SAN FRANCISCO JAPANTOWN 100TH ANNIVERSARY SYMPOSIUM
“EVOLVING JAPANESE AMERICAN IDENTITIES: JAPANESE AMERICAN AND JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES”
July 24, 2006
“DON’T BE A BRIDGE, BE A PLAYER!”
Thank you, Michael, for your kind introduction.
Consul-General Yamanaka, Mr. Chano, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased and honored to be invited here today to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown.
Those of us who commute across the Pacific Ocean know that when you give a speech to an American audience, you’re expected to start with a joke, whereas when you give a speech to a Japanese audience, you’re expected to start with an apology. So, let me begin with an apology for my joke, which is adapted from a somewhat trite, but nonetheless amusing, story of a few years ago.
A luxury cruise liner sailing the ocean has just hit an iceberg, and some of the passengers have been able to scramble on board the lifeboats. However, one of the boats has too many people on it and is in danger of sinking unless several passengers get off. The ship’s captain, wanting to save especially the women and children, tells the British male on board, “You should jump off this boat to honor the Queen, the British Empire, and to uphold the dignity of being a gentleman.” To the Italian he says, “You should jump off this boat because the most beautiful lady on board just did so, and she’s waiting for you to join her.” To the German he says, “You should jump off this boat because it is the rule.” To the Frenchman, he says, “You should jump off this boat because no one else is doing so.” To the Japanese, he says, “You should jump off this boat because everyone else is doing so.” To the American, he says, “You should jump off this boat because if you do, your stock options will be made tax-deductible.”
Now the question is, what should the captain tell the Japanese American on board? Should he appeal to the enryo, gaman, and deference to consensus, conformity, and authority that some believe “run in the veins” of all people of Japanese ancestry? Or should he appeal to the self-interest, shareholder value, and glorification of market forces that some say define the American ethos of the early 21st century? The answer to this question, as I will elaborate in the next few minutes, is, “Japanese Americans are so diverse that it all depends on what kind of Japanese American is on the boat.”
In any event, it’s good to be in San Francisco. I would like to thank the more than dozen organizers and sponsors—especially the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco, led by Consul-General Yamanaka, and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership in Tokyo, represented here today by Mr. Chano—for hosting this event and for inviting me to present the keynote speech. I’m also pleased to be sharing the podium with my three distinguished colleagues, Philip Kan Gotanda, Professor Takeya Mizuno, and Professor Michael Omi.
Although I currently live in Tokyo, I feel a special fondness for and attachment to San Francisco. This is because I have lived here or been closely tied to his area during three important phases of my life. From 1956 to 1960, my father, who was with the U.S. Army, was stationed at Ford Ord and at the Presidio of San Francisco. Among the elementary schools I attended in the area during that time were the Hawthorne School in the Mission District and the Sutro School in the Richmond District.
Second, from 1968 to 1972, I was an undergraduate at Stanford University. It was there, at the 22nd Annual Japan-America Student Conference (Nichi-Bei Gakusei Kaigi) of 1970, that I first met Sakie Tachibana. We got married in 1972 and will next year celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. Fifteen years after our wedding, in 1987, Sakie obtained her MBA from the Stanford Business School. She now heads the Japan operations of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s leading executive search firm, and sits on the board of directors of Korn/Ferry, Sony, Kao, and Benesse Corporation.
Finally, from 2000 to 2004, I served as president and chairman of the Japan operations of Cadence Design Systems, the Silicon Valley software firm and world leader in EDA, or electronic design automation. That job brought me to this area a dozen or so times a year, and through this I was invited to join the board of directors of the Japan Society of Northern California, which, I am pleased to note, is one of the supporting organizations of today’s symposium.
So, with all of these personal and professional ties to this area over the past 40 years, it’s very good to be back in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The subject of today’s symposium is “Evolving Japanese American Identities: Japanese American and Japanese Perspectives.” In the 30 minutes that I’ve been allotted, I would like to discuss first, the dimensions of Japanese American identities, the diversity of such identities, the distinctive features of such identities, and the relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan. I will conclude with some observations and recommendations on how to “normalize” the relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan.
Before launching into the substance of my talk, let me mention two caveats. The first is that the topic that I have been assigned is a challenging one, for two reasons. First is its complexity. The second is that today’s audience is so diverse. I understand that those of you in this room today include at least four audiences—Japanese Americans, other Americans, Japanese nationals, and none of the above. I realize that it will be next to impossible to satisfy all of you, but I hope that most of you will find something of interest in what I have to say.
The second caveat is that although I am a Sansei, I am somewhat atypical. First, my father is Nisei but my mother is from Japan. Second, because of my father’s work, I moved between the U.S. and Japan frequently as I was growing up—so much so that by the time I went to college I had attended 12 different schools, eight in the U.S. and four in Japan. Third, my wife is from Japan. Fourth, I worked as a senior official at USTR (Office of the U.S. Trade Representative) in Washington, D.C. from 1985 to 1990, at the height of U.S.-Japan trade conflicts. Fifth, I have by now lived roughly half of my life in the U.S. and half of my life in Japan. Finally, I served in the 1990s for seven years as Vice President and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, but I am now representing a European company, Airbus, and so spend more time on business in Europe than I do in the U.S.
So, with these caveats and disclaimers, I would like to begin addressing the subject of today’s symposium.
During the planning phase of the symposium, it was suggested that the title be “Shifting Japanese American Identity: Japanese Americans’ Own View and the Japanese View.” In pondering this title, it occurred to me that the “Identity” should be “Identities,” since in my view Japanese Americans possess multiple “identities.” At the same time, I believe that there is not just one, but multiple, Japanese views on this subject. That is why I took the liberty of modifying the title of today’s symposium.
The first identity is a “psychological” identity held by each individual Japanese American. This is the self-perception that each of us has about himself or herself, regardless of what the “objective” or “external” realities may be. For instance, some Japanese Americans, in an attempt to identify with Japan, choose to represent their names on their business cards using kanji (Chinese characters), whereas others—myself included—insist on rendering their names in katakana (phonetic characters) to emphasize legal citizenship over ethnicity. Neither is “right” nor “wrong,” but I believe that whether one uses kanji or katakana for one’s name reveals something about how that Japanese American views his or her relationship with Japan.
A second dimension of identity is the “legal” identity conferred by the government of the nation state with which one identifies. That is, there are certain rights, privileges, and obligations that Japanese Americans possess, by virtue of their citizenship, with reference to the government of the United States of America, even if any individual Japanese American may choose to disregard or minimize them. This legal identity of Japanese Americans was the main basis on which the battle for Redress for the wartime internment was fought and won in the 1970s and 1980s.
A third dimension of identity is the “socio-cultural” identity conferred by those around the Japanese American in question. That is, even if an individual Japanese American views himself or herself to be “100% American,” if that person happens to live in a community that has few others of Asian ethnicity, he or she may be viewed by others to be “Japanese” or “Asian” because of the tendency in most societies and cultures to attach at least some weight to appearance and ethnic origin, even if the individual in question happens to be third, fourth, or even fifth generation in the country of his or her citizenship.
It is exceedingly difficult to predict the characteristics of a Japanese American based simply on the fact of having ancestral roots in Japan. When I was growing up, many of the Japanese Americans I knew were, like me, Army brats who had a Nisei father and a Japanese mother. I therefore found it natural that most of them were bilingual, at least in spoken English and Japanese. However, when I attended Gardena High School from 1965 to 1967, I discovered that this was not the case with my Sansei classmates, most of whom had never been to Japan. Then, as an undergraduate at Stanford, I met many Sansei from Hawaii (especially from Punahoe and Iolani School), who again were quite different from the Japanese Americans I knew as an Army brat or as a high school student at Gardena. And as a graduate student at Harvard, I ran across many Japanese Americans who had grown up in places other than Hawaii and the West Coast. Among them were individuals such as Francis Fukuyama (recently described by the Financial Times of London as “America’s leading public intellectual”), who, having grown up on the East Coast, had had virtually no contact with Japan or Japanese Americans.
This is why I am disturbed when some Japanese scholars or journalists spend a few months in Hawaii or in Los Angeles, then write a book purporting to “explain” Japanese Americans, generalizing from their limited experience. To me, Japanese Americans are an immensely diverse group and, in fact, represent the diversity of America. I have long thought that for Japanese nationals to fully understand America, they would do well to study the history of Japanese Americans and the complexity and diversity of their experiences in the United States.
The diversity of Japanese Americans is a reflection of their varied backgrounds. Although it may be the case that Japanese Americans as a group tend to be highly educated and tend to be in the higher socio-economic bracket, individual Japanese Americans can differ greatly depending on such factors as when they were born (generation), where they grew up, their gender, their educational and social status, whether they have had any contact with Japan, and so on.
I am sometimes asked by my Japanese friends, “How do Japanese Americans view Japan?” This is a difficult question to answer because of the diversity among Japanese Americans. Most Japanese Americans probably don’t devote much thought to Japan, since it is not a part of their daily lives. At the same time, there are some Japanese Americans who actively distance themselves from Japan, often rooted in their (or their parents’) belief that nothing good can come from being identified with Japan. In fact, according to this view, it was precisely the U.S. government’s socio-cultural “identification” of Japanese Americans with Japan (contrary to their legal “identification” as U.S. citizens) that led to their or their ancestors’ imprisonment in wartime internment camps.
On the other hand, there is a small group of Japanese Americans, especially scholars, who have devoted their professional lives to issues related to Japan. I am not aware of large numbers of Japanese Americans in government, business, law, or journalism who are intensively involved in Japan. This is a stark contrast to the experience of most other Americans whose ancestors immigrated to this country. I personally know of many Americans of Korean, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Cuban, Mexican, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Greek, Arab, African, and other ancestries who are actively and visibly engaged in issues related to the country of their ancestors.
Why is this tendency to associate with the country of one’s ancestors—so common and natural among most of America’s ethnic groups—largely absent among Japanese Americans? The answer, in my view, relates to cultural and racial distance, history, and policy.
First, the closer the ancestral country is to the U.S. “mainstream” white culture, the easier it is for ethnic groups in the U.S. to identify with that country. Thus, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish Americans are likely to be able to engage with their ancestral country with less resistance and suspicion from their fellow Americans than are those who are racially or ethnically different from the U.S. mainstream white culture. The ability of many Jewish Americans to maintain dual U.S./Israeli citizenship is partly due to this fact. The racial and ethnic closeness between the U.S. and Europe is one of the reasons that few eyebrows were raised when Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, both naturalized U.S. citizens, were nominated to became Secretary of State by President Nixon and President Clinton, respectively, or when Zbigniew Brzezinski, another naturalized U.S. citizen, became President Carter’s National Security Adviser. This was, I might add, despite the obvious “foreign” accents of Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Brzezinski.
However, racial and ethnic distance from the U.S. white mainstream has not prevented other Asian Americans from being actively and visibly engaged with the country of their ancestors. For instance, the Committee of 100 is a highly visible and active Chinese American organization that has as one of its major missions “improved relations between the United States and Greater China.”
There is a second set of reasons, largely historical, that has led to what I call the “abnormal” relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan. This was the internment of 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, in 1942 as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and ensuing entry of the U.S. in the Second World War. It was by demonstrating rejection of Japan and loyalty to the United States that individual Japanese Americans and organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) were able to make the case that the internment was unjustified. During the movement for Redress, the single most important initiative of the Japanese American community in the postwar period, again it was by showing distance from Japan and loyalty to the United States that the ultimate goals of U.S. government apology and compensation were achieved.
The third element in the “abnormal” relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan can be attributed to policy. Unlike China, India, and many other countries, Japan in the postwar period has not welcomed or embraced Japanese Americans as friends and allies. Just as there was a distance felt by many Japanese Americans toward Japan since the 1940s, there was a distance felt by many Japanese, especially government officials and some business executives, toward Japanese Americans.
This fact was explicitly alluded to by Mr. Yohei Kono, Speaker of the Japanese House of Representatives, in his speech at a symposium on “Japanese Americans and the Future of U.S.-Japan Relations” at Keidanren Hall in Tokyo on May 25, 2005. After discussing the many contributions Japanese Americans have made to postwar U.S.-Japan relations, Speaker Kono said, “As a former Foreign Minister of Japan, perhaps I should not say this, but I have felt, with a certain degree of self-criticism, that the Japanese government’s attitude toward the Japanese American community has been rather cold-hearted.”
At the same symposium, Professor Yasuko Takezawa of Kyoto University explained that her research had discovered that “the discriminatory treatment of Japanese American, especially women, employees by Japanese corporations operating in the United States was a major reason for the ‘estrangement’ felt by Japanese Americans toward Japanese nationals.”
U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye describes his meeting in Tokyo in 1959 with then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi as follows: “I told the Prime Minister that as a result of World War II, the role played by Japanese Americans during the war, and the advancements made by others in their endeavors, I suggested that the time had come for a Japanese American to be selected as the Ambassador to Japan. I asked him if he had any comments, and he answered with a question, ‘How would you feel if Japan appointed a Caucasian to be the Ambassador to the United States?’ There was a pause, and no response was mentioned either way. Following that silence, the Prime Minister said that at the present time there were many sons of noble families in the Foreign Ministry, and it might be difficult for Japanese Americans to work with some of them. Furthermore, he added, ‘I hope you will understand that most of the Japanese left Japan to go to a strange land like Hawaii or Brazil to work in the fields, because they were failures. In other words, they could not make a living in Japan. I am certain if they were successfully working and supporting a family in Japan, they would not have left. Very few successful men and women leave home for a strange place, not knowing what to expect.’” [Quoted verbatim from Senator Inouye’s confirmation message to me dated Sept. 15, 2006.]
These attitudes were reinforced by certain Americans who believed that it was in their self-interest to exclude Japanese Americans from activities between the U.S. and Japan. An example of this was a well-known Japanologist and Columbia University professor, who in a conference in 1973 claimed that Japanese Americans could not play a role in U.S.-Japan relations because “the Japanese don’t take Japanese Americans seriously.”
This “abnormal” relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan lasted for 50 years, from the 1940s to the 1990s. However, there is now clearly a movement toward establishing a “normal” relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan.
On the U.S. side, the passage of time has led to fewer Japanese Americans resisting the establishment of relationships between Japanese Americans and Japan. At the same time, with globalization and the increasing acceptance of diversity in the U.S. compared to 20 or 30 years ago, Yonsei and Gosei are expressing an interest in Japan that is in many cases being encouraged and supported by their parents, unlike the period between the 1940s through the 1990s, when many Japanese Americans discouraged their children from involvement with Japan.
In this sense, the tendency of many Issei, Nisei, and some Sansei to look to the past and to focus narrowly on issues facing the Japanese American community is being supplanted by a more inclusive, expansive, and global view by Yonsei and Gosei. While recognizing the importance of history and appreciating the contributions of the Issei and Nisei in establishing Japanese Americans as legitimate U.S. citizens, the younger generation is more forward-looking. And while valuing the richness of the Japanese American heritage, the younger generation is more active in its interaction with other Americans and non-Americans.
In Japan as well, the conditions for closer ties between Japanese Americans and Japan are increasing. First is the globalization of Japan over the past decade, which has resulted in more non-Japanese living and working in Japan, forcing Japan to confront the issues of diversity and inclusion.
Second is the phenomenon of kikoku shijo, or Japanese who have spent considerable time during their childhood growing up abroad due to their parents’ work overseas. This too has led many Japanese to question the definition of “Japaneseness” and to accept the notion that it may be possible to be Japanese while having experiences and adopting values that are not traditionally considered Japanese.
Third is a generational change that has led Japanese under the age of 40 not to be burdened with the preconceptions and prejudices that many in the older generation, such as Prime Minister Kishi in 1959, had about Japanese Americans.
Fourth is the fact that some Japanese Americans have attained a certain measure of success and prominence in the U.S., which has led some Japanese to reconsider their tendency to dismiss Japanese Americans as not worthy of attention because they lacked influence or clout in American society. Japanese Americans have advanced considerably in the U.S. since Senator Inouye had has exchange with Prime Minister Kishi almost 50 years ago, and this has been noted in Japan.
Finally, Japan in the 21st century finds itself with an aging population, a declining birthrate, and many countries in Asia—including China, India, and South Korea—gaining in economic and political influence. Unlike the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, when Japan was the only Asian country respected and feared for its economic prowess, many Japanese are now concerned that Japan is losing friends and attention around the world. Japan was so affluent in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that the best and brightest Americans would line up to associate with Japan because they felt it would benefit them economically and perhaps politically. But most of these Americans abandoned Japan when it became clear that Japan was no longer the money-generator that it was up to the bursting of the economic bubble in the early 1990s.
In his speech at a symposium last Friday at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, Taro Kono, a member of the Japanese House of Representatives, lamented the eclipse of Japan by China in the consciousness of Americans. He went on to say, “We have neglected the Japanese American community for a long time. . . .Japan needs to make more efforts to make friends in the United States. . . .We need to work on the Japanese American community hard so the Japanese American community can speak for Japan in times of crisis.” One can debate the merits of such a view, but at the very least it reflects a step by Japan to try to normalize the relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan.
One manifestation of this normalization is that five years ago, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Foundation began a program of inviting a delegation of Japanese American leaders to Japan every year for one week to provide them an orientation on Japan. Such programs are important, both as an indication of Japanese interest in Japanese Americans as well as a way to enhance dialogue, interaction, and understanding between Japanese Americans and Japan. Much was lost during the 50-year interregnum of relations between Japanese Americans and Japan, but it is not too late to try to make up for lost time.
Many Japanese Americans and some Japanese are concerned about the future of Japanese Americans as an ethnic group. This stems from (1) the 50-year estrangement between Japanese Americans and Japan; (2) indications that such a trend could accelerate, as some have viewed, rightly or wrongly, the recent withdrawal of Japanese corporate interests from San Francisco’s Japantown; (3) the feeling of comfort and security that many Japanese Americans enjoy as a result of their relatively high socio-economic status, and (4) the outmarriage (i.e., Japanese Americans marrying non-Japanese Americans) that is leading to a diminishing level of attention and activity to such traditional Japanese American organizations as the JACL.
In part, this is a result of Japanese Americans having focused so much on the past. Although the internment took place 64 years ago and Redress was realized 18 years ago, these two remain the issues that occupy the collective psyche of many Japanese Americans. While recognizing the significance of these events, it is necessary for Japanese Americans to create a vision for the future. I would propose that one element of this vision be to undo the mutual neglect of the past 50 years and to forge a stronger relationship between Japanese Americans and Japan.
Such an enterprise would face many challenges, as I outlined in an article entitled “Japanese Americans and U.S.-Japan Relations,” originally written in 1981 and published in revised form in the January 4-11, 1985 edition of the Pacific Citizen. More recently, the article was reprinted in the October 3, 2003 edition of the Hawai’i Herald.
To update this article, published over 20 years ago, I would argue that Japanese Americans could contribute to the U.S.-Japan relationship in at least the following ways:
(1) Inform Japanese about Japanese Americans in the context of diversity in the United States. This can both lead to a fuller Japanese understanding of American society and provide hints about ways in which Japan can better deal with the issues related to diversity it confronts in the context of globalization.
(2) Inform Japanese about the role of Asian Americans, especially the increasing impact of Asian Americans on domestic U.S. policy as well as on the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, which has direct relevance to Japan.
(3) Inform Americans about Japan, although this assumes that more Japanese Americans will become sufficiently knowledgeable about Japan to be able to make worthwhile contributions to the ongoing discussions and debates about Japan and its foreign relations. This merits consideration in the context of Japan’s cultural diplomacy and the use of “soft power.”
(4) Inform Asian Americans about Japan, relying on the many networks and relationships that have been developed between Japanese Americans and various individuals and organizations representing Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, etc.
(5) Encourage other Japanese Americans to engage in Japan and other global issues and to participate actively in discussions and debates on issues of public policy and foreign policy.
From the Japanese side, I would hope the following could be done:
(1) Study and try to understand better the Japanese American experience as
something that has importance and relevance to Japan.
(2) Understand that Japanese Americans are extremely diverse and that this is a
reflection of the increasing diversity of the United States.
(3) Understand that, for historical, political, and cultural reasons, it is not
realistic to expect Japanese Americans as a group to play the role for Japan that some Jewish Americans play for Israel. However, individual Japanese Americans, if given an opportunity, can play a much more active and valuable a role in the U.S.-Japan relationship than many Japanese currently realize.
One piece of advice I would offer Japanese Americans who wish to engage in
U.S.-Japan relations: Don’t be a bridge, be a player! Contrary to the stated desire by some Japanese Americans to be a “bridge” between the U.S. and Japan, I would contend that such aspirations are far too low. A bridge is a vehicle or infrastructure that is built to allow for others to walk over or benefit from. On the contrary, Japanese Americans should strive to be players, actors, and decision makers in the relationship. If by doing so they end up providing a bridge that others find useful, this is fine. But to aim from the beginning to be a bridge seems to me unnecessarily to relegate Japanese Americans to a limited and subordinate role.
In conclusion, I would propose that a vision for Japanese Americans should (1) consider more fully than in the past the impact of globalization on nations and ethnic groups, (2) emphasize the future, not the past, and (3) allow for a greater inclusion of diverse participants in Japanese American initiatives and activities. On the last point in particular, an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum from June 8 to October 29 is noteworthy. “kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa” is an exhibition of portraits by artist Kip Fulbeck, who traveled the country photographing Hapa of all ages and walks of life. Originally a derogatory label derived from the Hawaiian word for half, the word Hapa has been embraced as a term of pride by many whose mixed-race heritage includes Asian or Pacific Rim ancestry. Going back to my earlier discussion of psychological identity, to the extent that a Hapa individual wishes to identify himself or herself with Japanese Americans or Japan, Japanese Americans should see this as an opportunity for inclusion and community-building. The same holds true for the so-called “Shin-Issei,” Japanese who have immigrated to the United States in recent years.
Allow me to quote
Janice Mirikitani, poet laureate of San Francisco, from her poem inscribed on
the multigenerational landmark dedicated at San Francisco’s Japantown in June
2005 to express the past, present, and future of the Japanese American
III. Footsteps lead to destiny.
We dance honoring ancestors
who claim our home,
and freedom to pursue our dreams.
It is time, I believe, for Japanese Americans to honor our ancestors but also to pursue our dreams, which by definition is future-oriented and should be inclusive, expansive, and global.
In closing, I would like to cite the last paragraph of the 1985 article I mentioned above entitled “Japanese Americans and U.S.-Japan Relations”:
Japanese Americans should recognize the value of informed Japanese American participation in U.S.-Japan relations and lend it organizational support. For such efforts can contribute constructively to the bilateral relationship and, just as important, enhance and consolidate our position as active, vibrant, and fully legitimate participants in the American political process.
Reprinted with permission of the author.