu are beautiful’ — or ‘cool’ or ‘multilingual’ or ‘not Japanese’ — has driven some of them to such a sad end.”
I was struck by this email for several reasons. Foremost among them was that I remain impressed that these types of thoughtful conversations are being held at all. I’m also overjoyed that in a country where Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso just last week described Japan as a “single race” nation, members of that so-called single race are making the time and effort to consider the experiences and feelings of its multiracial and non-Japanese citizens and residents, specifically the negative impact seemingly innocuous words and deeds might have on them. You have to admit, that’s pretty progressive.
The author of the email, Yuri Kombu, also mentioned that part of the reason she has begun to question the insensitivity of some of the behaviors considered normal here in Japan — such as asking strangers about their pedigree and, upon learning that it is mixed, attributing certain characteristics to their racial makeup — was due to her attendance at a talk I gave on the matter last year.
In that talk, which was about diversity in Japan and how we might benefit from fully embracing it rather than continuing the narrative of homogeneity, I emphasized that certain fundamentals needed to be addressed before real progress could be achieved.
One of those fundamentals is Japanese society’s current focus on how different non-Japanese and biracial Japanese are from what is seen as the majority of the population. I suggest that the nation shift its focus from our differences — which will forever foment an “Us vs. Them” mentality — to our similarities, which may illuminate our common humanity and potentially bring us closer together.
The truth is, however, as humans we have been trained to “other” over centuries. But, while certain cultures might differ in how they do it, people are people and that fact needs to be acknowledged if we are going to find the elusive solution to a problem that has plagued humanity for pretty much all of history. We have been indoctrinated — in most cases by our parents, teachers, media, language and, in some cases, particularly influential figures such as we see with Aso and U.S. President Donald Trump today — into thinking that a particular group is “different” or “special” based on superficial criteria. I suspect it serves some easily manipulatable psychological need that each of us possesses to be distinguishable either individually or as a group. But, whatever the impetus, the resulting focus on difference rather than what we have in common inevitably results in the kinds of discrimination that a lot of us are desperately trying to eradicate.
I believe what occurred at Ms. Kombu’s networking party was a part of the solution, the seeds of recognizing how embedded the focus on difference is in our language. Questioning our language is tantamount to challenging the ideas and beliefs that reside in our hearts and minds, and nothing could be more critical than this process. If we take for granted that the words we’ve been taught are what’s best, we’re doomed. When we question the words and the beliefs embedded in them, we can soon see that in most cases they’re artificial, intentionally discriminating and often toxic.
Some call this desire to disinfect our language “political correctness” or even “thought policing,” but I just see it as taking others’ feelings into consideration. Besides, our hearts, minds and words could use a bit of detoxification. A good number of the words in our vocabulary — English, Japanese or any language — were likely coined by racists, supremacists, misogynists and other (at least nowadays) insufferable minds. Any effort to sanctify or rationalize these words, whether out of an adherence to tradition or a belief that they’re only as harmful as we allow them to be (and that complaining about them is a result of either censorship or being overly sensitive), is tacitly embracing the disturbing ideas that were critical to their creation.
I might be biased because I’m a writer, but I believe words are powerful. They’re a panacea in some hands and a lightning rod in others. They can lift us up or break us down, make no mistake about that. Japan is a country where over 2 percent of its total 126 million people are non-Japanese — not to mention those multiracial people who are born to a reported 3 percent of international marriages, or who belong to a minority such as the Ainu. For Aso, the second in command, to use his words to describe a rapidly diversifying country as a “single race” nation … I’m sorry, but that’s a toxicity we don’t need.
Shifting the focus from differences to similarities is no easy task. Recognition of the power of language isn’t enough, there needs to be an effort toward genuine empathy for the targets of this foul foolishness — and I mean empathy, not to be confused with sympathy.
Part of the process of embracing diversity is making the effort to see aspects of yourself in every person you encounter regardless of how different their packaging may appear. For example, I feel that I can empathize with the multiracial person at Ms. Kombu’s party because I, too, have been the target of positive stereotyping both here and back when I was living in the United States.
Most Japanese people living in Japan, however, have not and, short of living abroad, will not be on the receiving end of positive stereotyping or old-fashioned discrimination. Their natural inclination may not be to step into that person’s shoes, so to speak. By extension, they might not be able to imagine themselves being turned down for housing because the building owner rejects all non “single race” Japanese people on principle (or due to some odd stereotype), experiencing the mental, spiritual and emotional response any human being would have to such humiliation.
Sympathy might make you seem more liberal, but empathy forges genuine alliances. Sympathy will hold the humiliation at heart’s length, but empathy will open that heart and let it in.
Granted, it’s not as difficult for minorities (be that racial or any other type of minority) to empathize with majorities as it is the other way around, so I think I can safely say I sympathize and empathize with the Japanese. Empathy is practically required to assimilate into a society in any way. You’re forced to know and understand the “greater” society, sometimes better than it knows itself.
Being surrounded by Japanese people and inundated with “Japanese-ness” every day has offered me countless opportunities to see not only myself, but all the people I’ve ever known and loved in my life — of all races — in the faces and spirits of the Japanese people I’ve come to know and love, with the only difference being language and skin tone.
As a result, I have been forced to improve my command over the language I use. To embrace the fact that while we enjoy “freedom of speech,” that doesn’t free us from the responsibility nor the repercussions of what we say and how we say it. What helped me improve to a large degree was forcing myself to imagine what it’s like to be something I’ve never been: a member of a majority. Particularly one that has been conditioned to believe (with recent help from Aso) that not only are they homogenous but that the handful of minorities that exist are so insignificant as to not even be factored into consideration.
I was able to accomplish this because it was imperative, my survival depended upon it to an extent, both here in Japan and even back in the United States.
I realize this is an advantage, for lack of a better word, that most Japanese will never have, I’m sorry to say. And this will make the task of embracing diversity that much more difficult. But people like Ms. Kombu and the others at that party that persuaded their fellow party-goers that othering people was inappropriate, may have saved that biracial woman’s life. Maybe she was one “you’re so cool ’cause you’re not one of us” away from harming herself, no matter how complimentary its intent was.
Japanese society’s track record of failing to embrace diversity infects and taints everything the people here say and do, so it’s worth remembering that even compliments can be possible tools of alienation. Every time a person describes Japan as a homogenous nation, it’s harmful — and inaccurate: Legislation passed last year officially recognized the Ainu as “indigenous people” (maybe Aso was sick the day that passed?).
Embracing diversity is not simply a matter of addressing a decreasing population and a declining workforce. It’s about recognition of the human resources dying to love this country unconditionally, who will be inspired by this recognition to throw their full-hearted support behind a country they no longer have to make excuses for. And once that happens, we’ll see a truly greater society here in Japan. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote from behind the bars of a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell in 1963 and who was celebrated with a national holiday in my home country this past Monday: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”