Friday, February 15, 2008

The Name Game And Who's More Japanese, Fool?

On Wednesday, I wrote about my birth name and why I began calling myself Yayoi instead of Lena as my family used to do. As we know, life imitates art and today, during a discussion with coworkers, I was asked to explain the whole March/May, spring flower/early spring sky, Yayoi Clan/bronze bells significance of my Japanese name.

As I did, I suddenly remembered attending an Asian-American, star-studded event some years ago, and being introduced to various celebs at the soiree. Because few people of Japanese descent were in the house, I very carefully enunciated my name (as I do when among those not well-versed in Japanese pronunciation) so that I was repeating, "Hi, my name is YAH-YOH-EE" over and over again. (In Japanese, there is no emphasis on any syllable.)

When I was introduced to George Takei (Star Trek's Mr. Sulu in the photo above), I automatically repeated my mantra. Eying me suspiciously, Mr. Sulu wrinkled his nose and blurted out, "You're not pronouncing your name correctly!" Well, gee, thank you Mr. Second-Generation-born-in-Cali-but-knows-everything-about-Japanese-culture-actor man!

You see, there's been this little ongoing rift between Japan-born Japanese and issei, nissei, sansei, yonsei, ad infinitum. All of those Japanese terms refer to various generations living in America. Issei, derived from the word meaning "first" or "number one" as in ichi, are the first generation that emigrated to the U.S.--like my mother and me. Technically, I'm issei. I wasn't born in America, but in Tokyo; and, Japanese was my first language even though I stopped speaking it by age two. Even with an African American father, I have a more direct link to Japan than Mr. Sulu because my mother is uber Japanese and has never stopped sharing her customs and culture with me and my sister. Yet anyone seeing both Mr. Sulu and me on the streets together is going to proclaim him more Japanese than me.

Which reminds me: I was in Little Tokyo (J-town, Los Angeles) with a sansei (Third Generation) actress friend one night when we decided to eat at a Japanese restaurant. When I opened the menu, I saw natto (fermented soybeans) listed, and promptly exclaimed, "Oh, look! They have natto (pronounced nah-thoh)! "What's natto (she pronounced it gnat-toe)?" my friend asked. I just sighed.

Back to that rift. The Japanese in Japan oftentimes look at the Japanese who left for America as traitors, especially since the Japanese in Japan fought the U.S. during WWII. As for J/A's (Japanese Americans), a lot of them resented Japan attacking Pearl Harbor as they struggled for acceptance in the U.S. Because Americans had a hard time separating the Japanese in Japan who started the war from J/A's who were American citizens, the unfortunate consequence was that J/A's were rounded up and put in prison camps. Of course, time heals and, although people aren't as angry now, there's still a sense that prevails in Japan that J/A's abandoned their own country.

Actually, I find it amusing that a J/A like Mr. Sulu felt the need to correct me. He probably saw right off that I wasn't a 100%er, and automatically assumed I didn't know anything about his culture. But, I bet I know a whole lot more than he does about Yoshitsune, Genji tales, and old Edo. What, are you kiddin' me? My Moms is a storyteller who can't stop talking. Even if you're busy and clearly doing something important, she will boldly interrupt to talk about some significant point in her life (like when she used to heave her baby sister upon her back and run really fast so that the unfortunate asthmatic kid would gasp non-stop).

Really, though, my Moms is cool. And, she still tells many fascinating tales of Shogun v. Tenno, the 47 ronin (master-less samurai), and Benke, Yoshitsune's vassal whose statue graces a bridge in Japan. When the taiga drama series featuring Shinsengumi aired a few years ago on NHK, I was riveted--having already heard of the rogue cops' adventures from my mother.

Moms also talks about entitled samurai who tested the sharpness of their swords on unsuspecting citizens late at night. She claims the victims would walk city blocks before realizing that one of their arms had been sliced off from their shoulder. That's how sharp those swords were, and how swift the samurai would strike as they strolled past their innocent targets.

Before anyone in America even knew what a ninja was, my mother demonstrated to us how the mercenaries would literally disappear by jumping high into a tree to hide. Of course, she herself didn't jump into a tree, but she'd hop into the air to show us. (You had to be there.)

On a more personal tip, Moms loves telling about the time she put her hand through a paper wall (typical in Japanese homes when she was growing up) after suddenly standing when she'd been sitting on her knees for hours (her legs had fallen asleep). Now, that is pure Japanese. I bet Mr. Sulu never sat on his knees in his life.

Truthfully, I have no quarrel with Mr. Sulu, or anyone either J/A (Japanese American) or straight-up Nihonji. I'm just saying that just because you happen to LOOK more Japanese than me, it don't mean a thang.

And, to answer that question that's always on people's lips after they realize what my last name is--yes, I AM related to Oprah. I'm sure I am. I just wish the sistah would realize it. Say, Oprah, if you're reading this, do you know that you have half-Japanese cousins, cuz?


Your Hip Hapa,

No comments: