My passport is navy blue, but instead of a bald eagle, it is marked with the Japanese imperial symbol, a chrysanthemum. It’s not only a legal document—it’s a memento of my own journey of cultural relearning.
After spending 10 years in New Jersey, 10 years of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I returned to Japan when I was 11. Although Tokyo is my birthplace, I did not feel like I “returned”—instead, I “went” somewhere unfamiliar. I had no clue what “their” national anthem was, and correcting my chopstick skills was still on my mother’s agenda. In Tokyo, I felt like I was superior because I could speak English. I thought I wore cooler clothes and listened to “better” Western music that was more musically sophisticated. I made my best effort to speak zero Japanese (besides communicating with my parents) and tried to avoid large crowds because I couldn’t stand them and wasn’t able to relate with anyone around me. Slowly, I was distancing myself from everything that looked like me and my cultural inheritance.
I hated the fact that because I looked Japanese, I was obligated to act “Japanese.” Looking back, I was probably frustrated with my lack of knowledge of how to be a part of this Japanese culture. My mother, who was painfully watching her daughter turn into an ungrateful teen, finally dragged me out of my shell.
“Sugawara-sensei’s Japanese tea ceremony class is very time-consuming.” That was my 13-year-old brain’s first thought. My mother enrolled me in Japanese tea-ceremony classes because the tea ceremony is a celebration of the Japanese spirit: It tests your patience and your ability to maintain composure while making a single cup of tea. It wasn’t an easy transition. As I sit on the tatami mat impatiently in a Derek Jeter T-shirt and my comfortable sweats, I get awkward stares from the other students, all of whom are wearing the most elegant kimonos. Perfect. I already feel defeated, and I just want to go home. But I can’t—I’m called up to perform a ceremony and make green tea. Piece of cake. I do what I’m told, but Sugawara-sensei just shakes her head. It was only when I was 18 that I finally became one of them with my kimono tied and fastened perfectly.
The journey of cultural learning is different for everyone. Some people are innately curious. My journey immersed me in an environment where my attention was consumed by the roots of my culture. With time, this environment attracted my curiosity, and I learned about and eventually claimed back my heritage. It took me years to finally be able to call Japanese culture my own.
It was disappointing to see my culture generalized and trivialized to a few stereotypical items like chopsticks and a schoolgirl uniform at Theta’s Olympics-themed party. In all likelihood, it did not take much time for Kappa Alpha Theta to decide to use these objects—certainly not five years.
We see stereotypes used all of the time, but I never thought it would come to affect my community so immediately. However, as the president of an organization whose purpose is to spread awareness of Japanese culture at Columbia, part of me feels responsible for the incident that happened. At Columbia Japan Society, we try to organize events that can be approachable and accessible for everyone. This usually comes in the form of food, trying on kimonos, or exposing the Columbia community to the dramatic sounds of the taiko drum. Perhaps we use iconic Japanese stereotypes to achieve accessibility—sushi for sushi night, ramen for ramen night.
However, we spend a great deal of time considering how to introduce Japanese culture. Our board members work hard every week to introduce something respectful and approachable. There are passionate discussions and debates around the table at our board meetings every week regarding how to pitch the presentation to the community. We want to share the beautiful and intricate details that our culture has to offer. We spend hours out of our personal time planning and discussing ways to bridge the gap between Western and Japanese cultures and make our point to our audience.
Additionally, CJS prides itself on a diverse board. We have been very lucky to have had students from Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, China, and more, who have offered their views on how to present Japanese culture in a way through which Columbia students can form a new appreciation, respect, and admiration for it.
Although we can’t erase the actions that have already occurred, we can use this opportunity to re-evaluate how we interact with icons of Japanese culture. In this way, I hope we can approach cultures with a positive attitude instead of degrading them by appropriating them.
The author is a Barnard College junior majoring in psychology. She is the president of Columbia Japan Society.
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