Last Friday, I gave a talk at Kyoto University. Edward Sumoto of Mixed Roots and Professor Yasuko Takezawa (of the Takezawa Research Lab) organize these very interesting seminars on Japanese mixed race issues through the Institute for Research in Humanities. Using the theoretical work of one of my professors at Berkeley, I talked about how the “cartographies of communicability” in the specific practice of the interview tend create particular racializing subject positions for some mixed race people in Okinawa. Then using the Foucauldian geneological work of Annmaria Shimabuku, talked about the “petitioning body” in Okinawa (as she conceptualizes it) and how that limited range of possibilities created in interviews work to displace “petitioners” with resisters and what that means for mixed folks, especially black mixed folks in this particular militarized zone of Okinawa. This won’t make any sense without reading her work. Sorry but I want to talk about something else right now. I’ll publish the paper talk later.
I had to cut about 35% of my paper because I knew it would be too long. Afterwards, I realized that I probably cut in places I shouldn’t have. I also wish I had remembered to talk about my own hesitation with writing about mixed issues in Japan in an academic way. I was talking to a woman the next day about these things. My real research is actually not specifically on “mixed race” in Okinawa. I will be bringing in A LOT of these areas into my work but it’s not the primary focus as it is in this blog. I’m obviously very invested in this topic but I’ve always been hesitant about writing about it with academic language. Even after the talk, I felt awkward. I wondered, did I leave enough space for contingency? Did I leave enough wiggle room for cases that can turn my entire thesis on its head? The finality embedded in academic discourse can sometimes close off creative routes to spaces of belonging in places like Okinawa, where guarded check points and off-limit signs normalize detour mentalities.
And because I presented in English, I was very aware of all the issues of power, nuances missed, areas that could be disputed. I put up a few slides with some quotes from a few folks that I’ve interviewed and I didn’t get a chance to explain why I included them and how they intersect with my main points about communicability. For example, there was one slide called “Refractions” about how some mixed folks see each other through the fence lines (those with ID’s and those without). I didn’t have time to get into how interviews block the refraction lens through which we see each other. What is expected and desired in the interview process is a reflective lens approach. I’m noticing that many of us mixed folks in Okinawa do not see each other clearly sometimes. We see each other through the prism of racial triangulations in this complex space. It’s why I included the quotes of some mixed Okinawans who grew up on the base, a mixed mainland Japanese person who later moved to Okinawa but now works on the base, and a mixed Okinawan who grew up in the South far away from the base. We see each other. We are all mixed yes, but there is something different. I’m interested in how that difference is expressed.
While I was at Kyoto, I learned quite a bit from the other mixed race scholars there. Some are wary of outsiders, including mixed race folks like me who grew up outside Japan or those who left and have made their permanent residence away from Japan. They feel they have every right to critique the state but are sensitive to it when launched by outsiders. And I get that. I feel the same way about the US South. People can miss out on all the complex feelings that border love and hate one lives on at the cusp of belonging, or where there is an incredibly intense history of violence, hate, or rejection. If one is not from that space, can they get all those complex emotions and put it into discourse that makes sense for others? Can they really capture the urgency which one feels in making sure that the knowledge created is just right, because it affects our lives in the most minute ways, or the lives of those we love. (I am reminded of this article my new friend Kyle sent my way not long ago). It’s why I am always hesitant about writing with finality on these issues. But the parts of my talk that seemed to resonate the most with folks was the parts that I felt most strongly about– that we are sick to death of being boxed into “the abandoned amerasian” or “identity crisis” child category. That narrative is so strong that it limits other possibilities/experiences, especially in Okinawa. That narrative is not as defined in the US anymore the way it was here/sometime still is here, but it still creeps into racializations there too. I brought up an article that one of my mixed Okinawan friends was in and how even though the article was supposed to be about language revitalization, it ended up starting off as his supposed “identity crisis.” It’s as if nothing else we say matters unless we are first situated/hailed as such.
In Okinawa, when I tell someone that I am black and Okinawan, the response I might get from someone who works on base is, “So where was your dad stationed?” The following question, “are they still together?” Both questions attempt to locate me into a particular space. If my parents are not still together, does that mean I was not able to access the base? Does that mean I fall into the “abandoned” category. Does that mean I am being hailed as a “shima haafu” (an Okinawan half who grew up off base and not “Americanized”) and with that hailing, a long set of refined, yet possibly unconscious techniques that mark my body and make me “depictable” and insertable into particular racialized subject positions? If my parents are still together and I grew up on base, does that make me less haafu and more half? (And yes, there is a distinction– A rising scholar I met in Kyoto named Hyoue Okumara who is German/Japanese is working on these terms for his very interesting PhD project on labeling in Japan). Also — props to Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu who was the one who brought up this major distinction in his work. All of us doing work on mixed race issues in Japan owe him big time.
I grew up in the US but in a world where we heard stories that helped outline and give some shape to not just my future possibilities but the world that could have been my reality. In our home hung military souvenirs of “stations”– a black lacquered plate with a map of Okinawa etched in, base names mapping the island, military plaques with achievements stamped onto gold tags, “Air Force” tours inscribed onto a picture of the South Korean flag. It was a world where my dad’s military friends came by often and reminicsed about Okinawa and where my mom and her friends would catch up on gossip about the dispersed Okinawan women they knew either back home or in the US “military diaspora” of spouses. The narratives of abandonment, memories and tales of my mom’s friends who “just couldn’t do it anymore” (raise their blackanese babies or stay in partnerships with their military husband-abusive or not) hovered quietly. Tales about a guy who left a pregnant Okinawan back on the island, or Korea, or Thailand were passed back and forth. Over beers, bbq, ocha, sweetened ice tea, goya champru, and greens. My understandings about Okinawa, about mixed kids, about abandonment were made in transnational space. I still struggle with how to express how I can feel connected on a visceral level to my mixed Okinawan peers who grew up here and yet feel so far apart. I know when I am seen as an outsider in Japan (even among other haafu), because I am in many ways.
There is also something to be said about being raised with siblings and many shima haafu seem to largely have grown up in their family units as the only child. I was talking to a friend who is a black shima haafu here recently who said she was one of the few like her who grew up with a biological sister also black and Okinawan. She thinks it made a difference in her own working out her identity because they could bounce ideas off each other about uncomfortable situations that you probably can’t articulate with non-family members. In my situation, I was able to participate in collective eye-rolling with my sister. ”Girrrrl, uh uh. Can you believe mama said this about my hair!” We could intimately work out a lot things that might hard to do without a sympathetic sibling who might be going through some of the same growing pains. One lady contacted me after I published my first essay “On Being Blackanese.” She was also Black and Okinawan and grew up in an all white community in the Northwest in Washington State. She felt completely alone, thought that her mother was emotionally abusive, constantly critiquing her for being overweight, saying her hair was too wild, that her skin was too dark, etc. I remember telling her I thought it was funny because a lot of my peers (mixed and not) who have Okinawan mamas will complain jokingly (and with love too) that this is “an Okinawan thang.” I’ll never know the degree to her mother’s criticisms but I do know some of the things she mentioned to me are the kinds of things that even as very young kids, my siblings and I could laugh through/work through as a team. I don’t know…I haven’t really thought this through except on a very superficial level.
Maybe this is why I am working on my stage play. I can work out all these issues through that format and layer these complexities in a way that I can’t seem to do with academic discourse. Just a few weeks ago, I met with award winning Chicano poet, author, and professor Alejandro Murguia who was visiting Okinawa. As someone who focuses on border work/issues in Chicano/Central American literature, a lot of practices in Okinawa felt very familiar to him. Professor Kina, Alejandro, and I had a very interesting topic about using hybrid methodologies to talk about mixed/hybrid spaces. He and Kina-sensei (whose own work also focuses on borderlands) encouraged me to use my mixed creative work to further understand this mixed space. I can raise transnational/transracial triangulations, my southern mixed roots. Yes yes…I should be working on my dissertation and I am but as I write about my main topic — the excess ends up in this creative form, where it uses all these various routes of mixed communication.