“Do you speak any Japanese?”

January 15, 2015

Rev. Wendy Komori Stager –

I get asked this question a lot.  And my usual response is, “No, I actually know more Spanish than Japanese.”  I used to feel ashamed as I responded, as if I was supposed to have retained some connection to my ancestry through language.  However, I never heard and Japanese in my home growing up, and my father doesn’t know the language either.  My mother, who was raised by her paternal grandmother, can understand basic Japanese but can’t converse in it.  My ancestors left Japan in 1895 and I am a fourth-generation descendant.  However, my husband is a 3rd generation descendant from Germany.  However, he almost never is asked, “Do you speak any German?”  His parents didn’t speak any German in his household either.

I now recognize that this question about speaking Japanese is an inquiry laden with assumptions about race and identity.  It isn’t a conversation that causes me to duck my head in embarrassment.  It has become a window into explaining my own identity and family history.  And it is an opening to talk about race and racism and our human perceptions of one another.   And, although it is easier and simpler to avoid the conversation, I am sensing that the way forward out of our current racial tensions to increase these kinds of conversations.