Last February, before I graduated from high school, my dad brought me along on a trip to Japan. Instead of going to Nagoya — my dad’s hometown where he typically goes back to — we were going to visit Tokyo for my cousin’s wedding.
The rest of my dad’s family still lives in Japan — he was the only one to ever leave. When I was younger, our family didn’t keep in contact much with my Japanese family. It’s not that we were estranged; it was more that we were the American family — complete with kids that couldn’t speak Japanese. The most I ever spoke to my grandparents were some haphazard Japanese phrases that my dad fed to me as I mumbled over the phone.
Every time I introduce myself, I hand over this thick Japanese last name, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a misnomer for my actual racial background.
In the days leading up to the wedding, me and my dad took the trains all around Tokyo to go sight-seeing. A few months before the trip, I saw that our stay overlapped just slightly with an exhibit in Tokyo for the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. I was elated when my dad said we could spend a night at the exhibit. Coining the term “super-flat” as a way of describing Japanese art, Murakami is one of the most prolific modern artists to come from Japan. He’s most well known in the United States for the smiling rainbow flower that pops up all over Hello Kitty, but he’s also collaborated with Complex, Louis Vuitton and other big American brands.
When we went to his exhibit in Tokyo, we were greeted with a statue of Murakami — cut open to reveal a further series of Murakami’s, like a Russian doll. The statue was complete with cascading rainbow robes and animated eyes that would roll back into wire frame glasses. At the center of the show was a massive four-part piece called the “500 Arhats.” I think my dad and I walked through the it at least four times before we could bear to leave it behind.
Right before we were about to depart from the show, an announcement came on in Japanese over the loudspeaker. I had just assumed that it was some usher telling us we had to leave the venue, but when the announcement ended, excited murmuring began to fill the exhibit space. The artist was about to make a surprise appearance on the closing night.
My heart raced as we were ushered into a room that was playing a Murakami documentary on repeat. In the room at a pedestal was a stout Japanese man in a plain black suit. He spoke very hushed Japanese. My dad was so captivated that he couldn’t really translate for me until Murakami had finished.
He had said that Murakami was shocked and grateful for how well the show had been received in Tokyo. He had another show a few months earlier, in a more rural part of Japan, and it made barely enough money to stay open. Because of how divisive his art was, while also pulling on Japanese influences, there was a huge Japanese audience that found his art to be heinous and borderline offensive.
I listened intently to my dad — dressed in western clothes speaking fluent English, but with a face that blended in with the rest of the crowd — explain this all to me in English as we descended the escalator away from the now closed exhibit.
As I weaved through the fluorescent lit alleys of Tokyo with my dad, he talked to me about how lucky I was to grow up in the United States. This was a sentiment he had rang off to me repeatedly when I was younger, but I didn’t really understand or appreciate it until now.
I look to both of these men — Murakami and my dad — to help me identify the parts of myself that are Japanese, but when placed against the Tokyo cityscape, they are both indistinguishable from the tourist. They are so distinctly Japanese to me, but to everyone else they are outsiders. And now, when people ask me what my heritage is, I almost feel like I’m cheating when I say I’m Japanese, because there is so much distance between me and that little island in the Pacific.
But I think instead of trying to identify with Japanese culture, I have to find myself in something in between. It’s this strange middle ground of being mixed and not really belonging to one side entirely, but finding an identity in this limbo. I am Annalise: a hapa — half Japanese, half caucasian. I am also an American. I eat sushi on Christmas, and I indulge in divisive Japanese modern art. And although this isn’t the Japanese identity I can find when I’m navigating the Japanese subway system, it’s one that’s mine, and it’s one I’m proud to call my own.
Annalise Kamegawa writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on a life of shifting artistic identities. Contact her at [email protected].