As we confront the raging racial divide that is plaguing our country now (and for as long as I can remember), it may be difficult to admit that we Japanese Americans, especially those of us born in the last century, were raised with a heavy dose of racism. Consider the fact that Japan is a monoracial nation with a well-known distrust of gaijin (foreigners), so it’s not surprising that our racist attitudes were passed on to us as its Japanese American descendants.
Racism was definitely prevalent in my own family. I used to hate when my mother would start speaking nihongo whenever she wanted to say something nasty about a black or Jewish person standing next to us on the bus or in a crowded store. It wasn’t until much later I realized that the defamatory term she used for someone who was “cheap” (ku-ichi) was translated by the Japanese as nine-plus-one or juu (Jew). Worse still was the word used to describe African Americans as kurombo, which can be equated with the n-word in English. When I was old enough to figure it out, I insisted she not use it.
It only makes sense that these offensive words were a clear indication of deeper hostile attitudes toward people of a different race. When I was still in grade school and my older sister started dating someone who happened to be Mexican American, I vividly remember my father’s wrath. I could overhear him yelling behind her closed bedroom door, and I actually thought he was going to hurt her. It wasn’t until after my father died that I think she finally felt free to marry the man he opposed so angrily, and by then I guess my mother had resigned herself to the idea.
My mother took another turnabout years later when against her vehement wishes, another of my sisters decided to marry a Korean. I was happy to hear from this sister just recently that my mother finally gave in by offering her money for her marriage dowry, saying something like, “As long as you are happy.” I was happy to hear that in the end, my mother chose family over race.
I’m sure there are many reasons for some of those long-standing and deeply felt racist beliefs. I hate to blame everything on the WWII incarceration, but there’s no doubt that being segregated with only those people who looked like us contributed to a feeling of comfort and trust exclusively toward fellow Japanese Americans. That sense of trust has extended way beyond the war as many of us still are more likely to do business with other Japanese American providers, like plumbers, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and yes, even gardeners.
Similarly, distrust and contempt for those who imprisoned us would certainly follow. In fact, WWII sociologist and field researcher Frank Miyamoto of the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) noted a direct correlation between “distrust of white people” and those who refused to answer the loyalty questionnaire. Why pledge allegiance to a country that has repeatedly betrayed and imprisoned you, and why trust the people who held the keys?
Perhaps the passage of time has a way of undoing old beliefs and healing prejudices, but I’m certain that we’re all holding onto some of those attitudes without even realizing it. With that in mind, I recently broke down and took the Harvard University test on implicit racial bias. Suffice it to say that it’s a strange method of measuring your racial attitudes, focusing specifically on African Americans vs. European Americans. Fortunately, my score indicated that I harbored no implicit bias, but after breathing a sigh of relief, I subsequently read that this 2017 test may not be altogether accurate.
It confirms what I’ve always believed: we all carry around some vestiges of racism, and it’s up to us to recognize it and do something about it, especially when it comes to massive inequality and the frightening violence toward African Americans. As James Baldwin so aptly put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Despite any of our implicit and unconscious racist tendencies, it’s up to us to fight for change and to vote for those who confront racism wherever we see it. As Asian Americans who continue to be victimized for our own skin color, there’s no excuse. If we elect those who continue to endorse and encourage racist beliefs — whether implicitly or directly — we might as well consider ourselves the problem.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.