Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu draws on his own past of otherness to foster inclusion today

by Richard Solomon

Contributing Writer

The work we do in life is often connected with who we are as people. That was true of Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, a Japanese American. He made biracial identity the focus of his doctoral studies at Harvard University and the basis of a career teaching psychology at prestigious institutions, including the University of Tokyo and Stanford.

When he first started researching mixed-race studies, he thought being biracial himself separated him from others. Now, aged 68, he feels it connects him to them.

Born whole, people gradually suffer early life experiences. Parents and others tell us who we are and who we are not, what we can and can’t become because we are female, a person of color, biracial or whatever, he says. Stories like these can lead to feelings of isolation and alienation, but stories are also the most common form of healing: “A story told one way can harm,” Murphy-Shigematsu explains. “A story told another way can heal.”

Today, Murphy-Shigematsu combines Eastern and Western ideas of storytelling, mindfulness and compassion in ways that help groups of students reframe their past painful narratives into more positive ones. The self-proclaimed “modern doctor of the soul” practices his trade in metaphorical Zen tearooms.

Coming to America

Born in Tokyo in 1952 to an Irish-American father and Japanese mother, Murphy-Shigematsu grew up in Massachusetts after his family moved there in 1953. As a child, he soon forgot how to speak Japanese and learned to love American hot dogs, Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s hamburgers.

Everyone in his small town was white. Many had never met an Asian person before and they definitely didn’t know the difference between Japanese and Chinese. Some residents, still traumatized by World War II, were outwardly hostile to the Japanese. It didn’t happen often, but it bothered him nevertheless. “As children, we could feel the hostility some people had,” he recalls.

A teacher's role: Stephen Murphy- Shigematsu has used his approach of sharing stories as a way to connect with the many students he teaches at universities in Japan and the United States.
A teacher’s role: Stephen Murphy- Shigematsu has used his approach of sharing stories as a way to connect with the many students he teaches at universities in Japan and the United States.

More unsettling, Murphy-Shigematsu felt others did not see him as “American.” Previous generations of European immigrants encountered similar discrimination in varying degrees. Over time they were assimilated into the community.

“They were considered American, but I wasn’t,” says Murphy-Shigematsu. As time passed, he felt a growing sense of isolation.

Later, he won a scholarship to attend a private boarding school on the East Coast that boasted an increasingly diverse student body. His new roommate, Purcell Brown, introduced him to the African American community. Murphy-Shigematsu’s new black friends couldn’t relate to his Japanese ethnicity, but they knew he wasn’t white. It was a “transformative experience,” he recalls, feeling social acceptance for the first time.

His school even joked about his transformation at the high school graduation ceremony. In a segment meant to recall shared moments they announced, “Bill Taylor leaves his hockey stick; Steve Murphy (Shigemastu) leaves almost black.” The story may not be word-for-word exact, but it stuck in his mind. Of course he knew he wasn’t black. Nor was he Chinese. And he certainly wasn’t white. “I figured I must be Japanese,” he says.

Murphy-Shigematsu built his studies and professional career around trying to integrate different identities while finding his place in the world. He trained for seven years at Harvard to become a clinical psychologist. After graduation, he conducted fieldwork in Okinawa as a Fulbright scholar. There he listened to the stories of socially marginalized Okinawans.

Okinawan stories

After the World War II, some Okinawan women gave birth to biracial children fathered by U.S. military personnel. Some of those fathers then abandoned their families, leaving single mothers in their wake. These women often took jobs at local bars to survive, leaving their children unattended.

This led to bullying, which resulted in stories of perseverance and the overcoming of adversity, but also caused children to drop out of school and wind up in a life of crime.

Murphy-Shigematsu listened to all these stories. He was particularly skilled at listening, having learned the art of clinical “deep listening,” which requires a person to hear with their heart. It was, he says, “a gift to be able to receive a story” from people with whom he shared so much in common.

In the early 1990s, Murphy-Shigematsu left Okinawa to teach at the Japan campus of Temple University. Students there also came to him for counseling.

“I got to know many students intimately that way, sharing their struggles,” he recalls. Later, he became a tenured professor at the University of Tokyo, where he continued to counsel and teach students on subjects of Japanese culture, mindset and society.

He worked hard over many years to integrate into Japanese society, even naturalizing to become a Japanese citizen and adopting the surname Shigematsu. He built his reputation. Publishers, institutions, associations and others asked him to give talks, write books and to join their boards. Colleagues accepted him into their tribe: “I was officially and informally treated as Japanese at work,” he says. Still, he remained conflicted about his identity. After all, he was also American.

Though he was on track toward a successful career in Japan, Murphy-Shigematsu gave it all up in 2002 to become a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Since then, he has authored many books, including “From “Mindfulness to Heartfulness: Transforming Self and Society with Compassion” and “When Half Is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities.” He also started a group community healing ritual that he calls the Storytelling Teahouse.

After 17 years of living in America, Murphy-Shigematsu says he feels even more connected to Japan and its people. A frequent visitor, he hopes to make Japan his permanent home in a year or two. His life’s journey would then be complete, having returned full-circle to the country of his origin.

For more information on Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, visit www.murphyshigematsu.com. Richard Solomon is an author, publisher and spokesman on contemporary Japan. He posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net.

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