Racialism across the Pacific

By William Wetherall

Drafted June 2003
First posted 24 August 2004
Last updated 7 March 2006

My latest nightmare begins on one of those cattle car flights from Tokyo to San Francisco. I'm with my two kids, and we're on our way to their grand folks' home in the Sierras. The plane goes down in the bay, and the three of us end up on autopsy tables to be IDed.

A medical examiner looks at my daughter and writes "Asian" in the race box. My son's post mortem officer decides he's "White". I'm declared "African American" by a coroner who thinks I look like Ed Bradley.

As I'm gurneyed back to the fridge, I smile. What would three blind elephants have said about Tiger Woods? Then I laugh at the thought of a panel of government demographers, educators, criminologists, and health officials defending the accuracy of race statistics.

Some years back, a Seattle couple actually called one of their racially mixed children "Asian" and the other "Caucasian", in order to satisfy race quotas at the schools of their choice. "Situational identity" I call it. But what else are racially ambiguous people to do when faced with the rigidities of identity politics?

Two years ago, in the shuttle terminal at San Francisco International Airport, a man did in fact do a double take on me and asked, "Aren't you on sixty minutes?" His grammar puzzled me, but he seemed sober, so I smiled and said, "The Sacramento flight's been delayed an hour." His face flushed as he said, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone I saw on TV."

When I told my folks about this encounter my dad laughed and said, "You do look like Ed Bradley." "Ed who?" I said. Cultural literacy is the first thing to go when you live abroad as long as I have. My dad told me about "60 Minutes" and we watched it that night. I felt honored.

"So we've been passing?" I said. "Not that I know of," my dad said. "You played Pocahontas once," my mom interjected. It was long ago when I was a boy. My hair was black. My skin was brown. My voice was still high, and with a little authentic Algonquin lipstick, I might have fooled even Captain Smith.

Much later in life, I happened to remark to a professor of Asian American Studies that my mother was born and raised on Nez Perce lands in Idaho, where my Japanese language teacher had done his field work in linguistics. My point was that the world is small. "Are you a Native American?", she asked, her face lighting up. "They were homesteaders," I said. Her smile vanished.

The absurdities of racializing human beings, past or present, are usually not funny. In the end, one has to question the moral sanity of a government, such as that of the United States, which has become increasingly obsessed with race and racial classification in public policy.

The "white"/"non-white" dichotomy of yesteryear was bad enough. The elaboration of "colored" into half a dozen or more other arbitrary categories has added trendy insult to historical injury.

My problem with race stems from the debates I have had defending the need for racial and ethnic data in medical research. I am, after all, an anthropologist with a sociologist's impulse to quantify the human condition.

I recognize the genetic and cultural diversity of the human species. I can plainly see -- though eyes can deceive -- the geographical variety that has inspired racial classification, though not without the help of racialist ideology and romantic nationalism. I also acknowledge that genes can play a role in disease, and that DNA analysis is a powerful tool for students of human migration and evolution, and for law enforcement officers and defense attorneys.

Yet I keenly feel the moral dilemma of racializing individuals as a matter of public policy. I was glad to see most religion boxes and a few gender boxes go before I left the United States. And I have come to appreciate not seeing a single race box in nearly thirty years of life in Japan.

Though I grew up taking race boxes for granted, now I find myself disgusted by the sort of questions my children have to face when in the United States. Beyond voluntary participation in research that requires disclosure of biological family ancestry, I can find no justification for differentiating people on the basis of their genes, or even their putative culture (another increasingly abused concept and word).

The race box choices are "so weird" as my daughter once put it.

"What's this, Dad?" she asked on a visit to California, tapping her pen on the "Race and Ethnicity" section of an application form.

"Just cross it out," I said, not wanting to talk about it.

"But what's it mean?" my son, beside her, persisted.

"They want to know what you are. Your race, your culture, things like that."

"I'm half."

"Some people call you that, yes. But what are you? Really?"

"In Japan I'm Japanese. Here I'm an American."

"Because you're a citizen of both countries. Are you anything else?"

My daughter thought a moment and said, "No. I'm just me."

"Do you see a 'Just me' on the form?"


"Then cross it out."

"Can you do that?"

"Watch," I said.

I drew a big X through the whole section and my son went "Wow!"

I worry about the monster Japanese society could become for my kids, if the government were to adopt legal measures that, in the name of eliminating racial discrimination, further racialized the way people think about themselves and others. It is hard enough to be just a citizen and human being here, and I truly fear the consequences of heavy-handed anti-discrimination laws in the hands of racialist and anal-retentive officials.

Some interest groups and individuals in Japan have been pressing the government to adopt anti-discrimination legislation that would attempt to define race. A current proposal would include even "nationality" within the definition of "race".

Any effort to formally define race would be bad enough. But to link "nationality" with "race" would further encourage people to think that nationality has something to with race or ethnicity. Unlike in the United States, however, nationality laws in Japan have never racialized nationality.

Becoming, and being, Japanese has never been a matter of race or ethnicity. Nationality in Japan has always been, and is today, a purely legal status. What most people think about nationality is quite another problem, but it should not be worsened by anti-discrimination laws that racialize nationality.

The most effective way to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination would be to officially discourage and even eliminate the very concept of race. The last thing one wants is to involve the state in the futile exercise of defining a term that should have no place in a civil society of the kind that Japan is slowly but surely becoming -- thankfully without racialist government interference.

Heaven help the human condition in Japan if the government is ever coaxed into adopting a legal definition of race -- or, worse, race boxes. Though racism certainly needs to be fought, I have hope that most people will see the folly of fighting it with racialism. But should my children ever suffer the indignity of encountering a race box here, I'm betting they'll make me proud.

William Wetherall grew up in San Francisco and Grass Valley and received a PhD in Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. He has continuously lived in Japan since 1975, and has been a permanent resident since 1983. In 1978 and 1982, he pursued litigation on behalf of his children that helped bring about the ambilineal principle in Japan's Nationality Law of 1985.