On Being Japanese-American

I was born in Japan to Japanese parents. My parents and I immigrated to the United States when I was a baby. We had obtained permanent resident status, but remained Japanese citizens. About five years ago, I became a naturalized American citizen.

Becoming an American citizen was a conscious decision, which took me many years to make and to feel completely confident in doing. What did being an American mean to me? What did this change mean in light of the culture in which I was brought up? How does this political act of renouncing the country of my birth and pledging loyalty to the country where I live affect how I define myself as an individual?

My parents and I came to America with the hope for the proverbial land of opportunity. At the time we had left Japan, my father had been working in theatre and in film. He had felt that the government had too much control in the production of the parts, and wanted to escape to a place where ideas could be freely expressed. He told my mother, shortly after I was born, that life would be better for me growing up in America, that the educational system would allow for more creativity and individuality than in Japan, where rote memorization of facts and strict conformity were the norm.

My parents have said that I didn’t talk at all for the first two years of my life. They were worried that I was having difficulty comprehending both the Japanese spoken at home and the English spoken elsewhere, and had decided to speak only English to me, albeit broken English, so that I would understand the language before I started school. To their relief, when I was three years old, I began to speak in whole sentences-in English-but unfortunately, I was robbed of an opportunity to learn my parents’ language during my formative years.

In school, the hardest lessons had to do with socializing with my peers. From the beginning, that I was not white was made blatantly obvious to me. I endured countless chants of “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” and “Chinese people never curse, ah-so, ah-so.” In second grade, I remember trying to reason with these kids. “I’m not Chinese,” I said. “My knees are clean,” but to no avail. I couldn’t understand why anyone would tease me about being of another race. What was so strange about being Japanese? I wondered. But in a town where my family was one of only a handful of Asian families, I must have stood out in school. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me.

At home, my parents continued certain Japanese customs. We said Itte kimasu (“I’m leaving”) when we were leaving the house and were sent off with Itte irasshai (“Go then”) by those who stayed at home. Coming home, we announced our arrival by saying Tadaima (“I’m home”) and were greeted with Okaeri-nasai (“You’ve returned”). Before every meal, we said Itadakimasu (“I’ll eat”) and ended the meal with Gochisou-sama deshita (“Thank you for providing the food”). Our meals were either traditional Japanese foods or Western foods, so I grew up eating somen noodles and spaghetti, tonkatsu and pork chops. And always rice with every meal.

My father was the breadwinner, my mother the homemaker. My mother handled the finances and was largely responsible for bringing up the children. My father was often away for long periods of time for his job. If we kids acted up (and we often did), my dad would be the one to mete out the punishment, but then he would chastise my mother for not keeping us in line. It was a very traditional Japanese patriarchal family structure, and I chafed under it and rebelled against it every chance I could. I grew to see the Japanese culture with this perspective-an oppressive father figure, a submissive mother figure-and I was determined not to perpetuate this structure when I grew older.

As traveling to Japan was expensive, I did not have the opportunity to return to my birth country very often. The last time I was able to visit was ten years ago. All of my relatives live throughout Japan, and I was able to spend time with most of them during that summer.

Although I grew up hearing Japanese spoken between my parents, my own skills in speaking were poor, my reading skills deplorable. I had resisted learning Japanese when I was in elementary school, and had tried to cram a lifetime’s worth of learning on my own only a couple months before leaving for the trip. Most of my older relatives spoke no English at all, so conversing with them often consisted of their simple Japanese sentences that I understood, but with my broken, infantile phrases in response. They were polite and nodded their heads, but I knew from the awkward, silent pauses that I was not conveying my thoughts clearly.

I tried very hard to connect with everyone, however, and they were very eager to learn everything about American from me. Is it true, one of my uncles asked me, that everyone in America carries a gun? How can Americans eat such big portions of food? a cousin asked me. I thought all Americans ate hamburger, an aunt exclaimed, after I tried to politely explain that I didn’t eat meat. I want to speak English as fluently as you and work in America, another cousin wished fervently. Despite my blood ties to these people, I was viewed as a foreigner in my homeland.

And yet, I saw that the culture perpetuated by my parents was not necessarily the culture of my relatives. Many of the customs I grew up with were the same customs here, but the strict familial structure seemed not as apparent. There was more equality in parental responsibility among my aunts and uncles. Some of my older cousins are what the Japanese called DINKs (double income, no kids). Some of the women have already decided that they don’t want to marry, and would rather remain independent and self-sufficient. I began to think that my parents’ Japanese culture was frozen in time, from when they had left the country to start new lives.

When I returned to the States, I was welcomed by a customs official who said, “You speak English very well.” I found I craved the fresh vegetables and fish I had at my grandmother’s house, and took to drinking miso soup for breakfast instead of eating cereal as I used to do.
After my summer visit to Japan, I realized two things simultaneously: one, that I felt more at home in the United States; and two, that I wanted to learn as much about my Japanese heritage and culture as possible.

I think that one’s ties to a culture and community are strengthened by the knowledge of its history and language. Having grown up in the United States, I was immersed in English, immersed in American history. English is the language that serves as the vehicle for my expression of thoughts and ideas. But even though I am fluent in this language, there will always be situations in which I will be pre-judged as a foreigner of this country, just by the slant of my eyes and the shape of my face. Although I fully endeavor to learn more about Japan and the Japanese language (and I have since taken formal classes), the fact remains that it is not my primary language. I suppose I have an advantage over most students in that I grew up hearing it spoken, for the words and inflections sound familiar to me, but my American accent is indelible, my facial expressions and gestures betray more Western mannerisms.

When I took part in the naturalization ceremony five years ago, it became very clear to me: by taking the oath, I may be renouncing any political ties to Japan, but I am not foregoing my family or my heritage, nor am I denying that part of me which is Japanese. In pledging my loyalty to the United States, it is not out of blind patriotism that I do so; it is out of desire to learn, and to educate others in learning how many cultures can co-exist side by side in this country.

Someday, I want to immerse myself in Japan, learn more about its past and present, and let it enrich me further. I want to be able to express my thoughts as fluently in Japanese as I am able to in English. As I grow older, I find I have become a blend of cultures. I am not American, I am not Japanese. I am Japanese-American. That is who I am.

originally published 2004



  1. […] Japanese-American   […]

  2. Hi Yoko, this is a very eloquent essay about your dance with your identity. It’s a familiar dance to many of us. Keep up the great writing — we need more voices like yours!

  3. Hey, guess what? You’re even more of a minority than I am! In the course of assembling various statistics for the research paper I’m writing, I just discovered that Autistic Americans currently outnumber Japanese-Americans.

  4. Nicky– I wasn’t aware of that statistic! I would therefore deduce that the number of Autistic Japanese-Americans is very small!

  5. Hey, I finally posted my own essay on the most significant experience I’ve had so far in regards to coming to terms with my ethnic identity. Here it is.

  6. hello! i got here from Maki’s blog archives — whilst only my mother was Japanese, i can completely relate. *Especially* with the frustration of her decision that because we lived in America, “you speak only English”! Apparently Japanese is what i *started* to speak when i did, which apparently make it easy for me to learn now, but the emphasis on “only English” seems to make it difficult for me to keep any vocabulary in my head. Yet despite the (broken) english at home, the culture when i entered the front door was Japanese. (Tadaima!) 8( and the teasing at school . . . not helped by the fact that i grew up overtly Buddhist and didn’t understand a lot of things like Easter . . . and growing up essentially not knowing half my family because it was so expensive (and is!) to go there. Thank you for so eloquently expressing this!

  7. Hi aellath! Thanks very much for your comment. Although it sounds like it was difficult growing up for you, I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t alone in what I’ve experienced. I hope you found a way to tap into that half of your heritage. Thanks again for stopping by my blog.

  8. […] On Being Japanese-American […]

  9. Seeing how filming is in Japan currently, your father did an awesome decision to leave Japan. I am also Japanese American but I was never called Chinese. I really don’t like what is going on in Japan currently. Almost every show is like watching perverted shows. Even typical kids show shows many parts of nudity or semi nudity. Which is really stupid. Morally it is wrong. Glad America is not like that yet, religion really keeps the country’s morality high.

    I really don’t like how you express how your mother is submissive to your father… what is wrong with it? If the family is still going strong and no financial problem up-rises, then there is nothing wrong with it. You are frozen from what the society has brought up to you. Just like there is nothing wrong with wife being submissive, woman deciding not to marry is also her own decision. It is great how you have your “own” view toward your own family structure! Many people blindly do what the society around them are doing without thinking. In perhaps two or so decades, we will probably see an even more drastic change in our society, and those who are living the way they are doing now would be considered frozen in time as well!

    I am fluent in Japanese and in English. I don’t really have a noticeable accent and no one really makes fun of my accent. I don’t really look oriental and is usually confused to be Italian. I am American and Japanese and that is who I am.

  10. Hi Kotaro–

    Thanks for writing. I rarely check this blog anymore, so I apologize for the late reply. What I meant about my mother being submissive to my father was that she had suppressed her own feelings and opinions in deference to him. I had some awareness of this when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that mother confided in me that she often disagreed with my father (especially where raising children was concerned) but kept silent because he was the head of the household and didn’t want to raise arguments in front of the children. Although perhaps it was her choice to do so, I do not like what this did to her, that it robbed her of her voice and freedom of expression. Maybe it was wrong of me to attribute this to the Japanese culture, and I readily admit that; nevertheless, it was not a model that I wished to emulate.

  11. […] On Being Japanese-American […]

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