Date: Tue, 18 Jul 95
From: Kyoko Inoue
Subject: language and race
To: fukuzawa@UCSD.EDU

Regarding recent comments by Prof. Johnson on the Japanese not allowing even a fluent speaker of Japanese to speak it, we must remember that language is not simply a matter of what people hear. Speaking involves a whole person.

One of the biggest obstacles that Asian-Americans have in being accepted as members of the American society is that many white Americans still do not think that Asian-Americans do not look like "Americans." Even when they are "hearing" flawless and unmistakably native American English, many white Americans still think that they are "foreigners."

Just the other day, in a discussion about whethe r one can tell on the phone if a speaker is black or white, Catherine Cryer of CNN said "Of course, people have different accents, black accent, Japanese accent . . . It happens that Judge Ito does'nt have Japanese accent,, but . . .!" I think white Americans do not realize how thick the racial wall, not nece ssarily hostile,is in America. It's hard to really feel what it's like to be a person of another race.

I will never forget the face of a young Japanese-Am erican who cried out in my class one day, tears in his eyes, "I am an American ; a native Chicagoan. I was born here, my parents were born here. I have never been to Japan. Chicago is my home. America is my home. Why do you, white Americans, keep telling me to go home? Why cant's you accept me as one of you?"

I think that the Americans who speak "fluent Japanese" should not be too harsh on the Japanese who do not accept you as you are and allow you to speak Japanese. It's extremely difficult to master a language to the point that you are mistaken for a native.

Linguistic competency is not just "grammar," as we all know. But people do not just listen to the person's speech, they listen to the whole person. That is the reason why it is very difficult to overcome one of the serious problems that we have on American campuses with so many Asian T A's teaching sciences and math.

The issue is not simply how bad their English is, although I do not deny that some of them really have serious problems and sh ould not be used as TA's. Many white American students simply tune out and do not try to understand their TA's because they are foreigners.

I can go on, but I think that I have made my point.

Kyoko Inoue, Professor of Linguistics
Dept. of English, Univ. of Ill.-Chicago

Date: Fri, 19 Jul 1995

From: Dave Aldwinckle
Subject: Subject: language and race--a reply
To: fukuzawa@UCSD.EDU

I doubt many people would want to tackle this topic, so I'll give it a go.

Ms. Inoue, thank you for your crie du coeur about "Americans' treatment of Asian-Americans as foreigners" in the US, but I frankly cannot see your point.

1) I cannot find the comment made by Chalmers Johnson about "the Japanese not even allowing a fluent speaker of Japanese to speak it", so I'll assume it was made in the context you present it and, riskng an Emily Litella, go on.

2) Chalmers I assume was talking about a phenomenon facing foreigners speaking Japanese in Japan, but I could see little justification for jumping into a comparison with treatment of foreigners (or Americans viewed as foreigners) in general in the US. My point is there is no comparison, really.

Essentially, you say American whites sometimes disqualify Asians as citizens because of their face, because they are members of another race; i.e. you're making a point that American whites can be racist, considering non-whites as foreigners. Sorry. Racism happens--it occurs anywhere where people are ready to assign broad characteristics to a group of people based on little more than phenotype. But what does pointing it out here seek to accomplish? If your point is that, "Gee whiz, non-acceptance of different races occurs in both countries so it's otagae-sama", the point becomes inconclusive and the conversation is terminated. Relativism of this sort I find annoying because it feels like obfuscation--it gets nowhere and fails even to allow the problem to be analyzed.

However, if your point is that "it's the same everywhere--and we nonwhites in the US have to deal with it like foreigners have to in Japan", then we can talk about a matter of degree. IMHO, it is not the same at all. I daresay comparing Japan and the US leaves the US with a far better record of accepting and assimilating foreigners.

Evidence to wit:

1) Legality. If you're born in the US, you are a US citizen. In Japan, ONLY if you have "Japanese blood" can you be born a Japanese citizen. My daughter qualifies, fortunately, thanks to a revision in the laws only within the past two decades when even a foreign man could sire a Japanese (but until then, only Japanese men could sire citizens). But note that leaves out plenty of Japan-born people of Chinese and Korean descent.

In the US, Asian-Americans, including your sleighted "unaccepted" Chicago-born student, have American passports with all the privileges and immunities (even some affirmative-action job opportunities) of American citizens. Asian-Americans can vote in US elections. In Japan, J-born Chinese and Koreans cannot vote, and they suffer adversely in terms of employment and other opportunities. Vast numbers of J colleges will not take J Korean-school high school diplomas. Moreover, only Japanese nationals, the Daily Yomiuri reported a few days ago, can hold management positions in government offices. There are plenty more examples, and in the US they would run counter to laws designed to protect minorities.

How about a simple legal expression of culture--something as fundamental as a name? American nationals, born or naturalized, can keep their names as they like. In Japan, my daughter is not allowed, say, to have a middle name on her koseki touhon. If I were to become a Japanese citizen, I would have to take a Japanese name. Compared to America, I call that legally intolerant.

2) Attitudes. Yes, people in the US are aware that Asians are different than whites. But to imply that Asian-Americans are consigned to a "foreigner bin" in like minorities are in Japan is to me ludicrous. Reasons:

a) Language. The assumption in the US tends to be that foreigners can and will speak English. In Japan, the assumption is very often the same: English. Yes, as you say, students in the US might tune out foreign TAs, but I bet they will generally at least give them a chance to speak, and then tune them out if it's too much hassle. In Japan, I, and all non-Japanese I know, don't even have that privilege. Every single goddamn day, I have to prove I can speak Japanese to each and every stranger I meet, even sometimes over and over to people I meet occasionally. Often people say its a DISadvantage to be able to speak Japanese in negotiations (tho I disagree). Also, non-native speakers are relegated to the category of "hen-na-gaijin", which no matter how hard I try I cannot feel is a compliment. In sum, being discouraged from (some might even say penalized for) fluency in the language of one's residence is a bitter irony. It's also a constant struggle that I bet few foreigners have to deal with in the US.

b) Public expression. The word "foreigner", like "alien" or "outsider", is a word in English with unpleasant overtones. "Gaijin" etc in Japan is simply a bland uninflammatory label applied to anyone other than a Japanese, even when the Japanese person is outside of Japan and talking about the people around them. It may mean nothing "racist" to Japanese speakers, but it's unpleasant; it reinforces the ubiquitous "us and them" attitudes prevalent in Japan, and perpetuates overtones in Japanese language speech that extranationals might find discriminatory. In Japan, it seems, so long as no other Japanese gets hurt (e.g. Japan downplays words such as "blind" (mekura) and "cripple" (bikko)), native speakers don't seem to take much care about the nuances of their comments: witness diet members and other prominent people's statements about long intestines (Hata), racial harmony as strength (Nakasone), clean seat belts illiterate US factory workers etc if you need evidence. Only after translations and people overseas react do these people get carpeted, but the push for a recant rarely comes from within Japan. However, if somebody from CNN or Alfonse D'Amato makes a gaffe like that, Americans internally pounce. With the advent of PC etc, for better or for worse, the US is far more sensitive than Japan to how others, including extranationals, may react to certain kotoba zukai. This makes a difference.

c) Lack of legal recourse for grievances and checks against slander. Could the US nowadays get away with a singling out of foreigners meeting in Yoyogi Koen? Could US landlords get away so easily with turning down foreigners who want to rent apartments? Could police-story movies in the US get away with lines like, "This crime is so terrible (a person's face got boiled off in a J flick whose title I blissfully forgot) that a Japanese couldn't have done it. Must have been a foreigner." (and it was)? Could a major US city TV network get away with filming me (and other foreigners waiting for a bus), unbeknownst and without my permission, and then use that footage, in the context of a APB-type report on a foreigner murdering a Susukino hostess, saying, "these are areas where foreigners congregate"? (I took the grievance up with STV, but all I got was a perplexed and lukewarm verbal apology, and some telephone cards).

I could go on, but I hope I've made my point.

In conclusion, let me address your point that "Americans that speak "fluent Japanese" (your quotation marks) should not be too harsh on the Japanese who do not accept you as you are and allow you to speak Japanese".

I think I should be harsh. How else are "we foreigners" in Japan going to get any rights without pointing out problems and calling a spade a spade? Nasty attitudes towards people with differences must be brought to the fore, a normal process in any society in which people have grievances. And to just point out that "it's all the same everywhere" accomplishes nothing. America and Japan have very little base for comparison, in my view, on the scorecard of racism. At least the Americans have tried to ameliorate the present situation or make up for the wrongs of the past. I don't even see Japanese society as trying very hard at all. Little more than the motley slogan about kokusaika, but far more "this is Japan and we're not going to change so you'd better if you want to live here" type of stuff. I'm expected to grin and bear it.

Note also your use of quotes when referring to whites' "fluent Japanese". Quotes here could imply a "pseudo" nature, i.e that whites cannot become "fluent" (though I'm not sure that was your intention). Attitudes like this are prevalent in the US, fortified by the opinions of many Japanese-Americans, that Japanese is a unique language and perhaps even the hardest to learn--unless of course you have a Japanese family background, i.e. blood. Which is one of the reasons, I strongly feel, I found it hard to get a job in negotiating with Japanese for US companies--US employers simply refused to believe I, as a white, could do the job. "Oh well," some could answer, "because people look at the whole person and not just the linguistic ability, the Japanese might also not accept anything but an Asian face, so there you have it." Fine. But even exported Japanese attitudes towards white Japanese fluency warrant harsh rebukes just the same, in my opinion. That's why I feel so strongly about this issue, and dared to open a Pandora's Box by commenting.

Ms Inoue, respectfully, sorry you feel you've been wronged in the past in the US. But I think Asian-Americans still have it pretty good compared to minorities in Japan. At least the US tends to allow one to assert his or her feelings about ethnicity and to be respected for one's differences. In Japan, however, I truly fear for what might happen to my children, carrying within them their odd "American genes" that will someday really start to express themselves phenotypically. Provided that my job remains as enjoyable as it is (and I am not kicked out by academic apartheid), that factor would be the only thing that would drive me out of Japan.

Dave Aldwinckle

Date: Tue, 25 Jul 95
From: Kyoko Inoue
Subject: Re: Things Could Be Worse
To: fukuzawa@UCSD.EDU

Dear Mr. Aldwinckle and Other Interested Subscribers,

Thank you for your response to my comments and your request for a reply. I will first try to clarify my intent in making the comments that I did and what I had intended to say.

I know about many of the things that you and others have mentioned about life in Japan. And, as a fellow language learner, I do sympathize with you and all other learners of Japanese who do not get chances to use Japanese in conversations with the natives after many years of hard work. It is perfectly legitimate, I think, that you feel that the Japanese people do not accept you. I am well aware of the phenomenon.

Nonetheless, when I read Professor Johnson's comment about the plight of foreigners in Japan, I felt that things could be worse. The case of Japanese-Americans came to my mind partly because, as you know, just recently, the mass media reported the D'Amato incident--D'Amato, Congressman from New York, apparently "immitated" Judge Ito's supposed Japanese accent on a late night radio talk show. He was forced to publicly apologize for his inappropriate behavior. Then, I heard Catherine Cryer, who might have gotten the idea of linking Judge Ito to Japanese accent from that incident, make reference to Ito and Japanese accent. These incidents, of course, brought back in my mind the vivid memory of my student.

When I compare the plight of foreigners, who have CHOSEN to live in a foreign country and the difficulties that they encounter in being accepted by the natives with that of the natives who are not being accepted by their own countrymen, there is no doubt in my mind that the plight of those belonging in the latter is far more serious than those of the former.

In my many years of life in the United States, I have encountered people who indicated to me that I did not belong here and that I should go home. I am sad to hear such a comment because America is my second home and I want to life here, at least for now. But if I were to be told by my fellow Japanese in Japan that I should "go home," where would I go? I feel that living in a country of one's CHOICE is ultimately a privilege, and it brings to him or her both freedoms and limitations that are not available to natives. But being treated as a foreigner in one's own country is a different matter.

I am sorry that my comments were given the title "language and race" in the process of their being passed on to all the subscribers by someone else. I should have, and probably would have, if I had though t about the effect of my words more carefully, chosen to call it something like "Things Could Be Worse."

From the point of view of a linguist, the two cases that I linked, in one sense, present parallel examples demonstrating that people "hear" what they want to hear both in content and form. Communication between two individuals, or groups of individuals, involves not simply what is identified as "linguistic," i.e. grammar, words and pronunciation, but a whole host of nonlinguistic factors--social, political and psychological. It seems that when listners decide that they do not, or would not want to, understand the spaker, they would not understand the speaker no matter what. The opposite extreme is also possible--a mother would say that she understands her baby's babbling which others would swear is pre-linguistic. But, of course, the issues of language/nationality/race/ethnicity are enormously complex both in the United States and Japan, and possibly in any other country.

The important and interesting question to me is why people discriminate against foreigners, or treat certain sectors of the population as if they are foreigners and refuse to accept them. Again, such questions require very careful studies. And it is difficult to change people's attitude.

My first, and rather inadvertent, communication with you and other respondents has taught me an important lesson. Electronic discourse is very different from the conventional forms of discourse that I have been used to. I have no idea who participates in this forum, how many there are, what backgrounds they have, and why they participate. When people send messages out, they do not know who would "hear" them and how they would hear them. I doubt if Professor Johnson had any idea that he would stir me enough to respond to him in the way that I did, and I had no idea that my comments would incur responses that they did.

We are, for the most part, strangers, although I have known of Professor Johnson and his works because he is a noted scholar in the field of Japanese studies. Yet, there is, to me at least, an uncanny feeling of familiarity in this form of communication. When I open my e-mail, it feels very much like the process of going to my mailbox and finding letters from friends and business associates. This feeling of familiarity is rather dangerous.

In retrospect, I realize that I did a rather poor job in communicating my thoughts, and I apologize for it. I should have been far more careful than I was in phrasing my ideas so that it would be constructive and not hurtful, or unnecessarily provocative.


Thank you all for giving me a valuable experience in electronic communication. I hope we will be able to put a closure to this discussion for now, since I think the issues related to language/nationality/race and ethnicity are much too complex to discuss without careful planning and monitoring, which is very difficult to do when we do not know who is out there.

Sincerely, Kyoko Inoue

I let the issue go there. This was my first time doing broad-band generalizing and "grandstanding", as some put it, on Fukuzawa. And the issues covered here would be a preview of debate styles and topics to come.

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