Growing Up Different but Never Alienated
TOKYO -- “Gaijin da, gaijin da!” my playmates began taunting me one day at the neighborhood park near my home in Kobe, the port city in western Japan where I grew up.
It meant “look foreigner!” and although at age 4 I couldn’t grasp the full import of what they were saying, I knew what I was -- and I told them so: “I’m not gaijin. I’m Japanese. I’m also Australian.”
We all stared at each other, little brows furrowed. Japanese and Australian -- how could that be? The other kids went back to the jungle gym, leaving me to figure out a puzzle whose pieces I’m still pulling together at age 28.
Am I really Japanese? I was born in Japan, my first language was Japanese and I’ve spent three-quarters of my life here. But I don’t look Japanese, and that has always foiled my attempts to pass as one in a country that cloaks itself in an impenetrable veneer of homogeneity.
So in Japan, my native country, I am “haafu,” from the word “half.” My mother is Japanese and my late father was an Australian of Scottish descent. To most here, I’m simply “haafu gaijin” -- half foreign.
My home was the haven where the two sides could freely interact.
My mother named me Obiko, my father Natalie. My sister is Rhona Yoshiko. Dinners alternated between our Western dining room and a room with tatami mats looking out over a moss garden with a pine tree, always followed by a plunge in a cedarwood bath.
I spoke English with my dad, though he was fluent in Japanese. Yet conversations flipped easily between the two languages for the sake of my mother, who spoke little English.
We alternated Christmases between Kobe and Sydney. My father’s ashes are buried both in Japan and Australia. Until his death in 1998, we kept homes in both countries. My mother is 58 and lives in Tokyo now.
The family joke was that my mother couldn’t have found a less suitable match -- a divorced gaijin who already had two daughters, who had spent World War II as an Allied intelligence officer, and who had come to Japan with an occupying army.
My mother, Setsuko Miwa, was a travel agent from a conservative family that traced its roots to the samurai class in feudal Japan. Her choice of Bob Pearson for a husband initially horrified her family. Nowadays, some consider marrying a foreigner to be “cool,” but back then it was widely believed that only barmaids did it.
My father was judged less harshly -- in fact, being a man, he enjoyed a certain glamour that Japanese attach to Caucasian males to this day.
But in Australia things were no easier. The stigma of war brides lingered and the term “Jap” was still heard.
My parents never dwelt on the difficulties they must have faced as a couple, but since reaching marrying age myself, I have developed an immense respect for the lonely, if rewarding, life my mother chose. I always had the sense that she was fighting all the prejudices as she reared my sister and me -- that if for any reason the marriage failed, she would be fulfilling those stereotypes.
When I left at 17 to attend university in New Jersey, my older sister was already living in Philadelphia and had resolved not to return. My dad moved back to Australia after more than 40 years in Japan, my mother reluctantly in tow.
But not for long. Maybe he missed soaking in the hot springs with a cup of sake on a crisp winter day, or maybe it was the scent of Japanese pines that blanketed the moss-green hills overlooking Kobe port. Whatever the reason, after about six months he turned to my mother one day and said, “Setsuko, shall we go back to Japan for a little while?” Until he died of liver cancer several years later, my parents were happiest spending half the year in each country.
But where did all this leave me? In Japan, a country with little exposure to immigration, my upbringing didn’t just set me apart as different -- it made me non-Japanese.
Citizenship, nationality, race and ethnicity carry little meaning in Japan because here they are perceived to be one and the same. The Japan where I came of age was extolled by politicians as a “one-state, one-language, one-race” nation.
It was a myth, of course. Japan has always had its ethnic minorities: the indigenous Ainu, the Okinawans, the feudal underclass known as burakumin, the hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Chinese who have lived here for generations.
For the most part, after generations of intermarriage, they look Japanese. I didn’t have that advantage.
Being different here is frowned upon, as evident in the oft-quoted Japanese proverb: The nail that sticks out will be hammered back down.
Even though I was born here, only in 1985 did I qualify for Japanese nationality -- after the law was changed to allow women the same rights as men to pass on citizenship to their children. Had my father been Japanese, I would have been entitled to Japanese citizenship from birth.
Yet it wasn’t all bad. By the time I was growing up, the more offensive postwar view of children of mixed race had largely disappeared.
The experience of my age demographic is captured by “Golden Half,” the wildly popular 1970s singing group that helped inject “haafu” into the language.
The five women, all of mixed Japanese and Caucasian parentage, were glamorized and exoticized. They were the forerunners of the Eurasian face that continues to sell in Japan -- the haafu seen on fashion magazine covers, as TV personalities, as MTV video jockeys.
It’s that fascination with the familiarly different that has women here running to plastic surgeons for eyelid incisions and nose jobs to look more Western.
But you won’t find us haafu in the halls of political power or the boardrooms of major corporations; these are reserved for the “truly” Japanese.
As a haafu friend once put it, “You never get full admission to the club.”
Knowing that you’re different, you go through childhood either trying to prove your legitimacy, or turning your back on trying to be Japanese.
As an adolescent: I didn’t just speak Japanese, I spoke the gritty dialect of the Kansai region that many outsiders find unintelligible. Even my international school, full of Westerners, abided by the suffocating rules of the Japanese seniority system: Juniors were silent until spoken to and carried their superiors’ bags on sports trips.
By the time I left for New Jersey I was exasperated. I said goodbye not expecting to come back, except to visit my parents.
I’ll always remember the feeling of liberation upon arriving in America. My appearance drew no attention, I spoke English with the neutral American inflections picked up at the international school -- I could pass.
Then came the pitfalls of my unfamiliarity with America: I knew none of the references to popular culture. I wasn’t used to interrupting people so I never got a word in edgewise. I thought a Subway sandwich was something sold in the subway.
In Australia and the United States, countries of immigration built on diversity, I can pass as a native. In Japan I can only do it over the phone. The game is up the moment they see my face or hear my name -- Pea-ya-son, as it’s pronounced in Japanese.
I did eventually come back, three years ago. I write this on the eve of my departure. This time around, I’ve come to understand that although my birth certificate says I’m Australian and I speak like an American, I’m more at home in Japan than any other country.
This has spurred me to become naturalized as a Japanese citizen. Many acquaintances show surprise that I didn’t do so years ago. But somehow it seems fitting that I waited until now, after living in both Western and Eastern cultures, and can make a balanced decision.
Now I’ll be living in Latin America, where my appearance, behavior, speech, everything will set me apart as a foreigner -- a strange choice, some might think, for someone who has struggled ever since those early days at the playground to find where she fits in.
That doesn’t distress me as it once could have. I feel more comfortable on the periphery. Home is being on the outside.
Natalie Obiko Pearson, half-Australian, half-Japanese, was an AP correspondent in Tokyo who is now assigned to Caracas, Venezuela.