Afterthought on “Are You Japanese?”

Here’s a little bit of afterthought on the “Japanese” ethnic capital in experimental or improvised music scene in the US. [Caution – this entry is slightly inflammatory.]

There’s a distinction between being racialized as Asian/Japanese and being understood as being from Japan as a place from where many renowned improv or experimental musicians are from. (Some of these figures include Merzbow, Yoshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Oshihide, and those associated with John Zorn and his label. Here’s a compiled list of some of these individuals.)

I should decompress this statement a bit. Being racialized implies an alignment with the historically Western Orientalist gaze on all people of non-Western features or otherwise known as “Eastern” or “Asian” affiliation. This perspective enables the lumping of all people of Asian descent into one large despite the ethnic, national, and class differences or sometimes conflicts among them. In the US, this perspective has much to do with the stereotype of “perpetual foreigner”, a cultural trope familiar to many of us living here. How many times have I been asked, “oh, where are you from?” If I said, “Virginia,” there would be another question that follows invariably, “but, no, which country are you REALLY from?”

In a slightly different way, being associated with the past and present internationally renowned Japanese musicians is not necessarily a racializing act. To some people, this could be a favorable or “positive” stereotype, although I do wonder how much mileage one gets from being associated with the particular line of Japanese artists. The issue of representation is a big deal in this day and age as movements toward equality seem to be motivated by multicuturalism. This doesn’t shun the possibility of tokenistic representation. After the implementation of Affirmative Action, the identity of Asian Americans conveniently slips in and out of the definition of “minority” depending on the context of representation. Asian Americans sometimes add a nice third color to the fortuitous representation of All-American racial harmony; other times, Asian Americans are called out for being “over-represented” (mostly because the Asian American presence simply overwhelms or even threatens the historically defaulted social dominance of Whiteness)

In real life, this distinction – between being racialized and being aligned with the renowned Japanese musicians – may be collapsed. On the part of the non-Asian observers, it doesn’t matter if the Asians or Asian Americans of ethnicities other than Japanese are grouped or lumped together. It’s not like the non-Asians can lose their social status by mistaking the national or ethnic association of a single individual, although there is the risk of breaching the implicit rules of social interactions and diplomacy, or just experiencing personal embarrassment.

On the other end, Asian/Asian American musicians can navigate the fine line between the two. There are a number of different approaches or strategies to this. Personally, I have a few different tricks in my bag depending on the situation. I sometimes handle the situation with a playful response. Other times, I put on my teacher’s hat that I patiently break down the historical, social, and cultural relationship between Japan and Taiwan. Well, occasionally I just ignore the questions. Most of time, I manage to make interesting small talks out of these inquiries about my “being from Japan” without breaching the rules of social interactions. However, I would rather talk about music, aesthetics, gear, etc, than my ethnicity. Maybe this particular experience can become a common ground for Asian/Asian Americans residing/working in the non-Asian world, despite our distinctive relationship to Japan and Japanese artists.

I would be interested in finding out how others manage this kind of encounter. Please get in touch with me [wendy.f.hsu@gmail.com] if you think you can contribute anecdotes or ideas to my rant/musing about ethnic (mis-)identification by strangers.

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This entry was original on September 17, 2007 on Yellowbuzz.

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