A Problem of Identity

Kensaku Yoshida, Sophia University

Japan is still a predominantly monolingual nation with very little concern
for the well-being and education of bilingual Japanese or the non-Japanese
speaking population living in the country. In this paper, I will discuss
the problem of a bilingual's identity from the point of view of linguistic
proficiency, using the results of several studies conducted on Japanese.

Personal Experience

I went to the United States at the age of seven, moved to Canada at the
age of nine, and finally returned to Japan at the age of thirteen. At the
time, there were no ESL or bilingual programs in New York, nor was there
a Japanese weekend school. When I returned to Japan, the word kikokushijo
(returnee) had not yet been invented.

When I first went to New York, I understood no English, and when I returned
to Japan six years later, I had forgotten most of my Japanese. I could hardly
even write my name in hiragana--let alone in kanji . In the United States
and Canada, I did two and a half years of second grade, a half year of third
grade, skipped fifth grade; and, back in Japan, I had to do second-year
junior high school twice (not much else you could do when you were ranked
number one from the bottom, with a one-in-a-hundred chance of getting into
senior high school).

The Problem of Identity

Like so many children who have lived abroad, especially during their
formative years, I had problems with my identity--was I Japanese or Canadian
or American? One of the biggest factors that made me wonder about my identity
was my linguistic ability. My Japanese was at the level of a first or second
grade elementary school student. What I lacked was not only the knowledge
of the language, but also the knowledge of the meanings of almost all of
the proverbial and idiomatic expressions that Japanese children learn in
elementary school. I did not have the cultural background necessary for
understanding Japanese. At the same time, not having lived in the US or
Canada as a teenager, not only was my English beginning to get rusty, but
I could no longer keep up with the lifestyle and ways of thinking of teenagers
my own age living in Canada.

Who was I? Where did I belong? I had great friends in high school. They
never ostracized me or made a fool of me because of my grades or my Japanese.
The culprit was in me. I felt incomplete, I felt inferior. It took me a
long time to understand and accept the idea that a bilingual is not a person
who has two monolingual or monocultural identities in one, but a person
who has a unique identity, which is not the same linguistically or culturally
as that of a monolingual or monocultural person of either culture, but has
its basis in both languages and cultures.

Research on Japanese Bilinguals

Research on the so-called "returnees" revealed through word
association tests that the Japanese-English bilinguals' associative patterns
differed both from those of monolingual Japanese and from monolingual English
speakers as well (Yoshida, 1985, 1990). Furthermore, the results of the
Perceived Social Distance Questionnaire (Acton, 1979) showed that the closer
the bilinguals' word association results were to those of monolingual English
speakers, the more affectively distant they felt, implying that cognitive
or linguistic adaptation does not necessarily entail affective adaptation.

Tatsumi's (1998) research showed that bilingual Japanese used grammatical
structures which showed influences from both Japanese and English. For example,
even when describing an event in Japanese, they used more modifiers to describe
the trajectory of action verbs than Japanese monolinguals, thus implying
that their cognitive processes involved in viewing the world were not necessarily
the same as those of the monolingual Japanese, even when Japanese is the
common medium of expression).

Furthermore, Nemoto's (1986) research showed that the returnees' use
of Japanese honorifics differed significantly from that of monolingual Japanese,
implying that the bilinguals' perceptions of human relationships differs
from those of the monolinguals.

Discussion and Conclusion

Returnees and children of immigrants, for the most part, are children
who were thrown into a foreign linguistic and cultural environment, not
by choice, but because of inevitable circumstances arising from family situations.
Although I was able to overcome my difficulties with the help of my optimistic
parents, I also had conscientious teachers and understanding friends who
accepted me for who I was. Not all returnees or foreigners are as fortunate.

Educators, parents, and educational policy makers need to have a better
understanding of the fact that a bilingual is not simply a person who is
partly a member of one linguistic group and partly a member of another,
but a unique person with an identity of his or her own.


Acton, W. (1979). Perception of lexical connotation: Professed
attitude and socio-cultural distance in second language learning. Unpublished
doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan.

Minoura, Y. (1984). Ibunka taiken no kodomotatchi.
Tokyo: Shisakusha.

Nemoto, C. (1986). Assimilation of the Japanese returnees
from the United States: A sociopragmatic study. Unpublished master's thesis,
Sophia University, Tokyo.

Tatsumi, T. (1998). The bilingual's thinking for speaking:
Adaptation of Slobin's frog experiment to Japanese-English bilinguals. Unpublished
bachelor's thesis, Sophia University, Tokyo.

Yoshida, K. (1985). Kikoku-shijo no gengo-shinrigakuteki
tokushitsu: tango renso to Social Distance no chosa kara. In F. Lobo (Ed.),
Kikoku-shijo no doko-chosa hokokusho. Tokyo: Sophia University.

Yoshida, K. (1990). Knowing vs. behaving vs. feeling: Studies
in Japanese bilinguals. In L. Arena (Ed.), Language proficiency: Defining,
teaching, and testing.
New York: Plenum.