Ethnic Notes: A fetishist of his cultural heritage

AS YOU sit on the Shinkansen, the bullet train that speeds you out of Tokyo, the heads of passengers form a striking, abstract black grid. For a third-generation Japanese Canadian growing up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1970s, the sight of another black-haired Asian was rare. The experience of racial sameness for the first time - coupled with simultaneous cultural and linguistic difference - is a potent mix of intimacy and alienation.

Shinjuku is Tokyo's largest railway station, where a dense procession of peole stream in and out; it's relentless. Supposedly, the number of people passing through in one day exceeds the population of Canada. Millions of people scurry amidst the giant screens. It's floor-to-sky, wall-to-wall visual and aural stimulation.

Fifteen years ago, my parents made their first trip to my grandparents' homeland. If I had been there, the semiotics of my Western garb, my body language, not to mention my 5ft 6in height, would have given me away on the street as "funny", not "natural". But today style is global; the younger generation of Japanese has tossed the kimono and the geta (thonged platform sandals) away and eliminated the pigeon-toed walk. They've grown taller with the infiltration of Western foods. I can pass among the masses undetected, but only as long as I keep my mouth shut.

Certain things strike a faint chord. The sound of utterances rather than their meaning: the sigh of sa sa at the end of conversation; what I'd taken to be my parent's idiosyncrasies I now recognise as belonging to an inherited cultural vocabulary of manners: a predilection for scalding baths and the precision in tying up packages. I am reminded of this when negotiating the neck-high, burning waters of a gas-heated tub, or ofuro, found in virtually every Japanese household; and when purchasing maju (rice cakes) or sembe (rice crackers), carefully boxed and wrapped. This is the aesthetic of the omiyage, the gift-giving, which has persisted even in the tying-up of a bag of garbage.

Inside most Japanese homes, which don't have central heating, the cold chills to the bone. Families spend time in the kitchen where the floor is heated, and in an adjoining tatami room. There they huddle under a quilt that covers the kotatsu, an electric heater. In bathrooms, the toilet seats are heated, and the press of a button discharges a stream of hot water to stern or prow; another releases a flow of warm air to dry and coif. Bodies are not heated through the environment as in North America; here bodies are drawn to the heated object.

If you are second-generation Japanese Canadians, the Japanese you speak will be curiously outmoded in Japan. It's rooted in the Meigi era of the previous generation's youth, before the turn of the century. The third- generation Japanese Canadian speaks barely any Japanese. The terms Japanese Canadians use to identify themselves, issei, nisei and sansei - first- , second- and third-generation Japanese Canadian - are foreign to most Japanese and our histories are of little interest to them. In the post- war years, according to one nisei who returned to Japan, pressured to "repatriate" by the Canadian government after release from an internment camp, nikkei (foreign-born Japanese) were labelled kimin - throwaways.

At the time of evacuation, Japanese Canadians could only take what they could carry from their homes. The rest was auctioned off by the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property. Some burned their possessions, fearful they would indicate an allegiance to Japan. Today, except among academics and the well- travelled, foreign-born Japanese have progressed to the status of marginal oddities.

The idea of nikkei experiencing marginality, difference, even racism, is too remote to evoke empathy. But this history has made me into a collector, a fetishist of my own cultural heritage.

Kerri Sakamoto is the author of `The Electrical Field' (Macmillan, pounds 12.99)

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