May 7, 20210 | OPINION | By Andrew Hoffman | Illustration by Bibi Powers
May is Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM), and with that title comes calls of support from a diverse array of backgrounds. Despite the mainstream support for the month, I cannot help but feel there are potential pitfalls tied to this Americanized label. I am Japanese, and since I have my own personal connection to this month, I wanted to provide my own personal pointers about approaching this month to my predominantly western audience.
First off, the term Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) is incredibly broad. If you just take a look at the Asian continent alone, you can see that the idea of such a massive geographical region being culturally homogenous is pretty ridiculous. As you can imagine, Asia is filled with a variety of cultures, many of which have historical conflicts that run incredibly deep.
One of the examples of this that burns incredibly bright is Japan’s World War II-era treatment of their regional neighbors. While Japan has had a history of being especially brutal to its Korean neighbors, during World War II that brutality was taken to new, unimaginable levels.
It is by no means an understatement to say that Imperial Japan’s actions were crimes against humanity.
Yet despite what seems like a pretty clear-cut case of a morally reprehensible action, the concept of Japan apologizing for its war time actions is highly politicized. The previous prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had spent his eight years in office refusing and dodging apologies for Japan’s actions in World War II.
His cabinet had also visited a shrine that honors convicted Japanese war criminals. The shrine is condemned by both South Korea and China as a symbol of Japanese militarism. All of this, as you can imagine, draws significant cultural tension within the East Asian region.
The Asian continent is still marked with deeply historical cultural divides. So, while AAPIHM isn’t necessarily problematic, it is important to push back against the implicit assumptions made by its name that Asian and Pacific Islander culture is necessarily homogeneous. Keep in mind that AAPI heritage will thus be as diverse as the cultures the name covers.
Celebrating these cultures, however, comes with an important caveat. The celebration has to come from people of those cultures and of those labels. While that might seem initially obvious, historically this has been a problem. Quite often, the nuances of Asian culture are overlooked in favor of a handful of a few highly popular aspects to Western eyes.
A salient, personal example of this is western obsession with samurai, anime, and other very highly commodified aspects of Japanese culture. Too often have I seen white people hear Japanese language or see something that vaguely reminds them of Japanese culture, and almost immediately begin to gush about how amazing their favorite anime was, or how cool samurai were.
Now, while many of these people would then insist that they’re being respectful of Japanese culture, I have to disagree. The almost immediate reduction of any utterance or acknowledgement of Japanese culture (whether that’s just the naming of a Japanese festival or even the existence of an accent) to Japan’s most highly commercialized cultural exports isn’t respect, it is fetishization.
Now that isn’t to say that one cannot have appreciation for those commercialized aspects of Asian culture, but rather I would encourage individuals to recognize those aspects for what they are.
Those commercialized portrayals of Asian culture are not what it means to be Asian; they’re heightened depictions that are designed for the pleasure of consumers. To reduce Asian culture to merely its most popular aspects is to perceive Asian culture as purely for the pleasure of yourself and (typically) Western consumption.
I have used Japan as an example throughout this article, and that is simply due to my identity as a Japanese-American man. With that being said though, I imagine the general rule of letting Asians and Pacific Islanders define their own regional cultures, and the avoidance of reducing these cultures to simply their most popularized aspects, are good rules to hold for all people of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent.
While I do not speak for all Asians, I definitely have my own personal connections to this month. So as someone who has been on both sides of this incredibly racially tense time, I want to provide some simple guidance for approaching this month from the best of my experience.
Simply put, be respectful and ask who you are being respectful to. Are you listening to the people you claim to be respecting? Or are you trying to take control of a narrative to protect yourself?