By: Mayumi Yamamoto
The US hegemony began during the Second World War and peaked some thirty years later.
Life is strange.
Sometimes, just a short encounter leads us somewhere we never expected.
The Japanese surrender of the Second World War in 1945 was followed by the American occupation of Okinawa until 1972.
I was born
not in Okinawa
but in mainland Japan.
during those years,
all Westerners were equivalent to Americans.
What was different between Okinawa and the rest of Japan was
I didn’t meet the Black Americans.
I did meet only the foreigners with fair skin and bright brown hair in those days.
They were all regarded Americans.
No matter whether they were truly from the US or not.
There must have been people from Asia.
But, they were not recognized.
Asians were invisible.
Then, Japan had officially begun to accept the so-called “boat people”
as refugees in 1979.
They were Vietnamese.
They were labelled as “refugees.”
Nothing more than that.
But for me,
the foreigner whom I got a very concrete image of was Indian.
my father invited an Indian engineering student to our modest little house
because of his wish to visit an ordinary Japanese family
– so-called nuclear family.
He had been in Japan for a short term technical training
in a Japanese company.
He must have been a member of a large joint Bengali family in Calcutta,
like Rabindranath Tagore,
the first Nobel Prize winner from Asia.
I was 12 years old.
It was the year of the Expo ’70.
The venue was near my house.
That might have been another reason why he visited us.
I was overwhelmed by his presence.
His elegant behaviour, and his figure.
Gentle, polite, well mannered, and so beautiful.
I was reminded of a Greek sculpture.
He stayed only for as long as an hour just to have a cup of tea.
We showed him around our house,
I let him in my room – a 12-year-old girl’s private room.
With compliments, he told me that I was somehow like an Indian lady.
That was enough to knock me out.
Since then, India has occupied a special place inside me.
In my young mind,
America was replaced by India, and that gave me access to Europe
– given India’s colonial past under British rule.
America took a step backward, until it became invisible.
Soon after he left Japan, I came to know that he got married with a Japanese woman.
That was good news for a not-so-grown-up girl, too.
When I was a student of the Department of India and Pakistan,
Osaka University of Foreign Studies,
one international student from Yugoslavia complained that
Japanese people not only tried to talk to them in English—to her and her husband—
but also treated them as Americans, by mistake.
With bright brown hair,
she was a fluent English speaker,
“a rare case of Yugoslavian,”
according to her.
Her husband did not speak English at all.
(They were a Croatian and Serbian couple.)
It was already in the middle of 1980’s, and still it was not uncommon that
those who have fair skin and light brown hair were treated like her.
Mistaken as an American.
Misunderstood as an English speaker.
Around me, however, there were lots of international students from Asia, Africa and South America
because my university had been receiving foreign students
from more than 100 countries all over the world every six months.
All of them studied the Japanese language and culture
before moving to their respective universities for their majors.
They were all post graduate students sponsored by the Japanese government.
Unlike other universities in Japan,
we share time and space in our campus.
At the canteen,
Japanese students sat side by side with foreign students.
It was easy to become friends.
It was not beyond expectation that we fell in love.
Some of them got married.
Most of them separated after some time.
Those were the circumstances of my student days
during the first half of 1980’s in Japan.
Then, I went to India for further study.
as a student of the Centre for South Asian Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University,
I studied about Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Afterwards, I got an opportunity to work in Nepal.
I also conducted a survey in Bangladesh later on.
During these years,
I traveled to Pakistan and Bhutan for vacation.
I am still in awe with the realization that
all these experiences in South Asian countries—my lifelong journey to this area—began on the single day that my father brought him to our home when I was 12 years old at the time of the Expo ’70.
I happened to read an online news article about a Japanese woman
living in Calcutta (Kolkata) for nearly half a century,
who had been awarded by the Government of Japan
—The Order of The Rising Sun,
due to her many contributions in bridging Japan and India together
through the decades.
The article shows the photo of the celebration party where
she was together with her Bengali husband,
hosted by the Japanese consular-general in Kolkata at that time.
A tall Indian gentleman with gray hair was standing with his honorable Japanese wife and their daughter.
I can no longer recognize him by face, but without doubt
he is the person who visited my house half a century ago,
because his name is still alive in my mind.
It is enjoyable for me to imagine that he has never known
how the compliments he gave, as a young man, to a Japanese school girl had affected her life so far.
In the 1970’s of Japan,
I was asked the same question
here and there,
again and again,
on various occasions,
by different people,
And not America?”
This story is based on my experience,
though it could have been partly embellished
—unknowingly and unconsciously—
through all the years that
I’ve been trying to satisfy the curiosity of Japanese people who kept asking,
“Why did you choose India, and not America?”
As a social scientist, Mayumi Yamamoto worked at Yamaguchi University, Japan for 20 years and in between, was assigned as a research associate for two years at the Embassy of Japan, Kathmandu. Yamamoto authored several published books in the Japanese language.
A very impressive and interesting article !
Simple and clear English is praiseworthy.
I am nearly 20 years older than she, and I was born and brought up in Kobe, which was regarded as the most international city in western Japan those days. That’s why my impression on Americans was different from her. In my childhood there were many American soldiers-white and black in the occupation army in the city, so I knew that Black people were also Americans and Americans were not equal to Europeans.
But of course there was a strong prejudice and discrimination against black people, called Negro or Kokujin. Konketsuji (a half breed) usually meant mulattoes (black American soldiers and Japanese women), not with white Americans !
Of course I observed many Indian people in Kobe and I took
much interest in them. That is the reason why I decided to learn Hindi.
Her story about a Bengali gentleman who was invited to your home by your father at the age of 12 is very interesting.
After half a century his Japanese wife, living in Kolkata, was reportedly awarded by the Japanese Government. Congratulations !