When I had conversations with my late mother in the 70s and 80s and till her passing in 2011, about her feelings on the difference between Americans and Japanese, she always mentioned freedom. She said that Americans were more じぶんが好きなようにできるからいいのよ。日本人はうるさいから。Americans were more free to do what they like, while the Japanese are fussier [about social rules].
What is freedom? When we call something or someone as having or wanting "freedom", what aspirations and social problems does this create? In western society, freedom is a word related to escape in relation to individualism (which is an ideology). No responsibilities, no ties, no concerns except for the self. In what ways, then, are social ills maintained and changed through our constructions of identity and definitions of freedom? What makes us what we say we are? Why does it matter?
For Japanese society, social-behavioral obligations are stronger and in following them individuals are more rewarded. In the U.S. social-obligations are not as important as a person “finding themselves and following a destiny” toward some kind of fulfillment. In each of these cases, the social rules are constructed. This means that for all of us alive now, the rules are in place and a given as we are raised and made into identities.
In the U.S. social-obligations are not as important as a person “finding themselves and following a destiny” toward some kind of fulfillment. In each of these cases, the social rules are constructed.
In the United States, being free refers to freedom to move whenever and wherever we want, saying whatever we want, thinking whatever we want. It is often a space from where we judge ourselves and other people, determine the next moment, or the next direction in our everyday lives, and in our goals and aspirations. It contradicts a sense of responsibility and sacrifice that we inherit from a secular Christianized form of behavioral obligations that we internalize from general United States culture.
For Black-Japanese such as myself, perhaps we long for freedom a bit more intensely, as it becomes about not only national identity (Japan and the United States), but also more about struggling against anti-Black attitudes and behaviors against “darker-other.”
As Hāfu and Amerasian hāfu, the predicament of freedom as an American or as Japanese, rests on being normal. The predicament of freedom as a Japanese, rests, also, in being normal. But the “normal” are different yet related. For Black-Japanese such as myself, perhaps we long for freedom a bit more intensely, as it becomes about not only national identity (Japan and the United States), but also more about struggling against anti-Black attitudes and behaviors against “darker-other.” This then dovetails with the oppression felt by many mixed-Japanese of any combination, when the impurity, or single—the mono-identity, is put into a higher position in social relations and institutions. For nation-states, it is “normal” to marginalize based on race (physical type), since there is a spoken or unspoken “normal” embedded and assumed when we become a nation and national person (by birth or otherwise).
In Japan, family history records may determine someone to be “non-Japanese” and therefore un-marry-able, or not hire-able, yet heritage or race or culture, may never be mentioned in the interaction. In this sense, in both the United States and Japan, it is often unseen and so the points of thinking about struggling against and changing such assumptions is made difficult if not trivial or silenced.
In Japan, in the post-world-war-II period, physical killings (murder, parent-child suicide, suicide, etc.) were very prevalent, then decreasing in intensity yet always present through the present-day. What becomes more prevalent in the modern period is self-mutilation (depression, self-hatred, self-cutting, drug abuse, internalized oppression, etc.). In the United States, this is also prevalent. This keeps the dominant mainstream violence as “normal” because it allows for a condescending gaze to see the mixed-race person as diseased, traumatized, wrong, while keeping the attention away from their own structural determinism.
Amidst all of this, is the mixed-person’s need to be “accepted.” In most cases, there are quite a few issues at play in modern U.S. and Japanese societies. There is the “need to be left alone” so that one can be free to at least be normal, to be human. This privileges individualism and often there is a lack of awareness of other kinds of oppression perpetrated on others.
One can find all the western ideas that informed Japanese elites which translated to the wider culture especially after the U.S. Occupation, when structural democracies and intellectual ideas were implanted and enforced in media, education, legal institutions, etc. in Japan. Of course it is never total—nothing ever is.
There is the “need to be accepted” that more overtly aspires to be “normal” and the assumption is that it makes us “become like everyone else.” There is no “everyone else” really, in that there are so many kinds of oppressions in the world. In Japanese society, being normal is to navigate between the new individualized notions of freedom—and I say “new” because personal aspirations to become a real person other than who one is now, and to “find oneself” is a western, modernizing phenomenon internalized from the colonial period. One can find all the western ideas that informed Japanese elites which translated to the wider culture especially after the U.S. Occupation, when structural democracies and intellectual ideas were implanted and enforced in media, education, legal institutions, etc. in Japan. Of course it is never total—nothing ever is. What happens is that there is a struggle, a juxtaposing, an uneven relationship between what is mandated and made normal, and what other forms and possibilities there are.
So, as hāfu, becoming an anonymous “just like everyone else” is done either through forging our behaviors into what is unobtrusive; or through the legal channels constructed for us in our nations. In both the U.S. and Japan, struggling for “rights” becomes the only legal channel—when it is related to what is defined as discrimination. In Japan, discrimination laws are very very few.
When I asked my mother what she thought was the difference between Japan and the U.S., she also said, アメリカはもっと自由だけどもっと寂しいところと感じる。でも日本も人の言うこと聞かなかったら寂しくなちゃうよね。America is more free but I feel it’s a lonelier place. But in Japan we become lonely too when we don’t do what others say.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh