Gil's Home Page / Resume / Fave Web Sites / 1957 TimeLine / "Toy Book" Excerpt / Nikkei View

Gil Asakawa
Writing Samples

Back to Index of Writing Samples

This article was translated into Japanese and published ran in Newsweek Japan.

Beneath the Surface of the Japanophile Fad

By Gil Asakawa

At least for now, it's cool to be Japanese.

The unsettling 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.

America's love-hate 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.

Racism isn't 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 itself again.

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.

Civil rights 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.

Perhaps it's 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 may change.

It remains to be seen just how long it will be cool to be Japanese.

Back to Index of Writing Samples

I've got plenty more writing samples if you're interested.
Thanks for reading!

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
Contact me at:

Gil's Home Page / Resume / Fave Web Sites / 1957 TimeLine / "Toy Book" Excerpt / Nikkei View