I know I spend a lot of posts writing about the ongoing racism and stereotypes that Asians face in the United States. That’s my passion, and it’s important to me. But I’m also aware that racism exists all over the world. At its worst, that’s why genocide still goes on, after all. And, I’m sad to say, racism is rife in Asia, even (especially?) in Japan, the country of my birth and family roots. It’s a tribal instinct to separate people by ethnicity, and we just have to constantly work at rising above those instincts in the 21st century, when we live in a much smaller and much more intertwined world.
My mother, who was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. in the mid-1960s with my two brothers and I when my father (himself Japanese but born in Hawai’i) was transferred stateside for his federal government job, is about as old-fashioned as they come. She’s been in the U.S. for over 40 years, but she’s still FOBish (“Fresh Off the Boat”) in a lot of her values, even today. When I called my parents to announce that my first wife — who was European American — and I were going to get a divorce, her first comment wasn’t anything sympathetic. She said bluntly, “See? I told you you should marry Japanese.”
Thanks mom, for the support.
So I was saddened but not exactly surprised to follow the controversy in China over Lou Jing, the Shanghai-born college student who’s shown in the video above, singing on “Go! Oriental Angel,” China’s version of “American Idol.” Lou (pronounced “LOH”) is mixed-race. Her mother is Chinese and her father, whom she’s never met, was African American. She’s a beautiful young woman, and a talented singer (her favorite performer is Beyonce). That’s a picture of Lou with her mother on the TV show, above.
But she’s such an unusual sight in China that the TV show labeled her “Black Pearl” and “Chocolate Girl,” and the media picked up on her inclusion in the show and made her a national racial sideshow. In a cultural switch from the “You speak such good English” line that Asian Americans get in the U.S., she’s grown up hearing people ask how she can speak such good Chinese. “Because I’m Chinese” is her answer, of course.
Following her appearances on the TV show, the Chinese blogosphere became filled with hateful comments aimed at both mother and daughter, venting outrage that her mother would have sex with a black man and calling Lou all manner of names and telling her to leave China (she will if she gets her wish for post-graduate study in the U.S.).
There are a lot of different ethnic groups in China, and they don’t all get along, as witnessed by the recent violence between ethnic Uighurs and Han in western China. But the majority of Chinese — 90% — are descended from the Han race. Although some Chinese are tolerant, many apparently are not.
CNN has a good video report with accompanying text about the racial issues that Lou Jing has sparked in China. Here’s a video of Lou performing on “Go! Oriental Angel”:
In the end, Lou didn’t make it to the finals of the program, but she exited with a graceful and hopeful message of tolerance. “I think I’m the same as all the girls here, except for my skin color,” she said to the national TV audience. “We share the same stage and the same dream. I’ve tried my best, so no matter what happens, I’ll hold onto my dream.”
Unfortunately, many children of Asian immigrant parents that I’ve spoken to over the years know just how tribal our root cultures can be. Growing up, we were told by our parents that we should date or marry people from our own community. If we dared to be with someone who’s not “one of us,” our parents had a list of acceptable alternatives starting with other Asians.
My mother was resistant to my older brother’s Korean wife at first (having a grandchild goes a long way towards building bridges). For most Asian Americans I’ve talked to who aren’t Japanese, Japanese mates hovered pretty low on the scale of acceptable mates — a ripple effect from Japan’s imperialism leading up to World War II. Caucasian mates are close to the top, though not ideal. African Americans are often at the bottom.
That’s the cultural mindset that many Asian American kids who are either immigrants or first-generation children of immigrants are raised within. Most of us break those rules because America is simply such a multicultural place. Hell, there were no Japanese girls at my high school, and no other Asians, for that matter. Japanese Americans in particular have had the highest out-marriage rate of any Asian population in the U.S. since the 1970s. It seems we’d rather marry anyone but another JA, even if our parents or grandparents would prefer we find a “good Japanese wife/husband.”
So I shouldn’t have been shocked at my mom’s response when I got divorced from my first wife.
In Japanese society, those traditional, tribal, racial lines are still vividly drawn. Koreans and Chinese are the largest foreign population in Japan but they’re discriminated against, even if their families have been in Japan for generations and have gone to great lengths to assimilate, for instance by changing their names to be more Japanese.
David Aldwinckle, a white American professor who moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, adopted a Japanese name, Arudou Debito and switched his citizenship, works tirelessly on behalf of foreigners who are being discriminated against in Japan, often bluntly with signs that say “Japanese only” (an eerie echo of the American South in the 1950s and early ’60s, when businesses would post “Whites Only” signs to keep out blacks).
A Wikipedia entry on Racism in Asian notes in its section on Japan:
Japanese society, with its ideology of homogeneity, has traditionally been intolerant of ethnic and other differences. It is safe to say that there has been a strong sense of xenophobia since it has opened borders to foreigners. For example, the Dutch sailors landed on the Japanese shore were characterized by their “butter-like” body odor, hairiness, and unsophisticated behavior. Those who were identified as different might be considered “polluted” â€”- the category applied historically to the outcasts of Japan, particularly the hisabetsu buraku, “discriminated communities,” often called burakumin, a term some find offensive â€”- and thus not suitable as marriage partners or employees. Men or women of mixed ancestry, those with family histories of certain diseases, and foreigners, and members of minority groups faced discrimination in a variety of forms. In 2005, a United Nations report expressed concerns about racism in Japan and that government recognition of the depth of the problem was not total. The author of the report, Doudou DiÃ¨ne (Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights), concluded after a nine-day investigation that racial discrimination and xenophobia in Japan primarily affects three groups: national minorities, Latin Americans of Japanese descent, mainly Japanese Brazilians, and foreigners from “poor” countries.
As Japan’s demographics shift and the country’s population leans more toward the elderly and the workforce suffers from years of low birthrates, foreigners — starting with Nikkei, or descendants of Japanese emigrants from countries such as Peru and Brazil but also laborers from other Asian countries — have increasingly found work in Japan. But many of these new immigrant workers find themselves shut out from mainstream Japanese society and end up being discriminated against and living in ethnic ghettos.
When the economy tanked and these low-level workers lost their jobs, the government in early 2009 began paying Japanese Peruvians and Brazilians to return to their homelands instead of receiving social services and unemployment benefits. Japan has its own rabid anti-immigration agitators like some talk-show hosts here in the U.S.
Which brings me back home, and the numbing fact that ignorance, prejudice and hatred is alive and well all over the world. I may rant and rave about how Asians are treated here in the U.S., but I have to acknowledge that people of all colors face the same treatment, and sometimes much worse, in other countries including Japan and China.
That just means those of us who write about these topics just need to keep it up, and never give up trying to change peoples’ minds and educate the ignorant.
I’m posting some links that help me think things through. If readers have sites or articles they’d like to share, send them long or include them in a comment below, and I’ll be happy to add them to the list. I hope this list of resources will be helpful, informative and thought-provoking over time.
One article that gives me hope and offers some perspective on U.S. attitudes toward immigration is from, of all place The Economist, a generally conservative, London-based magazine. The longish article, about why people from all over the world still dream about coming to America, is oddly titled “A Ponzi scheme that works” (see the last line for the reference) but its subtitle says it all: “The greatest strength of America is that people want to live there.”
Here are some links to stories about Lou Jing:
“Lou Jing and racism in China,” Hyphen Magazine
“Could a Mixed-Race Contestant Be a Chinese Idol?,” TIME magazine
“Shanghai â€˜Black Girlâ€™ Lou Jing Abused By Racist Netizens,” China Smack
Here are some links to more about racism in Japan:
Facts and Details has an interesting rundown of quotes and anecdotes, but there’s no way of telling how recent this information is (much of the cited material is from four or five years ago).
“Racism in Japan” is a blog post by Kelly Yancey, a white man who lives and works in Japan.
“Race and Racism in Asia – Race And Racism In Japan” – somewhat academic but useful historical overview
The entire Debito.org website run by Arudou Debito is worth exploring if you’re interested in the issue of race and prejudice in Japan.