What the hell do I want from Japanese characters?

I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix and my eye is always, always attracted to shows that include people who are mixed-race Japanese like me.

And two of the most recent shows to include Japanese Americans are Dash & Lily and Never Have I Ever featuring characters Paxton Hall-Yoshida (played by Darren Barnet) and Lily (played by Midori Francis) respectively.

First of all, it’s great to see so many Japanese Americans on screen with Troy Iwata, James Saito, and Jennifer Ikeda in Dash & Lily, and big ups to Never Have I Ever for making people assume that under the shirts of all hyphenated Japanese men is a six pack instead of the kegs we’re likely working on.

But what I’ve found is that their nationality is treated more as a fun detail rather than part of their character development as a whole.

Perhaps it’s something where the writers felt that pointing it out in a blatant manner could give rise to stereotyping, but piecemeal references to an entire identity is actually worse.

While there are a few nods to them being Japanese with a mochi making grandmas and how some of us refer to our grandparents, there’s a lot more to this identity than ambiguous cultural practices.

And there’s a big event that informs everything.

The Internment

There’s a moment in Dash & Lily where Lily’s grandfather is pissed that Lily’s been out of the house. His overreaction is explained away by a proposal gone wrong, but, as my wife pointed, what if he was upset because of something else?

Instead of saying that he was pissed because of his girlfriend, why not get him to talk about his fear of losing family as he probably did when his were interned during the Second World War?

In case you didn’t know, Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during the Second World War were sent to internment camps within the interior of their respective countries after being declared enemy aliens.

While that sounds like a sci-fi concept, what it meant was that Japanese people — even those who were citizens — had their property taken away by the state and were made prisoners of war because of their nationality.

Racism, as you might guess, was the culprit behind these actions not that the Japanese people proved any kind of viable threat. From the Royal BC Museum:

In her research “The Politics of Racism”, historian Ann Sunahara revealed what many in the Japanese Canadian community had felt all along – the Japanese in Canada were never a threat to national security. This fact was confirmed by military and RCMP documents. Rather, the government’s wartime actions were spurred on by the anti-Asian, and racist sentiments of the time.

It could have opened up a huge dialogue if Lily’s grandfather turned to her and said that his controlling nature came from his own experiences growing up and losing control of his family’s entire life, but instead the series creators pinned his anger to his blonde girlfriend who prefers to stay in Florida than move to New York.

However, there are some good moments in each show with Paxton actually speaking Japanese as his actor knows the language and Lily fighting back against her bully and telling him that he made her feel “Too Asian” to be normal.

But it’s easy to forget that both the characters and actors parents have had to deal with the internment and their grandparents who were likely living behind bars when they were children.

The internment left an indelible mark on this hyphenated identity.

If only there was a film that could serve as a template on how to address this stuff.

The Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi

Watch the scene below, c’mon do it.

In case you didn’t watch the clip, Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, who was interned as a child, talks, albeit drunkly, about how his wife and child died in a place called Manzanar, which was an American concentration camp.

Yep, there were, and still are, concentration camps in America and Canada.

While maybe you think that Miyagi being a war hero was something just thrown in to give him depth like those details with Paxton and Lily, it’s actually referencing an entire regiment made up of second-generation Japanese Americans who fought in the war — and became the most decorated unit of their size in the history of the US Army.

So while Japanese Americans like Mr. Miyagi are fighting the Nazis to preserve the freedom of the country they love, their families are being imprisoned in internment camps.

Mr. Miyagi has to fight with these memories of injustice and the deaths of his wife and child.

And this was all referenced in one four-minute scene! Four minutes to add four billion details!

This scene is also what netted Morita an Oscar nomination for the role and could you believe that the studios wanted to cut it for time? Believe it.

As civil rights activist and leader of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans Guy Aoki writes:

“It showed audiences the private pain of a noble, humble man — one example of what most Japanese Americans had experienced from being put in prison by their own government. It was clear that scene got Morita nominated for that Oscar. Yet it was almost cut out of the film because it was running long and executives at Columbia Pictures said it didn’t further the main plot.

Morita said he begged the director to keep it in, as it paid tribute to the suffering of his parents in those camps. Thank goodness that scene remained. Every time I edited it into a video montage of “best scenes by Asian American actors” that I’d use in speaking engagements, it got to me. My eyes were so full of tears, I couldn’t see.

Watching the 20th anniversary DVD a few weeks ago, the emotions were the same. How incredible. Not only did the movie teach audiences that karate — despite the dismissive way it was portrayed in television and other films — was a serious discipline, but it taught a criminally overlooked history lesson about what this country did to its own citizens.”

***

Without that scene, Mr. Miyagi is just another in a long line of mystical Asian men who teach martial arts due to an overused stereotype. Also don’t watch the sequels they aren’t worth it.

I understand a filmmaker’s desire to have characters who live in the skin they’re in without heavy-handed references to their identities, but when it comes to being Japanese American or Canadian you kinda have to say something; otherwise, you’ve just plopped a gigantic elephant down in the room.

Mr. Miyagi’s tearful, drunken speech is an essential part of our collective experience!

And most importantly, I like to think that this is not just an important thing for people like me, but it’s also meaningful to the actors themselves who have talked about their identities.

Give them their Miyagi moments.

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