Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Being White and Japanese in a Japanese School

In this excerpt from the 1996 Shunji Iwai film Swallowtail Butterfly (スワロウテイル), a Caucasian character talks about being born and raised in Japan, speaking only Japanese, but never being accepted as Japanese by the people around him. It isn't enough to be ethnically Japanese, in order to be Japanese you must be racially Japanese as well. Interestingly, it goes the other way~ those of undiluted Japanese ancestry  raised else where are also rejected as being truly Japanese. The character from Swallowtail Butterfly is not as hypothetical as you may assume. In this video, David Ury (who plays the youtube character Ken Tanaka, a white American adopted by Japanese parents back when white babies were fashionable) is excited to encounter another "white Japanese":

When I wrote about being not Japanese in a Japanese school, I mentioned some European children whose parents had moved to Japan for work. That is not what I am talking about in this post. When I say "white Japanese", I mean Caucasian children who are ethnically Japanese; raised entirely in Japan, speaking Japanese as a first language. It is not as uncommon as you might think, but again, my personal experiences are limited and I do not intend for this post to be read as an objective assessment or generalisation. I'm writing only about my experiences observing how my co-workers dealt with these students.

For children raised in Japan, the constant reminder of their foreignness must be difficult to cope with. Being referred to as "my gaijin friend" by someone born in the same clinic as you and who attended the same pre-school and elementary school as you must be frustrating. Likewise being constantly asked when you are "going home" and people addressing you in English. My students' background is from a non-English speaking country and they speak English about as well as their classmates (hint: not at all), but because they are blonde and pale-eyed strangers constantly attempt to engage them in English. My most recently graduated student has a bi-lingual first name spelled in Kanji; it wasn't exotic enough for one teacher who instead called her "Elizabeth" for three years. While marking one of her essays a Japanese teacher commented that "when I read her homework or talk to her mother on the phone, I forget that they are foreign!" This caused great laughter in the staffroom. Just imagine, forgetting about race?! Hilarious. Anyway. One would assume having been raised and educated entirely in Japan that the kids' Japanese would be native level, but this seemed to be a source of constant surprise for their teachers. Despite having graduated from Japanese kindergarten, elementary school and junior high school, and having sat and passed the same entrance exams as everyone else, the high school of one of my graduated students still telephoned the JHS to ask if there had been any "communication difficulties" with him. While I haven't observed any particularly negative stereotyping or exclusionary behaviour towards these students, the constant reminder that they were somehow 'outsiders', no matter what, can't be easy for them.

Edit A:
Another video on the topic of experiences of Caucasian kids growing up in Japan

Edit B: On the topic of being treated as an outsider in your own country, I recently read a couple of American stories about similar experiences that provide an interesting (if depressing) reminder that Japan isn't the only country that has these issues:

Walmart calls police on bi-racial family (suspects father of "kidnapping" his children because they "don't match")

Asian-American woman being asked, not for the first time, if she needs help reading an English menu
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  1. Whoa!! These videos are so cool!

    1. It's funny to see the term "third culture kids" in the 1996 film. It's so well established now but obviously that's quite recent.


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