SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Michael Jolicoeur

A Shattered Mask

   I remember the pain.  The hot asphalt was burning my skin, hot enough that it muted the sharp sensation of my tears as they streamed into the open wounds.  I can clearly remember each and every blow that rained upon me from the three men encircling my crumpled frame.  The smooth silk of my kimono tangled beneath my feet as I tried to stand, stained with dirt and blood.  I remember the rage in their eyes, these three men, as they struck out with both words and blows.  I can still feel the impact of the gravel into my face as they slammed me back into the ground.  Mostly however, I vividly remember looking through already swelling eyes, trying to focus through the white haze and the inability to breathe, and seeing the faces of all onlookers staring blankly at my pain with uncaring expressions.  As I lay there, praying to either pass out or die, I remember wondering why my friends have not stepped in to help me.  But as the beating began to subside, and my attackers began to walk away, first making sure to spit into my wounds, I had my answer.  Amongst the silent, placid onlookers stood my two companions with equally calm and expressionless faces.  My two “good” friends.

   I am a white male.  As such, it is often assumed here in the United States that I am and have always been a member of the privileged majority.  In my case however, that is simply not the case.  I grew up in a very small, religious town in mainland Japan.  This town was tempered and solidified by its traditions and “old school” methodology.  During my time spent within this town I resided in a boarding school located on the grounds of a very old Shinto temple that had stood as a landmark within this town for centuries.  I believed that if I adopted the rites and tenets of my residence, if I not only accepted the culture but let it embody me, that I would find acceptance.  I was naïve.  Looking back now I can understand the origin of the animosity I faced as a child, but at the time I could not understand the alienation inherent in my life. 

    This small monastic village of Iga has always been a type of heartland for the Japanese culture.  Even in the feudal era, the Sohei (warrior monks) and Samurai (Japanese armored soldiers) used Iga as a religious holy ground.  Throughout the centuries it was a land revered as a place of worship and peace.  Needless to say that a gaijin (round-eye) was not necessarily a welcome sight on this land, much less within the temples themselves.  I however was oblivious to this fact.  The issue involved is one of simple territorialism.  This land was Japanese, after the subjugation by western American culture in the major cities, this tenet is especially strong.  Looking back on the issue now I can see that I was seen almost as a blight upon their beliefs and traditions of the townsfolk.  The Japanese culture is one of intricate rules and regulations, and my very existence within their most sacred of places had to be seen as yet another insult by the Americans.  I can remember the eyes of my first aggressor.  This raw hatred seeped through his being, radiated through those fierce eyes.  What is important to note is the nature of this innate hatred of the western presence.  This hatred is not for white men, as many would believe.  The term gaijin represents the “round eye”; it is a symbol for racism and hatred that is a reference for all Americans, regardless of skin tone.  It doesn’t matter that I am white, or if I was black or Hispanic, male or female.  It only thing that made a difference was that I was from the west. 

I remember picking myself up off the ground, wincing as I tried to balance my weight on my battered frame.  I looked toward the crowd that had gathered and watched in silent amazement as they all turned and walked casually away from me.  I noticed that one elderly woman was actually smiling to herself as she strolled past me.  I couldn’t understand what had happened.  Just minutes before now I was walking back to the temple from a shopping trip in town.  I was so excited that I was able to find the exact book I was looking for in the shops.  I was laughing with my friends, enjoying the breeze on my face and the sound of my kimono as it whipped in the light evening breeze.  I remember seeing three men standing on the street corner looking at me.  I remember smiling at them.

    I always knew that I was different.  I was always a tall boy, towering almost a foot above my peers in the temple.  I could easily see how I stood apart from my peers in regards to my body, but in a culture based upon family, honor, and education, I thought that my physical differences were of little consequence.  I studied the same religion, learned the same material, and practiced the same code.  My peers were my family.  We studied together, trained together, and played together.  While on the temple grounds I was home.  It wasn’t until I was old enough to start going to town without the supervision of our teachers that I began to know racial animosity.  I was only nine years old, but I still remember the looks and stares, the whispered remarks.  I was different to some of these people but to me it didn’t matter.  Regardless of what the townspeople said, I was at home with my classmates from the temple.  I always stood up for them, and in turn they would stand up for me.  At least that is what my young mind thought.

I looked at Fujibo and Takeda, my friends.  They stared blankly back at me, without words, without apology.  I slowly and carefully wiped the tears from my face and walked back to where my scattered things lay.  I remember pausing as I saw that my new book, “La Petite Prince” was ruined in the scuffle.  My father used to read that book to me in France, it was one of the only memories I had with him.  I remember how hard I had to try not to begin sobbing again as I left the book, and my friends in the street and slowly began staggering down the long path towards the temple.  Alone.

    I am a white man, but one time, long ago, I was a white boy.  I was a boy who would have given anything to belong, to fit in.  My family state required my residence in this boarding school.  My father got custody after my parents divorced, and his constant travel required by work made it necessary for me to be in my situation.  In Japan I had no family, and as I learned that day in the streets of Iga, no friends.  Looking back now I find it ironic in a fashion.  All of the animosity thrust towards me because of my skin color and the race it represented.  I was an “American devil”, yet the truth of the matter was that I was born and raised in France as a French citizen prior to moving to Iga with my father.  Racism itself is a useless exercise, and in this case it was even more pointless.  I was not even a member of the society that these aggressors were lashing out against.  My young adolescence ended that day.  I began to see the world through a man’s eyes at the age of nine.  I began to realize that hate based on color is in fact color-blind.  I began to realize that institutionalized racism and bigotry could be more powerful than institutionalized friendship.  I learned that I was alone, and as such I had to be capable of taking care of myself.

    I am no longer in Japan, and haven’t been in a while.  I am a white man living in the United States.  I am no longer in the minority but instead I find myself walking amongst the unspoken majority.   However, unlike most of the other white people around me, I am haunted by memories of uninitiated violence based on my skin tone.  I know what it feels like to be the “savage”, to be considered lesser.  I refuse to become part of the cycle that stole my innocence.  As a member of the majority I choose to turn an open hand to those around me instead of a fist.  In some ways I thank those players in the story of my past.  Just as the greatest complexities are found in simplicity, I found tolerance in extreme prejudice.  Racism is not an issue of color, but is instead an issue of ignorance.  We tend to be categorized by our roles, and in turn let the roles further the categorization.  It is a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.  In Iga there is a belief that you must always hide yourself and your intentions behind layers of social masks.  It is taught that to let yourself be seen without these masks will allow yourself to be vulnerable to your enemies.  I feel that this isn’t restricted to those following traditional Japanese tenets.  We as an American culture hide ourselves behind these expected roles and allow them to define who we are rather than making that determination ourselves.  Without being able to truly see each other, the cycle of ignorance and violence will not be stopped.  We cannot possibly begin to understand each other if we are inherently hiding from exactly that.  I myself have no intention of wearing my masks anymore.  The best mask is no mask at all.

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