So let me get this straight: In ice dancing, at the just-finished Winter Olympics, the U.S. was represented by a Japanese American brother-sister pair surnamed Shibutani, while Japan was represented by another Japanese American brother-sister pair named Reed?
You’ll have to forgive me. I wasn’t able to actually watch as much of NBC’s TV coverage as I would have liked to have done; watching TV during primetime or anytime is not something for which I have much time in my life right now. Primetime coincides with homework time in my house. Usually, that’s fine — most of the time, watching TV is a waste of time. But on rare occasions, there are shows I like to watch, and there were some Olympic events in which I was interested.
But post-Olympics, here’s what I was able to glean. Yes, both Maia and Alex Shibutani, and Cathy and Chris Reed were, respectively, Olympic figure skaters representing the U.S. and Japan.
The first pair, the Shib Sibs, consist of sister Maia, 19, who was born in NYC, while brother Alex, 22, was born in Boston. So, they’re as American as ringo pie. From what I was able to glean from some Internet searching is that their father, Chris, was born in Chappaqua, N.Y., while mother Naomi is a native Japanese who grew up in Miami, Fla. They were musicians who met at Harvard.
The Reed siblings, meanwhile, have a native Japanese mother and white American father. Brother Chris, 24, and sister Cathy, 26, were born in Kalamazoo, Mich. I have to presume that their mother retained her Japanese citizenship, which allowed them to have both U.S. and Japanese nationality, which is how they were able to compete for Japan. Turns out both of them chose to give up their U.S. citizenship and retain Japanese citizenship, since dual citizenship is only recognized by Japan until the age of 21. (They also have a younger sister, Allison, 19, who is also a figure skater, who once skated for Georgia and now skates for Israel.)
As far as I could tell, neither sister-brother pair medaled — I hope there’s a reader out there who can tell me if the pairs have ever met in competition. If not, maybe they’ll face off sometime soon if “Dancing with the Stars” or a show like that is still on the air when they hang up their skates.
All of the preceding, nonetheless, did make me think.
In the U.S., we have mostly gotten past the idea of people with Asian surnames representing this nation in skating in the Olympics, if names like Yamaguchi, Kwan and Ohno are any indication. It’s still a bit disconcerting, however, when someone with a Western surname represents for a nation like Japan — but I’ll take it as a sign of progress for and acceptance by Japan, which is perceived as being far less open in matters like this. It shouldn’t be, though, since kokusai kekkon (international marriage) between Japanese nationals and non-Japanese (not just white, black, Latin and Middle Eastern folk but also among different Asians) has been around in significant numbers for decades.
Just like having a biracial man of white and black heritage with an African name becoming president of the United States was a sign of these changes on a bigger scale, so too are the Shibutani and Reed siblings.
The old patterns of love and marriage, and culture, race and ethnicity will continue to exist, without a doubt. But notions of what makes someone, for example, Japanese American or Japanese are evolving, as these young skaters show. I have to admit, though, that I’m a bit disconcerted that we can so easily drop our citizenship to compete for another nation, whether it’s the Reeds skating for Japan or American-turned-Russian snowboarder Vic Wild or South Korean-turned-Russian Viktor Ahn.
Was it that long ago when some in this community had to make life-changing decisions on badly worded oaths on whether to “foreswear allegiance” to Japan’s emperor to prove their loyalty?
Nowadays, I guess it’s “Whatever, dude.” Loyalty has its limits, it seems. I guess I’m still evolving, too.
On a personal, anecdotal level, I’ve met white people born and raised in Africa. Technically speaking, they could be African Americans. I met a Hong Kong Chinese woman with a Japanese surname, married to a half-Chinese and half-Japanese man. Their daughter, also with a Japanese surname, is more Chinese than Japanese. I know a couple in which the husband is Jewish, whose native Japanese wife converted to Judaism. The kids speak English and Japanese and are being raised as observant Jews. Meantime, my daughter is on a basketball team with other girls who have Japanese surnames, yet she possesses more Japanese “blood quantum” than anyone else on the team, despite a last name that can be traced to Scotland.
As many have already observed, I don’t believe that the two-time election of President Barack Obama ushered in a post-racial era. But I do know that he is indicative of a larger trend that will continue to grow and change in the years to come.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Maia, Alex, Chris and Cathy. They, too, are living proof.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)