(Published March 25, 2017)

When Shinzo Abe met Donald Trump last month he understood how to push the right buttons of praise, flattery and deference that fuel the ego of our 45th president.

Donald is great, his golf game is amazing, the jobs Japan will bring to America will be fantastic. Whether any of it is true — well, that’s something else. No surprise that the prime minister huddled with Toyota’s scion before the summit. After President Trump threatened the Japanese automaker on Twitter it was clear that Abe’s best move was to appease the bully, even as his dreams for the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) were turned to ashes.

The Japan Times ran a fascinating story on Japanese translators struggling with how to best convey the phraseology of the Donald.

“If we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,” said Miwako Hibi, a broadcast interpreter.

Besides the woeful task of translating “bigly,” there is the tone, both ill-informed and xenophobic, which is a marked departure from the norms of statesmanship.

Trump’s boastful, arrogant reliance on absolutes and his inability to recognize nuance seem anathema to the Japanese language, which is nothing if not subtle and dependent on a nimble understanding of complex differences and levels in interpersonal relations.

And yet, there is part of Trump’s message, that to me seems to find some parallels in Japan, particularly among the extreme right wing of the LDP — the idea of a national identity that is singular, exceptional, and based upon male dominance and racial homogeneity.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump met at the White House in February. (White House photo)

“Make America Great Again” — so simple and resonant — is not unlike a kind of isolationist island mentality that in Japan could be recognized in terms such as shimaguni konjo or garapagosu, coined after the remote Galapagos Islands and its unique ecosystem.

The positive of that shared national identity is Japan’s social cohesion. It manifests in their remarkable resilience and unity at moments of crisis: the many stories after the Tohoku earthquake of neighbors pitching in and helping one another. Reading reports from Los Angeles, we all marveled that there was no rioting, no police cars being overturned, no people fighting over scarce supplies. That just isn’t the Japanese way.

Could America become unified and cohesive like Japan? Not a chance. Our diversity is our strength and it’s also by definition messy, chaotic and disorderly.

What Trump doesn’t seem to understand is that the best part of America is the way new generations of immigrants bring their strength, energy and creativity and add it to the mix. It’s not a coincidence that forward-thinking Japanese executives like Softbank’s Masayoshi Son, who is of Korean-Japanese heritage, and Uniqlo’s Tadashi Yanai turned to America for inspiration. The need to fit in stifles innovation.

The darker side of a nationalist identity — either American or Japanese — are those minority populations who do not fit in and are shunted to permanent outsider status. Japanese Americans know much about being outsiders in this way, on both sides of the ocean. For myself living in Tokyo, it was something as simple as my name, Muranaka, written in katakana, not kanji, on the front door of my apartment. My identity as an outsider, a gaijin, even one of Japanese descent, is betrayed by the language.

It’s also in the struggle against the expansion of bases in Okinawa where a small population far removed from the rest of the nation is forced to live with lion’s share of the problems associated with an ongoing U.S. military presence.

Or in the ways Japanese women still trail far behind in most areas from education to wages to political representation, even as Abe touts empowering women as part of his Abenomics economic plan. In a 2016 OECD report on the global gender gap, Japan placed 110th out of 144 countries in terms of gender equality. That glass ceiling would appear to be more like reinforced concrete.

In Japan, adhering to a rigid sense of identity means that the country is aging itself to obsolescence as towns hollow out and there are fewer young people to fill jobs. A recent photo of smiling Filipina caregivers welcomed like celebrities at Kansai Airport struck me as an indicator of the country’s struggle to find enough skilled workers to care for Japan’s aged.

Taken to its logical end, that is what Trump wants for America — a shrinking, aging country narrowly defined by ethnic identity. A dynamic society needs new ideas, new people to grow, innovate and succeed.

I think this applies to the Japanese American community as well. If we only identify Japanese Americans as those “traditional” JAs who are defined by the World War II Nisei experience, then we are heading to extinction.

Looking through that lens, the Japanese American community is shrinking, but if we widen our vision, the reality is that the population is growing, and it is more multigenerational and diverse, from multiracial hapas to new Nisei and Issei. But are their needs being met by current Nikkei institutional infrastructure; do they feel welcomed or shunned? No less than the future survival of the Japanese American community is at stake.

Gwen Muranaka is the English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo and can be reached at Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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