What’s Racist and What Isn’t. Is It OK to “Single Out” Races in Public Forums?
We at The Bulletin have been receiving some “one-liners” from readers responding to our informal survey : Please follow “You Are Japanese Canadian (JC) If…” (see January issue). It can be a light-hearted, humorous or even a touching way of looking at our own traits as JCs (and long-time ijusha). This magazine is all about JCs so we can discuss it as much as we want. But it is also a way of letting our non-JC readers out there know that: “We think we’re funny, quirky and cool too.”
I can add one: “You are JC if…you can always tell, the moment you sit down at any sushi eatery, whether it’s run by Japanese or by Taiwanese and/or Koreans.” In this day and age of competing arrays of ethnic cuisines in big cities across North America, food has arguably become the main medium of cross-cultural exchanges. You cannot understand Vietnamese-language websites, but you can readily go enjoy Vietnamese cuisine. So here’s another one for the palate: “…you probably think salmon has always been part of the standard sushi fare.” JCs in these parts have been eating salmon for well over a 100 years now,. But as to exactly when they started “sushifying” it, I haven’t a clue. (Perhaps one or more of our readers could enlighten me.)
Most Japanese of younger generations today must also believe salmon sushi has always been around. But I clearly recall that the few times I was allowed to join relatives’ get-togethers at an authentic sushi-ya as a kid in Tokyo, salmon was definitely not among all the neta, the slices of fish and so on stacked up under glass cover in front of the itamae-san, the man who magically whips out the toro or whatever nigiri with his palm and two fingers. And back in the 1970s, an enterprising Hokkaido fish wholesaler began selling salmon sashimi in Tokyo, touting it as “toro of the North Sea” from a stand set up inside a big department store, according to a news report I found.
Speaking of comparing cultures, Yale law professor Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” some time ago triggered a controversy with her best-seller extolling the excellence of the way Chinese mothers raise their children. Her new book, co-authored with husband Jed Rubenfeld, also a Yale Law professor, has again rankled critics by asserting that certain “cultural groups” do better than others in the US in terms of income, occupational status , test scores and so on. They give eight examples, namely the Mormons, Cubans in Miami, Nigerians and Jewish Americans along with Indian, Chinese, Iranian and Lebanese Americans. (Japanese Americans somehow didn’t make the Chua-Rubenfeld list but I won’t go there…Nigerians?!)
Using the curious non-academic term “cultural groups,” they say these have the superior “triple package of superiority, insecurity and impulse controls.” Whether singling out certain races constitutes racism or not is at the crux of the controversy. But dwelling on this complex issue is not my aim here, so I’ll move on after just mentioning that I basically agree with Frances Henry, professor emerita at York University’s department of anthropology, who is quoted in a National Post article (7/1/2014) on the controversy.
A specialist in racial studies, she said categorizing certain groups as superior to others -– even if the focus is on what the rest of us can learn from them -– is fundamentally racist She says this kind of thinking is “dangerous” because it will help spread “stereo-typing.” “It’s who is excluded, which is as important as who she (Chua) does include,” she asserts.
I’m certainly not trying to exclude other races as I discuss below certain attributes that make me a bit proud to be Japanese. Please note, I’m NOT saying the Japanese race is the only one which has them.
First, the Japanese are one of the races with oldest histories, so we feel a sense of long, cultural continuity based on detailed records of what our ancestors were up to from around the time of Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”), the oldest existing chronicle in Japan dating back to 712. Composed by O-no-Yasumaro at Empress Gemmei’s request, it’s a collection of myths on the origin of Japan’s four home islands and the gods (kami) who created them. Sun Goddess Amaterasu who is said to have descended from Mount Takachiho, supposedly started the imperial lineage that continues up to the present Emperor Akihito. It is the second oldest imperial lineage after the Ethiopian royalty dating back to Menelik the First (son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba who probably reigned around 950 B.C), according to the Guinness Book of Records. Japan’s is also the oldest surviving imperial lineage in the world.
The second attribute I’m proud of is Japanese steel forging and metal-working technology whose history goes back to sword smiths of the Warring States period who knew exactly how much carbon to add to molten iron in order to forge steel blades that had the right balance of flexibility and hardness. That’s why after the Portuguese first demonstrated the power of muskets on the island of Tanegashima off Kyushu back in 1543, the island’s feudal ruler bought two of them and ordered a local sword smith to study them and come up with his own musket. He succeeded in a relative short time, so that his first made-in-Japan muskets were soon passed on by merchants to Honshu and presented to the ruling Ashikaga shogunate. By 1575, up and coming warlords like Oda Nobunaga (surname first) were deploying musketeers in battles to their great advantage.
A more recent example of our centuries-old steel forging technology is the high-tensile steel that has enabled Japanese automakers to market a whole new generation of light-bodied, fuel efficient automobiles, train carriages and so on around the world since the 1970s ahead of our competitors. I also see it as almost symbolic that our best-known professional athletes abroad coincidentally have names like Suzuki and Kawasaki (of the “My name is Munenori Kawasaki. I am Japanese!” fame) in MLB and Honda in Italian Serie A soccer that are the same as brands of Japanese cars and motorcycles popular around the world.
Sorry (again) to those readers who are not baseball fans, but allow me just once more to end with a comment about the phenom pitcher Masahiro “Maa-kun” Tanaka, who has now joined the NY Yankees, so that his fans can watch him on telecasts from the Yankee Stadium aired around the globe. The qualities he is likely to demonstrate, which I cannot describe in so many words, must surely be an essential component of the Japanese spirit.