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The Japanese Untouchables in How To Be An American Housewife

Posted: 09/15/10 03:57 PM ET

I am a child of two worlds. It's a miracle I'm here at all. Back during WWII, my dad ate his Sunday morning oatmeal and read comics explaining how a child could recognize a wily Jap enemy. My mother, meanwhile, narrowly escaped a strafing American fighter pilot while walking to school with her brother. Her country was torturing U.S. POWs, while my father's country dropped atomic bombs. In short, you'd think my parents would be eternal sworn enemies.

But it didn't end up that way. Dad enlisted in the Navy at age 17 to see the world and be one less mouth to feed in his large family. Eventually, in his mid-20s, he ended up in Japan, where he fell in love with the culture -- and with one woman.

My mother, who had been working as a housekeeper and shopgirl for the American occupying military, sent money to help her family out back home. Still single in her mid-20s, she was more independent and past the typical marrying age of her peers. My parents dated and were married at age 26.

So I'd always pictured my mother as a sort of Japanese Mary Tyler Moore, making her own way, buying tailor-made dresses, and getting her hair done at the beauty parlor once a week.

My mother's family -- and not all Japanese thought this way -- saw the Americans, conquerors of the land, as worthy of respect. America was the new world order. Rather than fight the power, they accepted the way things were.

This scenario provided the basics of my material for my novel: an independent yet traditional Japanese woman marries an American military man. I'd base the structure off a book my mother owned, a Japanese/English instruction book called The American Way Of Housekeeping. But for a novel, I wanted there to be more conflict, more characters, and more layers.

I knew I wanted my American biracial character, Sue, to visit Japan. As I researched the country and culture, my fictional characters and plot took unanticipated turns.

My initial draft portrayed Japan as being perhaps too idealized, too rainbows-and-unicorns. I knew this wasn't the case. I wasn't showing America as idealized and I didn't want to oversimplify Japanese culture, either.

Though I haven't set foot in Japan since I was three years old, I knew that Japan is a very insular place. My friend, a second-generation Japanese-American, tells me that when she visits Japan, the Japanese refuse to write her Japanese-born name in kanji symbols and instead use the katakana alphabet, used for foreign words, to mark her as an outsider. I knew that in Japan, Koreans and Filipinos born there are looked down upon and denied some rights of citizenry. I'd known that Japanese orphanages rarely adopt out to non-family members because of the stigma associated with having an orphan in one's bloodline.

But one thing I'd never heard of was the burakumin. I stumbled across a reference during other readings. Burakumin are the untouchable caste of Japan who lived in separate settlements, or buraku. Basically, Shintoism and Buddhism considered the burakumin to be unclean because of their work with butchery or leather (even if these people themselves used these products). The burakumin lived on the outskirts of society, denied employment and status based on their background; lists of burakumin ancestry were kept and may still be illegally kept, to make sure one does not accidentally hire or marry into a family with burakumin blood.

My parents hadn't mentioned them. My mother, coming as she did from an upper-crust shogun family, would never have spoken to one. No history class I'd ever taken -- not that I took a lot of Asian history -- had mentioned the caste system.

Then I learned burakumin are largely not discussed in Japan, especially among those of the older generation. There are still apparently buraku, though legally, the caste system is not recognized. Many Japanese still do not want their families marrying into burakumin families or hiring them.

Once I read up on this still-ongoing piece of history, the character of Ronin, the untouchable, popped into my head and wouldn't leave. He is an outsider, belonging nowhere. As someone who doesn't quite belong in either America or Japan, I have sympathy for outsiders. I know how stereotypes are based on generalities, assumptions that any individual can blow away.

I think I wrote the Ronin character from that place in me. Circumstances of birth or war may render any of us outsiders in the blink of an eye, perhaps even in our own country. Ronin is an untouchable but I hoped to humanize him and debunk the stereotypes associated with burakumin. Just as my parents overcame their own cultural and circumstantial prejudices and found love in the individual person, so I hoped to show Ronin as an individual -- imperfect, as each human is -- but also capable and worthy and compelling.

Margaret Dilloway's novel, How To Be An American Housewife, can be purchased here.