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FOCUS September 2010 Volume 61

Growing Up in the Interstice: Closing the Gap Between Cultural Identities

Jacquelyn Johnson

It is often said that Japan is a country that prides itself on the image of homogeneity it portrays. However, in actuality Japan is rather diverse. In addition to old-comers, such as zainichi Koreans and Chinese,1 there is also an inflow of migrants from other countries. There are over one million permanent residents, and about half a million naturalized Japanese citizens, not to mention the estimated 40,000 children born of international marriages each year.2 However, government records are not necessarily reflecting the diversity of the population in Japan. The surveys of the Census Bureau, for example, are based only on nationality, ignoring ethnicity all together.3

Living as Multicultural Family

Foreign, multiracial, or multicultural families may be experiencing hardships while living in Japan. To gain insight into their lives, I interviewed foreigners, nikkeijin (people with Japanese ancestry), and members of families of mixed heritage. Most interviewees stated that they had not experienced significant problems while living in Japan. This could be related to several factors including education, occupation, income, location, and awareness. Though discrimination is not a big concern for most of the families, one thing that seems to be a common concern for all families of foreign background, regardless of the factors listed above, is the question of passing their non-Japanese culture and language to their children.
The experience of being multicultural can vary from person to person due to a wide range of factors. Maturity and age bring new experiences and viewpoints, which shape the way people view experiences and themselves. Cristina, an Argentinean nikkeijin
,4 mentioned that she knew a little bit of English, and was able to help a woman on the train. She said she felt really good because knowing even just a little bit of a language allowed her to help and communicate with others.
I understood the feeling; learning and studying Japanese in Japan has been an incredible experience. Struggling through conversations with native speakers has always been so fulfilling. But then I thought about the interviews I had conducted with native Spanish- speakers. I am of mixed heritage, Mexican and American, and though my Spanish is better than my Japanese, especially in terms of comprehension, the feeling I got from speaking Spanish with native Spanish-speakers was very different from that of speaking with native Japanese-speakers. Though I enjoyed the conversation very much, I felt inferior; embarrassed and ashamed that my language skills were so poor in a language I felt I should know.
The people I interviewed directly about their own multicultural experience, all fourteen years of age or older, were proficient to fluent in both Japanese and at least one other language. However, interviews conducted with parents about their multicultural children, with the exception of native-English speakers, revealed that their children spoke very little of their native language, usually limited to greetings. Furthermore, many of the children who do learn another language experience embarrassment in speaking it. I could not help but wonder if these children would begin to experience the same feelings I have, as they grow older. Will they, too, question what determines who they are: is it blood, culture, language, or a combination of things?

Japanese Identity

The general idea of what determines Japanese identity particularly poses challenges for children with foreign roots living in Japan. In an essay about zainichi Koreans, Chikako Kashiwazaki explains, “the majority Japanese have come to assume that ethnic origin (lineage or blood and appearance), cultural attributes (language and behavioral characteristics), and nationality status all go together.”5 If one of these elements is askew, then the person is not considered full Japanese.
It seems that often times blood is enough to exclude one from a group, but not sufficient to make one part of a group. For instance, most of the children with whom the interviews were concerned have spent the majority, if not all, of their lives in Japan. They are most comfortable speaking Japanese and more strongly tied to Japanese culture, yet, since they have foreign roots, they still find themselves having to defend their “Japaneseness.” Similarly, returnees, Japanese who spent time abroad, often experience difficulty re-adjusting to and being accepted into mainstream Japanese society.6

Teaching a Different Culture

Culture seems to be that which non-Japanese parents are able to teach their children rather unconsciously, through interaction of their children with people from their own country as well as church or community gatherings. However, some parents express difficulty in teaching children about their non-Japanese culture because of lack of opportunities to do so in Japan. Many times cultural learning is in the form of something fun such as travel to the home country for vacation, watching television programs, storytelling, or eating food. Sometimes it happens with the usual scolding from a parent about manners, teaching them the way things are done in their native country. Ms. Aburatani, from Thailand, said she taught her children not to slurp their noodles, and to answer clearly, such as “hai” when saying yes rather than “unn,” which is considered rude in Thailand. Filipina women teach their children to do mano po, taking the hand of their elder and pressing it to their forehead, to show respect. They also said that religion was an important part of their culture that they try to pass on to their children.
According to the interviews, non-Japanese language is most difficult to teach to children. Japanese society does not offer many opportunities to learn another language. Some parents complain that Japanese public schools are so rigorous and focus too much on Japanese language, leaving little time for children to study another language. To be honest, I find it rather surprising how differently the native-English speakers approach the issue of language compared to those from non-English speaking countries. In an interview with Ms. Hiraoka, an Indonesian woman married to a Japanese, she expressed that she hoped her children would just pick up her native language naturally from her, even though she stated she speaks to her children primarily in Japanese. However, she said it was not a big deal that her children did not speak the Indonesian language because her children would probably spend their whole lives in Japan instead of Indonesia. Almost all of the non-native- English speakers I interviewed shared this view.
Two Spanish-speaking parents, Cristina and Magaly, tried to speak Spanish to their children at home, though Magaly admitted it was difficult to keep up since she has gotten used to speaking Japanese. However, Magaly sends her eight-year-old son to free biweekly Spanish classes offered by the city and has been considering sending him to live abroad with a family for a period of time in order to learn Spanish.
In contrast, the English-speakers whom I interviewed all spoke to their children in English only. All but one sent their children to English literacy classes so that they could read and write as well as speak English, even though they admitted it was a struggle to force their children to study English formally. They stated that it is worth the struggle because knowing English fluently creates more opportunities for their children in the future, from ease in travel to studying or working abroad.

Children’s Experiences

In terms of the children’s experience at school, most had no problems. However, for those that do not look Japanese,” the natural curiosity of classmates can sometimes make children of foreign background feel singled out and different. Often times they are asked to speak English (even those of non-English speaking lineage) because they look foreign. For those who identify themselves as Japanese, being asked where they come from can create confusion.
Furthermore, Jane, an American mother of two, felt that teachersdid not know how to deal with individual circumstances involving children with foreign roots. She said that they were not trained in handling diversity and were not prepared to make lessons out of incidents. Alvaro, a seventeen-year-old Peruvian, was nine when his family moved to Japan. When he first entered school he would get into fights when he was teased. Disner, now twenty-five, came to Japan when he was fifteen. Upon entering a Japanese secondary school, he quickly learned that it was best not to stand out. In extreme cases, strict conformity rules in Japanese schools can psychologically damage children who do not fit in, such as in the case of girl of Japanese-Brazilian descent who was forced to dye and straighten her hair weekly because the school officials refused to believe her hair color and texture were natural.7
Although, according to their parents, all the children know they are of mixed heritage, and have not experienced uncertainty about their identity, they might begin to question who they are as they grow older, especially those who have to choose between Japanese nationality and that of another country. A couple of older children of mixed heritage interviewed have begun questioning their identity. Shiori, Japanese-Mexican, said that she does not like to think about her identity in terms of Japanese or Mexican because it makes her feel lonely; she felt that she was neither and both. However, she will probably choose Japanese nationality for ease of travel. Carolina, Peruvian nikkeijin
, worried that becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen would make her less Peruvian. Forcing one to choose between two nationalities, in addition to ignoring ethnicity in the national census is proof that Japan has yet to come to terms with its own diversity.


There are still many hurdles to overcome in order for Japan to be a good home for people of foreign roots. Despite some obvious hardships, such as discrimination in various forms, families and individuals of diverse backgrounds face more subtle difficulties. Teaching culture and language and fostering pride in diversity, not only among members of international communities, but also among all peoples living in Japan, prove to be a challenge. Opportunities to share one’s culture with the general public are limited. Cross-cultural children, including returnees, often experience confusion about their identity. Lack of understanding from others may only worsen this confusion. Japan’s international community is growing, with more and more foreign workers, international marriages, and children of mixed heritage each year. Japanese society must take steps toward becoming more sensitive to other peoples and their cultures, embracing the differences that they bring. Though it is only natural for us to question our identity, perhaps what we will come to realize is that those of us of mixed heritage are just like anybody else in the world, regardless of race or nationality. We as individual people have our own unique experiences and thoughts which make us like nobody else. This is a beautiful thing, which allows us to learn from each other. The right to be different is one that needs to be protected for the benefit of all.


Jacquelyn Johnson, a fourth year student in Amherst College (Massachusetts, U.S.A.), was a 2010 summer intern in HURIGHTS OSAKA.


For more information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.


1. They include those who were removed from their homeland and brought to Japan, such as during World War II, and their ancestors who have remained in Japan.
2. Also, roughly two million people have short stay visas of three months or longer per year. See Debito Arudou, "Schools Single out Foreign Roots,” in The Japan Times Online
, 17 July 2007, http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20070717zg.html.
3. Debito Arudou, “Japan, U.N. Share Blind Spot on 'migrants'," The Japan Times Online
, http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20100406ad.html.
4. Nikkeijin
refers to foreigners of Japanese descent.
5. Chikako Kashiwazaki, "The Foreigner Category for Koreans in Japan" in Sonia Ryang and John Lie, editors, Diaspora without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan
(Berkeley: University of California, 2009), page 124.
6. Yoshida, Kensaku, "Sociocultural and Psychological Factors in the Development of Bilingual Identity" in Bilingual Japan
, 8, 5-9/1999, available at the website of World Association for Online Education ( WAOE) , www.waoe.org/steve/jaltbsig/bilingual_identity.html.
7. Arudou, "Japan, U.N. Share Blind Spot on 'migrants,” op. cit.

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