Wednesday, September 14, 2016

From the Precipice of the Garbage Can: Musings About Ann Takamaki 

[IMPORTANT INTRODUCTORY NOTE: PERSONA 5 is happening, so it wouldn’t make sense not to have something to say about it, right? As a matter of fact, I almost did a number of months ago, only you didn’t hear about it because, well, I didn’t think it was quite up to snuff. Intended to be published to Persona Central, the following article examines Ann’s mixed-race heritage and how Persona 5 could frame it within the discriminatory context of modern Japanese culture. (A different article on Nocturne--more my speed--will be available shortly.)

Even though this Ann article is missing that je ne sais quoi (probably due to my lack of passion for the plight of a unfamiliar character from a game I’ve never played), there’s still some stuff I like about it, particularly the conclusion, which forced me to change some of my existing assumptions. Seeing as this is probably the final day anything about its content could even hope to be relevant, it was time to release the article into the wild or delete it forever. Hopefully it’s worthwhile for at least one of you! ]

Of the scant information released thus far about Persona 5, the tidbits concerning party member Ann Takamaki in particular caught my attention: Described as “one-quarter American,” that ethnic split, and the resulting personality trait stereotypes, allegedly make her unable to gel with her Japanese peers. Upon hearing that for the first time, I thought it was a joke. How could a small fraction of a particular ethnicity (especially as potentially nebulous as “American” can be) not only define a character but also elicit such severe discrimination?

Nevertheless, this is an issue that will likely define much of Ann’s early characterization and her persona arc, so it was worth investigating further: Was it plausible or not? Armed with my own contrary experiences from teaching for two years in a Japanese public high school, I went looking for evidence that Ann’s scenario wasn’t just an ignorant attempt to acknowledge the series’ burgeoning overseas fanbase. What I found, however, was at once surprising and, sadly, predictable. 

So who exactly is Ann Takamaki? The Japanese Persona 5 website gives her backstory thusly: A 16-year old, three quarters Japanese girl with American roots that attends Shûjin gakuen. At school, she appears to be unable to blend in and lonely due to her striking looks. She is being observed acting together with the youth assumed to be the leader and Sakamoto Ryûji. At school, strange rumors are spreading about her, but whether these are true or not is still being investigated. This is all minimal, obligatory promotional copy that is unlikely to be expounded upon before the game's release. So why does being one-quarter American matter?  

To be certain, the issue is not that racism or personal prejudices exist, but that they could plausibly exist over such fraction-of-a-fraction differences. To name one of Japan’s more politically-charged examples, a vocal minority of Japanese, usually of a conservative mindset, positively loathe their East Asian neighbors China and
Relevant picture of Anne
Korea for reasons ranging from regional friction to outright racism. I myself witnessed such polemic firsthand while waiting for friends at an Osaka train station, when a member of a small group of picketers handed me an (English language, no less) anti-Korean, anti-Chinese flyer. Another time I was teaching at an elementary school and a boy thought it necessary to tell me that two of his classmates were Chinese, hardly relevant information. Of course, this is the kind of petty garbage you might see manifest anywhere in the world.

While racism against Chinese and Koreans in Japan is undeniable, would the same occur to people with blonde hair and blue eyes, like Ann? Though I’m not fair-haired, I would often be complimented on my blue eyes, apparently a rare phenomenon for Japanese to see with theirs. This fascination is certainly an effect of Japan's 99% homogeneous population; yes, I can personally confirm that approximately 99 out of every 100 people I saw in Japan were Japanese. Living as a foreigner in Japan means your experience will be different than that of the native population, though to what degree will fluctuate according to individual experience. As an American of European descent, I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb, but I was far from the only white dude in a major city like Osaka; I’m sure most of the inner city natives saw foreigners daily. On the other hand, my apartment was located nearer the outskirts of the Osakan urban sprawl, and just the sight of me seemed to be a notable event for the local elementary school kids. I can’t complain, as their staring and bashful utterances of “hello” kind of made me feel like a celebrity.

But that doesn’t mean I was free from passive prejudices, such as the affectionately named “gaijin bubble.” This is where, even on busy trains, Japanese would refrain from seating themselves next to
me—an experience shared by all of my fellow expat friends. It’s something I laughed off because it only gave me more room to breathe in a cramped space, not to mention their motives may not have been malicious: Most Japanese people are too shy to speak to foreigners because they are not confident in their English abilities, and sitting next to a foreigner only increases their chances of making an embarrassing mistake in public. It sounds silly, but this crippling language anxiety is real—to use a personal example, I still can’t convince my Osaka-native girlfriend to talk to my parents over Skype, as she doesn’t think her English is good enough (even though it totally is).

The Japanese general public is one thing, but what about the high schoolers? Would Japanese teenagers really reject someone with foreign characteristics? In my experience as a Japanese high school English teacher? Highly unlikely. Though my high school was never privy to foreign exchange students during my tenure, if I had to venture a guess based on the handful of students I regularly interacted with, I would have to say any obviously foreign kids would have been welcomed, even celebrated. My “regulars”—the students with the highest-level English proficiency—weren’t just capable of holding conversations with me, they were also familiar with Western culture through movies, TV, and music, with many expressing interest in living or working in English-speaking countries. In fact, one such student informed me recently that she will be attending college in England. Though I feel it’s true that a foreign student might be seen by the majority as a kind of novelty, I very much doubt he or she would have faced any outright hostility like Ann is purported to suffer. Supporting this claim is the fact that one of the more popular students at my school was Korean—the same nationality I saw demonized by the Osaka picketers.
Cheese curry pizza chips,
the perfect visual metaphor

But a vast gulf separates the anecdotes of a foreign expat and the experiences of a native-born Japanese citizen. It is unclear if Ann was born in Japan or America; however, at the very least, trailers show she has fluent command of Japanese, so she must have spent the majority of her life there; otherwise, the complexity of her speech and subtitles (or lack thereof) would go out of their way to peg her as non-native, as foreign characters in Japanese-language media are often characterized with elementary-level speech and/or majority katakana script. As a major character with presumably heavy story involvement, the logistics basically require Ann to have such fluency.

If you’re at all familiar with contemporary Japanese culture, Ann’s plight may sound familiar, as it most closely resembles the experiences of Japanese with one native parent and one foreign parent, whom are dubbed “hafu” (literally “half”). With more and more foreigners immigrating to Japan, the numbers of hafu have increased exponentially in recent decades. But even though most hafu are native-born and identify as Japanese, Japanese society as a whole has had difficulties coming to grips with their placement within that society: Are hafu truly Japanese? Or does their “other side” prevent their true integration into the in-group?

On one hand, the mixed features of hafu can be seen as desirable or stylish. For instance, it is common for hafu to appear as models, especially in fashion magazines. This extends to children, for better or worse—my girlfriend has related to me that her younger sister wanted to marry a foreign man, with a partial motivation being babies with the preferred biracial features (ultimately, she married a Japanese).

On the other hand, hafu do face discrimination. And it’s not necessarily just their mixed looks in a notably homogeneous country, but those perceived differences of culture and language perpetuated by stereotypes. For example, Americans as a whole may be seen through the Japanese cultural lens as particularly loud and/or honest (heck, it might even be true). How can someone “predisposed” to loudness and frankness be representative of Japanese ideals of respect and modesty?

One notable example in recent news is Ariana Miyamoto, the current holder of the Miss Japan crown[not anymore! 2016's is, guess what, another hafu! -Eirikr], who has an African-American father and a Japanese mother. She may look different than most of the population, but Miyamoto nonetheless self-identifies as Japanese. Sadly, her nomination as Miss Japan provoked considerable controversy and criticism, with many predictable instances of “She’s not Japanese!” lobbed her way. But aside from the world of tabloids, there are also many hafu who feel alienated by a society that won’t fully accept them, enough to inspire the creation of a documentary, simply titled Hafu, exploring life on Japan’s fringes. 

So what about people like Ann, who are “hafu-hafu”? Predictably, there is a term for those with one foreign grandparent, too: “kuota” (“quarter”), though it doesn’t seem to be in common use, perhaps due to it not being standard usage or there just not being enough people in Japan yet with one-quarter foreign ancestry to warrant widespread adoption. Curious, I took it upon myself to search for notable “kuota” in the Japanese public eye to get an idea if they faced similar discrimination to hafu, to prove or disprove the legitimacy of Ann’s example. As expected, it was far more difficult to find three-quarters Japanese/one-quarter foreign people compared to hafu, but I did find the following notables:

1. Namie Amuro. Amuro is a hugely popular J-pop artist with album sales in the tens of millions; one of my favorite high school pupils idolized Amuro and attended her concerts whenever she could. Amuro is also three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter Italian, from her half-Japanese, half-Italian mother. There are no records to suggest that Amuro faced hardship because of her “kuota” status. On a whim, I also asked my girlfriend if she knew that Amuro was one-quarter Italian—she did not!

2. Mayumi Sada. A model and actress, Sada is three-quarters Japanese, one-quarter American. There is no evidence to suggest she suffered discrimination because of her ethnicity.

3. Sowelu. A J-pop and R&B artist, Sowelu's non-Japanese quarter is Irish, with no evidence of discrimination that I could find. 

4. Lena Fujii. A commercial model and actress, Fujii is also one-quarter American. There is no evi…

…Okay, finding Fujii forced me to rewrite this entire article, toning down what were innumerable assumptions. Very much unlike the others, Fujii was bullied in high school for looking different yet lacking English fluency. Even worse, she went abroad to Switzerland to study English but faced racist bullying there, as well. The happy ending of course is that she did find personal success.

Though it was a challenge searching for “kuota” with public
Lena Fujii
presence, Lena Fujii's example nonetheless provides a close analogue to Ann's—possibly even a direct influence, though I can't say for sure. More relevantly, her scrapes with bullying completely vindicate Ann’s scenario, despite my own experiences to the contrary and a seemingly uncommon rate of occurrence. It also speaks to something that should have been obvious from the beginning: People can be assholes, especially when drawing attention to the minutest differences between one's group and another's (such as being one-quarter of any ethnicity). I guess it shouldn't have seemed so far-fetched.

Issues of race in Japan are of course far more complicated and political than needs to be discussed here. But whether you are a foreigner, native Japanese of mixed ethnicity, or generally anything beyond the homogeneous majority, in Japan you will undoubtedly face discrimination or prejudice along a wildly varying scale. My hope is that Persona 5 is able to use Ann's example to explore the issue in a meaningful way, beyond stereotypes, caricatures, hackneyed one-liners, or even gameplay-related concepts like shadow acceptance or (especially!) S. Links, where her problems will ultimately be quantified, “solved,” and pushed aside. To address the issue in Persona's psychological parlance: Much like a Jungian Shadow, admitting that an unwanted aspect is nonetheless part of you is the first step towards integrating it into the whole.


  1. That was a super interesting read. Ann's description on the website sounded like a lot of pandering bullshit to me at first, but I honestly didn't give it much thought despite the fact that I even discussed the movie mentioned in your essay with my Japanese teacher.

    There is one thing that I wanted to mention anyway: Negative discrimination isn't the only kind of discrimination. Positive discrimination is a thing and it does have to potential to isolate people. It's another thing that might play into Ann's character arc.

    1. That's true! Who knows how it might end up. But like I said, my only, meager wish for her character is that her differences are framed in a meaningful way.

      Another hope for P5 that was shattered early was the inclusion of a foreign-born English teacher as a main character or NPC. Of course I'm biased there, but it was my firsthand experience, and it seems to be an ubiquitous one in most public schools to have at least some exposure to a foreign teacher. Could have provided a much needed alternate perspective. Or, you know, maybe it wouldn't have been portrayed so sensitively, depending on how Ann's arc plays out.

  2. All I hear is "Let's do Lisa Silverman, but lazier" - but despite P2's flaws, it's hard to imagine the game that casually taught Chinese expressions through Lisa coexisting with SMTIV.

    1. OH, dammit, you reminded me that I TOTALLY FORGOT to include a mention of Lisa like I meant to do. When this was in the planning stages months ago, I was going to put a picture of her near the top with a caption like "THIS IS THE SIMILAR THING THAT HAPPENED BEFORE, OK" or something like that. That tells you how long this thing has been idle. Oh well, this comment will do now!

  3. I refrained from reading this article for fear of spoilers, but now that I've played a good chunk of P5 I came back and surprise! no spoilers.
    With that said, I'd like to briefly compare P5 with P2 (although WITHOUT spoilers), so here we go:

    While playing through P5 I find myself with a strong feeling of Deja Vu, the truth is that P5 desperately tries to simulate almost everything in P2,
    at almost every event I came across I kept thinking P2 did exactly this, but P2 did it better!
    Even some characters not only look alike but have similar personalities or fit the same roles as their P2 "incarnations", an example is Ann>Lisa. I guess that's all I can say without spoiling, hopefully you (the author) can see it in a similar way that I do, and hopefully you'll eventually write an article comparing those games with spoilers.
    I'd love to write one myself, but I wouldn't know where or how to publish it. Anyhow!
    Best regards.

    1. That's funny, because everything about P5 I've been paying attention to (demons/personas, basically) is just lifted from P3/4. Like, almost the exact roster--even the dramatic structure. I was expecting some serious shakeups in the latter department, but oh well. So then, it's really just a mishmash of the story bits of P2 but with the beats and personas of P3/P4? I did notice that some of the "masked men" are eerily similar in concept to those in P2.

      This will probably be the only article about P5 I write, though. If you write something (blogspot or wordpress are fairly easy), let me know and I'll spread the word.

  4. I am that guy who said reading your blog is the same as reading my own mind

    Racism is deeply rooted in japanese society, in all parts of the globe, but mainly in Japan and Brazil, since in Brazil they hardly integrated ( I had a friend who couldn't tell his mother he was my friend and would go out with me, because I was not japanese ). The younger generation clearly don't suffer from this, but I tend to believe from my observations that some level of tribalism ( racism, -phobia, whatever the reader prefer ) is genetic. I have seem children from liberal parents, loving, caring, good people, that regardless what teachers and family tried to teach, the little fella was already racist towards other races.

    So even on a more open society as modern Japan, some part of the population will be racist, the youth always pick on the different ones. And in times of economic strife, more conservative ideology tends to grow, and I like to take in consideration the political pendulum theory, which globaly is going hard to the Right.
    I might watch some Persona 5 stuff, but I will not play it in the near future. Looking foward to your Nocturne article.