What defines us? Who are we? The concept of identity is extremely flexible and very slippery, making it open for interpretation and therefore, ultimately dependent on us as individuals. Nonetheless, there is an overwhelming, yet understandable fixation upon finding an answer for ourselves. So, what is identity? Erving Goffman, a famous sociologist, argues that in fact, there is no true self and our ideas of who we are as individuals are constructed by our surroundings. When we think of our identity, categories such as nationality, ethnicity, occupation or societal role may be the first few that come to mind. These categories that seem secure and solid are creations of society– merely artificial labels. Are we succumbing to what is put upon us by others? Do we not have a sense of identity on our own? So, what does define us?
My name is Eri Kanda and also Elly Katherine White. I was born in Tokyo and half-raised in Oregon. I have a Japanese mother and an American father. Never would I have thought this information would greatly affect how people perceive me, and concurrently force me to rethink about myself.
I have lived in Japan consecutively for almost ten years. I speak the language perfectly (in my opinion) and I would like to say I know the culture pretty well (as well as anyone who day-dreamed a little too much during history class.) Ever since I can remember I have been an outcast in Japan. In elementary school I remember two boys giving me nasty looks and telling me that the only reason my family is in Japan is because my American father is planning to drop an atomic bomb on Japan again. Kids, so ruthless and insensitive. I remember one time when I went to a group of classmates, one kid told me to “go away, foreigner (gaijin)!” To which me being feisty and sassy from a young age informed him that “if that’s what we’re saying, for me, you’re the foreigner so why don’t you just back off.” As much as I would love to give little me a medal for standing up for myself, these comments, whether direct or not, never stopped and never stopped bothering me.
The people around me seemed to have trouble with two things: My appearance and my name. While I was in a joint junior high school and high school, I rarely, if ever, got comments about my appearance. The infrequent comments signified more of a realization that I was bi-racial, as if people forgot this fact. This, however, was probably from my effort to “fit in” as much as possible. When speaking English, I never spoke in my American accent until the last two years of school. I tried to be what I thought was as Japanese as possible, and I seemed to be passing until I got into university. At university, it seemed every student I met was curious of my ethnic background asking “Are you ha-fu?” People’s perception went from not seeing my American blood, to only being able to see it. And I got it everywhere. Shop clerks, servers and even strangers on the street started to treat me as if I could not understand Japanese and was a foreigner. When I went to cafes, the servers would point at the pictures on the menu and speak impatiently slow. When I went into a restaurant and ordered donburi (rice bowls), I would get a spoon along with my chopsticks when my friends would not. When I tried to go on elevators, Japanese people would ask “a-ppu?” instead of asking in Japanese. Obviously, this created countless awkward moments with my passive-aggressive tactics. If a server spoke to me in English or spoke intentionally slow because they assumed I didn’t speak the language, I would smile and let my fluent Japanese elegantly roll off my tongue. If I got a spoon with my donburi, I would clean the bowl without a single grain of rice left with my impeccable chopstick skills.
This treatment worsened whenever I worked. I work at a restaurant in a fairly famous hotel, and I have accumulated many stories that steal the show at bars. Customers have spoken to me in English, completely ignoring my fluent Japanese or the countless times I tell him/her my native language is, here’s the kicker, Japanese. Most of the responses I would get were “Your Japanese is better than mine!” or “It’s your native language?…can’t be!” Customers constantly asked me where I was from and my genuine answer, “Tokyo,” never really satisfied them. So, they would continue “No, but where are you originally from…Is your father a foreigner?” These questions seemed degrading and unaccepting of me as Japanese. In the midst of my early-life crisis, I came across a concept of the Japanese identity called Nihonjinron. When I first heard of this terminology, I remember slouching back in my chair during class and scoffing at the word written on the blackboard. You have to be kidding me, I thought. So, now there’s this whole pile of research informing me I don’t belong? Naturally, I looked into it.
Nihonjinron is the concept of the monolithic Japanese identity. The core element of this concept is that Japanese people are linguistically and culturally homogeneous (Liddicoat, 2007, p.34). Through this belief of homogeneity, the idea is that the culture is too unique and complicated for foreigners, or anyone of different cultures to apprehend. The idea that Japanese people and the culture are homogenous further excludes people of other countries since they don’t share the same blood. All this applies to my situation. For many people, it didn’t matter that I was born in Japan or spoke the language. My appearance, which gave away my “impure blood”, was enough to cast me away as a foreigner. What further complicated this label was the discrepancy it had with my name.
When people find out that my name is a traditional Japanese name with kanji, most of their reactions are a bewildered, “Your name is Kanda!?” I smile proudly and simply say, “Yes, yes it is. Ta-da!” and walk away. There was even one customer that acted like he knew me and told his friends that I was married, and therefore have a Japanese name.
The most frequent question I get is if I have a middle name or not. This is a bit complicated because I do and I don’t at the same time. Like I previously said my name is also Elly Katherine White, so in a sense I do have a middle name; however, in Japan I’m Eri Kanda or 神田英里. I have become slightly obsessed with this distinction over the years. When I was younger, it never concerned me. My two names were there simply for convenience. It was my mother’s idea to give us two names (which is not uncommon.) Before I was born, she took my father’s name and went by Mrs. White in Japan. This resulted in many double takes and stares when called out at the doctors or restaurants. My mother was even asked if her husband was a dentist, which I’ve got to say is ingenious. Who else to rely on to have your teeth whitened than by Dr. White? Anyway, she hated the attention and didn’t want us to go through it. After moving to Japan permanently, I’ve gotten excessive amount of questions about my “American” name. I hated it because it made me feel like they were emphasizing my foreignness, as if my Japanese name doesn’t suit me and probably for them, it doesn’t. But I love my two names. There aren’t that many people who can say they have a train station and a color named after them.
The further I researched Nihonjinron, the more everything started to make sense. According to Manabe and Befu (1992) the tenets of Nihonjinron can be further grouped into four categories. Homogeneity: the idea that the Japanese people are unique, or “uniquely unique” (Liddicoat, 2007). Blood: the belief and strong emphasis on the importance of blood not only for the appearance, but also for it being the main factor in understanding the Japanese culture fully and obtaining mutual communication. Cultural competence: the denial of the ability for foreigners to understand the language and culture. Social participation: the rejection against foreigners in the secluded island from any participation to society in the form of marriage, employment, teaching or political leadership (Liddicoat, 2007, p.94). Being a young woman mixed with Caucasian blood has all resulted in positive reactions. For some, my aggravation may seem unnecessary and self-indulgent. These specific tenets of Nihonjinron gave me confirmation that there was seclusion. Even if the remarks I get are positive and well-intended, it didn’t change the fact that there was an invisible line drawn between me and other Japanese people. But Japanese people are a homogenous culture, so what do I expect, right?
It took me a while to come to terms with the reality and live with this constant reminder of people thinking I don’t belong. For a while I succumbed to all the stereotypes. When someone would ask me “Where are you from?” I answered that, “I was born in Tokyo but was also raised in the U.S.” When asked, “Your name is Kanda!?”, I answered “Yeah, with this face!? I’m a living hypocrite.” These answers were my escape routes, my easy way out of the condescending questions. People seemed charmed by these answers than when told the truth. The truth resulted in me bombarded with even more personal questions. I started to think that I was not Japanese, but someone in between. A ha-fu. I was becoming the label people plastered on me. The problem with giving in was that I started to lose myself. I didn’t know who I was, nor did I stand for anything. I was completely lost.
The trip through denial, aggravation, and uncertainty gave me time to re-think how I saw myself regardless of others’ opinions. I was able to go on a journey to “find myself” without the hassle of backpacking across the world.
Identity doesn’t have to be determined by where you were born or where you are from. It doesn’t have to do with where your parents are from or what their ethnicity is. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what language you don’t. For the most part, sure, identity is co-constructed by the people around us and by society. But, we individuals have the power to deny those labels or affiliations pushed upon us. We don’t have to give in to what others will be comfortable with. It’s exhilarating to be different. Every single one of us is unique even in this society that proclaims homogeneity.
I’m a Japanese American university student that is proud to be Japanese and proud to be American. I look racially ambiguous and with all my might still don’t look 21 years old, but at least I know for a fact I’m not married. I’m a newly-minted adult still on an adventure of becoming comfortable with myself, and my identity is changing every single day. I’m just one of the millions living in this busy city that is Tokyo and all I’m doing is ranting at any given opportunity to change at least one person’s perspective of how complicated identity can be and appearance does not present the whole picture.