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Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009

THE ZEIT GIST

Half, bi or double? One family's trouble


By KRISTY KOSAKA

It may not matter for inanimate objects, incapable of altering their own sweet smell, but for humans a name becomes part of our identity. My voice rises slightly as I warm to my argument: It may not be a tangible part of a person, like a hand or foot, but what others call us — and how we name ourselves — matters in this world, I say. So the half vs. double debate begins in my family.

News photo
CHRIS MacKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

My Japanese husband dislikes the current trend among our bicultural married friends of calling the children of their unions "double." He understands the motivation: "Half" seems diminishing; "half" calls to mind the American epithet of "half-breed"; "half" implies someone not quite complete. But "double," he contends, is even worse. "Double" contradicts every convention of Japanese modesty in language, the most important being the tradition of placing yourself and your family in a humble position to others. "Why are our kids more than other kids?" he asks. "How can one person be 'double'?"

As always, his arguments ring with a conviction that could be truth. Still, the name "half" sits uneasily on my tongue, and I deliberately halt its trespass to my lips. "Oh, is he half?" a new friend on the playground will invariably ask. I smile and say, "I am American, and his father is Japanese." "Biracial" and "bicultural" seem a bit wordy for a 7-year-old with a soccer ball. I sigh inwardly.

Perhaps my husband is right: Names do matter, but the emotion invested in a word means more than the word itself. We all feel the difference when "gaijin" is said as an epithet rather than out of innocent curiosity. As my husband points out, we want our children to recognize the feelings behind words, to give themselves control over what is, after all, just a string of syllables. Our daughter, 4 years old going on 16, can render any word profane, most recently "peanut butter" and "gobbledygook." Names can be weapons, but like every weapon, their power depends on intent. So argues my husband.

But words can become infused with independent power, I insist. Despite the idealism of Juliet, it was impossible for Romeo to "doff his name"; likewise, "half" children bullied for their halfness will find it difficult to ignore the word. A child will find any reason to bully, my husband responds sagely — he or she does not need a word. "Don't blame the name, blame the bully."

I search for alternatives. Before "half" came into common usage, the Japanese word ainoko, as in shiroi to kuroi no ainoko wa gray desu, was used. An English equivalent, "mixed" children, sounds not unpleasing to my un-Japanese ears. Yet ainoko became common after World War II, and these children, legitimate or not, created in love or rape, were not embraced by Japanese society. The word fell out of usage, I learn, because of its negative connotations.

I finally realize the wordplay inside my head masks a bigger concern: Japan does not recognize hyphenated names, as in "Japanese-American." Our children must someday choose a name for themselves. As the law now stands, those holding dual nationality must abandon one before reaching the age of 22; that is, Japanese adults cannot be dual citizens under current regulations.

How to play this name game? If the law stays the same, and some day in their futures our children must choose to be either American or Japanese, what will these names mean to them? "American" positively spits from the tonsils in some parts of the world today. Twelve years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, the biggest culture shock I faced came not from sushi, nor natto, nor sharing a hot bath with strange women at the gym. What shook me most was the prevailing negative attitude toward Americans. Not so much from my new Japanese friends, as my language skills curtailed any understanding of subtle barbs. No, the consensus, from my Australian, British, and Canadian colleagues, echoed over and over again, sometimes implied and sometimes painfully direct: "America" was not a name I should take pride in. Americans were loud and arrogant, vain with vaunting ambition. At some point in these conversations, someone would smile in my direction. "You, of course, do not act like an American," a voice would reassure, oblivious to the insult. Time does not seem to have tempered this judgment, and I find the name "American" still provokes ambivalence, at best.

How so, to be named Japanese? Many things I understand about this country, but I can not understand what it feels like to be Japanese. Diligent workers, good at maths? Short, smelling of seaweed, bowing deferentially? After living here a decade, I can laugh at the stereotypes, but I cannot fathom how the world really sees the Japanese. Besides, I do not look at our children and think "Japanese," no more than I can think only "American."

They themselves are mixed on the issue. Our son, in the throes of Japanese elementary school survival, wants only to be like everyone else. Our daughter declares that she is "American, Japanese, Fairy, African and Kosaka."

Fifteen years will pass before our first child makes his choice. What will dual nationality mean at that time, for themselves and the world? To my sports-minded husband, it means a choice to play for two different Olympic teams. For me, I'm not sure. A friend's high-school-age daughter, who holds British and Japanese passports, wonders what she will do when the time comes to decide. "It may just be a piece of paper," she tells me, "but it is part of my identity, and I don't want to give up either nationality."

Surely the world itself will change in 15 years. America just inaugurated a "half" president, a leader of dual heritage with an international upbringing. The ever-dropping birthrate ensures Japan will undergo dramatic societal change. Sometimes I am hopeful Japan will become open to dual citizenship, but standing in line recently at Narita immigration — where new rules forced me into a different line than my Japanese husband and children — I am not so sure. How will time morph this name game? How important will dual nationality be, anyway, for children living two cultures, or for our children, as individuals? There are no sure answers. I go back to my husband, no words left. He understands.

Words, words, words — well, they only get you so far. All words are just a translation of human feeling, which is why empathy is truly the most important skill in communication. Human intent, then, will be the powerful weapon we hope to teach, not only the intent of others, but also their own. Teach them to look below the surface, to see within the silent spaces, to find the heart beyond a color or creed, to explore themselves beyond a name or nationality. A strong belief in yourself can defuse any epithet, my husband and I finally agree. Our children already know the words "rose" and "bara"; I am sure each smells as sweet, regardless of the language.

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