I knew I had this issue for a long time but I am feeling it real this time. My parents are Japanese; I was born and grew up in Japan; My only mother tongue is Japanese; my nationality is Japanese too. I cannot avoid people defining me as Japanese. I cannot even have a fancy identity crisis.
My association with Japan, which, again, I did not choose but happen to have, is becoming problematic in teaching *critical thinking* of some materials. I am TA-ing for a legendary class in our department called “World War Two in History and Memory,” in which we cover many topics related to memory issues of both Japan’s aggression and atrocities and Japan’s victimhood. This class is a world history so almost no students know the historical background of Japan’s aggressions, or will learn much about it in this class. They are usually more knowledgeable of the European front and German history. For Asian history, they have not developed a point of reference from which they could read the assigned articles very critically. In other words, they tend to absorb the information from the readings — often the case simplified versions of it — without processing it. Usually this is exactly where discussion sections become useful. I, as a TA, am responsible for guiding the students to see the weaknesses and naive assumptions of the readings. This normal operation has been extremely hard and requires so much careful wording and mannerism in this class when we discuss Japanese war responsibility.
Let me give you an example. Assume there is an article which says “fascist masculinity is in Japan’s culture for centuries, and this is responsible for causing comfort women and miring their memories.” It has a point. Yes, the sociocultural background is important in understanding the phenomenon of comfort women stations and their memories. But of course you want to criticize the cultural essentialism in this argument. How would I phrase it??
I anyway started by saying “we should be always skeptical of the terms like ‘cultural tradition.'” But in order to explain why, I needed to go back to the emergence of the nation-state and how it happened in nineteenth century Japan. I also felt obligated to explain how ‘fascism’ was a time-specific phenomenon to the twentieth century. What a lecture just to make a simple critical point!
My concern is, how many students would actually care about the content of what I say no matter how carefully I explain? I am so afraid of having a reverse effect of giving them an impression: “oh she is defending Japan’s position with such elaborate details. Maybe she’s offended by the article because she is Japanese.” If this is happening it is worse than if they are not listening to me at all.
Another tricky thing is to explain the difference between Nazism and Japanese militarism/fascism — This absolutely makes me look like a Japanese apologist! I’ll blog about the details of this experience maybe later.