Culture November 29, 2018
Japanese Mom, Non-Japanese Kid
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about a mixed-Japanese child either born and/or raised outside of Japan, is the personal-cultural aspects of the relationship between the Japanese parent and the child, who grows up to be an adult. Since my ethnographic focus for my book, as well as my life experiences with Amerasians are with my mother and her friends and their families, and Japanese mothers in general, this will be my focus here, rather than families with Japanese fathers.
One aspect of the Japanese mother-American child relationship growing up in the United States, is the fact of loneliness. Not all mothers, primarily, will feel this, but I have met a few who have mentioned how lonely they are, in that their children know nothing about being Japanese except through books, movies, and the mothers’ own stories, imparted. The mother is aware that this is not the same as if the child had been raised, at least a part of their life, in Japan. The pain of this loneliness seems to often be lessened or alleviated whenever the mother has made a commitment to become as American as possible, and to “leave their Japanese-ness behind.” Mothers are usually aware that this “leaving their Japanese-ness behind” is not completely possible in the new land where the children are usually more at home. Nevertheless, because of war-experience, devastation, trauma, and a sort of Zen Buddhist mentality to be present wherever one is, many Japanese women are willing to leave behind their former lives and assimilate into “American-ness” as much as possible. It’s interesting to mention that for most mothers, the one thing that they keep as their “Japanese-ness” is Japanese food, either openly or in secret.

Often, I find that the Japanese mother is happy to know that their “American” child is interested in Japanese-ness. I do know a few mothers who also became angry with their children for being interested in finding their Japanese roots.
A general pervasive first-priority for many hāfu when it comes to connecting with their Japanese heritage, is learning Japanese language. However, I have met many Japanese war brides (mothers) who do not want to speak Japanese at all—except with other Japanese mothers. This may be for a variety of reasons—from assimilation, to wanting their children to be proficient in English, to resisting Japanese-ness, and other reasons. Often, I find that the Japanese mother is happy to know that their “American” child is interested in Japanese-ness. I do know a few mothers who also became angry with their children for being interested in finding their Japanese roots. For this, there are usually very personal reasons that we may never find out.

What has happened politically with the mother, in Japan, often foreshadows the proximity a mother wants or does not want in relation to Japanese-ness. My own mother resisted wearing kimonos and we did not participate in most Japanese holidays and festivals except for certain kinds of holiday foods.
One aspect that is not often talked about in relation to Japanese cultural identity, is the identity of the mother in relation to their own heritage. Some Japanese mothers are Zainichi Korean, or Okinawan, or like my mother—mixed with other identities such as Chinese and Austrian, for instance. What has happened politically with the mother, in Japan, often foreshadows the proximity a mother wants or does not want in relation to Japanese-ness. My own mother resisted wearing kimonos and we did not participate in most Japanese holidays and festivals except for certain kinds of holiday foods. Her Japanese friends in the United States were those who had kind of “rebel” personalities, for instance, rather than those who most would consider “very Japanese” in manner and in the mainstream Japanese ways of seeing the world. My own mother did not have to work with me as hard, since I had lived with her in both instances of living in Japan and my main work was in learning to be “American.” However, because my own relationship to American-ness was being black, there is a tense relationship with whatever most people would call “American.” For mothers who were Zainichi Korean, or Okinawan, or mixed-Chinese or other mixes, I have found that “becoming an individual” became a major way of becoming “self” in the family. Again, this would depend on the parents. Of course, to mention here, there are families whose fathers do not want much to do with Japanese-ness and this may also guide the ways in which a hāfu child, growing into adulthood, may approach their own search for identity.

But it can be frustrating in that many mothers would rather leave some things in the past. What is left for the hāfu child is that as an adult, that cultural rift never goes away, or perhaps is ignored enough and that it is not an issue in the family because Japanese-ness has receded in the family, especially when one is not living in the United States or Europe, or South America, or another country.
Nevertheless, most hāfu children of Japanese mothers find that the mothers are very touched by their hāfu children wanting to learn Japanese language and be interested more in the mother’s story. But it can be frustrating in that many mothers would rather leave some things in the past. What is left for the hāfu child is that as an adult, that cultural rift never goes away, or perhaps is ignored enough and that it is not an issue in the family because Japanese-ness has receded in the family, especially when one is not living in the United States or Europe, or South America, or another country. For those hāfu living in a country that is not one of their parent’s homelands, it is even more complex.

Although much is lost as years go by, for those of us who have not had the means to go to Japan to spend time again, memory becomes more important. However, in any case, both searching for and remembering are both dependent upon strength of desire and necessity.
For someone like myself, whose first language is Japanese, and who grew up in two different time periods in early life, in Japan, Japanese-ness is not foreign, but an integral part of lived experience/identity. For hāfu born outside of Japan, Japanese identity is not a lived experience but a heritage. They are different and do not need to be put on a hierarchy of some kind. For myself, it has been more of needing to maintain, of not losing. Although much is lost as years go by, for those of us who have not had the means to go to Japan to spend time again, memory becomes more important. However, in any case, both searching for and remembering are dependent upon strength of desire and necessity.
For some mothers I have spoken with, they revealed that each person has to find their own path, whether in Japan or outside of Japan. They also mentioned that in some ways it is lonely, in that their Japanese identity has never been the same as their hāfu child/ren or their spouses, and that this was prepared for as best as they could. Whatever Japanese-ness a hāfu child may internalize, it brings us closer to the Japanese Mom in some ways, and at the same time, keeps us far from the Japanese-ness she knew.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh

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