Ambiguous and Proud

As the only Japanese girl in my tiny, conservative Midwestern town, I grew up fighting for Japan. In discussions about World War II in history class, the attack on Pearl Harbor would inevitably come up, and the boys would tease me mercilessly that the war was my fault. “Your people didn’t play fair,” they would say, and a blush of anger and embarrassment would flare up on my cheeks as I would explain the unfairness of the atomic bombs. They would laugh and tell me to go back to Japan – I was too unpatriotic.

But even as they mistakenly called me Chinese and stretched their eyes with their fingers to mimic the shape of my eyes, I never felt embarrassed of being Japanese. My American father and Japanese mother had instilled in me a great sense of pride in being Japanese. My siblings and I grew up in a bilingual environment. Because my father became fluent in Japanese, the rule was that we could only speak Japanese in the house and watch only Japanese television. My mother urged us to complete nine years of Japanese Saturday School, and her cooking palette included not only Japanese, but Thai, Italian, and Indian cuisine. My father made it a point to counter popular thought – he became an organic and local farmer at a time when this type of agriculture was made fun of as being “hippie” and impractical, for example – and because my father was the world to me, I made it a point to flaunt my uniqueness to my classmates. To think of it now, normalcy was to be white. Thus, I never identified as “white”; in fact, I rejected it again and again.

Yet I never identified as “Asian American” either – I identified as foreign Japanese and melting-pot American. When my friends urged me to date the only Chinese American guy in school, saying that we were both Asian and thus compatible, beneath my polite laughs I felt a tickle of anger. Culturally and linguistically, it is true that China and Japan are similar, but it irked me that they could group us together as one and say that we were the same.
During high school, I discovered that my parents had very much shaped my identity – they had always urged us to be both American and Japanese. But I felt that I needed to escape their protection to find my identity on my own. Thus, during my senior year of high school, I flew to Tokyo alone to spend an academic year abroad. There, it soon became clear that my light skin tone and curly Italian hair automatically allowed Japanese people to pin me as a foreigner, even though I spoke fluent Japanese and knew the culture extremely well. My appearance alone falsified my Japanese identity. One day, my Korean-Japanese friend told me that one of her classmates complained about wearing the same uniform as I did on the train, because I “stood out” and embarrassed her. My suspicion of being rejected by other Japanese was finally confirmed.

I came back to the States knowing that in Japan, I was American, and in America, I was Japanese. I could never be fully accepted by either group, which saddened me. In my mind, the world was conspiring against me.

But after taking a course in Asian American Studies and Hapa (Mixed Race) Studies with the incredible Prof. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, I have come to think of my non-acceptance by any group as a valuable quality. Not automatically being placed in one specific racial group on campus gives me the freedom to skip around, learn about different cultures and people without shame or doubts of being too white or too Asian. I am not white or Asian, or black or Latina, or any race at all for that matter, because in my mind identifying as a specific race cements racism.

All of my life I have searched for a clear identity and a place where I could be fully accepted. But today, my identity is vaguer than ever before. I seem to have multiple cultural identities, and no racial identity. But strangely, this vagueness does not faze me. To you, I might be Asian, white, or even Latina, but frankly it does not matter. Call me what you want, but I am ambiguous and proud.


I first found out about the danger of the nuclear radiation leaking from the Fukushima plants after the disastrous March 11th earthquake in Japan from a single text. A French friend who was studying abroad in Tokyo with me sent me a series of panic-stricken words full of concern about the effects of the radiation. “My friends from home are telling me it is dangerous to stay,” she had written. “Are you going home?”

This caught me completely by surprise, since in the days following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of northern Japan, I, along with everyone else, was still just trying to accept the reality of the harrowing, stark sights of the aftermath of the tsunami. The Japanese media covered the nuclear plant and its many problems, but officials calmly proclaimed on television that of course, everything was under control. My host family believed them, as did I.

So I laughed off that text, replying to her that it would blow over soon enough and that there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

Then, my parents finally got through to me on the faulty phone lines, and my father’s worried voice cut through across the Pacific and into my innocent ear. He told me that he and my mother were rooted in front of our television day and night, watching the news on the Japanese news channel. The situation with the plant could get worse, and the Japanese media may be hiding the truth from its citizens, he told me.

I could feel the panic steadily grow inside of me as a thousand what-if scenarios repeated over and over in my mind. What if the media was feeding us lies? What if the nuclear plant blew up and radiation leaked into Tokyo? Tokyo was only a three hour bullet train ride from the plant. What if I couldn’t get to safety in time? What if there was another, even more destructive earthquake and tsunami headed to Tokyo? Tokyo Bay would rush in and drown us all.

That night, I started having nightmares of being pierced by radiation. The moonlight that streamed in through the window would burn me alive in these dreams, and I would toss and turn to try to get away. I wondered if there was already radiation in the water I drank to quench my parched throat in the morning. I trembled as violently as the aftershocks.

But my host family continued on as if nothing happened. They laughed, just as I had laughed at my friend, about my fears of radiation poisoning. They focused their energy on keeping Japan together after the tragedy of the tsunami.

To this day, I wonder if it was right of me to leave Tokyo just as Japan was facing a catastrophe. I could have stayed and helped the Japanese citizens somehow. I could have suffered with them. But my family was calling anxiously over the rushing waters of the ocean that separated us, and the nightmares would not stop.

I feel terrible because I had the option to leave. My host family and friends from school did not have that luxury, and thus comforted themselves with a baseless knowledge that they would not be hurt. I left with tears of sorrow, but also of guilt.

Thus, I applaud the courage of two indie filmmakers, Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski, for going back to the radiation filled lands and air of Fukushima after the disaster, and trying to capture the stories of those who could not escape – those whose lives have deep and impenetrable roots in the now contaminated soil of Fukushima. Kajino and Koziarski’s documentary, Uncanny Terrain, which they are still in the process of completing, shows the lives of organic farmers of the area who cannot sell their produce because of the level of radiation.

Kajino and Koziarski held a preview showing of the documentary on Sunday at High Concept Laboratories. They showed only raw footage of what they had taken so far at this benefit event. In order to go back to Fukushima again to capture the one year anniversary of the earthquake, they needed to raise money, they said.

In the footage, one farmer poses the question of what can be said to be grown organically – without pesticides or herbicides – when the land itself is contaminated. Another farmer explains how many Fukushima residents face discrimination from other Japanese. He said people do not want to be near them for fear of “catching the radiation” and that cars with Fukushima plates are asked to be moved from parking spaces because they think those cars will contaminate the spaces.

When I saw the footage of the beautiful green mountains and rice paddies, which now are contaminated by radiation, I was both filled with sorrow and guilt. But another emotion soon consumed me – anger. These farmers had done nothing to deserve this, and yet, they suffer severely. Farmers are being forced to kill their livestock. They do not know of the effects of the radiation on their own bodies.

Had Japan done this to its own people? A well-researched article called “The Fallout” in the New Yorker explains that the United States may have effectively introduced nuclear power to Japan. After World War II, the article said, President Eisenhower was concerned that the fear Japanese citizens had of the nuclear weaponry America used against Japan was pushing it away from the United States. The solution they came up with was to put in place nuclear plants for peaceful purposes. Japanese politicians soon got on board, since they saw it as an easier way to create energy.

Now, more than half a century after the eruption of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is again plagued with radiation. Will it be able to escape from nuclear energy? Will Japan finally learn to turn to wind, solar or geothermal energy?

Though someday I would like to return to live in Japan a bit more, my mother is still wary of the idea. There is always the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis. But now there is the added bonus of radiation – and radiation-poisoned food.

But as I think of my father’s own organic farm in Central Illinois, I think of the fact that Illinois relies heavily on nuclear power, as well. Recently, there has been news of a nuclear power plant in Byron, Illinois, shutting down because of power loss. My solution when faced with danger in Tokyo was to run away, but what will happen if our own organic farm was contaminated by radiation?

I can only sit and pretend that there is no danger, and fill myself with lies. This time, I have no other home to escape to and my heart is rooted in the dark black soil of our Bottomland.

The Question of Disappearance

I should have known. But it still came to me as a shock when I looked around during Wildcat Welcome week and found that though I was surrounded by Asian American faces, not one was Japanese.

Perhaps Japanese Americans or Japanese international students at Northwestern stuck together, and I had not chanced upon them yet, I thought.

Yet a quarter and a few weeks later, I am still in search of that group. I have discovered that the Japan Club is made up almost entirely by non-Japanese students, and though I have met some Japanese Americans, or at least heard of a few people of Japanese descent that apparently exist somewhere in the realm of our undergraduate population, I have yet to meet a concrete group of Japanese students that hang out together. I am close to concluding that such a group does not exist.

I guess after growing up in a conservative, Midwestern town where I was the only half-Japanese, much less Japanese, girl for miles and miles, I expected my college experience to be different. I believed that college – especially Northwestern, a university that boasts diversity – would have Japanese or half-Japanese people who would share my experiences. Chicago, I knew, had a Japanese population, so why would Northwestern be any different?

After searching, pondering, and asking all around, I found that the answer may lie in Japan herself. Japan has become more and more isolated over the years, and has kept most of its people inside her borders. There are many reasons for this; mainly, as I learned while studying abroad in a private Tokyo girls’ school last year, because Japan has a dwindling population to start with. My teacher, an older man, told all of us girls to “have lots of babies to save Japan.” Because of economic prosperity and more work options for women, Japanese women are starting families in their 40s instead of their 20s. Thus, they cannot have many children.

They also cannot afford to have many children. Japanese families are small because supporting a child through the grueling process of education is incredibly expensive. Because succeeding in life is all based on getting into a good college, and getting into a good college is in turn based all upon a single test, parents must spend extraordinary amounts of money on their children to have private tutors, or to go to expensive cram schools.

So the population of Japanese children is dwindling, and the Japanese government cannot afford to lose more people to immigration. That explains the downward spiral of the population of Japanese Americans residing in the United States.

But why are there so few Japanese students studying abroad? South Korea is undergoing the same problem of a dwindling population, but Korean international students are numerous at Northwestern.

This is a difficult question, since Japan – like Korea – knows that the future lies in global marketing. In any job, fluency in English would be greatly valued.

My theory is that Japanese students are so comfortable in their Japanese society that they do not want to experience being a foreign exchange student in a new place and culture. When I was studying abroad in Tokyo, I noticed that most of the girls I went to school with did not have dreams of living outside Japan. They had their puri-cura booths (photo sticker booths where eyes are made bigger and faces are literally changed so that they appear prettier) and karaoke, kawaii (cute) shops, and Disneyland (which they adore to the point of obsession). They had all that they ever wanted at their fingertips – not to mention a complex society which they were lucky enough to understand and navigate.

They did not want to study abroad in college, for they suffered through all-nighters, cram schools, tests and memorization just to be accepted into a good college, which would guarantee them a job. In Japan, college is where students are finally able to escape the strangling pressure to perform and do whatever they want. Tests are a piece of cake, class attendance is almost optional, and the last year is usually spent applying for jobs.

So why would you give that up to suffer through self-consciousness and difficult classes in the States? Not to mention that you would also have to give up a school that would guarantee you a job.

A final theory of mine is that after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands in northern Japan last year, Japanese people felt obligated to stay in the country to help rebuilding their ailing homeland. Every Japanese was expected to do something for their country. So that was yet another reason for Japanese students to stay home.

In the end, it is perhaps not really surprising that hardly any Japanese student seems to exist at Northwestern. And though I miss the opportunity to speak Japanese every day, as I had done at home, I will keep up my fluency in other ways.

For now, I guess I will remain the half-Japanese American student at Northwestern. At least as an Asian American, and as a mixed race student, I do not feel so alone.