Culture June 20, 2018
The Look of Words
So I was at a meeting of mostly Japanese-speaking Japanese nationals, American Japanese, and some white folks who spoke fluent Japanese. It was a meeting about Japanese culture in flux. When I raised my hand and spoke, I misspoke one word and people laughed. I had to say that my Japanese language was sometimes “off” because I had forgotten and have not been around too many Japanese people throughout my adult life. Since that moment, it was very hard for people to take me seriously in that meeting.
After the meeting, when people mingled, I could tell who was decidedly condescending towards me. A couple of people flat-out suggested that I speak English. What was great was that a couple of other Japanese people disagreed and admonished those people to “shut-up” and that they were prejudiced and that my Japanese language was Japanese.

But nevertheless, these moments make me think of how language plays a position in relation to other people. We are measured and put into certain locations in a hierarchy in other people’s minds.
Being hāfu and bilingual, living in the United States, I have chosen to speak Japanese or English depending on contexts and moods. In Japanese establishments in California or Washington State or wherever I am, sometimes a Japanese-speaking friend would become irritated or puzzled when I do not speak Japanese with other Japanese-speaking people. Often, they think it is because I am insecure about my Japanese. I am not. Remembering that my Japanese-speaking abilities are not very modern (I mostly have spoken with a mother from the war period, and with a few friends and at restaurants through the years). But of course I am still confident in my speaking abilities. Japanese is my first language. I am not ashamed of asking for help whenever I do not know how to say something because I have either forgotten, or have never said certain things in Japanese because they are adult topics. I was never an adult in Japan. But nevertheless, these moments make me think of how language plays a position in relation to other people. We are measured and put into certain locations in a hierarchy in other people’s minds. I do not personally care, but I will speak up whenever I feel that someone is degrading me or excluding me (if it matters). We cannot control people and I am not alive to be a missionary of correctness or to always think that others are here to make me comfortable. But politically, I feel I have an obligation to my ancestors and those who cannot speak, and for the struggle for a different world than the world we have largely inherited. Language ability plays a critical role, but it seems to always be mediated by what one looks like.

...many Japanese, even after they learn that I was born and raised in Japan and have a Japanese mother, will speak to me as foreigner.
Many Americans who see me speaking with others in Japanese, will sometimes be very suspicious, or will outwardly question the others if my Japanese was “good” or “fluent.” Why should they care? And for many Japanese, they’ll automatically consider me “foreign” anyway, before any words were spoken, and are often amazed by my Japanese-speaking ability as if I were someone who learned it from outside of my self, as non-Japanese. And further, many Japanese, even after they learn that I was born and raised in Japan and have a Japanese mother, will speak to me as foreigner. It is irritating to be sure. Instead of thinking of these as individual isolated incidents, we see the patterns of yet another way of using an aspect of a person’s looks, words, mannerisms, histories, and worldview, for domination, exclusion, degrading. It is something that needs scrutinizing.
In relation/contrast to this, I was with a Chinese-American acquaintance in Los Angeles. He was born in L.A. but had studied in various places around the world, including Japan, at some point in his life. His language acquisition, I must say, was wonderful and I appreciated him. He spoke perfect Japanese as well as Mandarin, Spanish and English. We decided to go eat at one of the many good Japanese restaurants in Gardena (this is in the 1970s). He ordered for both of us in Japanese. Toward the middle of the meal, the waitress that was serving us commented in Japanese on how good my Japanese was (but not his). I was born and raised in Japan, and yet I was supposedly not supposed to be able to speak Japanese? What are the boundaries of the look of words and nations, colors and cultures? What allows, exoticizes, displaces us? What do these things, then, build and create emotionally and intellectually for those like myself. The liberal way, of course, is to “ignore” them. Over and over, thousands of times: impossible. It is structural, not personal. It is history unexamined, internalized. Each of us lives these things out in the world.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh

What is the Hapa Japan Database Project?

Part educational. Part genealogical. All connected.

Learn More