Nothing forces you to confront your own identity quite as sharply as the decision to adopt a child. At least that was my experience. On meeting my daughter for the first time at a Japanese orphanage, I found myself wondering if I could ever be a good father to a Japanese child when I was so ambivalent about Japan, a country in which I was born and raised. It was that discomfort, combined with the death of my unhappy father that set my on my journey into my family’s long history in Japan. A journey that would force me to explore a dark part of myself I never wanted to confront..
So what did I learn. For one thing, I learned just how difficult it is to talk about issues of race, culture and identity. They are tied up in so many other things, each of which comes with so much baggage..
My father, for example, was also born and raised in Japan. Both his parents were half Japanese. Both were raised in Japan. Growing up, I often heard my father say sharp things about “the Japanese.” At first I thought it was because of all the frustrations he faced dealing with the Japanese bureaucracy as a business person. As I drilled down, however, I learned more about how my father grew up hiding his Japanese heritage first as a high school student, when he was shocked one morning to wake up and read in the local newspaper the headline “Piedmont Helms Japs,” and later as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Occupation of Japan.
I asked one of my father’s white childhood friends about this issue of identity and she insisted Dad never faced discrimination but always had this “chip on his shoulder about the whole race thing.” What she didn’t realize, I now understand, is that even if we “mixed bloods” seldom face overt discrimination, we often internalize subtle cues. Why did I never admit to myself growing up, that I was part Japanese, for example? Nobody discriminated against me for being part Japanese. After all, I passed as white. I assume it was because I adopted all the insecurities of my father.
When you are raised without a strong sense of who you are, you become extremely sensitive to what people say around you. One great uncle Jim, for example, never forgot it when he was at a sports club in Kobe and overheard someone in the locker room at the sports club say: “Jim’s a good sort. He knows his place.” Doesn’t sound like a horribly racist thing to say, but Jim never got over that remark.