What the hell do I want from Japanese characters?

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

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 rather than the kegs we’re likely working on.

What I found in both shows is that their nationality is treated more as a fun detail rather than part of their character development.

Perhaps the writers felt that pointing out their nationality in a blatant manner could give rise to stereotyping, but piecemeal references to an entire identity is actually a whole lot worse — at least in my mind.

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 she’s been out of the house. His overreaction is explained away by a proposal gone wrong, but, as my wife pointed out, what if he was upset because of something else?

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

In case you didn’t know, Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians 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.

Talk about the interment could have opened up a huge dialogue! Lily’s grandfather could have turned to her and said that his controlling nature came from his own experiences growing up and losing control, but instead the series creators pinned his anger to his girlfriend who would prefer to stay in Florida than move to New York.

That would have been so good!

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t some good moments in each show with Paxton actually speaking Japanese and Lily fighting back against her childhood bully by telling him that he made her feel “Too Asian” to be normal.

But it’s easy to forget that both the characters and real world actors probably parents have had to deal with redress and grandparents who were likely living behind barbwire fences when they were children.

The internment left an indelible mark on this hyphenated identity, but how does a script writer put something this big into a film? If only there was an example 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 Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, talks, albeit drunkly, about how his wife and child died in a place called Manzanar, which was an American concentration camp.

There were, and still are, concentration camps in America and Canada, by the way.

While maybe you think that Miyagi being a war hero was just thrown in for extra detail, it’s actually a well-done reference noting a 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. It’s also worthwhile to mention that Morita was interned as a child, so he’s talking from experience.

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 that the country was fighting to defend was responsible for the deaths of his wife and child.

And this was all referenced in one four-minute scene!

This scene also netted Morita an Oscar nomination 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. With it, he becomes someone who embodies a struggle that Japanese Americans and Canadians had to fight like hell to fix.

Also, don’t watch the sequels they aren’t worth it.

***

I understand a filmmaker’s desire to have characters live in the skin they’re in without heavy-handed references to their identities, but when it comes to being Japanese American or Japanese 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 it addressed something really important to all the generation of kids who have come after their interment. We lost something because of what our governments did to us and we’re likely never going to be able to fully recover what was stolen.

And 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.

I say give them their Miyagi moments.

One thought on “What the hell do I want from Japanese characters?

  1. Pingback: A Miyagi Moment for Paxton Hall Yoshida Actor Darren Barnet | VR Goggles

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