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Fill in the Blank


The other day, when I was at some office or another, I had to fill in a form asking for basic personal information; name, address, etc. I got past the first section without too much trouble, but when I came to the blank space labelled 'Nationality', I found myself pausing a bit. Of course, I wasn't really in doubt about what to write, and I went ahead and filled in the space to match all my other legal documentation, with the word 'Canadian'. But I have to wonder if that was the correct answer to the question. For you see, I do not really feel 'Canadian', and I am certainly not only 'Canadian'.

I was born in England, to British parents, and thus have British nationality. When I was still just a small child, our family emigrated to Canada, and a few years later, my parents obtained Canadian citizenship for themselves and their children. I am not familiar with current regulations concerning these matters, but it seems that at that time anyway, this could be done without jeopardizing our original British nationality. I thus found myself in the position of having two nationalities, British and Canadian, and indeed, have two passports.

So this explains why I am not 'only' Canadian, but why did I say 'not really' Canadian? Well, a passport is one thing, but after all, it's just a piece of paper. One's feelings about nationality surely must be based on something more fundamental than that. If I think back to school days in Canada, we sometimes sang the national anthem:

Oh Canada, our home and native land
True patriot's love, in all our hearts command ...

'True patriot's love'? Well, excuse me, but I simply can't say that's the way I felt about Canada, neither then nor now. Yes, I lived there for a long time (29 years), but it was basically just a place to live ... a location, nothing deeper than that. Perhaps part of this was due to the fact that our family was very mobile, and during those 29 years I lived in at least eleven different homes. I am sure that this habit of being constantly uprooted every few years went a long way to suppressing any developing feelings of 'homeness', either for a particular town or area, or for the country as a whole. And now, after more than eight years of living here in Japan, any such left-over feelings for Canada as a 'home' are quite weak. So when I said 'not really' Canadian, what I meant is that I just don't feel much connection with the place any more.

When people now ask me questions like "How do they do such-and-such in your country?", I'm really at a loss how to answer them. My knowledge of current Canadian society is very poor indeed. As any long-term resident of Japan well knows, social patterns in a country can change enormously in eight years. While I suspect that Canadian society isn't subject to changes quite as rapid as the astonishing transformations currently under way here, I am sure that contemporary ways of thinking in Canada must differ from those I am familiar with. I simply cannot answer their question. Not honestly, anyway.

So back to that application form I was filling in. Nationality? Well it sure doesn't seem British. I left England when I was five years old, and the only things I know about Britain are what I read in the newspapers. Canada? In this case I know even less, as the newspapers only mention Canada when the Quebec separation problem bubbles up every few years. Actually, I'd kind of like to leave that space on the form blank. I suppose a truly stateless person would get very angry at me for saying such a thing, and indeed, millions of people around the world would give up everything they own in order to obtain Canadian or British citizenship. But such people I think, are mostly those whose original country has failed them; failed to provide a stable social order in which they could live peacefully and productively. Of course such people see Canadian nationality as a 'ticket to freedom' and an escape from persecution or totalitarianism.

So don't misunderstand my comment about leaving that space blank. I recognize that I was very fortunate indeed to have grown up in two such well-ordered and stable societies. But, presumably due to that rather extreme mobility during my formative years, any 'nationalistic' feelings I may have had are very weak.

Can I guess the next question in your mind? "What about Japanese nationality?" Now that I seem to be settling down quite comfortably here, am I starting to feel Japanese? This is a tough question. We read recently in the newspapers about various foreigners who have taken this step, so the idea of a 'hakujin' gaining Japanese nationality is no longer such a weird idea as it seemed just a few years back. (Although such a thing was possible even a hundred years ago - Lafcadio Hearn being perhaps the best-known example ...) I am sure that if I took such a step (and assuming that it was granted), my friends and neighbours would accept it ... on the surface. But in their minds of course, I would always be 'different'. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, the people living in these islands do have an image of themselves as a very homogenous group, and this self-image is very strongly embedded indeed. Possession of a piece of paper proclaiming Japanese nationality would in reality be little more than possession of a piece of paper. Although it would symbolize full entry into this society, real practical acceptance could only come from one's actions: from living among Japanese people in a Japanese way ... from understanding the language at an advanced level ... from total immersion in Japanese culture over a long period of time ... indeed, by actually 'becoming' Japanese.

Am I doing this? Well, although when I came to Japan I had no such long-term calculation in mind, it does seem that this may be the way things turn out. In actual practice, I am somewhere along that road. I share the same living environment as my Japanese neighbours, and follow similar daily routines. I sometimes go for weeks on end without speaking English, and my 'nihongo' is gradually getting better. (But, oh so gradually ...!) I truly enjoy living here, in this fascinating country, and feel myself to be a productive member of society. So who knows? Maybe one day I'll find myself taking that big step ...

But ... I just remembered something! There's no way that I can ever become Japanese. There is one thing that must forever separate the Japanese from the rest of the world. A barrier that cannot be crossed. A gulf that cannot be bridged. Dare I even mention the word ... Yes, that ultimate test for those who wish to understand what it means to be truly Japanese ... a bowl of steaming white rice topped with natto!