Being Japanese: It’s No Longer an Abstract Concept. It’s Me!

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and on May 10 I spoke at the VA Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico about my Japanese heritage.

My maternal grandfather “Francis” Inouye was born in Osaka, Japan in 1888. When he was 18, he joined the Japanese Navy where he worked as a chef. Although I’m not sure why, in 1929 he came to the United States and after meeting my grandmother, Cleopatra Allen—an African American woman—they fell in love and he never went back to Japan.

My mother, Emily, was born in 1933. At the time, both my grandparents were 45 years old. My grandmother was employed by a wealthy White family as their domestic: a combination house manager, house keeper, cook and nanny.

They lived in White Plains, New York, which is a suburb an hour outside of New York City. They were one of only two non-White families in the town. My mother and grandparents lived on the bottom floor of a two-family house. Upstairs was a Black couple raising two daughters who were around the same age as my mother.

White Plains was no fun for anyone non-White. Growing up, my mother was accustomed to being discriminated against by White people. Rocks were routinely thrown through their window, and once or twice the KKK burned a cross on their front lawn.

Conversely, my grandmother’s employers treated my mother and grandparents very well. This included my grandfather, despite the fact that he wasn’t American and he hardly spoke any English.

Occasionally my grandfather would pick my grandmother up from work, and he’d offer to cook for the family. It’s a given that my grandfather cooked Japanese food, which included preparing sushi. His specialty was making origami animals and flowers using vegetables like carrots.

My grandmother’s employers were very impressed with my grandfather’s culinary skills. With connections in the restaurant industry they got my grandfather a job as a sous chef at a nearby restaurant.

Before long my grandfather worked his way up to head chef and by the time my mother was three years old my grandfather owned a Japanese restaurant.

Although by this point he was fluent in English, my grandfather didn’t take the bus to and from work but was driven and my grandmother’s employers made sure he was never out in public alone. On paper, my grandfather did not own his restaurant. My grandmother’s employers did all the paperwork in their names and were very honest about making sure my grandfather received all of the profits from his business.

Why wasn’t my grandfather the rightful owner of his restaurant? Why couldn’t a grown man be out in public by himself? The answers are both simple and complex, and they speak to a sign of the times.

In 1924, the United States Congress introduced The Immigration Act of 1924   (also commonly referred to as the Johnson-Reed Act) restricting legal immigration from various countries, in particular from Japan, countries in sub-Saharan Africa and some in Europe. The purpose of this was to protect the homogeneity of the U.S.

This of course meant that my grandfather was living in the United States illegally. It also meant my grandparents were not legally married. My mother said of those times that she often wished she were living “high up on the mountain tops, far from the eyes of cops.”—a mantra she continued using as I was growing up. They lived in constant fear of my grandfather being deported.

Because of this “Act,” which ended in 1952, as a child and into her adulthood, my mother continually lied about who her father was. She learned at an early age to tell people my grandmother’s first husband, James Allen (a Black man who died before my mother was born) was her father. Indeed his name, and not my grandfather’s, is on my mother’s birth certificate.


My mother, Emily, in 1943. She was ten

In 1938 when my mother was five years old, my grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. The following year World War II started and in 1941, the United States broke their neutrality treaty and entered the war. Many troops were sent to Japan to fight and throughout the United States there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment.

Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration (1933-1945 and the only three-term president), anyone of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast was rounded up and sent to internment camps. They would remain in them until the war ended in 1945. Although it was unlikely my mother would have been sent to one, she continued keeping it a secret her father was Japanese. Her dark complexion and hint of almond eyes made it possible to fool people.

In 1958 my mother met my father, and they were married in 1960. My father was White and a mixture of German, Dutch and Irish. They met and married at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when Blacks were fighting for the right to eat in the same restaurants as Whites, sit where they wanted on public transportation, integration of public schools and universities and the right to marry whom they wanted. They were also fighting to end the systematic police brutality against them.

My parents and brothers before I was born.

My parents and brothers before I was born, when we lived in Nigeria: circa 1965.

All too quickly my father was caught up in her fight—and the fight of all Black people—and as a result, they raised my brothers and me to identify as Black. Their rationale was that society will see us this way (even me, and I am much lighter in complexion than my brothers) and we should be prepared for the racism that will come our way. Believe me when I say I am grateful to them for this. It taught me to have a very tough exterior.

By this point, not only had my mother buried her Japanese heritage, my parents had made a conscious decision to do the same with their kids, but for different reasons. Their choices were not uncommon in those days. I knew many families who were mixed race who identified one or the other.

My mother often said about many things in life, “parents give their children unspoken commands that their children implicitly obey.” This would describe my brothers’ and my relationship with being Japanese. We knew growing up that we were a rich blend of heritages, and we were taught to appreciate the cultures and histories of them all (along with everyone else’s), but at the same time, my brothers and I were taught to self-identify as Black.

[Tweet "After I started college (when I was 16) I began to give myself permission to examine my #mixedrace more closely. "] For about ten years (between the ages of 22 and 32) I was a Buddhist (as was my grandfather). However, my journey has been a bumpy road and at the age of 49 I am still very much a work in progress.

It’s not that I don’t accept that I am Japanese, I am very proud to be mixed race with so many ethnicities and cultures inside me. However despite my pride, I look in the mirror and I don’t “see” Japanese. In the same way my mother was able to convince herself through years that she was Black, I had done the same.

What we typically think of as Japanese is not in my hair, my eyes, my face or my build. I am taller than my mother and grandfather were and I am big boned like my father’s German side of the family. I have a light tan complexion (which is actually about the same complexion as my grandfather) with curly hair and high cheekbones like my mother and my grandmother. I have large eyes that nobody mistakes for being remotely Asian.

My brother and me at his wedding in 1992.

My brother and me at his wedding in 1992.

When I lived in the United States, I had become quite used to fielding questions like, “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” [Tweet "The beauty and the curse of being #mixedrace had become the same."] When the curiosity and labeling me exotic wore off, the judgments, people’s assumptions (usually erroneous) and racism were soon to follow. I got to a point where I used to wish I could blend in better—not with them but with the walls around me.

And yet, I am Japanese. I look at photos of my grandfather and my mother, and I see that they were clearly Asian. Over the last ten years or so I have been very curious about the Japanese side of my family. I am unsure if I have any relatives in Japan. I went on and the problem with finding out is that my grandfather’s last name is as common as Smith, Jones, Johnson, Brown, Rivera, López, Ramírez and Pérez. And I don’t even know his Japanese first name.

My brother Ben and his wife on their wedding day. They're wearing my grandfather's kimonos.

My brothers have their own relationships with being Japanese. My oldest brother has never shown any interest in identifying as part Japanese. He looks the most Black of the three of us (he looks a lot like President Barack Obama, actually) and he has had to deal with so much racism over the years that it has dominated his self-identity.

My middle brother looks most like my mother and actually looks Japanese with a darker complexion than I have. He is the only one of us with straight hair, and he is often asked if he is Asian of some kind. Interestingly when he got married, he and his wife (who’s White) infused Japanese and Western traditions into their ceremony.

My mother said it was one of the only times in her life she was truly proud to be Japanese. She said she regretted having to hide being Japanese all those years and for needing to raise us the way she did. She and I were clear why both had to happen but it doesn’t make the sting any less painful.

L to R: Paul, his sister Sylvia, me and Ellis (Sylvia's husband) circa 2013.

L to R: Paul, his sister Sylvia, me and Ellis (Sylvia's husband) circa 2013.

And now since my husband (who’s Black) and I have lived on Puerto Rico since 2008, I am often assumed to be Puerto Rican because Puerto Ricans are a beautiful mixture of West African, Taino Indian and Spanish from Spain. Because I blend, I don’t usually correct people. This is partly purposeful because it’s been wonderful not being on the defensive about who I am with total strangers the way I had to when I lived in the U.S. I so often say about Puerto Ricans, “when you’re here, you’re family.” There is a genuine acceptance here that I rarely felt when I lived in the U.S. This is not to suggest that there aren’t race issues here that stem from colonization and slavery but it’s 99% better than it is in the U.S.

My dog Yum Yum and me, circa July 2016.

My dog Yum Yum and me, circa July 2016.

On the occasions when I do tell people my racial makeup, while I do get people asking me all sorts of questions, it’s not because I feel they’re judging me but because Asians aren’t the norm here. Asians (all combined) comprise just .02% of the island’s population). And oftentimes after I have explained my racial and ethnic makeup, people respond by saying, “Oh well, you’re Puerto Rican now. You’re one of us.”

And this is the reason my husband and I live here and why we’ll never leave.