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Journal: "Are You Japanese?"

Note: This Journal entry was written on October 1, 2001, as I walked on the Old Tokaido. Take a look at that day's Logbook for more.


Three times in two days I've been asked this question.

The first, yesterday morning, was yelled in Japanese by a guy speeding by on a bicycle. Assuming he was being a smart-aleck, I yelled back, "Yes!"

The second was yesterday evening. I stopped in Higashiyama Station to look at the map and locate the youth hostel where I'm staying. A woman walked by and asked where I was going (in broken English). I answered, she communicated that that's what she guessed, and proceeded to show me the way. She was going there, too. At the check-in counter she asked what I was doing in Nagoya, and I answered. Finally she looked at me and said, "Are you Japanese?"

This was courtesy, this was kindness. My Japanese friends have often asked me the same question in the same way, or they've said, "You are more Japanese than the Japanese" because of my interest in Japanese culture. They are being kind; more on this below.

But today was the stunner. A group of boys around 10 years old stopped me as I approached Chiryu and fired a lot of excited questions at me: "Where are you going? When did you start? How long will it take?" etc. Fortunately, I've heard--and answered--all of these questions before. So the conversation ran along in fairly fluent Japanese. Then one boy gave me a good long look and--without guile--asked: "Are you Japanese?"

Wow. There are a few--a very few--native-born Japanese of European stock. (I once read that Japan was 99.5% ethnic Japanese, 0.4% Korean, and 0.1% everything else, including Chinese. Those figures have almost certainly changed recently, though.)

But for a year, a private student and I discussed the question "What is Japanese?" We talked a lot about cultural things--the writing is Chinese, the racial origins are likely Korean, the modern culture is largely Western. But although all these things come from somewhere else, they are now 100% uniquely Japanese. What was once imported is now indigenous.

So, can one "become" Japanese, the way one "becomes" American?

I think not. Years ago I was studying the religions of the Indians of the American Southwest. I wanted to "join" the Hopi religion, only to learn that to do so one must be Hopi. Not de jure--by law--but de facto, as a matter of fact. I think the same is true in Japan.

In a sense, it's probably true anywhere. If you weren't born in America, if you arrive at the age of 13 or 30, you can take a test and become legally American, but there will always be shared experiences--Romper Room, say, for people my age--that you've missed. You'll always be "different."

The same is true here, but magnified. It's said that 20 years after you arrive, well-meaning friends--who know how long you've been here--will still compliment you on how well you use chopsticks, or how well you speak Japanese.

There seems to be a feeling that only Japanese people can do these things. Another standard idea is that many Japanese are surprised to hear that other places have "four seasons." They think that's a Japanese thing. Last week, a young man in his 20's asked me in all sincerity if there were mosquitoes in America. When I said "Yes," he was surprised; he had always assumed they were only found in Japan.

What I'm saying is that there is a certain amount of insular or parochial or--some would say--jingoistic thinking here. It's natural, though: when so much emphasis is placed on "the group," it automatically creates a large class of people who are not in the group.

So: Am I Japanese? No, and I never will be. I love Japan. It feels like home. If I accepted the idea of reincarnation 100%, I'd swear I had lived here before. I often have feelings of nostalgia when I see something for the first time. Not deja vu, mind you, but real nostalgia.

Notwithstanding, one is born Japanese, not made. No matter how much I learn, no matter how much I appreciate, no matter how much I focus on things Japanese, it will always be a matter of using my head. I can explain things about Buddhism that many Japanese don't know; but they can have an intuitive grasp, a heartfelt connection, just by walking onto a temple's grounds, in a way that I can never approach. I will always be on the outside looking in.

So I'm not more Japanese than the Japanese; I'm not Japanese at all. But I am, and always will be, a Japanophile of the highest order.

Posted October 3, 2019

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