*This story has been updated on March 17th, 2018*
Merry Late Christmas and a Happy Holidays to all my students and fans!
A few moments ago, I got off the phone with my beloved Ayaka. She is currently on her way to Rome on winter vacation with her parents (man am I jealous of that). Funny that she is dating an Italian-American and a devoted Italian-American that... but I guess being an Italian is better than being a Russian, like most Japanese have mistook me for.
You see, ever since I started my study abroad in Kansai Gaidai back in 2012, one of the biggest "recurring jokes" during my times in Japan is that Japanese people tend to think I'm either American (which is totally correct).... or Russian.
Laugh all you want, but to be fairly honest, I can understand why the Japanese think I am Russian. It usually has to do with one of these things...
- Freakish height (6 ft 4 inches)
- Large muscular build
- Steel blue eyes and cold gaze
- Deep voice
- Lots of facial hair in the winter months
Now as an American that was born to an entirely European descent, I am fully proud of my full-European background. Every major holiday, my family tends to act more European than we do American, and while it is fun to tell Japanese people that I am actually half-Italian (my father's family is from Naples, and his grandfather (great-grandfather to me) never fully renounced his Italian citizenship upon emigrating to the United States, thus under Italian law, my grandfather, father, myself, my brothers, and any of our future children are all Italian citizens. Read up on Italian citizenship law below) half-American (with some small traces of German, Austrian, and Swedish from my mother's parents), but I think it might be more accurate that on from my Dad's side, I am quarter-Italian.... and a quarter-Russian, thanks to my absent Grandmother.
I won't go into the full details of my family, but my father's mother has been very much an absent woman in my life. Hell, I never met her until I was at least 6-7, and I haven't seen or talked with her in a little over 10 years. Just gonna leave it like this, but there was one thing that continually bothered me over the years. Was she pure Italian, like my father's long deceased father, or did the Viscusi's have more to their European linage?
When I was about a Jr. High School student, I had to do my family (or in Japan, "clan's") linage report. It was absolutely fascinating, and I even found out that on my mother's matrilineal side (and this is the same grandmother that introduced me to Japanese culture) was descended from Swedish nobility and knights. Even more, my great-aunt Elsie managed to show us the documents from Sweden that proved that the Edlund family was indeed noble. And my mother's patrilineal line was German/Austrian and was an artistic family that had some famous paintings in Germany (though the Third Reich destroyed the majority of them, though my Grandfather and Mom had some paintings that survived the journey to America on the eve of the Kristallnacht. Sadly, I also lost some of my long distant German relatives to the Third Reich as well through one of the concentration camps (I'll update the information here when I confirm that camp again).
Of course, I already knew my father's patrilineal linage. Naples, Italy. Descended from fishermen-turned-bootleggers (yes, my Great-Great Grandfather and his family may have ties to organized crime in America during the Prohibition Period)-turned-soldiers (Great-Grandfather (WWI) and Grandfather (WWII - Italian Campaign)-turned-businessmen (Dad, myself, and my two younger brothers). Immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s entering through New York to Philadelphia (where my grandfather and his line, including me, were born).
But the question still remained about my father's mother. Since she was inaccessible to me and my family, I had to use the little family documents that we had to try and put the pieces together. From what we found out, Grandma's mother was British-American (and that's all we could find on her), but the biggest mystery still remained.... a man named Shapiro (and a Jewish last name too) was supposedly my grandmother's father, but Dad nor my Uncle never met their maternal grandfather, nor had any sort of recollection of any conversation about him.
Fast forward to my freshmen year in college, I by chance managed to get a hold of my grandmother. The conversation was tense (always has been), but I managed to get out of her about her father... He was Russian, and he left the family when she was small.
So why did my little story about my family matter to you guys? Well, my Russian heritage played a small role in my time living and traveling around Japan, especially in the northern part of the islands. In Japan, the Russians are not very well liked. In a 2012 Pew Global Poll, Japan had a 72% negative view towards their northwestern neighbor, which is the highest in the world for anti-Russian sentiment (the US, at the time of that poll, had only a 40% unfavorable rate. It's probably climbed since then). There are a few reasons why the Japanese are hyper-critical of Russia, so let's look at a brief history between the Samurai and the Cossacks (I know they aren't ethnically Russian, but whatever).
The first thing that sparked off the Japan-Russian rivalry was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Japan shocked the West by absolutely destroying the Russian Navy at the Battle of Port Arthur, securing the Japanese a port in North Asia and asserting their dominance on the Asian continent. With Korea and now Manchuria under their control, Japan started to expand their power, while the Russian Empire, doing the unthinkable by becoming the first European country to lose to a "lesser power" started it's inevitable collapse which lead to the destruction of the Tsar Nicolas and his family (and yes, Anastasia was killed in the incident, despite what that goofy animated movie from the 1990's says) , the withdrawal from WWI, and the rise of Communism.
In addition to the humiliating defeat, Russia also was forced under the Treaty of Portsmouth (Ironically brokered by US President Teddy Roosevelt) to secede to Japan the southern part of Sakhalin Island to the Japanese, thus creating the new prefecture of Karafuto (樺太). The Japanese were given vast amounts of natural resources up there, but of course, it wasn't enough for the growing Japanese war machine. The Japanese then turned their eyes even further up mainland Asia, eventually swallowing up Northeast China (known as Manchuria) and setting up a puppet government known as Manchukuo (満州国) in 1932. From there, we all know what happened next.... WWII breaks out around the world.
Of course, the Russians had to deal with Hitler and his advance into Russia. But once the tides turned towards the Allies favor in late 1943 and the (now) Soviets marched westward to Berlin, the Russian Far East Expeditionary Unit was able to seriously focus on attacking the Japanese within a few months after the Nazi and Facist Italian regimes fell.
(Meanwhile on the Italian front, my grandfather was finishing up his service against the Black Shirts when he got the call that he would be serving in the Japanese invasion if Japan refused to surrender.... According to my Uncle, Grandpa, while probably the toughest man I ever heard of (he was more legendary in Korea, escaping a POW camp and knocking off a few Northern Charlies), but he was terrified of Japanese brutality that he heard of from other guys coming from the Pacific front.
Fate would have a different turn for my Grandpa and plenty of other American and Allied men. There was one other campaign that the history books do not touch on often... The Russian Campaign against Japan in Manchukuo. Long story short, the depleted Imperial Japanese Army and what was left of their Navy were destroyed the Reds. But it started to hit the Japanese even more closer to home when the Soviets started to unveil plans for an amphibious invasion of my "beloved" former JET Program placement.... Hokkaido.
Under the Soviet invasion plans, Western Hokkaido, namely the Otaru, Sapporo, Hakodate regions would be assaulted by the Russian Far East Force and whatever sort of naval resources that Moscow could provide. Ironically, the Japanese 5th Army (which was the only active and ready brigade in Hokkaido) would logically try and protect the eastern areas, where it was sparely populated and (from living experience out there) be very easy to invade and sweep westward from Kushiro and Nemuro. The Japanese would have no chance against the Soviet war machine in Manchukuo and were promptly defeated not only there, but even losing the northern half of the Korean peninsula to Moscow (thus starting the slippery slope to the Korean War, another war Grandpa was involved in, and perhaps his finest hour).
With the fears that Moscow would overtake Hokkaido and Northern Japan before their Operation Downfall would commence, the United States government and military then authorized the usages of the A-Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The usage of the Nagasaki bomb immediately caused the Japanese to surrender, and thus, the invasion of the Japanese islands went moot for both the American Operation Downfall and the Soviet Hokkaido Campaign... but not before Russia decided to take the Kurile Islands, close to the city of Nemuro in East Hokkaido, for themselves.
The Kurile Island takeover left a lot of Japanese (most particularly Hokkaidoan people) bitter. Much of the Japanese population in the Kuriles were repatriated to Hokkaido, where a lot of former Kurile and Karafuto ex-residents, now all elderly, live.
Yet... the fear of Russia coming to take Hokkaido still persists to this day, namely in the deep countryside and East Hokkaido... and I wish I actually knew this before going out to East Hokkaido in July 2013.
When I first arrived in my village, I thought things were going swimmingly well for the first few days. My board of education seemed to be genuinely interested in me, the area were I was was beautiful in the late-summer, and perhaps I could get used to living in East Hokkaido. Learn a little Ainu culture, and save enough money to go to graduate school for Japanese studies... boy, did I get a wake-up call on my fifth day...
Early in the day, my former boss told me that I would have to give a small press conference with a few local newspapers and the radio. Of course, I agreed to it and was very excited to get my name out throughout East Hokkaido. The day of the press conference came, and of course, my entire board of education was present, with a few members of the town council, the mayor, chief of police, and a good majority of the village folk came out to it. With a semi-full house in the village's rotunda on the 3rd floor of city hall, I came in to very light clapping, and a lot of hushed voices.
『この野郎でけえ！ロシア人にちがいないのう (This dude is huge. Must be Russian.』one old gentleman said.
『あの目の青さ。。。スチールみたいなぁ。ロシアから来たのか (Those blue eyes.... cold as steel. Did he come from Russia?』another old woman said in a subdued tone.
Of course, the Russian comments didn't really phase me at first because, after all, Russian blood runs through my veins. So I carried on my press conference as usual... that was until one old woman asked me this question... 『マイクさん、あなたの国系は何じゃ？』(Mike-san, where are you from?)
『まあ、僕の出身はアメリカのテキサス州だけど、生まれた州ならペンシルベニア州です。しかし、僕の祖父母達は全部ヨロッパ人です。』 (Well, I grew up in Texas, but my birthplace was Pennsylvania. However, all my grandparents come from all different walks of European life)
『ほう。。。で、どこから来たか？』(Oh? Like where?)
『例えば、母ちゃんの系はドイツ、オーストリア、とスェーデン系です。多かれ少なかれ北欧人系ですよ。』(For example, my Mom's side of the family is German, Austrian, and Swedish. More or less, they were Northern European)
To this response, I got a round of applause. I learned later that Hokkaido has a sort of fetish for all things Northern European (maybe because they share a similar geography and topography), but I guess that shouldn't be all too surprising. Even in Kushiro and my former village, there was some architecture that was Northern European influenced 『お父さんは？』(And your father?) said one elderly fisherman.
『父上の国系なら。。。お爺上は純血のイタリア系です。名字のヴィスクーシはナポリの辺りから名字で、あなた達のように私の祖先は漁業者でした。』(As for my Dad's linage, my grandfather was pure-blooded Italian. My last name comes from the Naples, and like you guys, my ancestors were predominantly fishermen.)
This went over very well with a lot of the older fishermen, with a huge round of applause. At the time, I thought it was going very well for me. Perhaps I could get to like this village, despite it being 11 hours from Sapporo and being in the deep countryside.
『ああ、マイクさん。お婆さんは？』(Oh Mike, your grandmother?) asked my now former boss.
『婆ちゃんの系はちょっと不明だけど、お母さんはイギリス人だったと知ってて、婆ちゃんによるとお父さんはロシア人だったと言いました。生まれた前に、逃げられしまいました』(My grandmother's linage is a bit unclear, but I know that her mother was British, and according to her, her father was a Russian that ran away before she was born. The room went silent....
『つまり、お前はロシア人の血が持っているじゃのうか？』(So you mean to tell us that you have Russian blood flowing through you) - said another old woman.
『ダ』(да - Russian for "Yes") I said with a smile... and I then realized that I just made a HUGE mistake on my part.
People then started to panic. While I couldn't hear clearly what people said during the uproar, I was escorted out of the room by my boss and the head of the Board of Education, and they took me back to the Board of Education board room and they sat me down on the couch. 『マイクさん、あなたは本当にロシア人でございますか？』（"Mike, are you really Russian?"） asked my handler. （違います。ロシア人の血は僕の血管に流れても、ジョンニーほどアメリカ人なんですよ）"No, I have Russian blood in me, but I can assure you that I am American as Johnny (name changed / former ALT partner) is." 『あらま。。。やってしまいましたなぁ。この村の中に絶対にロシア人が住ませません』"Oh dear... you just caused a panic in town.... We can't have Russians in the village." 『どうして？』"Why not? 『簡単に言うと、ロシア人はこの村に禁止です。300年前から、苦しめせたり、馬鹿にさせたりしましたから。』"They are not allowed in this village. They have caused us too much pain, suffering, and ridicule over the past 300 years." 『どうなさいましたか？教えてくださいませんか？確かに謝ったら。。。。』"What happened? Tell me so I know. Maybe I can make things right by apologizing to the people." ....But it was already too late...
Well, long story short, I terrified an entire village to think I was Russian. Just because I have Russian ethnicity in mean doesn't mean I am Russian, but I knew it would be a losing battle to try and convince this village otherwise. The long-term ramifications of me telling the people about my small Russian heritage were as follows...
- Being blacklisted from any bar in the village (since they supposedly thought I would get "Russian Drunk") - Barred from most family shops (though honestly, I preferred shopping in Kushiro more) - Barred from any sort of village event. Even their bi-annual Oyster Festival, I was banned from coming (not only that, other Russians are banned from going too. Though I did manage to sneak into both of them, the events were exclusively Japanese. Very shocked and saddened...) - Regulated from an ALT to the town's "Token Foreign"... but this became the best punishment I ever got. Because of that, I literally got released from all my JET Program obligations and my JET tenure turned into (and I am totally unapologetic when I say this)...... A FREE PAID VACATION TO HOKKAIDO.
I guess being "Russian" had it's benefits, but after I left Hokkaido, I went to Chiba and I got a slightly different reaction towards my European background. When I taught at Eikaiwa in Asahi, I knew going into that line of work would eventually burn me out, so I made it my personal mission to not really focus on teaching the kids English, but more on how to deal with foreigners. I totally disregarded my former employer's instructions because really, let me be unapologetically honest, my time at Eikaiwa was (in my eyes) just another paid vacation and a do-over for my Hokkaido experience. The kids absolutely loved to learn about foreign cultures. In fact, I think more of them got a kick out of that rather than learning English and the kids minds were engaged on why different people do certain things around the world. Even on Parent's Day at my Eikaiwa, a lot of parents got a kick out of learning foreign cultures. It saddened a lot of my kids that they lost their beloved "Mike-Sensei", but it was on to bigger and better things for me (like starting Simple Gaijin).
Even at my current position as a mechanical engineer, a few of my coworkers are fascinated that I've been raised in a multi-cultural family. One of my coworkers continually asks me about my Italian heritage, and one of the OL (Office Ladies) at the Funabashi HQ continually asked me questions about Sweden. But they all know that I have Russian blood in me, and what do you know? They don't care. No problems at work, nothing.
Now occasionally in other parts of Japan, I will be stopped by people to ask where I am from. Depending on how I feel at the moment, I respond in Japanese Xから来ました（I am from X). Sometimes I feel like being American, other times I feel Italian, other times I feel Swedish, and of course, there are times that I feel Russian. But not once, in Chiba, Tokyo, Utsunomiya, Yokohama, Gunma, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kaga, and even in Sapporo I've never had people run for the hills whenever I tell them I am Russian (of course, whenever the Japanese police stopped me for a "passport check", I would tell them I am American, just to keep things simple).
While the Japanese more or less 100% ethnical Japanese, they are fascinated with other people's cultures (except for the village that I lived in) and as a multi-racial European descended American, I feel that I brought more cultural ambassador than the average westerner. At the same time, I feel that if Japan is to excel in the international scene, they need to be more accepting of foreigners. For the most part, I feel that the average Japanese person (except for the people in my former village) excels at this acceptance. If a Japanese ever does ask you where you are from, don't be afraid to tell them where you come from.... even if you are Russian.
Here is the pure irony is all of this article...
Three years after leaving Akkeshi (and a year after writing this article), my family decided to put the mystery of where my great-grandfather came from to rest. On Father's Day 2017, my brothers and I agreed to get my Dad's DNA tested to see if his ancestor's, if any, were Russian and if we were as Italian as we thought we all were.
It's turned out my great-grandfather... had no Russian blood AT ALL in the Viscusi Clan... but was an Ashkenazi Jew from somewhere in Central Europe (we believe somewhere in the Czech Republic).
"Oy Vey: was I pissed that Akkeshi judged me for my facial hair, size, and muscular build because of their preconceived notions of foreignness.
Well... at least I know my Jewish heritage explains why I can grow facial hair at a rapid pace.
*Added July 1st, 2018
So we also got my Mom's DNA tested also. But not really to our surprise, predominantly Swedish / Northern European and some Ashkenazi Jew as well.
So with that, I am officially cleared of all Russian blood in my family.
How about you guys? Did you have to deal with any sort of racism or hostility while living in Japan because you were a foreigner?
"Citizenship." Citizenship. Ministero Degli Affari Esteri E Della Cooperazoine Internatzionale, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.