to Index of Writing Samples
article was translated into Japanese and published ran in Newsweek
Surface of the Japanophile Fad
By Gil Asakawa
At least for now,
it's cool to be Japanese.
problem with all this "Japanization" of America is the nagging sense
that it is a surface phenomenon, a decorative flourish for one's lifestyle
like past fads for deco moderne, nouvelle cuisine or preppy clothing.
Fads, after all are passing fancies, and when it's passed, it won't
be cool to be Japanese anymore.
And below this
surface infatuation with Japonica, the specter of racism always remains.
relationship with Asians in general and Japanese in particular goes
back well over a hundred years.
The first group
of Japanese to arrive in America came in 1869, as settlers with The
Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, and by 1880, 148 Japanese lived
in the United States. But Japanese laborers couldn't leave their country
legally until after 1884, when they were allowed to go to Hawaii to
work the sugar plantations.
From there, many
made the move to the mainland, and by 1890, 2,038 Japanese lived in
America. They were recruited for their agricultural expertise and
work ethic. But Japanese immigration was stopped in 1907 when white
supremacist organizations, labor unions and racist politicians pushed
through in a "Gentlemen's Agreement" that ended the immigration of
laborers from Japan, permitting only wives and children of laborers
to enter the country. The Immigration Act of 1924 completely stopped
immigration of Japanese to the U.S., and the law remained on the books
until 1954, when a hundred immigrants a year were allowed. Meanwhile,
during World War II, anti-Japanese hysteria led to the imprisonment
of 120,000 first-generation Japanese (issei) and their American born
offspring (nisei) in internment camps simply because of their heritage.
The rationale was that they might be loyal to Japan and serve as spies
or otherwise help lead an invasion of America's West Coast.
always overt; it can be quite obscure. Japanese Americans (as well
as all Asian Americans) may grow up feeling the sting of being called
a "Chink," a "Jap," or a "gook," or they may never face any such confrontation.
But the hatred may be simmering within some Americans even as many
others pick up chopsticks and learn to love sushi.
The attack on
Pearl Harbor that sparked the U.S. entry into WWII scarred the American
psyche and allowed a sort of institutionalized cultural retribution
against Japanese. There is residual hatred and mistrust of Japanese
from WWII, as well as more recent incidents like the business imperialism
of the late '80s when booming Japan started buying up US landmarks
like Rockefeller Center. That's when anti-Japanese hatred really showed
With other Asian
immigrant populations since WWII, the countries and their cultures
weren't blamed for the wars that displaced them. In both Korea and
Vietnam, the Communists were the bad guys, not the Koreans or Vietnamese
as a people. But the Japanese as a whole and as a race were identified
and demonized as the Enemy just two generations ago, and those feelings
are still fresh in the minds of middle America.
We live in a
more enlightened, multicultural age today. Hence the trendy appreciation
of all things Japanese, as well as for other Asian traditions as yoga,
feng shui and a myriad martial arts. Yet, hate crimes against Asians
in the U.S. continue even as society as a whole embraces the concepts
of multi-culturalism. In 1998, Congressed introduced the Hate Crimes
Prevention Act, acknowledging the problem of racism in the country.
In the wake of
the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington DC, South
Asians from India were mistakenly singled out as Muslim in several
instances and were attacked and killed. Extremists raised the idea
of rounding up anyone of Middle Eastern descent to prevent any future
terrorist acts, eerily echoing the sentiments that justified the Japanese
internment 60 years earlier. By the way, not one Japanese American
was ever charged with an act of espionage during WWII.
activists recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death
of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American who was beaten to death
on June 19, 1982 by two Caucasian men in Detroit, the depressed heart
of the American auto industry, who blamed Japanese car manufacturers
for their economic distress and mistook Chin for Japanese.
Just a decade
ago, as the Japanese economic bubble of the go-go-'80s burst, Americans
took a harder stance against Japan than they had since World War II,
painting Japanese business as ruthless samurai warlords determined
to conquer the world through mergers and acquisitions instead of ships
and guns. When times are bad, Americans look for scapegoats, and Japan,
the country's onetime enemy and now erstwhile "little brother" who
will always look different and be an outsider to the Euro-centric
core of the United States, is an easy target for blame and retribution.
out of pity for land of the rising sun's floundering economy, shaky
government and setting Asian influence that Americans now find such
fascination with her pop culture, and when the next fad comes along,
or Japan's fortunes turn around and the pity morphs into envy, things
It remains to
be seen just how long it will be cool to be Japanese.