In 2005, Taro Aso, one of Japan`s former prime ministers, said that Japan is “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on this earth.”
His comment sparked outrage because he failed to note that Japan is made up of my different groups such as the Ainu, an ethnic minority found mostly in Hokkaido that is indigenous to Japan; ethnic Koreans who were brought to Japan as foreign laborers during WWII; Chinese and other foreign residents; and so on. The idea that Japan is a homogeneous country also ignores the fact that there are increasing numbers of half-Japanese people due to globalization.
I was born to a Japanese mother and an American father who was in the U.S. military. Most of my life was spent between Japan and the United States, so I grew up in both cultures. For example, I ate Japanese dishes such as tonkatsu and miso soup for dinner and chocolate brownies for dessert and was accustomed to hearing both English and Japanese being spoken at home.
Despite that, I never gave much thought to the fact that I was half-Japanese. Back then, it didn`t matter to me, and I naively thought that everyone else lived the same way that I did.
It was only until I moved back to Japan five and a half years ago and began attending a Japanese middle school that I put much thought into my ethnicity and upbringing. The diversity that had characterized my classroom in the United States was replaced by a sea of Japanese faces. I was the only one out of a school of 300 people who had ever been abroad, and everyone was curious about the transfer student from the United States. One day a male classmate asked me about my nationality. I told him that I was Japanese, and he answered, “No you`re not, and you`ll never be one.”
That was the beginning of an identity crisis that lasted throughout my middle and high school years.
My mother had always firmly told me that I was both Japanese and American and that “other Japanese people were going to have to get used to the fact that Japan was becoming more diverse whether they liked it or not.” That still didn`t stop me from doubting that I was Japanese whenever someone brought attention to my appearance. I may have had Japanese citizenship, but I didn`t know the conditions that made one Japanese? Was it citizenship? Ethnicity? An ability to speak the Japanese language or navigate oneself through Japanese culture?
In high school I met other people who asked themselves the same questions. Some, like me, were half-Japanese. Others were people who looked Japanese and were born in Japan, but spent most of their lives in other countries such as the United States or Canada and found it difficult to identify with Japan. There were also ethnic Koreans who were born and raised in Japan and spoke Japanese as their mother tongue. As a result, many of them felt more Japanese than Korean.
From that I realized that defining Japanese, or any other nationality for that matter, is not that easy. If you try to define Japanese as Aso did, you`ll not only come off as being a racist, but you`ll also ignore so many other different groups of people who deserve to be called Japanese just as much. Moreover, each person has his own way of defining himself. Some people believe that in order to be Japanese, you must have Japanese blood. Others think that you must be able to speak Japanese fluently, and still others believe that having Japanese nationality is a requirement for being Japanese. However, what is most important is how you define yourself.
I may not fit the typical Japanese mold, but that`s fine with me. I`m perfectly happy being the bridge between two different cultures, because that`s what makes me me. That still doesn`t mean that I`m not Japanese. I consider myself just as Japanese as American. Turning my back on one country would be like letting go of a big chunk of my identity: impossible.
Contrary to what many people believe, Japan is a diverse country, and will become increasingly more so if more foreign workers are allowed in. Some of these workers will integrate into Japanese society and others may marry Japanese nationals and have children. To sum it up, there will be even more people who cannot fit the typical Japanese mold that politicians such as Aso describe. That is something that Japan will have to realize and accept.