I’m not Japanese but my character is…


I’m eating my words.

I’m writing a short story with characters of another race. My ethnicity is Korean. They’re Japanese.

(This, after writing a post last year, questioning the whole endeavor of writers writing characters of another race).

Still, it’s an experiment on my part, a challenge to myself. I heard enough protest and debate along the lines of writing outside one’s race to give it a try. Is it purely a case of imagination and fiction? How would I navigate the cultural burdens? Could I do the story justice? Could I write a story of truth?

Maybe, I thought. Maybe. Meanwhile, the story was just ITCHING inside my SKULL–it wanted to be written. Sometimes, writing is a battle between the conscious, unconscious, and the intuitive.

Here’s the rub–when I mentioned writing this story, a Japanese American friend of mine asked me, “Are Japanese and Koreans not the same race?”

I think we are different–anthropologically and culturally, with clashing histories. As you know, Korea and Japan have some extreme historical conflict (Japan colonized Korea for starters). Hell, there are still fights, starting with Dokdo Island, let alone restitution for comfort women.

I’m not sure if Korea and Japan are like the French and English (constantly at each other’s throats like brother and sister living under the same roof) or like Israel and Palestine (estranged distant relatives with murderous rage towards each other)–or none of the above.Β  The main idea is that there are differences, and there is deep ingrained conflict.

But then again, we both utilize soy sauce heavily, eat rice, and “look the same.” πŸ™‚

If we are the same race–then well, I’m embarking on a different vector. Not writing another race, but another culture.

So in my mushy brain state, I have set out on a journey to write this story. Wish me luck. Wish my characters luck. Wish the story luck.



Filed under Writing

21 responses to “I’m not Japanese but my character is…

  1. Good luck….this story sounds like one of Michelangelo’s sculptures he had to free from a slab of marble.

  2. Richard

    Koreans, Japanese, Mongolians, Finnish, and Hungarians are all part of the same Ural-Altaic language family. By that measure of language, these ethnicities are closer in race than Koreans are to most of the different Chinese ethnic groups.

  3. Susan and MyAorta: πŸ™‚

    Richard: Aha! By that measure, then I can write about Japanese, Mongolians, Finnish and Hungarian characters, and…Japanese, Mongolian, Finnish, and Hungarian writers can write about Koreans! πŸ˜›

    This thing/subject matter of race and writing gets more and more complicated all the time. It really will never end.

  4. Eve

    I’m so inspired I’m going to start writing fiction, and my first novel is going to be about… a KOREAN!

  5. I can understand some of the discomfort in writing a character of a race different from yours, especially if you don’t want to rely on stereotypes. In a recent review of Denis Johnson’s new book- Tree of Smoke- the critic praised Johnson for writing the Vietnamese characters as people who just happened to be Vietnamese, which I take to mean that Johnson didn’t spend extra space “explaining” them any more than he would have spent “explaining” his white characters.

    The question is, how do you do that? I guess you do it by letting the characters be themselves- which is only difficult if you don’t have any experience or knowledge of the character’s culture, etc. You also have to want to make them as universal as possible while still having them retain their specific identities. One of the other problems is that when a white author writes characters, he or she rarely explicitly tells you that the character is white, but if he or she is writing a character of another race then he or she almost always makes that explicit. Somewhat along these lines Chang Rae Lee wrote an essay about how he had to come to terms with being comfortable writing Korean characters because he had a feeling that they weren’t “legitimate” characters to write about in American literature. He’s obviously gotten over that. He also talks a bit about his experience writing a novel based around a character who is white and the difficulties in that.

    One reason this question interests me so much is because if I didn’t write about characters whose race was different from mine, then all of my characters would be half-Taiwanese and half-Irish-American. Our country has diversified, but not enough for me to populate all my stories with people of this particular ethnic makeup. It would be a bit strange.

  6. I agree that Japanese and Korean people do differ in race as well as culture. (I know that a lot of people would argue with me, but I don’t even think Japanese and Korean people look the same.)

    As for the cultural differences, I think that it rests between the different options you’ve laid out.

  7. Steve

    I was taught that a good writer means you can do two things:

    1) Write about something that happened to you as though it happened to someone else.

    2) Write about something that happened to someone else as though it happened to you.

    Don’t tie yourself up with strings of “race.” Or chains.

  8. Eve: good luck to you!

    5redpandas: I think a world full of Taiwanese-Irish people would be quite awesome and colorful, but I get your point.

    Steve: Yes, I agree with you for sure. The simplest goals are the most complicated to reach. Part of writing about something that happened to someone else as though it happened to you entails a deep understanding of what that other person went through, and if they are someone of another race, well, that takes some thought.

    But that said–yep. I just have to plunge on.

  9. JDo

    ooh. i’m intrigued.

    i don’t know how protective you are about your writing but i would love to read your work someday.

    that said, i guard my research very carefully (sometimes to the point of being neurotic and being chastised by everyone around me) so i understand if you don’t feel like sharing.

    good luck, but you don’t need it.

  10. I found that really amusing, the idea of a Japanese(-American) telling a Korean(-American) that they are the same race, aren’t they? Doubly funny since some (non-American) Koreans would be furious to hear it suggested, and others would be quick to point out that, yes, indeed, the Japanese are “descended from” Koreans who expanded to Japan, and Japanese culture is all taken from Korea or via Korea, etc. (While I have no idea how much of that makes sense, given the fact that Koreans come from Mongols who may have migrated to the area long before the Ainu and other first people arrived, let alone the ethnic Japanese, this is what people would talk about.)

    Richard’s right, but only tenuously, innit? I’ve read that some scholars contest the whole notion of an Ural-Altaic language family — that the two are separate. Also, lots of Korean vocabulary comes from Chinese, a result of political dominance and the use of the Chinese writing system, so culturally I’d say Korea is the the Chinese sphere, orbiting the Middle Kingdom in much the same way Japan used to do.

    As for race, my view is that it’s mostly an abstraction and of little interest to me, while culture is of more interest. I’ve been told that as a white male, I can more easily afford to feel this way, and there’s probably something to that, but that the same time, I’ll note that the vast amount of cross-fertilization between Japan and Korea, as well as presence of all kinds of foreigners in the distant past — Arab traders in the Joseon era, and Indians in Kaya, for a start — make me really suspicious of all the significance attributed to “race” (and racial homogeneity) over here, especially when these ideas have such political usefulness. (I’m also very suspicious of claims that one can tell Koreans and Japanese apart on sight. I happened to score higher on All look same than my Korean fiance, and she and I both found ourselves relying more on fashion (especially makeup and hairstyle) than facial structure.

    As for the writing: I work with characters from other cultures almost all the time, though, of course, it’s harder to get things “wrong” when the culture you’re describing is sometime in the future, or alien, or whatever. But actually, I write a lot of characters of other cultures and races even in the past or in our time. Besides which, I think there’s a slippery slope here, in that I’m not just white, but half-Scots Rhodesian and half French-Canadian; I’m male; I was raised in the maritimes and the prairies; I live abroad; I am (basically) middle class. If I am restricted to writing characters of my race, it seems a short step, logically, to be restricted to writing characters who are male, middle class, Canadian, expatriates, etc.

    In a sense, people have confused historical issues of appropriation (because it was rampant in English lit, since almost all writers were white and male and English) with the more common problem today of misrepresentation — doing a crap job on one’s colored characters because one is to some degree ignorant, or doesn’t care, or missed something during fact-checking and research, or (in some rare cases) one is a racist. The thing is, non-white readers are not deprived of a voice now; now, there are more than enough people to call writers on it, blog the gaffes, email the publisher, whatever. Meanwhile, most writers I know are actually quite conscientious about getting it “right,” and recognize the need to have characters of different backgrounds, sexes, races, belief systems, whatever… not only for the integrity of the genre, but because our literature is for the community, shows us worlds that may be or which we hope never come, and for us always to be showing aryan [males] averting disaster, discovering the answers to mysteries is a disservice to the imaginations and minds of our readers — actual and potential — as much as it is a disservice to our own work.

    Last time you posted about it, I mentioned that it was a big topic of discussion in SF, since SF has, at certain times, been almost all-white in character composition. While I think there are risks in using characters of other ethnic or cultural backgrounds — risks artistically, I mean, aside from the risk someone will just dumbassedly object because you’re not the same color as your characters — I think there are a few things that can help in dealing with it, but they mostly boil down to avoiding stereotypes, or at least flat ones, allow the character to express himself or herself in an interesting and complex way (and worrying less about race in some ways) — in other words, respecting the human individuality of the character, like those individual photos on all look same that are too hard to categorize — and not relying on racial types as much as his or her engaging uniqueness; also, approaching the project with respect, but not being crippled by your respect, with fear and trembling that makes you work harder instead of making you give up. And of course, the importance of vetting things with people who know better than you: the wisdom of assume there’s lots you don’t even know you don’t know is a good place to start.

    This story of yours sounds cool. I applaud you on taking on an ambitious project like that.

  11. Hm… race is a slippery topic. How does one go about defining it? What does it even really mean to be of one race and not another? Are Japanese and Koreans the same race? I’m not sure how much meaning the answer to that question has for me.

    To me, culture is the more compelling issue. I don’t think anyone can argue Japanese and Korean cultures are the same. Shared history, but not the same. So, can a person influenced by Korean culture write about a person influenced by Japanese culture?

    I see story-telling as a means to explore human experience. Therefore to me it seems just as “valid” (and I hesitate to use that word but can’t come up with a better one right now) for a non-Japanese to write about a Japanese person than a Japanese to do so. In each case, we’re learning about perception of race or culture, or what have you.

  12. JDo: would be happy to share someday. πŸ™‚ A bunch of my stories are still in progress though, so it will take awhile.

    Gord: Very complicated subject, I know. There are debatable points all over the map of this act of writing outside one’s race. I just decided to tackle it and see what it’s really like, and see if I could do the characters justice.

    itsy: Well–with your blessing, I still proceed on my story.

    I think–it has become VERY helpful to have walked through, or visited, the issues of history, race, and culture before embarking on my short story….and it has continued to be helpful to visit as I write the story. Of course, I have to actually FINISH the thing (and I’ve written a draft–I’m letting it sit for a few months before proceeding further)…but these are important things for me to allow to sink in as a writer.

  13. Lamberakis

    Ethnicity and race are not the same thing, though, right?

    Ugh, I just ate some pizza that isn’t sitting well with my stomach. :o(

  14. I think…yes. Ethnicity and race are not exactly the same thing. They have a little to do with each other, but they are not exactly the same (just like prejudice and racism have something to do with each other, but they are not the same).

  15. Pingback: Who’s a Different Race?! « ReadingWritingLiving

  16. I came over here from RWL πŸ™‚

    I think yes, Japanese and Koreans are the same race. In fact, one could argue (controversially) that Japanese (except for Ainu) are just Koreans who set off on an island trip a few thousand years ago and never came back.

    I can often tell Japanese/Korean nationals apart because they have different body language and style, but I can’t tell by facial features. There are more distinctly Korean and Japanese facial types, just like there are more distinctive English versus German facial types, but there’s a lot of overlap as well.

    For example, I was recently in a store where a Korean woman mistook my Japanese father for Korean and started speaking to him in Korean.

    I was reading recently about Korean-Japanese, it’s a very interesting topic.

  17. More on this! I was just contacted by a (white) editor who is editing an anthology and she is seeking to “increase diversity” so she wants an Asian-American writer. She said she is down to a Korean-American and a Japanese-American. She wanted ME to put in my two cents about who would be better, because she “only has room” for one of them. So obviously she sees KAs and JAs as interchangeable, “the same.” I told her there was no way I could choose one over the other without seeing their specific pieces, which aren’t written yet. The whole thing just gave me heartburn.

  18. Elizabeth

    Even tho Jap. and Kor. are not used to interact, when they do, they get along easily. So, yeah, I think I’ll be easy for you. Good luck and keep going!! ^^

  19. Pingback: jealous of oppression « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  20. Hello I really enjoyed reading this one. I am actually writing a story and the main character is an eastern European woman (Czech to be exact) and I am a middle eastern male. However my story is told in third person and the main character, Emily, is living in New York, where she had lived since a toddler. I also used a rather strange, ornery, and quiet personality for her, although she is a very powerful figure in the story, and very intelligent, she isn’t very likable. In some ways I attributed this to myself, although Emily is much more on the extreme and I’m generally liked. Emily’s career path is also similar to what I am studying. I guess what I’m trying to say is no matter how hard you try to make the character radically different it’s hard to not put yourself in their shoes or put yourself in the pages. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor

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