Posted by: skyward | March 30, 2009

My (Half-)Japanese Son’s Celebratory Ride Home

Two unsmiling children wordlessly climb into the car.  At the end of a long day ending with violin lessons, all my kids could think of is supper.  But it’s also atypical Tuesday night.  I turn on the radio.  A sense of triumph creeps into Daniel’s voice.  His hero’s victory is imminent.  A cheer erupts.  It’s the beginning of a celebratory ride home.

The presidential race absorbed my eight-year-old son, an ardent Obama supporter, for months leading up to this eagerly-awaited victory.  Never mind that his mother occasionally lamented the missed opportunity to observe the making of the first woman President.  Clad in his school uniform, Daniel engaged in a spirited political debate with classmates, formed a campaign committee with buddies, cast his vote for his hero in the school’s mock election, and leapt for joy when the outcome confirmed his prediction.  “Why do you support Obama?”  I asked.   Daniel took pain to remind me of the all-too-familiar fact: Hell be the first black President.  He solemnly declared: “It’s good for America’s future.” 

What fueled his relentless support?  I pondered, re-reading his blog post (written by him; typed by me) titled “Soreike(“go” in Japanese), Obama!”  Is it an unarticulated sense of a parallel?   Half-Caucasian, half-Japanese, Daniel, like Obama, is biracial.  Yet, even the word “biracial” may fail to fully capture my son’s background, which is arguably more unique and complex than being half-X and half-Y biologically.  A dual citizen with two motherlands, Daniel shifts constantly –and effortlessly– between his two mother tongues.  He receives a dual education through both American and Japanese schools. Twinkies and seaweed-covered rice balls  —the blend of the two worlds he inhabits resonates through his life.  Though he has never set his foot in his mother’s childhood landscape, he has come to embrace his ethnic and linguistic heritage.  On the other hand, he may have been unconsciously haunted by a sense of differing from others.

In the front mirror I catch a glimpse of Daniel singing a made-up victory song with his younger sister. An ear-to-ear grin crosses his face. His merriment evokes the memory of his school performance three years ago.  At an all-school meeting, my son’s Pre-K class performed a reenactment of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited by Rosa Parks.  This special event gave all students, from Pre-K to fifth grade, an opportunity to express their appreciation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy through music, plays, and poetry.  As I held my breath, the fourteen Pre-K children marched in, carrying signs with phrases such as “Unfair Law!” and “Boycott!”, wearing black armbands with Dr. King’s pictures, and singing We Shall Overcome, a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  In the background stood a bus made of cardboard.  Two teachers gave narratives of the historical background of the boycott while the children occasionally added to that dialogue. The students beamed with pride as the audience rewarded them with enthusiastic applause. 

Preparing for the performance, the five-year-olds had explored racial inequality as well as its social and emotional impact.  For instance, studying a photo of two separate drinking fountains, side-by-side, marked “Colored” and “White, the children remarked to one another: Isn’t it silly that the same water flowed through two different fountains for different colored people?  Racism struck a chord with them especially when they recognized that the white-only policy would have banned some of their own teachers and friends from the school community. Daniel would have been banned himself.

The Pre-K performance also triggered my interest in revisiting the senseless murder of Emmett Till, a case analyzed in Racism and Law seminar in law school.  In the summer of 1955, Emmett whistled at a white female shopkeeper at a general store in Mississippi.  The fourteen-year-old traveler from Chicago had little knowledge of Jim Crow laws in the South A few days later, he was kidnapped by the woman’s husband and relatives.  His mutilated body was discovered on the bottom of a river.  When an all-white jury acquitted Emmett’s accused killers, the local media jubilantly announced the verdict.  (Shortly afterward, the accused sold their story to a journalist for $4,000, giving a gruesome account of murdering Emmett.  The verdict itself, however, remained unchanged.) Mamie Till held an open-casket funeral for her son, wanting the world to witness what had happened to her only child. 

Working as a Japanese newspaper columnist on the side, I conducted additional research on this case and wrote an essay, exploring racism from a parent’s perspective.  I wrote: As parents and adults, we all have messages to carry on —–to share with future generations, to educate and enlighten them, and to encourage and inspire them to pursue the tasks we may, unfortunately, leave behind.  In a photo next to my essay, Daniel, then five, proudly hoists a handmade sign blaring: “Boycott!” 

On this poignant November night, I reflect, once again, on the life lost in the sweltering heat of Mississippi –and the school performance, which gave Daniel his first insight into racial injustice in America.  I also think of my birthday four years ago: Under a flawless August sky that seemed like a gift on its own, my children and I werefrolicing downtown, chatting and laughing in Japanese.  Out of the blue, a passer-by whispered loudly to my son: “You’d better go back to Asia, Kid.”  At age four, Daniel remained too young to grasp her words.  Humming a song, my little boy in his green plaid shorts cheerily kept pushing his baby sister’s stroller.  My heart aches to this day.  When one becomes a parent, the social evil inevitably takes on a more profound meaning. I keenly recognize that the day may arrive –sooner than I think —when my children grapple with their own ethnic identity, experience a sense of isolation, and even endure pain. Racism will be with us despite the rhetoric of inclusivity.

As my children set out to explore the world and carve out an independent life, I hope they will cultivate the inner strength to withstand and overcome obstacles.  More importantly, I hope they, too, will carry on their own messages, not only in words but also in deeds, to help build a better world.  Until our children embark on their own journeys, we parents must carry the torch, leading the way.  I feel a renewed sense of purpose.  What message am I going to carry on?  I ask myself, savoring the joy-filled ride with my children on this historical night.



  1. Kiyoko, you might like this blog by Seattle journalist Dave Neiwert (author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community) and Sara Robinson, which addresses racial issues:



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