INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Trying to Feel for Japan


(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 24, 2011.)


Like many Japanese Americans, I’ve never felt a connection to Japan or its people — certainly nowhere close as my non-Asian friends somehow expect me to (they tend to be the ones who ask me if I have any relatives there).

God knows that historically, we’ve nevertheless been punished for a perceived connection, and we couldn’t win: We were blamed whenever Japan did something bad (e.g. bomb Pearl Harbor) or good (e.g. doing well economically; what, we got a cut?).  When an entire community’s put in concentration camps for three years for no other crime than being of Japanese descent, you certainly get a clear message: They don’t like us or want us here.

Whenever some clueless Japanese politician made anti-black or anti-whatever remarks, Japanese Americans somehow felt the need to point out we didn’t feel the same way or at least to distance ourselves from those remarks. By contrast, did Irish or French Americans feel the likewise need to clarify their stance on anything their counterparts in their respective countries did?

As actor Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa told me in 2001 when I was speaking out against yet another movie he was acting in, “Pearl Harbor,” Japanese Americans have defined themselves more by what they’re not (e.g. we’re not like the Japanese nationals, etc., all of the above examples) as opposed to what we are.

So when the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I told myself to try to focus on what was going on and to explore my feelings about the people.  Of course, mentally, the catastrophe is undeniable. When I read that there had been more than a dozen aftershocks of at least a 6.0 magnitude, I cringed, remembering what it was like in Hilo in 1975 when my family was awakened to a 7.2 tremor that rattled on for the next six straight hours preventing us from even thinking about going back to sleep. When I heard a report on the radio that most of those who died in the tsunami drowned, I grimaced, closing my eyes, which teared up.  Those poor people.

When I read stories of how, even in crises, the Japanese still cared about society in general and not themselves, I felt some measure of pride. Hell, if this had happened anywhere in the U.S., it would’ve been “every man for himself!” with looting, people climbing over each other in stores (as people in China did to get salt from price-gouging merchants; now, they’re trying to get refunds as they’re thinking clearer and realizing they don’t need four years worth of the stuff!) as if the new Xbox had just come out, and violence against each other due to stress. Not the Japanese. They’ve been a model for other societies to consider.

But then if you take pride in one aspect of a group’s culture, you can’t ignore the parts you don’t feel comfortable with.

A few months ago, I saw a picture in the Rafu of Japanese Americans and a koi fish pond.  I smiled, thinking about how certain aspects of the Japanese culture as so peaceful, yet quickly recalling the “banzai!” streak that can do great harm (Japanese soldiers in World War II, believing they’re fighting for their emperor, a God, committing wartime atrocities in his name) or good (the 100th/442nd “going for broke” on the battlefields of Europe).

Yet I don’t feel that much closer to the Japanese now than I did before.  Although I’m of Japanese descent, I’m a fourth-generation American who’s long scoffed at many of the traditional values of the Japanese (obligation, keeping your feelings inside, conformity, etc.). I took a Japanese class in high school and hated it (I had a horrible teacher, but it just sounded too damn delicate!).  So besides the history of being punished for being identified with the Japanese nationals, I don’t relate with them culturally or linguistically. I only know of one person in Japan, my college friend Jerry, who told me through Facebook he was fine, then proceeded to make a joke in Hawaiian pidgin English on my “American Idol” blog. And I’ve never been to the land of the rising sun.

I was astonished that the Rafu reported there were nearly 1,000 coming out to the JACCC Plaza to show their support for the Japanese people. I’d be interested in knowing how many of them actually knew people in Japan vs. those who just came out because of the enormity of what had befallen the country. The paper seemed to get a bit carried away, running in its headline — for the first time I can recall — a seeming editorial statement: “From J-Town to Japan: We Stand with You.” If it was a news story, shouldn’t the editors have put that last sentence in quotes?

Of course, whenever people of various backgrounds can feel for those in foreign countries — whether it’s Haiti, Egypt, or Indonesia — it’s a good thing. It brings us together, makes the world smaller, and encourages a greater investment in our collective future (as opposed to the usual, finding reasons to not trust each other). Most white Americans don’t even know the various European extractions running through their veins, so it’s probably even more difficult for them to relate to what happens in those European countries let alone for their friends and colleagues to expect them to as they do Asian Americans whenever something happens in Asia.

Breaking It Down Department: All of this sort of ties into that infamous Alexandra Wallace YouTube video. I got a bit tired of people’s clichéd responses of “that’s racist!” or “how offensive!” It’s obvious she’s not the only one threatened by the “hordes of Asians” invading the UCLA campus, so I thought it was more instructive to break down what this was really about.

At the offset, she qualified her rant by saying this wasn’t about all Asians (she had to have talked to those of us who speak non-accented English and are just as “hip” as her) but by those she couldn’t relate to — those who spoke with Asian accents or in Asian languages. Otherwise why would she care about the families of students who come over on the weekend to do laundry or whatever? Because it was more foreign-speaking people she couldn’t relate to, and she probably already felt outnumbered as it was.

I did laugh when she said these foreigners should learn “American manners” and not talk with cell phones in the library. Heck, that’s a pretty American thing to do! I hate anyone who makes me listen to their inconsequential private conversations in public. So I’d agree with her about those who talk in the library even more. But obviously Asians aren’t the only ones who do this, so it was probably about her lack of connection with foreigners.

Heck, I can relate. I live in Glendale. This year, I’ve avoided going to the closest supermarket to me, a Ralphs, because I got sick and tired of being the only one in the building who wasn’t speaking in a foreign tongue. It’s isolating. Annoying.  And there’s that word again… disconnecting. It’s part of the reality of living in a metropolitan city that attracts people from all over the world.

Almost as Bad as “Heroes” Department: I talked about how NBC’s “The Event” fell victim (ratings-wise) to its long hiatus between late November and March. Well, last week’s episode opened with what I knew was so outlandish it had to be a dream sequence: The President’s tied to his chair as Sophia, the leader of the aliens, tells him how disappointing he’s been and gives a gun to his general to shoot him.  All the while our commander-in-chief shakes and says, “No!” like a little baby. Sure enough, he wakes up from the nightmare to be comforted by his wife. Then they go to commercial.

Did the producers honestly expect that to hold anyone’s attention?  You’ve just told us the preceding segment didn’t happen. What reason are you giving us to stay tuned? In this week’s episode, Sean Walker, one of the good guys, breaks into a hotel room with a woman. They’re going to assume the identities of a couple who’re going to a party. As the suspenseful music built to a crescendo, the show went to commercial again. Really? Why is this supposed to make me not want to leave my seat? We know he’s not going to hurt them.

The execution of this series is becoming almost as amateurish as “Heroes,” which I ridiculed mercilessly here until NBC finally put it out of its misery. I can’t believe one of the executive producers on “The Event” worked on “24.” At least we’re no longer burdened with constant flashbacks to three or more different time periods.

“The Event” once again attracted only 4.1 million viewers, tying its all-time lowest numbers. Well, hopefully it’ll get better before its inevitable cancellation. Next week, the President’s right-hand man finally discovers that Agent Lee (Ian Anthony Dale) is one of the aliens.

Double Standard Department: On “American Idol” last week, the judges gave 16 -year-old Thia Megia a hard time for singing a ballad for the third time in a row (never mind that, as usual, she did it well) but gave props to Scotty McCreery, who always sings those gosh-darn traditional country songs week after week. Randy Jackson constantly praises him for staying true to himself! Arghgh.

To follow my critique of the weekly performances and results shows, go to and tell me what you think.

Ooh, It’s Getting Good Department: We’re finally finding out more about the mysterious Kalinda (Emmy-winner Archie Panjabi), the investigative assistant to lawyer Alicia Florick on “The Good Wife.”  Tuesday night, we learned Kalinda changed her name with the help of Alicia’s politician husband Peter, then slept with him. Alicia almost divorced Peter for being caught with prostitutes, and it almost ended his political career, so if she finds out…

Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




  1. I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t consider it to be insensitive at all.

    As Japanese-Americans, we’re kind of walking the border between the two worlds. No matter how Americanized we are, Americans consider us Japanese, and Japanese don’t really count us as Japanese. Maybe I notice it more because I’m a hapa married to a yonsei.

    Watching the news coverage has be disconcerting though. While I can’t say I’ve been swept up by any ethnic empathy, it’s strange seeing people talking about the destruction on the news that wouldn’t be out of place at the JA churches I’ve attended.

  2. Guy, a truly heartfelt, thoughtful and instructive article – the many shades of dealing with our common identities and our differences. Much to think over. I’ll only make a brief mention of the Alexandra Wallace business. When I hear offensive things said about anyone or any group, I do not find myself getting offended (I’m a ‘not-bad-for-a-damn-haolie’ haolie, and I do get a few slings and arrows thrown my way from time to time). On the contrary, the only one I think is being demeaned and disparaged by remarks such as Ms Wallace made is the one who says such things. The remarks, whether they be about “those niggers” or “cell-phone japs” only tell me that the speaker is an ignorant, distorted, self-victimizing product of cruelty, and I wish for their recovery from an illness I can do nothing about. Their words never attach to the object of their ignorance, only to themselves. I know not one wit more about those they accuse; but I do know a lot about their mean spirit and shallowness. Incidentally, I also know something similar about those who make death-threats against such offenders or force them out of school (rather than keeping them where, in time, they may recover from their ignorance). They, too, have a few problems (and likely some serious racial issues of their own) that need repair. So that’s my thought.

    And one side note which I think a peculiarity of those of us who are in interracial relationships. My beloved and me make endless racial remarks and slurs and jokes, at ourselves, at our respective races and every other race – regardless of color or nationality. And we laugh endlessly over it. If we did it outside our home, we’d probably be shot. But, these words have no poison in them whatsoever, not for us, and not for our deep respect for everyone else on this planet. When I heard the news on the March 11th disaster I was struck with horror. But the people I cried for had no race, no nationality, no history. Not at first. It was for my family I cried – my human family, my brothers and sisters so painfully caught in the tides of nature. They could have been anyone, anywhere. Later, I would think of the particulars that race and culture brought to the matter. Of gaman and omoiyari and other things which are particular to Japanese culture (terms introduced to me by my life companion). But that came later, and it came with the knowing that these were things that I could use and value, and affirmed why it is good that we have different cultures and what they can teach and exchange with one another. No identity crises – I was glad there were other identities that had a different set of valuable human tools. It is probably true urban Americans might wind up looting and fearfully turning on one another (or be shot by their own police for doing nothing – as they were in Katrina). But, that doesn’t change the fact that Americans also demonstrate qualities of spirit and generosity and skill that other cultures can admire and learn. So it stays with me that those who cast aspersion on others, only offend themselves, and that we can identify with any race or place if we reach out to understand and learn. I think your article helps that, and is as honest an account of the difficulties of coming to terms with race and identity as I have read for awhile. Thanks, Guy.

  3. Mickey Okamoto on

    Your amazing, even as the disaster continues you find it important to share about yourself and your unimportant views.

  4. From the moment it happened, I felt personally responsible, wanting the Japanese to show their best of character to the world. I’m 3rd generation Japanese American and lived life after Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Each time the press lauded the “Japanese character” or I heard stories displaying these traits of “gaman: quiet endurance and rising above adversity, “shikata-ga nai”: it can’t be helped, and “Omoiyari: feeling of community, I felt proud that I, too, was Japanese. This feeling of pride was long in coming. I feel like a mother watching her children do right and shed tears of joy and pride.

    I understand fully Guy’s feelings of disconnection now and then. He was raised to be American with a Japanese face in a generation removed from mine. How honest of Guy to have shared his views and feelings. I also appreciate Ms. Nakao’s post.

    I was raised with those three traits mentioned above and living in CA, they often conflict with
    my present environment. When I return to Hawaii, it’s another story. My friends in Hawaii all share this strong affiliation with Japan and I have not found this strong a position in Japanese American friends born and raised here. There seems to be a difference between generations and geographics.

    Very insightful article, Guy, that generates thought-provoking thoughts. My blog posts differ from Guy’s.

  5. Ironically, I was set to make my 2nd trip to Japan in a lifetime the week after the earthquake and Tsunami happened. I’m a sansei raised by a Kibei grandfather and a picture bride grandmother. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, I call myself very much American, but being raised by my grandparents, traditional values are heavily imbedded in my life.
    Now in my 40’s, I cant help but think how detached Japanese-Americans have become from their culture. Ive read about the low birthrate in Japan and the increase in the elderly. How J-towns in the U.S. have dwindled to but a few, and how our kids no longer speak the language. I see other Asian cultures that continue to build on their culture, teach their children their languages and foods, and feel saddened that the younger Japanese generation has more and more pulled away from their heritage. Is it the embarrassment of WWII that our grandparents passed down to us? Being treated as 2nd class and being teased as children for being different?

    Being American, we have thrived at being the caregivers of the World. Now for a second, I pride myself for being Japanese American and understanding that we must again remember where we came from and who our ancestors were.

    I agree with Frances above. How proud I felt when I heard stories displaying the traits of “gaman: quiet endurance and rising above adversity, “shikata-ga nai”: it can’t be helped, and “Omoiyari: feeling of community. Every article I read over the internet or in the newpapers drew tears to my eyes imagining what hardships so many people had to endure, who lost their children, parents, grandparents loved ones and friends, and even in this hardship, they still had concern for others, wondered if someone else can use the help and not themselves.

    My trip was since canceled…i didnt want to travel when there was so much hardship and disruption occuring. I donated to the Red Cross through my employer who matched my donation and hoped that what little i could donate would help someone in some way.

    Yes, I am proud to be American, but am proud to be Japanese and hope that my values are shared amongst my family, and friends to help preserve our culture and heritage.

  6. Sugoi!! Waseda is popular uisnerivty in Japan. You know many Japanese word. Are you Japanese Language student? Anyway, please never give up learning Japanese Language. I wish your dream comes true And, I think that kyōju is great word, too!!

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