Shame

 

As a person of Japanese ancestry, I come from a culture based on honor and shame. Boundaries must be observed: the boundary between shogun and peasant, between male and female, between those who maintained the sewage system–the untouchables–and the rest of society, and between the Japanese people and foreigners.

 

There were boundaries, fences, walls all around me, and it was shame, shame, shame to cross, climb or scale them.

 

When I was a boy, those boundaries made me feel ill-at-ease, because I was growing up an American, in the United States where boundaries were not supposed to exist. We were all created equal and had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not the de facto truth, but the ideal lived and worked for.

 

I could not understand all the boundaries my parents tried to maintain. Their problem in raising me was this: as second generation Japanese Americans they weren’t wholly comfortable with the boundaries themselves. Every time I heard them defend themselves against my Japanese grandmother’s criticisms–my grandmother who had emigrated from Japan–I was fully aware of their dis-ease with the traditional boundaries.

 

I grew up quite confused and unsure of nor happy with myself. But then, to deal with my growing discomfort, I began reading about the Japanese culture–Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and other books on the Japanese culture. I began to gain a better perspective on some of the behaviors of my parents.

 

For example, I learned that the Japanese culture is a gift-bearing culture. You honored those above you with gifts. I began to understand why at Christmas and New Year’s my father religiously bore gifts to his bosses. On the other hand, my father was a general foreman, and during the holiday season, his workers would stop by. They brought gifts for my Dad, to honor him as their boss, and they ate of the food my mother prepared and set out for all visitors.

 

I began to understand why I complained so much when I had to make those visits with Dad to Mr. Ames and others who gave him jobs and commissions. I’d complain, “Do I have to? It’s so boring.” And Dad would say, “What’s boring got to do with it?” And Mom would say, “You know there’s that little stream by Ames’ warehouse, the one with all the swordtails in it. Catch some and bring them home.” Mom was the peacemaker.

 

As I studied more and more about the Japanese culture, I began to understand that while we were “lucky to be in Hawaii,” Dad was still trying to pass on his cultural heritage. Taking for granted that I was a lucky American, I resist him every step of the way.

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