It seems to most people that this is such an innocent question, but I always feel ambivalent when someone I just met asks, “Are you Japanese?” “Are you Korean?” or “Are you Chinese?” I’m not saying that they are rude or there is something inherently wrong about these questions. More than 90 percent of people would probably just answer yes or no. I often wonder, if these ethnicity questions are mostly asked to Asians. Do Caucasians ask each other, “Are you Italian?” “Are you German?” “Are you Danish?” right off the bat before getting to know each other, when someone is obviously not a visitor from another country.
A majority of Asians probably identify themselves as Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc. by their ethnic background, so I don’t really blame people for asking this question. I have often met people who seem to think they can tell if someone is Japanese, Chinese or Korean. But the truth is, the origin of Japanese people in the ancient time is very complex. 2000 years ago, the Far East had hundreds of “nations” and there were quite a few migrations and intermingling over hundreds of years before Japan was established as a separate country.
I get a little bit annoyed about this question because it is a question of identity. If people ask me where I was born or where I grew up, I don’t mind so much. The fact is, I personally don’t identify myself with my nationality nor ethnicity. I often answer the question with “I’m Hungarian,” or “I’m Celtic,” to be funny or being a smart ass. But, regarding being Celtic, I’m actually not completely joking. How deeply I am moved by Celtic music and the strong connections I feel about many things British in somewhat mysterious ways, I often wonder if my soul might be more closely related to the Ancient Celts…who knows.
When I meet people for the first time, I would prefer questions like “What kind of books do you read?” “What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?” or the best yet, “What is your favorite rock group of all time?” Questions that relate to music taste would say much more about me than my ethnic background. I also identify myself with my generation more (between Boomers and Gen X) than my birth place. I feel someone is my people when I meet folks who are about my age, who listened to the same kinds of music when going through high school and college years.
I did grow up in Tokyo, my parents are Japanese, and my native language is Japanese. Since I spent my teenage years in Tokyo, basic cultural influences like food, less individualism, aesthetics and so on are undeniably Japanese. But does Japan totally define me? I have lived in the US much longer now; then does that mean I became an American? Am I Japanese? Am I American? To me, this question is like asking water (H2O): Are you Hydrogen (H) or Oxygen (O)? Water is neither, but includes both. I can’t say I am Japanese or American, but both are in me.