Japan’s Whiteness Problem, Part 3: The Diaspora and Whiteness

Japan’s Whiteness Problem, Part 3: The Diaspora and Whiteness

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How does the perception of Whiteness in Japan impact mixed-race Japanese? Two members of the Japanese diaspora give us their perspectives.

It’s been two months since my last piece about Whiteness in Japan. Before I get into the final part, I’d like to thank everyone who read, discussed, and critiqued the last two pieces. It’s a sensitive topic for many, and it won’t be resolved for quite some time. But still, I’d like to do what I can to contribute to the conversation.

How we discuss Whiteness is important. As I stated in Part I, because Whiteness is seen as the default worldwide, the notion of it being a construct is rarely challenged. In other words, because Japanese people have centered Whiteness in some form or another, then they must be OK with it. But, as also cited in Part I, not all Japanese people are OK with the notion. Or they recognize at the very least, that White supremacy is a construct, and not simply the way the world works.

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The Diaspora

Yet, within this discussion about Whiteness in Japan, one demographic that must be included in the conversation are members of the Japanese diaspora–the scattered population of people whose origins lie in Japan. Brazil has the largest Japanese diaspora, followed by the United States, the Philippines, Canada, and Peru.

Then, of course, there are also multiracial Japanese people, sometimes referred to as “hafu” [1], who have their own challenges in terms of racial discrimination and discourse.

For the final part of this piece, we will be discussion the disparity between Japanese nationals and Japanese diasporans in terms of the white gaze, and how conversations compare and contrast. It will also include excerpts from two interviews with members of the Japanese diaspora.

These discussions are anecdotal, and to conduct a massive survey of every person of Japanese descent would be a massive undertaking that would take years. So admittedly, these discussions are limited in scope for now. Despite this, I still hope you find this piece useful.

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Disagreement in the Diaspora

White people will often speak over Japanese diasporans during these controversies. "Well, people from Japan have no problem with it, so why are you complaining?" Click To Tweet

Admittedly, as a Black American woman, I am an outside observer in this discussion. However, as a member of the Africana Diaspora, I am all too familiar with the disagreements that occur within a diaspora.

When you live in a country where most people share the same race or ethnicity, as opposed to being a marginalized person in a colonized nation, there will be clashing perspectives on what is considered offensive. When it comes to differing views within the Japanese diaspora, there are two events that come to mind.

The first is the 2016 Boston Museum of Fine Arts Kimono Controversy [2]. In this situation, the museum planned to launch an event called Kimono Wednesdays, in conjunction with their exhibit on Monet’s “La Japonaise”.

Asian-Americans, particularly Japanese-Americans, criticized this event. A main feature of the event was for patrons to try on a kimono for the first time and take pictures while wearing it. Diasporans labeled this as cultural appropriation. But Japanese nationals were confused. Within Japan, a kimono is simply seen as a quintessential item of clothing.

We won’t be tackling the topic of cultural appropriation on its own. That would require a whole other essay [3]. But what is notable here is the tendency for White people to speak over Japanese diasporans during these controversies. A common refrain will be, “Well, people from Japan have no problem with it, so why are you complaining?”

The second controversy that comes to mind is the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell [4]. This was seen as a case of whitewashing. Johannson is White while Kusanagi is visibly Japanese, even if she is an android. Once again, there was a cultural gap between Japanese diasporans and nationals — the latter seemed thrilled to have Johansson as the lead role, even suggesting that her being White would be better than having “someone from another Asian country pretend to be Japanese.” [5]

These are just a couple of situations where the diaspora’s input concerning conversations about Whiteness, or the White gaze, has been called into question. Too often it is boiled down to an argument of “Who is really Japanese” and therefore has the right the question instances of cultural appropriation, whitewashing, or Orientalism. And this, just like denial of colorism, or ignorance of the propaganda machine, impedes progress towards greater understanding.

Interview Questions

Via Direct Message, I was able to interview two members of the Japanese diaspora about their experiences. We discussed, not only their personal identities, but how this ties into a larger conversation about Whiteness, especially in Japan. Please note that these are two of just what I’m sure is a plethora of experiences, as no one group is a monolith.

For the context — and for your personal discussion if you prefer — here were the questions I asked:

  1.  What is your identity?
  2. What are your experiences with Japanese people discussing your identity?
  3. What are your experiences with non-Japanese people discussing your identity?
  4.  Are there any notable experiences on social media and or in real-life concerning people discrediting your identity during a conversation?
  5.  Do you believe that Japanese people value the opinions of white people over the opinions of Japanese diasporans?
  6. How has the concept of Whiteness in Japan affected your life?

Noted Experiences: Sachi

First, we have Sachi Ishikawa, a translator and regular co-host of the Unseen Japan live stream. She is of Japanese and German descent. She briefly lived in Spain and identifies as part of the Japanese diaspora.

While her real-life experiences talking to Japanese people about her identity have been pleasant and respectful, “under the protection of anonymity, many will say what they feel, [especially] if those feelings are racist.”

"I noticed that [Black Japanese women] received a lot of negative attention online. I recognized that, as much hate as I got for being hafu, I would never experience that level of bigotry." Click To Tweet

Sachi notes that while Japanese netizens may not show a disdain for Japanese people with White ancestry, they are contemptuous towards those who grew up in the US or Europe, because they think they’re “trying to change traditional Japan”. Fortunately within the diaspora, there is much more unity, because their “lived realities differ so much from native-Japanese people. But they’re equally as real and Japanese as anyone else’s.”

When I asked if anyone discredited Sachi’s input online because of her identity, she noted two experiences. The first one was when she wrote a viral tweet about why many cisgender White men move to Japan in the first place and also about the manga magazine Shonen Jump featuring an inappropriate image of an underage female character:

Both times I was hounded, especially for the Shonen Jump one, by weebs who told me I “wasn’t Japanese enough” to have an opinion and they were seriously mean about it.

Just around that time, Unseen had also written a tweet and an article about the Red Cross fiasco. They invented a “web challenge” to see who could get blocked by both of us.

I was also featured in 4chan, and 5chan and had a fake “Roast Me” pic uploaded on Reddit. Videos were made and uploaded to YouTube and blog posts were written. I still sometimes randomly find my name in dubious websites when I do a deep-dive to know what’s going on.

-Sachi Ishikawa

I then asked if she feels Japanese people value the opinions of White people over diasporans. She acknowledged that, while Whiteness definitely acts as a buffer from scrutiny in Japan, Japanese people are more concerned if “your opinions align with [theirs]”:

I have found many Japanese people IRL and online who are only interested in talking with people who share their views. That is not to say everyone, of course, but people, in general, do align more with people they agree with.

There is a lot of “national pride” for Japan as a tourist attraction (what with it having four seasons and all, lol!) so they do like to hear tourists gush about how pretty the country is (which, admittedly, it is).

-Sachi Ishikawa

Finally when I asked about how Whiteness in Japan has affected Sachi’s life, she responded that while her Japanese heritage made her an outsider in Spain, she didn’t experience as much backlash in Japan because she was still White, as opposed to Black:

…I finally began to understand the layers of racism and how the one that affected me was wildly different than what other hafus experienced. It was also at the time where conversations about Ariana Miyamoto boomed, and now recently as well with Naomi Osaka—Black Japanese women.

I noticed that they received a lot of negative attention online. I recognized that, as much hate as I got for being hafu, I would never experience that level of bigotry. I, a victim of racism and bullying, would never see this level of hate because, at the end of the day, I had white skin and was half-white. It was eye-opening and humbling to acknowledge my privilege.

-Sachi Ishikawa

Noted Experiences: Jeannie

Jeannie is also biracial–her father is White, her mother is Japanese. She identified as “hafu” while growing up in Tokyo in the 1990s, but refers to herself as Japanese-American in the States, “partly as a recognition of [her] place among Japanese diaspora people throughout history, in the US and around the world, and partly because the word ‘hafu’ doesn’t mean much outside of the homeland!”

Because Jeannie is White-passing, Japanese people saw her more as a foreigner. As such, they would compliment on her Japanese and her handling of chopsticks. She was often quizzed on her Japanese identity–what she “ate for breakfast”, what she called her parents, etc.

"I’m not 'not Japanese' for not having encyclopedic Naruto knowledge. I’m just… an adult." Click To Tweet

Like most multicultural Japanese children and/or returnees, Jeannie received praise from adults for being a bridge between two cultures — with no regard for how she felt about being a bridge. As an adult, she did have an unpleasant experience when she asked a simple question in Japanese at bar, which conflicts with the bridge aspect she grew up in:

As an adult, I don’t spend as much time back home as I would like, but on my last trip home, I tried to order drinks at a bar–all I said was “いいですか?” (“are we good to order?”) and all the other patrons gasped. One even said loudly that it was キモい (creepy) to watch me speaking Japanese.

It hit me like a shock and made me reflect on my neighborhood growing up and how I came to lose those friendships with my neighbors.

…I’m not a big horror fan, but seeing the clip from the movie The VVitch (2015) of a goat suddenly speaking English, I wonder if that’s how I look to a lot of Japanese people–even though it’s the language I grew up speaking with my mom and my Japanese family.

It’s a challenge to balance the triad of my own internal sense of home, the sense of responsibility I feel to the world as someone with a particularly unique perspective, and the frustration and resentment I feel in having to prove over and over and over and over and over again that I am who I am, and am not delusional or suspicious for considering myself a Japanese person.

(I also want to make clear that there have been exceptions to this—more and more Japanese people understand, or at least don’t bother questioning, that you can be Japanese without “looking like a Japanese person!”)

-Jeannie

In Jeannie’s experience, White people generally regard her as White, and even claim to have forgotten “she’s actually Japanese”, until “it’s convenient for them to regard [her] otherwise.” One time it was when a friend needed advice about a sushi book. Another time was when a boy bullied her in school by calling her a J** day in and day-out.

When I asked about her experiences on social media, Jeannie did note that people tried to measure her “Japaneseness” in a superficial manner:

It’s maybe more “justified” (for lack of a better word) in Japan, where there’s a better understanding of how Japanese culture plays out, than every time some white person has told me that not watching anime makes me less Japanese than them. I’m not “not Japanese” for not having encyclopedic Naruto knowledge, I’m just… an adult… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

On social media I’ve learned not to give my full story all at once, and selectively mute threads that I start or participate in, in order to avoid this sort of policing from strangers that can make me so frustrated it derails my whole day. I’ve had to work hard to internalize that it’s not my business how other people decide to see me.

-Jeannie

I then asked if Japanese nationals value the opinions of White people over diasporans. Jeannie said yes, and that it’s more due to a lack of historical knowledge about the diaspora itself, rather than outright disdain for them. She herself didn’t know about the Japanese-Peruvian and Japanese-Brazilian communities until she moved to the US:

“I don’t know if Japanese immigration is taught in any school textbooks: everything I know about Japanese diaspora history comes from English-language media. Most mainland Japanese people I’ve spoken to didn’t even know that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put in camps during WWII.

If Japanese people had the opportunity to learn about (for example) the contributions people like us made to the agriculture in the US at the turn of the 20th century (rather than dismissing such people as having “dropped out” of Japanese society), I’d like to think they’d be proud!”

-Jeannie

Finally when I asked about how Whiteness in Japan has affected her life, Jeannie said her being both White and multiracial has “helped her understand the ideas of ‘white privilege’ intuitively”:

 I know from my experience growing up that I am absolutely treated differently based on the way I look, and it’s not an intellectual stretch to extrapolate that in a country where white people are in power, I gain social capital from looking like them.

I do feel a strong sense of pride for being Japanese, and I do consider my household a “Japanese-American household” even if it’s just me, my husband (white, who I met at American School in Tokyo), and our dog. It’s important for me to use my voice to stand up for non-white people, and I’ve had the privilege of being connected through activism to my local Japanese-American community.

-Jeannie

Previously In This Series

Japan’s Whiteness Problem Part 2: The Propaganda Machine

Blackface in Japan: Its History – and Its Consequences

Sources

[1] Hafu: The Film. http://hafufilm.com/en/about/meaning-of-the-word-hafu/

[2] Seeing Beyond “Kimono Wednesdays”: On Asian American Protest. https://hyperallergic.com/223694/seeing-beyond-kimono-wednesdays-on-asian-american-protest/

[3] The Dress Code: Is the Kimono Trend Cultural Appropriation? https://dismantlemag.com/2019/07/22/dress-code-kimono-cultural-appropriation/

[4] A Comprehensive Guide to the Ghost in the Shell Controversy. https://time.com/4714367/ghost-in-the-shell-controversy-scarlett-johansson/

[5] Japanese Fans React to ‘Ghost in the Shell’. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/japanese-fans-react-ghost-shell-992255/

Thalia Harris

Thalia-Marie Harris is a North Jersey/New York native, currently residing in Tokyo, where she works as an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her previous pieces have appeared in Metropolis Tokyo and pacificREVIEW.

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