2.05.2011

America in Yellow, Black, White: Daniel Okimoto Speaks about Racism Directed at Black Americans

Neither my husband nor I can remember when we both began collecting books bilingually: a copy in English and a copy in Japanese. At present, I don’t know how many we have and the books in the photo are just the ones I grabbed off the shelf. A majority of the time, I seek Japanese copies of English books that appeal to me. Sadly, very few books written by Africans or African-Americans are translated into Japanese. In the future, I plan to rectify this problem.

Not long ago, The Husband came home with two separate copies of Daniel I. Okimoto’s American in Disguise (1971) in Japanese and a stinky moldy secondhand copy in English. Apparently, he’d ended up with a second Japanese version while trying to purchase the English copy. Normally, he would be rather casual about such a thing. This time, he was truly excited and said there was something relevant to me within the stinky pages. In reality, there’s something for all of us here at the Blasian Narrative.

For the first time ever in print, I’ve read an autobiography written by an Asian author who has devoted serious page space to the African-American condition. At the time of his writing, Mr. Okimoto was neither researching Black people nor in a relationship with a Black woman although he had dated at least one Black woman prior to his marriage. In other words, he chose not to ignore us while he writing about his own painful experiences with racism and the search for an identity in America.

American in Disguise is a fascinating book that begins with Mr. Okimoto writing about his first five years spent behind the barbed wire of World War II internment camp in Arizona. He speaks of his search for identity and why the youth of his generation were disenchanted with the American dream. He explains in detail how foreign minority groups are “at best Americans in disguise, at worst stubborn threads that cannot be worked into the fabric of American society.” This book was written over 30 years ago and remains as relevant today as it was then.


In the foreword of American in Disguise, James A. Michener wrote, “One of the finest aspects of this book is Okimoto’s sober analysis of the comparisons between the Japanese experience with racial intolerance and that of the Negro.” He goes on to say that all other immigrants, Chinese, Japanese, Irishmen, Russians, Jews and others simply cannot say, “We made it, so why can’t the Negro?”

No comparison can be made because the Jews brought with them “a tradition of learning, a powerful religion suited to their needs, a total way of life…” The same was true of the Japanese immigrant who came armed with “abundant spiritual and cultural riches…”

Admittedly, I wasn’t pleased reading these lines because they implied that my African ancestors came here with nothing except dark skin. A cooler head prevailed and I continued reading.

Michener continued by pointing out the obvious. The Jews, Irish, Chinese, and others (including Koreans) were never slaves. Though they had been persecuted for being different, they had never been stigmatized as slaves. They’d never been moved about as chattel and deprived of the stable family life they had known in the old countries. “And that is a difference so profound that it ill behooves the other immigrant groups to demand of the Negro that he perform as they did. The rules are different.”

Okimoto spent many of his early post internment/post WWII years in a ghetto in San Diego. He described the neighborhood as “drab, dreary, despairing, a dead end for many of its inhabitants.” Even during these harsh years, the Japanese had something that American blacks, Mexicans and even poor whites did not have. The Japanese-American people retained “a binding sense of community, which knitted all together into what was almost an extended family, close and interdependent.”

As an adult during the “Black revolution,” he was asked, “Why do blacks talk so violently? Why do they complain, provoke and riot? Why can’t they be more like Japanese Americans? You’re a model minority, and race relations would be far better if all minorities behaved like you.”

Okimoto not only believed such absurd comments grossly oversimplified the problems, that viewpoint was also an insult to Blacks as well as Japanese Americans. These assertions, he said, “were based up the subtle but baleful misconception that freedom and equality have to be earned from the “white” community that sits in judgment dispensing justice magnanimously when it so pleases, and that these privileges are not God-given, inalienable rights, as eloquently stated by the founders of the United States.

He went on to point out that this narrow viewpoint made no allowances for the obstacles that stood in the way of Blacks, but never impeded the Japanese (i.e. slavery). Blacks had been suffering from humiliation and oppression long before the Japanese ever reached the American continent. The Japanese have largely “won” their rights, but Blacks are still waiting and are reaching the end of their patience.

Furthermore, that view ignores the uniqueness of the Japanese American story. In this case, Japan’s ability to assimilate others and to allow itself to be assimilated turned out to be a stroke of good luck for the original immigrants and their families. Okimoto said, “Few ethnic legacies blend so readily with the culture of an adopted country.”

Okimoto also observed that two other factors needed to be considered when comparing the Japanese-American experience to that of the African-American one. First, population. At the time the book was written, the Black population was around twenty-two million and the Japanese population wasn’t even half a million; therefore, it was easier to accommodate a smaller minority population because it involved fewer social dislocations. Second, Blacks also suffer greater penalties as a consequence of physical characteristics that depart radically from the white standards of beauty.

Unlike Blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans and other self-loving immigrant groups, the Japanese earned success by rigid conformity to white middle-class standards of success and respectability. This began centuries earlier during the “opening” of Japan. As such, they were accepted in large measure because they fitted white modes of behavior: they abided by the laws, ignored calls to revolution or reform, worked hard within the extant social framework, bore prejudice mutely and generally pleased the “white” community with their “self-effacing deferential attitudes.” Some interpret this as “adaptability.” Others interpret it as “kowtowing.” In this way, the Japanese were no threat to the status quo and it was fairly easy to accommodate half a million of them without major social change.

Okimoto didn’t view this as a success. The pattern of Japanese conformity “failed to produce permanent social reforms that might have corrected the sickness of racial prejudice in society—prejudice was simply focused more sharply on other racial groups.” At the time, he believed that the civil rights movement would have a much greater impact on American society in terms of breaking down the walls of racism. He believed that the Black movement had the potential to go down in history as the greatest social crusade in 20th century American history. The Japanese-American story would seem almost inconsequential.

The Japanese-Americans did not come through the “social acceptance” road without exacting a high price. They lost ancestral identity, sacrificed creativity, developed intolerance towards nonconformity and so forth. For Blacks, the search for ancestral roots led to a blossoming of creative impulses among Black writers.

Okimoto also points out that the single most decisive factor in the divergent Nisei (second generation Japanese) and the Negro paths to success has been the differences of opportunities and expectations between the two racial groups. Because Japanese American opportunities are greater than they are for Blacks; they have higher expectations and aspirations. Luck, fate or whatever allowed them to reach their high social status without a radical opening up of opportunities. Without those opportunities, “no amount of industry, no quantity of frugality, nor any abundance of perseverance” could have bought the Japanese where they were then and today. Without those openings, they would have been banging their heads up against brick walls just like frustrated Black Americans today.

In the end, Okimoto concluded that Japanese-Americans got to where they were by essentially doing nothing: “on our way up the social ladder we caused no trouble, stirred up no controversy, and made no permanent alterations to the essentially racist status quo.” Ultimately, while Japanese Americans won material spoils of victory, they have done nothing to lighten the burden of other minorities.

As far back as 1971 when this book was published, Okimoto, believed that if there was no solution to the racial crisis in America, the country would be doomed to a divisiveness that no amount of time or effort could heal. He predicted that Blacks would no longer accept tokenism or sit around another 100 years waiting for the rest of the nation to grant them, reluctantly, what is already guaranteed them under the Constitution.

Okimoto hoped that the Japanese American community would assume an active role in breaking down barriers to socio-economic opportunities that are denied to Blacks and other minority groups. He admitted that the attitude that equality for yellow is all right, but not for black or brown, still existed in many Asian quarters. He believes that it’s all up to Japanese Americans to see that such forms of selected prejudice are not permitted.

“Discrimination in any form, whatever racial minority it is directed against, is an enemy of all; it can easily turn against anyone of us…to ignore the pleas for help from other minority groups is to participate in the type of racial bigotry that was directly so ruthlessly against the Japanese Americans; to participate even passively in discrimination is to forget the entirety of the experience of internment.” – Daniel I Okimoto.

Normally, I would have ended the post here, but I’ve decided to post a specific experience Mr. Okimoto had during his Ivy League years.

While Daniel Okimoto was at Princeton, during his sophomore year, he was part of a process called “bicker,” by which second-year students were chosen for memberships in eating clubs. Since he already disliked the concept of fraternal organizations, he’d already made up his mind not to participate in the bicker selection process. However, because he was indecisive and easily swayed by group consciousness (i.e. a Japanese), he compromised his individual conscience and decided not to rock the boat. Against his better judgment, he went through with it and among the bids he received was from a club renowned as prestigious and Southern. Incidentally, this was also the first year a nonwhite had been asked into membership and he wanted to feel honored; however, it felt weird to join a group that admitted Orientals, but not Blacks.

When he asked one member why they’d never admitted Blacks, he was told that their social club’s purpose was not to integrate the world. All they wanted was a congenial group whose common denominator was a desire to socialize. As such, inviting blacks over the objections of some members would provoke unnecessary trouble. When Okimoto asked the person if he thought this was right, the person said told him not to worry because he was Japanese. Yet, when Okimoto’s name and that of a Chinese-American classmate came up for the vote, several people voiced their objections. Since the rest of the club wanted them, those who had objected magnanimously swallowed their pride and agreed to accept them just as they were and treat them as equals. The message was clear. Although the members preferred not to admit Blacks, they didn’t mind having a few “high-class Orientals” to diversify the membership. Okimoto and the Chinese American were so offended they vowed that if no black, then certainly no yellow.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it was soon apparent that Okimoto was on his way to an epic Race!Fail. Eventually, he entered another club using the rationalization that it would be useless to buck the established social system. After some initial pangs of uneasiness, he soon became quite content in the atmosphere of the club. He felt a certain sense of security in belonging to an elite white membership as well as an abundant sense of self-pride at having made it. He forgot all about his policy of no yellows if no blacks.

If I didn’t live in Japan, I probably would be furious with this guy because at this point in his story, half-way through the autobiography, he did have his head in his ass. Experience with “whites” already told me what else was on tap for him. He had to relearn that Japanese Americans are “tolerated” not accepted. They’re “tolerated” not preferred. Furthermore, they are ALIENS to the Japanese in Japan and they sure as hell aren’t having any aliens or “whites” in their exclusive clubs. It’s funny how the “whites” give ground to Japanese Americans, yet the Japanese aren’t giving the “whites” anything. There’s one thing I’ve learned here. If a Japanese person is extremely accommodating, he/she intends to see you throw yourself off a tall building. If you don’t do it yourself, he/she will give you a little shove.

American in Disguise is a must read because it's timeless and still topical today. There is so much more I didn't write about.

9 comments:

  1. I would love a copy. Maybe after I move.

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  2. Yeah, I'm going to have to read this. Daniel Okimoto's name rings a bell.

    Awesome post, Hateya. Always a pleasurable learning experience.

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  3. Im defintely sold! I will find a way to read that book after I'm done with my others, thank you for writing about it. I have never heard of this book or this author before.

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  4. This is a very interesting read.

    I wonder if he felt "no black, no yellow" because he didn't like being USED, as opposed to social justice.

    I will have to read the book to understand. Thank you for posting this essay.

    " If a Japanese person is extremely accommodating, he/she intends to see you throw yourself off a tall building. If you don’t do it yourself, he/she will give you a little shove."

    Is this an example of being "two-faced" ?

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  5. sounds like a fascinating read, thanks for the summary

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  6. @Everyone

    I hope all of you will be able to find a copy, preferably a good-smelling one. Mr. Okimoto doesn't pull any punches. As you've seen, he doesn't even spare himself. Though I only drew material from a couple of chapters, the primary topic is racism and the crippling effect it had on him personally and and African-American people at large.

    @Thoughts...

    Is this an example of being "two-faced" ?

    Interestingly enough, no. The social rules that govern many societies generally don't apply here. If a person feels compelled to do for someone, this means he/she also feels used and unappreciated because a decent person would have gotten their stuff together in the first place and not forced them into a position of "servitude." I'm always overjoyed when someone finally shoves an infuriating user off the a tall building, even if only figuratively.

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  7. Thanks for this suggestion! Definetly working on my "New Books" list to give me a break from my textbooks.
    @Hateya: Speaking of Asian Americans struggling to "fit in" in America, have you read "Yellow: Stories" by Don Lee? A Japanese guest lecturer for our Culture and the Arts in East Asia class had us read one story from it about a Korean-American guy trying to rid himself of his "Asian-ness." I think you would enjoy it ^.^

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  8. @Moonwalker72

    Speaking of Asian Americans struggling to "fit in" in America, have you read "Yellow: Stories" by Don Lee?

    No, I haven't read it, but I will remedy this very soon. Thank you so much.

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