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Home Leaver: A Japanese American Search for Belonging

Chapter 2—Role Reversal

Zafu meditation cushion

Yujin’s was the first familiar face I saw after arriving in Tokyo. Our reunion was on a street lined with stores selling Buddhist merchandise. I was looking for a round meditation cushion called a zafu.

I had left mine at home because it took up precious luggage space, and I was sure that I could find one online once in Japan. But none showed up in my internet searches, no doubt because I was using English and not Japanese. The only credible lead I found was from a post on a six-year-old discussion forum that identified a place in Asakusa as selling zafu.

I emailed Yujin the store’s name and address, and details about when to meet there. I was looking forward to seeing him, and, as always, relieved to be able to rely on his native fluency in Japanese.

My friend Yujin Yaguchi

I initially met Yujin during my first time teaching abroad in Japan. That had been in Kyoto with my then wife and our two young sons. Yujin, a professor of American Studies, had come to the orientation for us visiting lecturers to explain the ins and outs of teaching at Japanese universities. We’ve been friends ever since, and after I returned from Kyoto we started rooming together at academic conferences in the US.

It took three trains, forty-five minutes of walking, and countless checks of the navigation app on my phone before I arrived at the zafu store. Yujin wasn’t there so I bravely went in and managed to obtain the item without him—bowing and saying “HAI” to whatever the clerk said as she rang me up.

This was a minor victory for me, and I was beaming with pride by the time Yujin arrived. He had walked from his apartment and got delayed by a blister on his foot from breaking-in a new pair of Birkenstocks. I examined his new sandals. Nice tan suede.  

“Is that the cushion?” Yujin asked, pointing to the large plastic bag I was holding.

He’d never seen a zafu before. Even more, he’d never been inside a Buddhist store or attended a Buddhist ceremony. Maybe he’d never even stepped foot inside a temple—something nearly all foreign and local tourists do when sightseeing in Japan. It’s a Buddhist country!

Yujin, however, came from a family that was part of the one percent of Christians in Japan. His parents were quite devout. Yorifumi, his father, was a poet and retired professor of American literature who had named his son after his favorite writer, Eugene O’Neill. Yorifumi’s neighbors thought that he and his wife were religious fanatics.

Yujin was the only kid in his class whose parents didn’t attend his Sunday activities. No school concerts. No championship baseball games. Not even undokai (sports day), an annual school tradition when families share picnic foods while watching their kids compete. But young Yujin didn’t complain. That his parents allowed him to break Sabbath and not play piano in church was miracle enough for him.

I was fascinated by Yorifumi’s own religious background. His grandfather was a Zen monk, and as a child Yorifumi lived for spells in a Buddhist temple with his extended family, including a favorite cousin who’d become a monk and inherit the temple. Yorifumi published lovingly nostalgic poems about returning there even after converting to Christianity. I could not tell if I was Bodhisattva/Or Bodhisattva was me. His respect for Buddhism was so different from my Christian friends in junior high, who, upon finding out that I was Buddhist, proclaimed that I was going to Hell.

Growing up with American missionaries bestowed upon Yujin an elite cultural and linguistic status that was then reinforced by his going to college and graduate school in the US. He came across as highly Americanized—closer to a hakujin (white person) than a Japanese American like me. If I had first met him at a Japanese American event, I’d have assumed that he was raised disconnected from his ethnic community. Like so many Nikkei growing up outside the West Coast, he would have been the only Asian kid in his school—not counting his older brother.

From the zafu store, Yujin and I rode the subway to his neighborhood, an area known for its atmosphere of old Japan. On arriving and exiting the station, I was struck by the festive gaiety. Brightly colored paper lanterns hung above the streets—green, blue, red, pink. Young people were dressed in summer yukata and clip-clopping along the cobblestone walkway in their wooden geta while carrying folding fans. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“There’s probably a festival at one of the many temples around here,” Yujin answered.

“It’s too late for Obon,” I said. “I wonder what kind of festival they’re celebrating. Is it Buddhist or Shinto?” Yujin shrugged. He was new to the area.

He took me to a café owned by an Australian couple and known for fresh-baked muffins. We entered through floor-to-ceiling sliding hanger doors and sat down at a long table with a clean butcher block top. The open seating and polished cement floors gave the place a chic industrial look. Although the owners and some of the dishes were Western, the menu was in Japanese so I asked Yujin about the lunch sets. I ordered tonkatsu to his spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico.

While we were eating, I teased Yujin about not being very Japanese, and we played a role reversal game about our cultural heritages. I listed the sight-seeing places in Japan that I’d visited and asked if he’d been there. It turned out that I’d visited more traditional, touristy places than he had. Yujin then asked me about places in the US where I’d been.

“You mean to tell me that you’ve never been to the South?” he said in amused bewilderment. Yujin had gone to graduate school in Virginia and had made it a point to drive through the Deep South, exploring various cities and landmarks.

“I had a stopover in Dallas,” I interjected. “I went to a conference in Atlanta. Didn’t we room together at that one? Wait. I lived in Arlington, Virginia during college when I interned on Capitol Hill.”

“Washington, D.C. is not the South.”

“Hey, I’ve been to almost every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi.”

This didn’t impress Yujin. He remained incredulous.

“It’s just that the South is such a racist place,” I said. “I see Southern hospitality as a cover for people who really want to cripple black kids with firehoses. And as much as I love Southern rock, I can’t imagine a “sweet home” in Alabama for a Nikkei like me. I’m a Yankee from California!”

Check that. I wasn’t a Yankee if that meant someone who opposed slavery but had no personal stake in uprooting racial injustice. Racism, to me, was personal; my life had been directly shaped by past and current hostilities against Japanese Americans.

That being the case, it’s curious that in my youth I placed a supreme value on whiteness and desired to be accepted on the same level as white Americans. You might think this desire would have pushed me away from identifying with my own kind. But it was the opposite—I sought them out, and we grew up safer together in a kind of ethnic sanctuary. Ours was a parallel social universe of peer groups, sports leagues, grocery stores, shopping districts, newspapers, restaurants, doctors, dentists, optometrists, bakeries, auto mechanics, temples, churches, youth groups, dances, and meeting spots on the beach—between lifeguard towers 22 and 23.

This wasn’t a segregated ghetto like Harlem or Watts. Nor was it an immigrant enclave like Little Tokyo or Chinatown. The majority of the families living in the small tract homes on my street were white. At school, we Japanese Americans constituted no more than fifteen percent of the student body.

Even though most of us sat together at lunch, ours wasn’t a Balkanized experience rife with ethnic tension and mistrust. Nor was it a Kumbaya colorblind fantasyland, where ethno-racial peoples celebrate their differences. No. Ours was a typical American youth lived simultaneously through both mainstream and ethnic worlds.

But the relationship between the two wasn’t seamless. Although I switched easily back and forth from ethnic and mainstream cultures as if changing from school to play clothes, it was clear to me that I could relax and be myself among ethnic peers in ways that I couldn’t among whites. Although Japanese Americans were celebrated by US presidents for their patriotism and good citizenship, I didn’t place much faith in smiles and kind words from hakujin. No one had to tell me this. I absorbed it as if by osmosis from a mother who spent World War II confined behind barbed wire.

There was also the popular white boy in school who called my friends and me “Japs” while pulling back his eyes in a squinting motion to make fun of our looks. I read the weekly bulletin over the school’s PA system with this kid. Each time we read he implored me to introduce ourselves as “Chip and Nip.” (Nip, short for Nippon, is pronounced as if spitting something foul from your mouth. “It’s a bit NIPPY out,” some random white guy would mutter when my friends and I walked into a restaurant.)

It wasn’t until college that I learned about the historical origins of such garden variety insults. Federal policies had banned Japanese from immigration and naturalization because they weren’t white and were considered incapable of becoming good Americans.

My mother’s family at Minidoka including a couple friends. Her father was interned separately at this time.

I also discovered that the camps my mom and uncle talked about—as in “Remember so-and-so from camp?”—were concentration camps confining 120,000 Japanese Americans. Some of these camps were in the South. After being confined in Washington and Idaho, my mom together with her mother and siblings reunited with her father in a concentration camp in Crystal City, Texas.

Thus my own feelings about the South were further complicated by my family’s experience of prejudice and unjust confinement. From my perspective, Yujin sounded like a stupid hakujin when upbraiding me for being prejudiced against the South.

He, as a Japanese national, didn’t feel the pain of racism as an open wound; nor did the image of white Southerners evoke revulsion and fear (mostly fear) because one knew that even if they didn’t ride at night hooded in white sheets, they’d be in the crowd cheering as the “strange fruit” dangled from the tree, or dancing merrily as the last train full of “Jap enemies” imprisoned near their homes left for the coast. If not cheering, they’d be watching—or walking by with head down.

The role-reversal game with Yujin enabled me to appreciate and learn from his perspective on the South. Yujin had what the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki calls a “beginners mind,” one that embraces the fullness and complexity of life as if seeing it for the first time.

In contrast to Yujin’s positive and probing interest in the South, my mind was laden with negative thoughts. In other words, mine was not a beginner’s mind; it was a full teacup with no space to pour in new information to correct my regional and racial biases. So it was that I learned another lesson in Tokyo about escaping from the burden of racism. Without forgetting the past or ignoring the present, I shouldn’t fall prey to distorted stereotypes about a region and people with a rich history that represented much more than simply the living legacy of racism.


© 2023 Lon Kurashige

family Japan Japanese Americans prejudice racism World War II camps

About this series

This series consists of reflective essays on Japanese American identity and search for belonging based upon the author’s recent experiences in Japan. Part confession, part historical analysis, part cultural comparison, and part religious exploration, it offers fresh and humorous insights into what it means to be Japanese American in our suddenly global age.

*Episodes in the “Home Leaver” series come from Kurashige’s eponymously titled and unpublished memoir.

Acknowledgements: These chapters would not have been published on this webpage (or likely anywhere) without the crucial support of Greg Robinson—a friend and fellow historian, who it turned out was also a wonderful editor. Greg’s insightful comments and edits on drafts of these chapters made me a better writer and storyteller. Also crucial was Yoko Nishimura and her team at Discover Nikkei for their layout of the chapters and superb professionalism. Negin Iranfar read multiple drafts of this work and, even more, listened to me talk about it over and again for the better part of a year—her comments and support were sustaining. Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank the people and institutions who appear or are referenced in these stories. Regardless of whether I noted their true identities, or whether my memory and perspective aligned with theirs, they have my abiding gratitude for making it possible for me to leave
home—and to create one in Japan.