Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu is looking again toward Japan.
A psychotherapist, writer and academic, Murphy-Shigematsu has lived in Palo Alto, Calif. the past eight years, teaching at Stanford University and running an independent multicultural consulting practice. Life in the Bay Area, he says, is easy for someone like him, the son of an Irish American man and Japanese woman. Conflict — tensions associated with being mixed race — is rare.
This wasn’t always the case. Early in his career, Murphy-Shigematsu, who was born in Tokyo in 1952 and raised in Massachusetts, faced questions about his legitimacy working in Asian American studies. In 1984 he began an internship at the National Asian American Psychology Training Center. One of the first people who welcomed him there said, “So, you’re interested in working with Asian Americans?”
“That really threw me,” Murphy-Shigematsu said. The other man saw him as an outsider to the workshop, whereas Murphy-Shigematsu viewed himself as an insider, a fellow Asian American.
Or there was the time in the late ’80s when Murphy-Shigematsu spoke to an Asian American studies class at San Francisco State University.
“Are you Asian?” the students asked.
“Why do you ask?” Murphy-Shigematsu replied.
“Because you don’t look Asian,” they said.
At academic conferences, Murphy-Shigematsu would stand out physically, and some people would regard him with an attitude of “Why are you here?”
An influential figure for Murphy-Shigematsu during that time was Lane Hirabayashi. Hirabayashi, a noted mixed-race Japanese American scholar, had advocated using the word “hapa,” and claiming the right to self-define, instead of being labeled by well-intentioned others. Impressed with this, Murphy-Shigematsu sought out Hirabayashi.
“Lane was someone who really helped bring these issues out in the open, and also helped give me a place to speak,” Murphy-Shigematsu said.
In 1987, Murphy-Shigematsu attended the Association for Asian American Studies conference in San Francisco, where he was part of a pioneering panel on mixed race organized by Hirabayashi. The panelists, who also included George Kitahara Kich and Cynthia Nakashima, were among the first scholars to address biracial issues in Asian American studies.
When Murphy-Shigematsu compares that conference to the 2009 Association for Asian American Studies conference, he finds them “completely different.” Last year’s conference featured an “incredibly diverse group of people” — South Asians, Southeast Asians, hapas, non-Asians — and a number of hapa panels.
“There was a much easier feeling of blending in,” Murphy-Shigematsu said.
This is why, in part, Japan is calling. Mixed-race issues there are more “pressing and urgent” than in the United States. Murphy-Shigematsu finds stimulation in that, he said.
Case in point: in the Tokyo airport this year, a plainclothes policeman stopped Murphy-Shigematsu to ask for identification. Murphy-Shigematsu objected, and the officer explained a suspicious-looking man had been sighted in the area. The policeman thought that Murphy-Shigematsu, because of his features, might be that man.
Japan is an evolving society, Murphy-Shigematsu said, one struggling to accept its multicultural nature. For this reason, Murphy-Shigematsu feels that today he might be able to contribute more in Japan than in the United States. His experiences here help him to be a resource there; he speaks to groups about shifting borders, citizenship, and the “changing nature of who is Japanese.”
Still, Murphy-Shigematsu continues to contribute to mixed-race studies in the United States. Since his 1987 Harvard doctoral dissertation, “Voices of Amerasians,” he has built a body of work that is essential reading for those studying the field. Articles, such as “Multiethnic Lives and Monoethnic Myths” in Teresa Williams-León and Cynthia Nakashima’s anthology “The Sum of Our Parts,” illuminate issues of language, identity and society’s pervasive “myths” about race.
One argument Murphy-Shigematsu makes is that biracial issues are important to the larger community because they expose other, often-overlooked issues. For example, he said, Japanese Americans have a tendency to be associated with victims — “and rightfully so” — but it’s important to recognize that Japanese Americans carry their own prejudices, too.
Many students have found Murphy-Shigematsu an excellent resource and mentor. Stephanie Otani, a junior at Stanford University, worked with him on an independent research project and took his course on “Transcultural and Multiethnic Lives,” which she calls “a unique and positive experience.” Currently studying abroad at Oxford University, she wrote by e-mail, “Professor Murphy-Shigematsu listens carefully to my ideas and experiences, then asks me critical questions and shares stories of his own that challenge me to find new insights into myself and the world around me.”
In a forthcoming book, “Hapa Lives,” Murphy-Shigematsu continues to examine issues of mixed race, through narrative profiles of multiracial and multiethnic Asian Americans.
“I want to tell the stories of people who are actively challenging the borders of race, ethnicity and nation,” he said. This angle reflects both a current trend in Asian American studies — one of transnational connections, of blurring the boundaries between Asia and Asian America — and a point of view Murphy-Shigematsu holds personally.
“I see myself as both Asian and American, as well as Asian American,” he said.
His sons, aged 19 and 15, are similar, he thinks, in that they have Japanese and American identities, but not necessarily Japanese American identities. He imagines this will change later, noting that many young mixed-race people today appear to lack interest in their identities, but transform in college, when new environments and opportunities cause them to question and examine who they are.
The structure of “Hapa Lives” reflects Murphy-Shigematsu’s interest in the narrative form.
“I’d like to present a more intimate aspect of the lives of people with mixed and multiple heritages and identities,” he said, “which can be done only through personal stories.”
Having moved away from traditional academic writing, Murphy-Shigematsu sees stories as “a powerful form of making connections between people.” Storytelling, he says, honors the means by which knowledge is disseminated in many cultures, and is a “way to pass on what I am learning in a way many people can understand.”
The current incarnation of this is “The Celtic Samurai,” a multimedia presentation in which Murphy-Shigematsu relates stories from his “childhood adventures in occupied Japan and postwar America.” Subtitled “A Boy’s Transcultural Journey Searching for Shamrocks in Zen Gardens,” the presentation features family photographs, music, reflection and humor. It’s also, Murphy-Shigematsu says, a way of working through past experiences that were of some hardship — “a way of healing the wounds and honoring my family.”
The next presentation of “The Celtic Samurai” is on Saturday, June 19, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Union Bank Hospitality Room in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Akemi Johnson is a Bay Area writer who first read and admired Murphy-Shigematsu’s work in college. She is currently writing a creative nonfiction book about mixed race and Okinawa. Readers can reach her at email@example.com.