In order to maintain the human capital I developed during my undergraduate, I’m continuing my education with courses at my local junior college and taking lite courses over Edx. I’m currently enjoying VJx: Visualizing Japan. It’s a history class in partnership with MIT, Harvard, and Duke that explores three instances of modern Japanese history through the interpretation of visuals. We just completed our first module this week on Japan’s initial encounter with the United States: the Perry Mission.
In the interests of national security, Japan isolated itself from the international community in the 1600s. News concerning global technological and political developments were distilled through a small island in Nagasaki– but were not generally available for the public. Although isolated, the Japanese government at the time was still aware of current events overseas.
(US Japan Fleet Comm. Perry Carrying the “Gospel of God” to the HEATHEN)
Nearly 200 years after Japan implemented this isolationist policy, Commodore Perry was determined to undermine Japanese authority and open the country to trade. Encouraged by the American whaling industry and backed by gunboat diplomacy, the objectives of the Perry Mission demanded that the United States have rights to two Japanese ports for refueling. Unable to militarily match the modern, western, American navy the Japanese government agreed to the terms— ending 200 years of isolation and changing the geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific region forever.
The ordeal caused quite a bit of domestic scandal and many artists flocked to Kanagawa to draw the “American” Captain Matthew Perry. The different attitudes toward Americans manifested themselves in the various artistic renderings of Perry and his crew.
The portraits were supposed to represent how Americans look. Some of them are culturally flattering, but others are offensive.
In just around fifty years after their interaction with Perry, the Japanese quickly modernized and became the first non-Western nation to defeat a Western nation in the 20th century. The Russo-Japanese War shocked and enthralled the world. Although the Japanese participated in the legacy of imperialism, they also endowed a sense of agency to many in the non-Western world.
In the Treaty of Portsmouth a man is pictured negotiating his demands.
In the 21st century, I’ve been charged to teach English overseas and share American culture in Japan. There are many preconceptions that some children have of how Americans should look. In some of the elementary schools I’ve gotten:
“Awwh man! I wanted to see a real foreigner.”
“Oh he’s kind of short.” (I’m 5’9”)
“If you’re from America… why aren’t you white?”
It reminded me of this scene from the American cult classic, Mean Girls.
No, my ancestry is not European, I’m not very hirsute, and my skin is not white, but I am an American. (At least they don’t think I’m a demon.) Although many things have changed over the years, the international perception of what an American should phenotypically look like has lagged a bit.
However, I’m not one to back away from a challenge and I used my alleged abnormality as an important learning opportunity to teach about my homeland. I start with a graph of statistical information breaking down the demographics of my home state.
This way they can clearly see the real demographic breakdown of California. After that, I show them a picture of my friends and where some of our ancestry is from. I also make sure to explain that since we were all born in California, we’re all Americans. America’s ancestry is from all over the world— especially once they see that there are Japanese-Americans I feel that the concept is solidified.
I’ve done a good job disestablishing the previous, unlearned paradigm in the classroom by using myself as an example— some kids are even curious about the process of becoming an American. America is not the same country as it was in the 1960s and even though California’s demographics are not currently representative of the overall country, it’s what America is becoming.
In just fifty years, according to the Pew Research Center, this is where America is moving demographically:
It is important for foreign students to be up to date and learn about the current demographic situation in the United States. I want to make sure that my students are well equipped to understand America in the 21st century. The America that their parent’s interacted with is not necessarily the same America that they will interact with.
Unfortunately, the current America is losing support from the rest of the world. Favorable international perception of the United States is declining. Their confidence in our economic hegemony is falling, the never-ending series of wars is destroying our morally upright image, and our incarceration rates pale in comparison to most other developed countries. These accumulated negative perceptions can affect everything from our military alliances to our country’s credit score.
However, we’re not ones to back away from a challenge. I believe that certain parts of our country are shifting toward the economic demands of this new century, while others are making us lag. If you want a good overview on the subject I would strongly suggest reading Cal-Berkeley Professor Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs.
Things can change fast, but it’s up to us to make sure it’s for the better. I want to be a good representative of my country abroad and I want to ensure my work here contributes to peaceful international understandings. Who knows? Maybe in fifty years one of my students will have to work in America. I just hope that I left a good impression.
 Hellyer, Robert. “Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the” Sakoku” Theme in Japanese Foreign Relations: 1600-2000.” (2002): 255-259.
 Moretti, Enrico. The New Geography of Jobs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.