Who’s Really Japanese?

January 18th, 2013By Category: Culture


When I first came to Japan, things were so much simpler. Men were men, Japanese were Japanese, and foreigners were gaijin.

Now everything’s gone to pieces, nuanced to the point that when somebody talks about “the Japanese,” I don’t even know who they mean. That it’s not me is the only thing that’s clear. Things are complicated in modern Japan, is what I’m saying. Three things, actually, or maybe four.

Thing 1: A lot of Japanese Aren’t Japanese

I mean literally, they’re not. You know those polite Japanese folks who’re always welcoming you into shops and restaurants and bowing like crazy when you leave? And when you get home from vacation you tell people how wonderfully polite Japanese people are? Well, a lot of them aren’t from Japan. As with service-sector positions the world over, they’re frequently staffed by immigrants, meaning folks from China, Korea, the Philippines, even the Middle East. I’ve even met one Asian-looking Australian gal who wore a kimono and worked as a waitress. She let tourists think she was Japanese, and got a real kick when they took her picture. So polite, those Australians.

Now, if you know me, you know I eat out a lot, with “a lot” being synonymous for “every meal.” And so I was in a restaurant a couple of weeks ago, but no matter how many times I asked the waiter for some cold tofu, he just couldn’t get what I was saying. See, I’ve been on something of a cold tofu diet lately—what can I say, it was a hot summer, plus I gotta watch my weight, since I eat out all the freaking time—and because I order it every day, I know my pronunciation is spot on.

“Do you serve cold tofu?” I asked in Japanese.

“Old dofu?” the waiter replied with a Chinese accent.

“Uh, no. New dofu, but cold, as in chilled.”

“Gold stove flue?”

“Cold tofu.”

“Mold-toe shoe?”

“Yes, mold-toe shoe. That’s what I would like. Please bring me a steaming plate of mold-toe shoe.”

Finally he disappeared and a Japanese person came by and took my order. Damn foreigners, always messing up the place. I swear.

Thing Two: Books and Their Covers

You know how all Japanese people look alike? Well, my first job in Japan was teaching English, and it was maddening, since all of my students looked exactly the same. I had 400 adults and I couldn’t keep any of them straight. It was like teaching a race of clones. But as the months and years passed, I grew more accustomed to Japanese faces, and people started to look a little different. Then super different. Some people had flat noses and small, squinty eyes, while others had high noses and rounded eyes. Some faces were fat, some were gaunt, and they seemed to span every imaginable color. I even had one guy who was bright orange. Gotta watch your beta carotene intake when that happens. All them cantaloupes and carrots really add up.

Anyway, after a couple of years, I started working with kids in the public schools. Now that’ll expand your mind in a hurry. Kids all look completely different! Something about young people—you can see the genetics much more clearly, before they sit through years of mind-numbing classes that weather their faces into similar masks of boredom and resignation. A number of them obviously had various Asian, white or black blood somewhere in their lineage, and a few were even whiter than I was, which is saying something. Of course, the idea that all Japanese are Asian is as much a fiction as saying all Brits look like Prince Charles. I had several Japanese students who sported afros, others were blond, and a couple with blue eyes. Quite a few weren’t Asian at all. But somehow their outward whiteness or blackness failed to magically convey upon them the power of English. I’d be like, How’s it going? and they’d tilt their heads and go, Eh? They were as foreign as Obama is Kenyan.

Which brought up an interesting point. It’s often said that Japan is a nation of one race, but the more I researched the subject, the murkier things became. Not only are there numerous races in Japan, but there seems to be no agreement upon the number of races in the world, or what “race” even is. The scientific consensus by people with extra-large brains seems to be that race, as such, is an artificial construct, and doesn’t actually exist in nature. This probably isn’t news to anyone who didn’t sleep through four years of high school Biology class, but it was to me, and might be to the majority of the Japanese population as well. It also turns out that there’s more genetic variation within races than between races, meaning that although I look as white as Eminem, I might actually be blacker than Chris Brown. Given that, you’d think I’d be a better dancer, but apparently there are some things that science can’t yet explain.

The clearest definition I was able to find divided the world into three races of people: Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongoloid. Where this leaves all those Mexican people, I have no idea. But anyway, I now understand the error I made. I thought I was a gaijin living among a nation of Japanese people, when in reality I’m a Caucasian surrounded by a bunch of Mongoloids. So I guess that’s some comfort.

Japanese Ethnicity

Perhaps a more compelling way of determining who’s Japanese and who isn’t is the concept of ethnicity, where members of a group are distinguished by their common language, background, culture, and ideals. While this sounds a reasonable, I wonder how well it really works in practice. For example, I once met a dark-skinned black guy in a book store in L.A. He was college-aged, dressed in almost overly stereotypical African-American clothing: baggy jeans, Timberland boots, jersey, baseball cap, chains. He looked like a rapper, frankly. But what drew my attention was that he was fully engrossed in a software manual written in Japanese. I asked him how it was that he could read it, and he replied in heavily-accented English that it was because he was Japanese. He’d been born and raised in Japan, and was now studying abroad. A lot of Japanese who don’t fit the mold of “typical Japanese” seem to chose that option. Can’t imagine why.

Now, I can easily accept the idea of a black man being ethnically Japanese. I mean really, if he was born in Japan, what else could he be? But I wonder how well it works out for him in Japan; how many times he’s gone to a restaurant and been handed the English menu. Even fourth-generation Koreans get singled out as “not Japanese,” despite having lived in Japan all their lives and having their ancestors come from a country that’s so close you could kayak there. The idea of ethnicity defining what someone as “Japanese” seems simplistic. Or is that idealistic? I really gotta save up for a dictionary.

We all Live Overseas

I don’t want to start you tripping balls here, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how quickly the absolutes of nationalism, race, and ethnicity fall apart. In a world where you can fly Tokyo to L.A. in nine hours and watch Simpsons reruns from your condo in Kyoto, boundaries frequently overlap and blur. If a child is born in Japan, but raised in the U.S., is that person Japanese or American? What if one parent is white, does that change the equation? Then take the opposite case: If a child is born in the U.S. but raised in Japan, is the child Japanese? What if both parents are Asian? Both white? And if your cat has kittens in the oven, does that make them biscuits?

When I took Japanese in college, two of my classmates identified themselves as “Japanese.” They grew up in the U.S., and in both cases, their grandparents had emigrated from Japan. They were third-generation Japanese-Americans, one had never even been to Japan, and both knew less about the language and culture of the nation than I did. How that’s even possible, I have no idea, but somehow they’d managed to be whiter than I was. Similarly, one of my colleagues at a Japanese university was a white man who’d been born in Japan, had a Japanese name, but had attended international schools in Japan and thus spoke only meager Japanese. He said he was American, despite having never lived there. So apparently it’s possible to be born in a country, but not be of that country, and the reverse is also true. Maybe a diagram with some circles and arrows would help.

Thing Three: You Gotta Appreciate People who tell you the Truth

I met a rather, let’s say, “free-thinking” individual, in an izakaya a few months ago. Now, I know what you’re saying: Ken Seeroi in an izakaya? Zoinks, Scoob, like that’s impossible. Hey, I’m branching out. Anyway, in the course of a conversation spanning several glasses of shochu, he informed me that a) he sometimes sleeps with transvestites, also known in Japan as “new halfs,” and b) that Japanese people are terribly insecure about their own identities. Frankly, he had me at transvestite.

“All Japanese people know their families originally come from places like China and Korea,” he said. “We just deny it.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “Go back to the part where you said you sleep with women who are really men?

“As long as they have breasts,” he said, “I’m okay with it. But I’m not gay, you know.

“Dude, if you say so. Anyway, China and Korea what?

“And other places in Asia, and Russia. Look, we all came here from somewhere. Only the natives of Hokkaido and Okinawa are really Japanese. And even they had to come here sometime in the past.

“I think we’re out of shochu,” I said. Then, “I’ve heard they’re hugely discriminated against.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “How else could the rest of us feel like we’re the only ‘pure Japanese’?

“Sounds like native Americans in the U.S.” I said. An image of an Indian with a small tear running from the corner of his eye came to mind.

“Try asking a Japanese person where his family was from before they came to Japan.

“You’re freaking me out,” I said.

“You mean that Japan’s really just a nation of immigrants?

“No, that you sleep with dudes. Like, doesn’t the plumbing get in the way?

“No, they look just like women. You can’t tell the difference. I’m not gay, by the way, you know.

“Yeah, and I’m not a gaijin.”

Now, you can be pretty sure that anybody who tells you he sleeps with transvestites isn’t sugar coating things a whole lot, which is rare in this nation. Understandably, Japanese people don’t like to have discussions about racial purity with people of other races, any more than white Americans would feel comfortable discussing “white purity” around black people. Still, I’ve had the discussion here several times, and the topic of what it means to be “racially pure Japanese” (純日本人) is hardly rare. A quick internet search for the Japanese term will turn up plenty of threads on the topic. It’s also common to hear Japanese people remarking among themselves that one of their group looks more or less “Japanese” than another. In my discussions with close friends, one thing has become crystal clear: preserving one’s identity as a “real Japanese” is of the utmost importance. That and the best way to do so is by labeling everybody else as gaijin. Okay, that’s two things. Whatever. I’ve never been good with math. After a dictionary, remind me to get an abacus.

Race is Everything in Japan

The truth is, as specious a concept as it is, race is a huge deal in Japan. Japan is roughly where the U.S. was in the nineteen-fifties, with people of all skin colors routinely distinguishing between those who are viewed as “Japanese” and those who are “gaijin,” just as notions of “white” and “black” used to be much clearer in the U.S., before suburban kids discovered hip hop. By contrast, consider this recent headline:

Shouryya Ray, from Dresden, Germany, solved two fundamental particle dynamics theories.

The German teen solved a 300-year-old mathematical riddle posed by Sir Isaac Newton. Yeah, well sure, anyone could do that at sixteen. It’s not like he has to do his own laundry. Only later in the article did it say that he’d arrived “from Calcutta four years ago without knowing any German.” Yet despite growing up in India, recently moving from India, having an Indian name, and looking about as far from Aryan as humanly possible, he was identified as being “German.” Well, why not? He lives in Germany. And people who live in Germany are called . . . goooogle . . . oh right, German.

Now, grok on that for a moment. If Shouryya Ray had come to Japan, with his Indian name and looking all Indian and everything, then solved that theory, would anyone—even a single person—have said he was “Japanese”? Shaa, right. And why not?

In a word, Race.

The standard retort seems to be, “Well, that’s just Japan,” followed a shrugged, “It’s a different culture,” and “Japan will never change.” But really, it already has, and continues to do so at a fierce pace. You can see it walking down the street—from the Japanese sumo wrestlers, some from Mongolia, walking through Akihabara in massive kimonos, typing like mad on their Chinese-made American iPhones—to the legions of Japanese people lined up for their traditional lunch of McDonalds and Starbucks, in stores staffed by Japanese people from China. The nation’s awash in foreigners and foreign culture even as it struggles to deny it. If Japan doesn’t have a Rosa Parks moment, it’s only because so few people actually want to be “real Japanese,” with all the awkward social interactions and workaholic lifestyle that it entails. But as the population ages and the world gets smaller, for better or worse, the notion of what it means to be “Japanese” will continue to evolve. Sure, things never change. Until one day, when they suddenly do.

Author of this article

Ken Seeroi

I'm that guy who writes JapaneseRuleof7, bringing knowledge to your brain straight from Japan. My writings are mostly humor mixed with social commentary, plus an occasional foray into language education.

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  • sovita says:

    this article is really frank about Japan. I am living in japan since last June.. i find the things exactly the way.. and this article speaks out..

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Mold-toe shoe?! ahaha, that’s a good one! I get that I look Japanese from time to time, which is surprising to me because I am not.

  • Verena Hopp says:

    And don’t forget the Sumo wrestler from Egypt Osunaarashi. My friend from England and me, a German (Japanologist who graduated on Sumo), put him into his team. I thought there might be problems about his nationality – but now he is all over TV all the time, people scream his name to cheer for him. Just cool. I believe in Kokusaika. (Says the German working at Tokyo Riverside School – Japanese Language School in Asakusa…you get the idea.)

    I’d like to meet over some cold Tofu Ken. Am writing on a book about “Haafu” (being positive), would like to get some other authors into the boat.

    Great read.
    Yours, Verena

  • I love this blog! By the wayI would like to recommend you a book written by a French professor who stayed Japan since 1974 to neary 15years as a French teacher and has Kuro-Obi of Aikidou. The tytle is Besoin de Japon by Jean-Francois Sabouret. Unfortunately there wern’t English , published in French and Japanese tranlate eddition only, but your essay on Japan is very close to his work.

  • disqus_nA0OvlHEsN says:

    I love this!!! You had me laughing a few times and as your thoughts kept going back to the transvestite so do mine. 🙂 I grew up in Japan and am doing my best to move back there. I was a military dependent all of my life but attended and international school in Yokohama for a few years so many of my friends were Japanese.
    I completely understand how the American growing up in Japan and knowing more about the Japanese culture than their own, remains American, or both, or a completely different group and is neither but still both. I speak Japanese with no accent but not fluently as I lived on base around English speaking people. But, I can relate more to a Japanese childhood as I grew up with Candy Candy, Doraemon and Pink Lady. The Power Rangers were originally called Gorenja and jan ken po is how you settle and argument. Inari sushi, yakisoba and udon were everyday meals for my family with the occasional Mos Burger. Everything makes sense there so when you come back to the U.S. you wonder sometimes why things are done the way they are here. But, I love my country and am proud to say that I am American but am even more proud to say that I am an American who was able to grow up in the wonderful, amazing and beautiful country of Japan. Japan has a way of attaching to your soul. My heart has formed over the years into two equal parts.and when I see the two flags flying next to each other, that sums it all up for me.

  • Dave Jenkins says:

    nice article. Not to nit-pick, but the Aryans were thought to come Northern India/Himalaya region.