Japanese Australian Identity in the Asian Australian Context: report on Mobilities, 5th Asian Australian Studies Research Network Conference, 2015

I work mostly in mainstream Australian media, which is still intransigently white. That’s why the Asian Australian Studies Research Network‘s 5th biennial conference last November was so invigorating.

Photo by Nikki Lam

The most encouraging aspect of the conference was that diversity was a reality and a given, not an ideal or a promise.  I was among Asian Australians of many colours and ages sharing ideas about the meaning of diaspora, hybridity, diversity and faith, transnationalism, mobilities, gender, art.

The conference program was itself diverse, with presentations ranging from academic research to community health programs for young gay Asian Australians, theatre, even food. I was impressed that the conference organisers included the likes of people like me, media professionals whose methodology and subject matter tend to invite hearty derision from academia, often for good reasons. But most promising for me was the inclusion in the program of papers exploring Japanese Australian Identities.

As an Australian of Japanese heritage, thinking and rethinking my ‘Japaneseness’ is a constant preoccupation. Increasingly, this is in the context of being ‘Asian Australian,’ a term I hesitate to embrace because it holds so many ambiguities for someone who comes from a former and often brutal colonial power in Asia.

What’s more, a Japanese-Australian identity (or identities) is still unformed, unexplored, too contested. So for the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN) conference to include a total of five Japanese-Australians presenters was indeed an important milestone.

Japanese Australian Identity in the Asian Australian Context: report on Mobilities, 5th Asian Australian Studies Research Network Conference, 2015
Drinking bubbles after the conference. Photo by Yuriko Nagata, who is behind the camera and not in the shot, unfortunately. But I think I speak for all of us when I say her presence always looms large.

Three of us presented papers in a session called Japanese Australian Identities, beginning with the venerable Dr. Yuriko Nagata, historian and author of one of the most important works of Japanese Australian history, Unwanted Aliens: Japanese Internment in Australia (UQ Press, 1996). Andrew Hasegawa, another non-academic like me recounted the fascinating personal stories of the Hasegawa clan, beginning with Setsutaro Hasegawa and other Japanese migrants to Australia of the late 19th century. I presented a paper exploring the ambivalence towards the term ‘Japanese-Australian’ expressed by many people of Japanese heritage who I interviewed for an ABC Radio National documentary about Japanese-Australian history.

In other sessions, artist, performer and photographer Mayu Kanamori gave a paper about the creative and collaborative processes behind her distinctive brand of multimedia storytelling in Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens, which is part Japanese-Australian oral history, part political advocacy, part personal narrative and part docu-dramatic performance. In addition, cultural studies scholar Timothy Kazuo Steaines presented an erudite academic analysis of Mayu’s Murakami. So five Nikkei Australians shared ideas about diverse aspects of our identities.

I don’t know of many other conferences in Australia that have taken such an keen interest in Japanese diaspora heritage. That’s understandable, given so little is written about it, and because the Japanese community here has always been so small, there has been little urgency or interest in exploring these stories. That’s why the work of historians like Yuriko Nagata and David Sissons have been, and continue to be so important.

But much of this existing history was written in the context of a white Australia; even the idea of ‘Unwanted Aliens’, the title of Yuriko Nagata’s seminal work is now outdated. There needs to be a rethinking of what it means to be Japanese in a 21st century Australia that is increasingly ‘honey coloured’, to borrow a term from former diplomat Stephen Fitzgerald (Is Australia an Asian Country? Allen & Unwin, 1997).

And in this context, we need to retell the stories of the early Japanese settlers like Yasukichi Murakami or Setsutaro Hasegawa because they are the stories that not only link we Japanese Australians to our own heritage, but are narratives that belong to all Australians–black, white, yellow and every blend of honey in between.

In this vein, young scholars like Timothy Kazuo Steaines offers much hope. One of the key ideas in his AASRN presentation is mixedness, or ‘fluid, mobile forms of identification.’ Fluidity is a popular theme in cultural studies and Tim claims that the play Murakami is ‘intercultural theatre’ as it gives the culturally diverse audience the opportunity to encounter, confront, incorporate, interiorise the other–the Japanese Australian. ‘For me, intercultural exchange creates the possibility to reshape individuals’ cultural perspectives,’ asserts Tim in his paper.

The idea that our identities are shaped and reshaped in conversations with those around us is nothing new, but it’s the Asian Australian context that makes the conversations and reshaping significantly different. Our cultural interactions are no longer (if they ever were) between idealised racially pure peoples be they British, Vietnamese, Japanese, Greek; but between increasingly mongrelised Australians who embody complex ‘mixedness.’ Asian Australian is a term that transcends hybridity, but incorporates the diversity that is Asia. So the intercultural conversations are between what Tim calls ‘multiple cultural subjectivities.’

The more we shift away from the cultural binary of ‘white and other’ towards an Australia that is populated by ‘multi hued others’, what kind of Japanese Australian will I be?

In my lifetime, the shadow of World War II has loomed large in how I understood my own personal story. But the for younger generation, the image of Japan is something completely different. Manga/anime and J-Pop seem to have more resonance than kamikaze pilots, but that doesn’t change history. How do I understand historical revisionism in this context? These are new questions that I think all Australians and indeed, all people of Japanese heritage or Nikkei need to confront.

I like that my identity is questioned, that it’s dynamic. That doesn’t make me want to stop harping on about whiteness. One day, terms like Asian, white, black, yellow will no longer contain much meaning. And it is the exchange of ideas in forums like the AASRN conference that will get us there. Looking forward to the next conference in 2017.