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 theonlyrealcritic.blogspot.com 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.