A Japanese American Foreigner in Japan

December 15, 2016

Katsuo-ji by Kasey Furutani

I am a fifth generation Japanese American. I know no Japanese beyond the basic phrases of “ikimasho” and “n”. I was raised in an American fashion with some Japanese culture peppered in. My family would celebrate a traditional Japanese New Year's Day with the same passion as we celebrate the Fourth of July. I am a loud and proud Japanese American but I was not always this way.

Throughout my life, whether it be on the elementary school playground, in an AP History class, or even in a souvenir shop in Germany, I get told that I am not really Japanese. I assume this is because my English lacks an accent, because my parents were the opposite of Tiger Moms, because I do not have a slim figure, because I want a creative career. Stereotypes created by the media, lies and misunderstandings caused me to think twice about myself and my identity. I did not understand why I was supposed to be someone that I am not. Before I knew it, I was pigeonholed into my own identity. It took me time to create my own self beyond what people assumed of me. I was not going to softly apologize anymore about not knowing the answers to the math homework. I was going to be blunt when someone asked why I don't have an accent. It is because I have five generations of family in America, I would say. Why don't you have an accent?

This year, I decided to travel to Japan to really figure out who I am. While America is the melting pot of different cultures, I still feel starkly different from my peers. Until recently, I would turn on the television and not see anyone who looked like me. I was at a loss of what to do with my slippery hair when I would watch tutorials of easy, tousled updos by white women. I was so sick of the cultural appropriation and white washing of Asian characters in popular culture.

If I was so critical of America, perhaps I would belong in my home country.

What I was not prepared for was the land of televisions in vehicles, fermented soybeans served with mustard, kanji and katakana on subway lines, menus, basically anyplace that was important. I was confused, lost, befuddled and in awe all at the same time.

Eventually I did have to cope and accept these differences. My confusion was replaced with dancing to the Kewpie mayonnaise song with my little cousins in the backseat of the car. I decided to eat the natto, as it is supposed to be good for skin health. And with kanji, I would just point at a menu item and hope for the best.

I have been in Japan for about a week and a half at this point and am slowly getting used to the ways of society. Right now I am based in Kokubunji in Tokyo. Not the typical Tokyo with robots and maid cafes. This area can be referred to as the “suburbs” where children strip off their school uniforms and run free and the train takes about an hour to get to Shinjuku Station. So far my time here has been spent in a frenzy with meeting up with family while getting used to the time difference. Now that I finally have my head on straight I am able to make some observations on my unfamiliar homeland.

First off, I am a foreigner, but not a foreigner. I look like I am Japanese, but on the inside I am 100% American. This is not something that everyone has adjusted to quite yet. The other day I ate lunch in a small, eight seat ramen bar. The couple in front of me was obviously American and not Japanese speaking, they were offered an English menu and some broken English by the server. When I could not speak Japanese and muttered “ei-go onegaishimasu” slowly, I received a small stare and a menu filled with kanji. Thanks to pictures and my slow, somewhat successful interaction with the server the ramen will still oishii.

Secondly, while I am a foreigner, I do not receive foreigner status and celebrity fame. I spend a lot of time with my hakujin (Caucasian) friend who is in Japan working as an Eikaiwa (an English conversation teacher). She frequently gets asked to practice English with middle schoolers or participate in modeling gigs. When I am acknowledged that I am a foreigner it is at best met with a blank stare and a Japanese menu.

Sometimes I actually do not offend and actually provide amusement. At a Japanese hostel I brought out my American passport, as is necessary for registering for my room. The staff member yelled out in shock, "Oh! Sugoi! I thought that you were Japanese!" I explain to her in uncomplicated English, that I am still Japanese but just live in America.

"But you do not know Japanese? So you are half Japanese?"

"No, both parents are both Japanese. They do not know the language."

Shocked face and then another "Oh, sugoi! Your grandparents? They are Japanese?"

At this point I am ready to settle into bed and also settle this light misunderstanding. It is too difficult to explain in my clearest, simplest English that my ancestors decided to leave for Hawaii generations ago and the language was lost. I do not want to confuse the poor girl, I am just stubborn about my identity. After years of being crushed by stereotypes, who wouldn't?

This puts me in an Asian American Paradox. If I am in America but am Asian, then I am not American. I do not understand the Japanese culture or language, I am not Japanese. So if I do not belong in America or Japan, where do I belong? This grey area is something I will explore while I force myself into my motherland with full gusto. This is to find my true identity and really figure out who I am. Am I the banana that I was always told that I was? Am I a foreigner in Japan or in America?


Kasey Furutani


Kasey Furutani is originally from Los Angeles. She is currently in Japan to find her true identity, whether she likes to or not. In her free time, she likes film photography, books, aimless wandering and drinking beer.