Thursday, 13 June 2013

Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

The chances are that, if you're interested in photography, then you probably read Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer blog (or TOP, as it has come to be known).  And if you read TOP, then you're also likely to recognise the name Ken Tanaka.  Ken is a regular commenter and occasional contributor, and one of his signature high-viewpoint views of Chicago was offered as a print sale a while back.

So it was with interest that I saw that a video by Ken Tanaka was featured in the "Daily Video" slot on Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury site.  I hadn't realised that he was also involved in video production.  It turns out to be an amusing take on ethnicity, visible and invisible, called What Kind of Asian Are You?  So I thought I'd check out some of his other videos on YouTube.

Now, it's at this point you have to make allowance for my idiocy.  I only share these foolish things with you because I find my own stupidity interesting.  I suppose a more sensible person would simply brush such stuff under the carpet.  However...

After viewing a couple of the videos I discovered, to my amazement, that Ken Tanaka is a very unusual person.  I had always assumed he was, in the American style, a "Japanese-American".  But he is, in fact, a "caucasian male", as they say on the cop thrillers, who was adopted and raised by Japanese parents in Japan.  An "American-Japanese", no less.  To see him on one of his videos is to experience serious cognitive dissonance, as he is a very caucasian male (large, ginger-haired, coarse-featured), but one who speaks imperfect English with a major Japanese accent.  At first you think he's hamming it up, but he clearly isn't.  It's hard to take in, and sometimes quite hard to understand, too.

Then, of course, the penny dropped.  Just a minute, I've seen Ken Tanaka on TOP and he doesn't look at all like that.  This must be ... another Ken Tanaka.  As indeed it is.  There are one, two, three, many Ken Ts!  Sixty-four on LinkedIn alone! And let's not mention the fictional character "football coach Ken Tanaka" in the egregious TV series Glee.

OK, so Lesson One For Idiots is that an apparently unusual name is not enough to identify someone. I should know better:  I have a moderately unusual name myself, but nonetheless have dozens of namesakes in Canada, where people of Scottish descent are like highland midges in August.  After all, comedian Dave Gorman made a career out of finding other Dave Gormans.

But Lesson Two is more interesting.  The "other" Ken Tanaka's accent is a vivid demonstration of something that shouldn't need demonstrating, but does: that culture trumps essence pretty much every time.  The Japanese stumble over certain English sounds, not because they are Japanese, but because they have learned to speak Japanese, with its distinctive set of phonemes.  In a world still strongly divided by "race", this is not as obvious as it sounds.  To believe the opposite, that essence trumps culture (in other words, that attributes like gender, race, and class are in and of themselves determining factors in a person's relative intelligence, athleticism, and so on) is to be, well, an essentialist, of which one extreme version is racism.

It's sort of what Other Ken's video is saying:  Asian-Americans may only be tenuously connected, if at all, to the cultural baggage associated with their ethnicity.  So why presume that they are?  Though, as a broad principle, this case may be overstated.  After all, some "white" ethnic identities are much stronger in their cultural persistence than the "Englishness" lampooned in the Tanaka video.  Setting aside Jewishness, Italianity and Irishry, where would Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon be without its stereotypes of Scandinavian-ness?

But there's nothing essential about these gift-shop and cook-book identities: you don't have to be "English" to be English.  The nature of English-ness changes with the nature of the whole set of those entitled to claim to be English.  A claim which few now, I suspect, would regard as having "won first prize in the lottery of life"; at least, not without a certain English irony.

If there's one lesson these islands still have to teach the rest of the world it is that mash-ups -- of race, of cultures, of classes, of music, of cuisines -- work.  It can be a bit sparky at times -- assimilating the Vikings was a bit hairy for a while -- but the resulting amalgam is usually something more useful and more durable than its constituent parts.

Well, some mash-ups don't work out, of course...

By the way, if you watch the What Kind of Asian Are You? video, do look for the out-take versions of the girl's "English stereotypes" frenzy, which are very funny.


Rob Fuke said...

Wish I had a moderately unusual name too. Rob.
PS. Never asked you, but are you any relation to the bloke who played the trombone on the Black and White Minstrels.

Mike C. said...


There is such a thing as deed poll...

No, no relation that I know of, thank goodness, though one of my 2nd cousins did play trumpet with Edmondo Ros (!).

Kent Wiley said...

The Ken Tanaka thing is another example of WTF, is-this-real-or-an-act.

He does seem to speak Japanese, but some commenters seem to think he has an accent. And his English is rather "Borat-ized". I'm so confused!

Mike C. said...


"Borat-ized" -- I like it, and know exactly what you mean. This may also simply be the result of a Japanse upbringing, I suppose -- the cult of "cute" is raised to emetic levels over there.


Kent Wiley said...

Yeah, he's got the cute thing down cold. But his about page is only slightly informative. It echos back to the truthiness topic from last month.

Anonymous said...

George Chisholm: I'd completely forgotten about him.