Voices of Chicago
My Life Between Two Cultures Print E-mail
Written by Kyoko Inoue   
Sunday, 03 October 2010 15:20
      I have lived in the United States since 1968.  While I have adjusted well to life in America, I have also tried to maintain my Japanese identity.  My upbringing and experience have led me to live a life between two cultures.

1.  The Beginning: My Maternal Family in America

     My life between two cultures began when my maternal grandfather, born in 1867 in Kyushu, decided that he wanted to emigrate to the United States.  In 1887 he arrived in San Francisco, and two of his brothers followed him. Eventually he moved to Alameda and opened a nursery. During his life time, he visited Japan once, but never had any interest in returning permanently.
He married a woman from Kyushu, who had been a school teacher, through an arrangement made by a relative.  In 1912, my mother, Midori, was born in Alameda, California; she was their second child.  In 1914 or 1915, my grandmother returned to Kyushu with her three children to visit her parents.  In 1915, while preparing to return to California, she and the youngest child died of typhoid. My grandfather was willing to raise the remaining boy, but he decided to leave my mother in the care of her Japanese grandparents and an unmarried aunt. Her grandmother was an enlightened woman who believed in educating women and sent her daughters to teacher training schools.
     At the age of 17, when my mother completed girls’ high school, she returned to Oakland to live with her father, step-mother and two brothers.  She studied art at the San Francisco Art School and learned to sew with an older cousin who took her under her wing.  Midori apparently had a good ear for language, and picked up American English rather easily.  Her life with her parents, however, was cut short when she was called back to Kyushu to nurse her dying grandmother. My mother never returned to live with her American family.
     My father, Masao, was the second son of a merchant family in Takasaki, a midsize town in Gumma Prefecture, where he finished high school.  After graduating from Keio University, while working at a bank, he was introduced to my mother and they were married in 1934. I think that my father was in part attracted to my mother, who had recently returned from America, because he was interested in new and Western things, and she was smartly dressed in a Western dress.

2.  Shanghai

     During the 1930s, the Japanese government was encouraging Japanese citizens to move to Japanese colonies.  In 1939, my father was offered a job in a Japanese trading company and decided to move to China, then under Japan’s colonial control.  My parents sold all their belongings and moved to China, never intending to return.  Eventually, they settled in Shanghai’s Japanese neighborhood. At the age of six, I was enrolled in one of Shanghai’s six Japanese schools. I received an entirely Japanese public education, as prescribed by the Ministry of Education, using Japanese textbooks and taught by well-trained Japanese elementary school teachers.
     I have few memories of World War II. My life was peaceful, generally happy and event-less. My parents were mostly apolitical, and I do not recall much discussion about the ongoing war.
     After Japan’s catastrophic defeat, the Japanese military was disarmed and the Chinese took control of Shanghai. The 100,000 Japanese colonists were forced into in a small area.  In early March, 1946, my family was sent back to Japan on an icebreaker, one of the few remaining Japanese ships. I did not want to leave Shanghai and prayed that we would somehow be able to return to our home the next morning.

3.  A Stranger in the Homeland

     At the end of the war, several million Japanese civilians and disarmed soldiers were sent back to Japan.  This was a tremendous burden not only on the government, which had to make arrangements to bring them home, but more importantly, for many people in Japan who had endured four years of a vicious war, and who had to then accept relatives and family members, who appeared at their doorsteps unannounced because they had nowhere else to go. My parents and their four children--aged 11 to 2—went back to Takasaki to live near my father’s family.
     For me, Japan was a strange country, as I had few memories of life in Japan. My parents enrolled me and my brother in the neighborhood public elementary school.  Although I had had the same education as the other children, my classmates were strangers, and my school life was difficult.  Understandably, the local children did not look kindly upon children who came back from overseas, who looked different and did not fit well in local community. To give one example, Japanese children in those days only wore wooden sandals (geta), for leather shoes were luxury. I had a pair of brand new leather shoes, the only foot-ware that I owned.  Other children kept asking me why I did not wear geta like everyone else.  I did not want to tell them that I could not bear to ask my parents to buy them because it would have meant an additional expense.

4.  The Inoue Family Meets Their American Relatives

     In 1942, my relatives, like all the West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans, were shipped to a concentration camp. They were initially sent to Tanforan Race Track in California, and then, I believe, to Tule Lake.  I know nothing about their lives in the camp because I do not recall my mother ever speaking about them.
     In 1946, my younger uncle was drafted into the United States Army and was sent to Kobe, Japan for a two year stint.  In the spring of 1947, he came to visit us in Takasaki, wearing an American uniform and looking very handsome.  His first visit left me with an unforgettable memory. My parents took him and the children to a nearby hot spring.  On our return trip, when we arrived at the station, the station master led us to a beautiful empty car set aside for the American occupation personnel. We were the only passengers in the car. The rest of the train was jammed with the Japanese travelers, many of whom were probably trying to return to Tokyo with the little food that they had acquired on the black market in the countryside. People were climbing through the windows to enter the cars. I experienced the privilege and power represented by a member of my own family who, ironically, had been incarcerated allegedly as untrustworthy when his parents’ homeland was in a war against US. As a twelve year old girl, I recall thinking that there was clearly something strange in our world!
     I have one other important memory from those days.  My American step-grandmother in Oakland sent us care packages containing used clothes, food, soap and various items.  Those boxes had special dry and pleasant “American” smell.  My grandmother included a box of delicate brooches made of shells that she had made in the camp.  She also sent me a beautiful red jacket and a cobalt blue skirt—I had never seen such a lovely outfit.  I wore them proudly, but, of course, when the rest of the Japanese people were clothed in drab worn clothes, I no doubt stood out like a sore thumb!
     Our family life was atypical because of how my mother raised us.  Perhaps because of her experience in America, she had an unusual sense of equality of men and women.  We children called each other by our first names with -chan, the diminutive polite ending; I and my next brother, Eiji, were never addressed as onee-san, “older sister,” or onii-san, “older brother,” which was the typical Japanese custom.  Both girls and boys were equally expected to participate in household chores.  My mother always walked side-by-side with her husband, never behind him. Also my mother never polished her husband’s shoes, as many housewives of her generation (and some even today) were expected to do. Although my father did not do many household chores he did participate quite actively in child rearing.

5.  Travel to America

     During the seventh grade, when Japanese children start studying English, my mother taught me how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet in American English.  From that time on, I did well in English at school and English became my favorite subject. At some point in high school, I decided that I wanted to go to America to study. I begged my mother to ask her brothers if they would be willing to sponsor me with a financial guarantee for my education.  Looking back on it, it was a daring request from a relative they hardly knew.  In those days, the United States government required full financial support by an American citizen for all foreign students who desired to study in America.
     In July 1956, having completed two years of education at a junior college, I set sail on a small Japanese freighter; my boat fare had been paid by an American women’s organization called the College Women’s Club of Tokyo.  I enrolled at San Jose State College as a junior in the program in school librarianship that fall. College work was incredibly difficult.  Although I spoke English without much of a Japanese accent, my reading and writing abilities were far from adequate. My vocabulary was so small that I could not improve my reading speed. As a result, studying occupied much of my time, and I remember nothing but studying and working.
     My relatives were farmers and nursery men working very hard from early in the morning. I quickly realized that what I had asked my relatives to do for me was rather out of line.  Feeling deeply indebted, I tried to earn as much money as I could to supplement my uncle’s support money. I also helped my aunt around the house and my uncles in the nursery as much as I could. For all foreign students, working outside the campus was illegal. Nonetheless, during the first year, I worked for a couple of families as a maid in exchange for room and board, and took a job cleaning venetian blinds at an office building—poorly paid and tedious work! No one seemed to care that hiring me was illegal.

6.  Back in Japan—Still a Stranger!
     I graduated from San Jose State on 1958. In September 1959, after a year of internship at the Children’s Library of Brooklyn Public Library, I returned to Japan, expecting never to return to America.  During the next nine years, I taught English at a conversation school.  Most of my colleagues were Americans, and teachers were required to speak English in classrooms. While living in Japan with my family, I spoke English five days a week. As time passed, my English improved to such an extent that I began to wonder who I was. How it was that language had such an important impact on one’s sense of identity?

7.  Living Between Two Worlds
     In 1968, I returned to the United States for graduate work in linguistics. After getting a Master’s degree in TESOL at the University of Hawaii, I spent five years at the University of Michigan. In 1975, having earned a Ph.D, I came to UIC as an assistant professor of theoretical linguistics. I also established a Japanese language program at UIC.
     My life in America has been challenging and fascinating. In both my personal and academic life, I dealt with questions about the differences between American and Japanese societies because I had to function as a faculty member in the university community like everyone else, and I had to understand the values and perspectives of my students. To give one example, for a long time I did not know that silence in meetings meant tacit approval of proposed policies, even though I had expressed disapproval earlier.  In Japan, it often means tacit disapproval. I had to train myself to express opposition at meetings without fear of isolation or reprisal. Through various experiences like this, I realized over time that I was having a life between two cultures. While trying to adjust to American academic life, I did not want to give up my Japanese identity.
I have visited Japan to do research and spend time with my family as often as I could--nearly every year during the past ten years. I continue to be interested in changes taking place in Japan. I love both Japan and the United States and I only wish I could live in both countries at the same time.
Here is a biography of Kyoko Inoue, as found on the website of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is a Professor Emerita. 
Kyoko Inoue's research interests in the past twenty years have focused on the intellectual history of modern Japan and comparative American and Japanese cultures. She has published MacArthur's Japanese Constitution: A Linguistic And Cultural Study Of Its Making (1991), which was named an outstanding academic book by Choice, and Individual Dignity In Modern Japanese Thought: The Evolution Of The Concept Of Jinkaku In Moral And Educational Discourse (2001). She teaches courses in two distinct areas: theoretical linguistics, focusing on English syntax-semantics, and comparative studies of American and Japanese cultures and histories; she is now developing a course in comparative cultures and literatures, focusing on modern Japanese and Japanese American literatures.
More information about Kyoko Inoue's publications: http://www.uic.edu/depts/engl/people/prof/kinoue/bio.html 
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