“One Foot in Either Door”

Japanese-Americans and the Constructions of Identity in Julia Shigekuni’s A Bridge Between Us


This paper analyzes the constructions of the identity of four Japanese American women in Julia Shigekuni’s A Bridge Between Us. These characters are studied in terms of their distance from their Japanese origins in an attempt to determine how influential to their lives is their being second, third, and fifth generation Japanese Americans. Some studies of Japanese versus American constructions of self in order are used to determine the American-ness or the Japanese-ness of these characters in relation to each other. 

The novel begins with Reiko, a second generation Japanese American, telling her own story that is made of the lies her father constructed around her.  We understand from this narrative that Reiko’s parents left Tokyo to San Francisco in the late 19th century and at an early stage in Reiko’s childhood her mother leaves.  The father chooses to comfort his daughter for her mother’s loss by indulging her in the fantasy that her mother will be returning soon.  The child of course grows up believing this lie rather than distrusting her father: “[w]hat obedient child would doubt the hopeful tale of her father, a tale that her father himself believed? (5) So she prays for her mother’s return and waits for her by the docks everyday.  Eventually this futile waiting develops in her a hatred for her mother for shaking the world of fantasies that the father built for his daughter.  “On the docks there was no room for fantasy. . . It was on the docks that I realized a sadness I had never known.  On the docks that I began to hate my mother ” (8). So she chooses to hate an absent mother rather than blame her father, the only parent remaining to her.

To justify her mother’s absence and to further indulge his daughter into this fairy tale, Reiko’s father tells her that her mother is actually a princess visiting her own mother back in Tokyo.  Accustomed to these tales, Reiko eventually expands on them herself explaining to her friends that being a princess, the San Francisco weather did not agree with her mother’s “delicate skin,” who therefore had to return to Tokyo.  And also that her mother missed her own family who couldn’t leave Japan because they were royalty (18-19).  Reiko’s fabrications begin to resemble her father’s attempt at finding reasons for his wife’s abandonment.

In terms of Reiko’s Japanese versus American identity, being second generation Japanese American her Japanese ethics are colored by American ones.  Reiko learns the Japanese writing by going to Japanese school after regular school hours, so she may be aware as early as that stage that her Japanese-ness comes second to her American-ness.  Nevertheless, she celebrates her Japanese part because of her alleged social status that allows her a special treatment in this Japanese school as, according to Japanese customs, her teachers use the honorific pronoun “sama” to address her while other students are only privileged with “san:” 

In Japanese school, my teachers showed me favor by adding the honorific –sama to the end of my name, while referring to other students simply as –san.  In turn, I earned the respect of my teachers by my ability to learn and by the good manners taught me by my father.  I am proud that my father raised me according to Japanese tradition, even though I have never set fool in Japan. (13)

Because in the public school “each student was treated the same”, Reiko prefers Japanese school and its use of formal address in which she is elevated above her classmates  (12).

However, although Reiko claims to have been raised according to Confucian ethics, there is a form of independence in her that speaks not of Confucian ethics of self but more of American ones (26). Reiko argues that it is “fortunate that my father raised me to be so independent in my actions” (24). Confucian ethics posit a “group-centered existence” that relies on dependency as opposed to the American “exaltation of independency and self-sufficiency”:

Discussions of Japanese socialization often refer to the concept of amae . . . amae is based upon the verb meaning to depend and presume upon another’s benevolence.  [Japanese psychiatrist Takoe] Doi believes that the complex mixture of passivity, mutuality, and “feelings of dependency coupled with the expectation of indulgence” that comprise amae are at the core of the Japanese psyche.  He also argues that the concept is quite distinct from “love” in the Western sense and is in fact alien to Western thinking, “with its exaltation of independence and self-sufficiency.” (Boocook 174)

But what if dependency and self-sufficiency are not always antonyms and a person can fluctuate between the two?

Reiko can be both independent and dependent; to rely both on her own self and on her family or society.  When her daughter Rio is dying, Reiko is struggling to “depend and presume upon another’s benevolence.”  But is this necessarily a contradiction to her earlier assertion that she is independent?  Not if we understand that both dependence on self and on society can coexist.  The Western mindset may force us to see dualism in place of difference, thus self and society become antonyms:

a set of dualisms formed around a radical separation between inside and outside that developed out of the scientific revolution in Europe. . . Thus the ordering of the Newtanian universe was based on a delineation of dualities that separated both nature and self from the social world” (Bachnik 21)

Therefore any sense of independence or self-sufficiency would necessarily indicate, in the Western mindset, a non-dependency on society (19).  When society is divorced from the self, to be independent means to rely on one’s own self, which is separate and different from relying on the society’s help.  But the Japanese ideology, according to Backnik, sees self as social:

The Japanese perspectives on self and social order, which were considerably influenced by China, form a distinct counterpoint to those of the West and reveal a perspective on human nature that defines society as profoundly human, and self as quintessentially social. (21)

Therefore to be independent may be a trait that does not necessitate an absence of reliance on society’s benevolence.  Reiko’s character, which might appear to be paradoxical, may actually be quite in accordance with the Japanese thought that sees self as social.  Reiko’s assertion of her independence, if seen as a Japanese construct, does not contradict with her need for attention from her family and her dependence on their benevolence. 

Yet Reiko sways from this Japanese culture in other instances also.  The funeral she arranges for her father provides one example of the American part in Reiko.  Her husband informs her that she is not following Japanese traditions in the funeral and she responds by telling him that they’re not in Japan anymore (11).  What happens here is that Reiko tries to adjust her Japanese heritage to her American culture.  She follows the same line of logic in her insistence on speaking only English with her husband because she feels responsible for insuring his proper assimilation in the culture of the country they live in (12).  Reiko’s identity, then, appears to be mostly influenced by her Japanese origins though she understands that she has to make some minor adjustments to it.

Tomoe, also second generation Japanese American,  comes from a family of seven sisters and has her own two daughters to care for.  Like her mother before her, Tomoe’s priority is for her daughters.  Having a big family forced Tomoe’s mother to lay aside her own needs and feelings so that she could care for her family.  When Tomoe’s father disappeared at sea, her mother didn’t have time to feel sad as she has a family to care for:

I don’t remember Mama ever mourning him—maybe it was the shock of his sudden disappearance, or the fact that her life became easier once he was gone.  Of course there was the problem of money.  Mama must have worried where it would come from, how she would feed and clothe herself, my seven sisters, and me.  Those difficulties would outlast my father . . . it was only a matter of work and making do. (61)

And to be able to make do, Tomoe’s mother had to let her own self be neglected and concentrate on raising her eight daughters.

Likewise, Tomoe has a family of her own.  Not only is she responsible for her two daughters and husband, but she also has her husband’s parents and his grandmother to add to her burden.  We see a picture of her waking up in the morning, thinking about her own mother, and deciding to call her.  But before she’s able to do so, her younger daughter walks in and Tomoe has to tend to her.  Then Tadashi, the father-in-law comes, and Goro, the husband, both expecting to be fed.  After this Tomoe has to tend to Grandma Reiko who stays in her room and has breakfast brought up to her.  She then rushes to the hospital to check on her mother-in-law (61-79).  With all these duties to carry, Tomoe has little time for herself and, like her mother; she needs all her energy saved to care for her family.

When Tadashi suggests that she might want to do something for herself she wonders what it means to “Do something for yourself:” “Do Something for yourself.  What would you like to do.  His words force me to imagine what my life will be like when my children are grown and gone.  They will have their own lives one day.  They will marry and have children, and they will grow further and further away until one day I may not even recognize them as my own” (75-6). But when Tomoe tries to think of doing something for herself, she ends by thinking of other people’s needs and of sending her mother on vacation to Japan, thus proving her groups-centered ethics which she inherited from her Japanese mother. 

Tomoe’s concern for her family is, to her, the right thing to do.  She grew up seeing her mother caring for her family and she understands it as her responsibility to care of her own.  For Tomoe, anything less is selfish.  So when her-in-law tries to kill herself she sees this as an escape from her responsibility towards her family:

Mama taught me to respect life; that Rio tried to take her own life shows disrespect for her family.  If she ever stopped to consider her son and grandchildren, what such behavior would do to them, let alone what it’s now doing to me, none of this would be happening.  But Rio is selfish and so it’s hard to know what she could have been thinking that morning, or what she’s thinking now. (72)

When contrasting the way she was raised to the way her husband Goro was raised, Tomoe sees that to her doing something for yourself means caring for your family while for Goro caring for himself is enough: “[t]he point is that I was raised to believe that doing something for myself means caring for other and Goro grew up believing that caring for himself is enough” (76). Being raised by her mother might be another factor that adds to Rio’s difference from Reiko.  In early Japanese communities in America the woman’s role was important in insuring that the cultural heritage passes from one generation to the next.  The Japanese American women were responsible for “holding families together, building communities, and maintaining the cultural traditions of the old country in their homes” (Kim 249).  Risking a sexist remark I would say that it appears that the Japanese father prepared his daughter for life outside the house by allowing her to develop an independent self, while the mother prepared her daughter for the life of a housewife whose role would be caring for her family.  Therefore it seems that the ethnic heritage of these characters, though contributing to their sense of individuality and/or community care, is not the only factor as the sex of the parent also bares its weight here.

And although Rio was also raised by her mother, like Tomoe, the two characters do not share similar values since Reiko, lacking is Japanese ethics herself, did not seem to encourage in her daughter any sense of community care, or any other type of care for that matter.  Reiko’s relation with her daughter is devoid of any love and caring as is evident in her refusal to see beauty in her daughter.

In Reiko, we see an image of a confident woman who is certain of her ability to take care of her father’s barber shop.  In contrast, in Rio we see a woman who is completely self-critical, a woman who “did not believe in [her]self” (98).  One study that looks at such images of self-esteem versus self-criticism, finds the former intensified within Americans and the latter within Japanese.  It seems that for the Japanese the way to improvement is self-criticism which opposes them to their American counterparts who find a possibility of improvement in their success, thus resulting in self-esteem (1246). 

Rio, therefore, becomes an embodiment of what the study shows as Japanese construction of self when she finds fault with her actions.  She blames her failing marriage and her troubled grand-daughter on herself (136), thus exhibiting the Japanese ethic of self-criticism as opposed to its American counterpart of self-enhancement. And because she is lacking of self-confidence she chooses to change her name when she meets a man she loves.  She sees in changing her name a way for her to assume a different character from the one she seems to criticize, a character who is successful in contrast to her image of herself as a failure (153).

The third character I analyze is Nomi, Rio’s grand-daughter.  Nomi’s life begins to resemble that of her grandmother starting from the time Rio tries to kill herself.  Rio’s attempted suicide lead to an event in Nomi’s life that might have shaped her whole life afterwards.  Trying to comfort her grandfather for the near loss of his wife Nomi is forced to assume the position of that wife in more ways than she can handle as her grandfather uses her comforting gestures to satisfy his sexual perversion.  By way of living through this abuse Nomi develops a connection with her grandmother by talking to her own reflection in the mirror (48).  This connection develops negatively when she tries to mimic her grandmother’s suicide (49).

As Rio tried to reinvent herself by giving herself a false name, so Nomi tries to forge for herself another personality by developing what resembles a schizophrenic other.  She contrasts her hard and flat image in the mirror with the weakness she feels inside her: “The image I touch is hard, flat, impenetrable, but inside I am mush.  I am miserable and I don’t even know why” (87).  And while her mother Tomoe constantly refers to her wish to develop in her daughters an appreciation for how things appear and a need to avoid looking deeper into things but to trust their appearances, Nomi seems to fall into the trap of a split-personality as she tried to look deeper into her image.

The bathroom scene in which she talks to an imaginary grandmother develops further into a form of second self, a self she invents which can better deal with the events of her life: “You begin as a sudden conception of myself, except older, and everything I want I already have” (83).  That this alter self is older leads one to think that she is forging for herself a personality like her grandmother’s.  This second self appears whenever Nomi wants to detach herself from her reality: “And so you begin with Eric.  At first you are Eric.  You are the one so close to me who is not me.  You begin as the thing I have hoped for, to travel outside myself and far away” (85). Because this second self is linked to Rio, Nomi depends on Rio to enable her to develop that self.  She asks Rio where she would like to go if she could and Rio answers: “it would have to be somewhere I haven’t been.  Somewhere familiar but far away” (92).  And because there’s a picture of a geisha on top of Rio’s bed, Nomi thinks of Japan as that place which is familiar but far away: “From the start Japan and you are linked into one: Japan is the dream that keeps me sticking my head into the ice cream case, and every time I come up holding another round scoop you are the promise of life beyond my grandmother, my mother, my father, my sister Melodie, and everyone else I know” (94). And the trip to Japan becomes the unmentioned pact between Rio and Nomi, a pact that Nomi felt she had to fulfill in order to help her grandmother.  Unlike Reiko, and like her mother, Nomi finds in helping others the only way to help herself, so she makes herself responsible for her grandmother’s well-being and by going to Japan she is helping Rio in her life (119). 

The need to help others puts another burden on Nomi that is also similar to her mother’s: she becomes self-critical.  As early as the age of seven when she hears her parents talking she assumes they are talking about her and that she has done something wrong.  Although guilt over her grandmother’s attempted suicide does not seem to cross her mind at first, a remark by her mother immediately sets her into this train of guilt:

That night as she pulls the sheet up to my neck my mother asks if I am upset about Grandma.  “No,” I lie.

“It’s not your fault, you know.”

It hasn’t occurred to me that it is, but the instant she says these words I know I am to blame.  (49)

This guilt grows with Nomi from guilt over what happened to her grandmother to guilt over what happens to her.  When she first suspects she’s pregnant she refuses to lay any blame on her sexual partner and tells herself that it’s her fault.  This guilt strikes the strongest when she leaves her child in Japan and for Nomi the only way out of this guilt is through her grandmother.  The novel ends with Nomi wishing for her grandmother’s forgiveness and we see here an image of Nomi that is similar to her mother.  Returning to the study of Japanese and American constructions of identity it begins to appear that Nomi’s self is closer to her Japanese heritage than it is to her American one.  Her concern for other, and her self-critical attitude lean her towards the side of the Japanese self.  Although she associates with Rio—and in terms of generations, her matriarchal line would situate her on the third level, similar to Rio—there is no doubt that Nomi’s character is shaped in her mother’s form.

But Nomi is not as comfortable with her familial obligation self as her mother appears to be.  While Tomoe accepts her life as a responsibility that she has to carry, Nomi struggles with this life and decides to change it by leaving it behind.  When her father tries to dissuade her from leaving to Japan she sees in him an ignorance of her situation:

He still chooses to ignore the importance of place in determining destiny.  He will not bow to the strength of the human will or believe in the potency of desire . . . But I was not about to give up my life.  I’d seen my grandmother and mother give theirs up to depression and a family that couldn’t appreciate them. I wanted no more of that history and I was bent on proving my father wrong. (191)

Nomi and Rio both want to change their lives, and while Rio resorts to suicide, Nomi chooses to develop an alter-ego that helps her carry on.

The resemblance and differences between these four characters are plentiful, and the reasons for their clashes are also plentiful.  Although the distance from their Japanese heritage plays an important role in these characters, this analysis proved other factors to be just as important.  At first glance, the novel seems to provide personalities that were constructed differently because of how far they were from their Japanese heritage.  I contrasted Tomoe’s care for others with her daughter’s apparent detachment from her family and I started building a hypothesis that stated Tomoe’s Japanese self versus Nomi’s American one.  But Shigekuni’s characters are not as flat as that hypothesis assumes.  This is not an either/or situation in which the person has to be either Japanese or American.  The character’s identities are formed by a mixture of these culture. Nomi explains that she is “Japanese-American, meaning one foot in either door”,  and her identity, like the other identities in this work, is shaped by a mixture of these two culture (243). 

Although both Reiko and Tomoe are second generation Japanese American, this study shows that their identities are different as they were forged by a father in the first instance and a mother in the second.  But it is not just the parental sex that determines these identities.  Nomi proves a self that is constructed by a variety of factors ranging from ethnic heritage, to parental figures, to personal event, and also personal choices of life.  Nomi’s choice to leave her child in Japan shaped who she finally becomes, Rio’s attempt at suicide shaped her life and the lives of people around her, even Tomoe and Reiko made choices in their lives that contributed to its eventual outcome.  Although the studies of Japanese and American constructions of self help in understanding the reasons behind some of the character’s actions, they are by no way determinant of what these characters develop into as a result of their interaction with other characters in the novel.  The selves are constructed by a variety of factors ranging from racial to sexual to environmental ones.  Though this is the story of Japanese Americans, the characters are distinguished by many other criteria that make the label Japanese-American seem limited.

Works Cited

Bachnik, Jane M.  Introduction.  Situated Meaning: Inside and Outside in Japanese Self, Society, and Language.  Ed. Jane M. Bachnik and Charles J. Quinn Jr.  New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1994.  2-24.

Barnlund, Dean C.  Public and Private Self in Japan and the United States.  1982 ed.  Tokyo: The Simul Press, 1975.

Boocock, Sarane Spence.  “The Social Construction of Childhood in Contemporary Japan.”  Constructions of the Self.  New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1992.  165-188.

Kim, Elaine H.  Asian American Literature.  Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

Kitayama, Shinobu et al.  “Individual and Collective Processes in the Construction of the Self:  Self-enhancement in the United States and Self-criticism in Japan.”  Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.  June 1997, 72:6.  1245-67.

Shigekuni, Julie.  A Bridge Between Us.  NY: Anchor Books, 1996.