Original source: Feature Article
in Bilingual Japan, 8, 5-9 (1999):

Sociocultural and Psychological Factors
in the Development of Bilingual Identity

Yoshida Kensaku
Sophia University


Japan has always been considered a monolingual/monocultural country (cf. Grosjean, 1982). Although we have always had non-Japanese populations among us, there has never been any official policy to accept these peoples as Japanese. Lambert and Taylor (1990) note that in the United States, the majority of the population - at least cognitively - accept multilingualism and multiculturalism to be a positive phenomenon. However, although no statistical data exist to verify it, the Japanese are still a very homogeneous, conformist people who would find it difficult to accept the idea of heterogeneity (multilingualism/multiculturalism) as an acceptable characteristic of the Japanese nation. As White (1992) notes, even returnees are very often ostracized simply because they are "different," at least in mainstream Japanese society.

Although this might have been true in the past, the more recent trends in internationalization and mobility of peoples, the existence of people who speak languages other than Japanese has become much more of a common phenomenon in Japan.

At the same time, the problem of bilingualism and biculturalism is not only a problem which can be dealt with solely in terms of external sociocultural factors. Factors related to the more fundamental psychological problems involved in the development of a person's identity must also be considered. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the problem of the identity of non-Japanese, as well as that of returnees in the present Japanese society from both the sociocultural and psychological perspectives.

Three Returnees - Observations

So-called returnee students sometimes come to me for advice concerning their identity. In fact, of the average fifty students who take my course in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education every year, more than half are returnees, and many of them give their wish to know more about themselves as the reason for taking the course. Below are three examples of some of the problems I have encountered.

The first case is that of a student who had spent half her life in the United States - having acquired native-like proficiency in English - and yet, was determined to become as Japanese as she possibly could. After entering a Japanese university she decided to join a sport club, where typical Japanese human relationships are the most strictly observed. Although she tried very hard to accept her role in the "senpai (senior member)-kohai (junior member)" hierarchy, she could not do so. Yet, she was adamant in her belief that because she was Japanese, and had finally returned to Japan, she had to behave - as well as feel - like a Japanese. Unfortunately this young woman finally became mentally unstable and was unable to continue her studies.

The second case is that of a male student who had gone to the United States with his family right after graduating from elementary school. He lived in the United States for four years, transferred to a Japanese senior high school on his return to Japan, and then entered university through the so-called returnee entrance examination. Although this young man had spent four years in the United States, his English was not really at the level his professors had expected. Speaking to him, I found out that he did not really like English very much. In fact, he told me on several occasions that he had not wanted to go to the United States in the first place. He did not want to leave his friends. His major problem turned out to be that, because he had spent so many years in the United States, everyone expected him to be highly proficient in English, and yet, in reality, he knew that he was not, and this became a major cause for his feeling of inferiority - as a person. Although he graduated from college, he never really got over his inferiority complex.

One final case, again concerns a young woman who had lived ten years of her life in the United States: Although her English seems no different from that of a native speaker of English - at least in terms of oral proficiency - whenever an American asks her about her identity, she replies that she is Japanese. However, when she is confronted with a Japanese, she says that she is American. She feels uneasy when asked about her identity because she knows that she really is neither American nor Japanese. In normal life, she has no serious problem mingling with either Americans or Japanese. The only time she feels uneasy is when people ask her "which" she is - American or Japanese.

Adults versus Children

Research conducted by McCarty (1999) reveals that, at least in the case of adults, knowing a foreign/second language can have very positive effects on the development of an individual's identity. Most of his subjects replied that becoming bilingual and encountering cross-cultural experiences had a positive effect on the development of their identity. However, we must note that his subjects were adults who had already acquired their basic identity in their native language and culture. In fact, it is interesting to note that of those who answered that their bilingual/cross-cultural experiences had positive effects on their identity, whereas eighteen mentioned the attainment of biculturalism as a positive effect, thirty-three did not mention it at all (my observation of McCarty's data). The latter mentioned that their repertoire of thinking and behaving had expanded, but they did not go so far as to say that they had acquired a bicultural identity. The problem I want to emphasize in this paper, however, is that of the identity of children and adolescents - young people who are still in the process of searching for their identity. The three examples given above show the personal struggles and dilemma these young people sometimes undergo.

The first young woman in the example felt the need to belong to her "native" culture. She could not accept the possibility of having a unique identity - neither Japanese nor American.

The young man's problem was a problem of choice. Whereas adults usually can choose to live in a foreign country, children cannot. On top of that the teens is a very delicate and difficult time - a time when relationships with peers becomes of central concern. The young man's psychological resentment of his parents for having taken him abroad against his wishes was so strong that he seemed to have created a mental block against learning English and acculturating himself to the American way of life. The irony is that this resistance to learning English - his indirect way of showing his Japaneseness - led to his feeling of inferiority after he returned to Japan.

The case of the second young woman is similar to that of many bilinguals. There is a period in the life of a bilingual when she feels insecure and unsure of herself because she begins to feel that she is different from people from either one or the other cultural background she comes from. Although most probably a transitional phenomenon, it is nevertheless a difficult time for many young people.

Research in Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Japan

We will now look at some research results conducted on Japanese returnees, as well as on foreign people living in Japan, to see if we could shed some light on this problem of bilingual/bicultural identity

Foreign Children in Japan vs. Japanese Children in the United States

A survey was conducted by Murata and Tokorozawa (1990) to look at the feelings and opinions of foreign elementary school children, their parents and teachers in three Japanese cities, and Japanese children, their parents, and teachers in local schools in the United States. One of the results showed that whereas both foreign children and parents living in Japan gave school work in the Japanese local schools as the greatest source of concern (38% and 36.9% respectively), the parents of Japanese children gave school after returning to Japan as their greatest concern (41%). The interesting thing, however, is that only 5.4% of the Japanese children living in the United States gave school work after returning to Japan as a source of concern. It seems as though the children themselves are concerned more about their present situation. However, the parents know more about the problems awaiting their children on their return to Japan.

This can also be seen from the fact that although only 39.1% of the foreign families living in Japan persist in the use of their native language at home, 88.7% of the Japanese families living in the United States replied that they use Japanese at home. Whereas 47.7% of the foreign families living in Japan said that the language used in the family was mixed (use of their L1 and Japanese), only 4.7% of the Japanese families living in the United States said that the language use in the family was mixed. When teachers were asked about how foreign children should be educated, 35.8% of the Japanese teachers said that the children should be educated in a local Japanese school, compared with 61.9% of the American teachers who said that Japanese children in the United States should be educated in the local American schools. On the other hand, whereas 65.2% of the parents of foreign children in Japan feel that their children should be educated in the local Japanese schools, only 17% of the Japanese parents in the United States think that their children should be educated solely in a local American school. When the weekend Japanese school is included, then the percentage rises to 68.9%.

These data imply that Japanese parents know the difficulties awaiting their children on their return to the Japanese educational system and are worried about their children's ability to conform to it. The teachers' responses to the final question, also seem to show the underlying desire of the Japanese for homogeneity - only a minority think that foreign children should be educated in the Japanese schools.

On the other hand, foreign parents living in Japan and American teachers in the United States, seem to have a more open and flexible attitude towards bilingualism. They are more tolerant towards language mixing in the families, they are more concerned about their children's education in the country they are presently living in, and they feel that, therefore, it is better for the children to attend local schools. The results seem to confirm White's contention that in Japan, there is a strong tendency to conformity and homogeneity, and that knowledge of the Japanese language is essential for the education and future success of children living in Japan.

Uncertainty about Identity

The next--and more important--problem, is the problem of identity. As we have seen, the Japanese culture seems to have a tendency to make the Japanese conform to its cultural rules, while, at the same time, discouraging foreigners (either explicitly or implicitly) from becoming members of the Japanese culture, thus preserving its homogeneity. However, there are many Japanese returnees who experience the problem of identity - as we have seen above. We also know that there are many foreigners living in this country with their families. We must also acknowledge the fact that these foreigners - especially the children - are also bilingual.

The problem is whether it is possible or reasonable to expect these returnees and foreign people in Japan to act according to the monolingual-monocultural standards set by Japanese society? As Grosjean (1985) says, a bilingual is not a person who has two monolingual/ 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/ monocultural person of either culture, but has its basis in both languages and cultures (cf. also Yoshida, 1990).Å@

Although, I, too, experienced a problem of identity when I returned to Japan at the age of thirteen after having spent six years in the United States and Canada, I was able to overcome the problem with the help of my parents, teachers and friends. There are many people, however, who are not as lucky as I was. Their environment might not be as positive as mine--the parents might be anxious and unsure of their place and status in the new culture, they might not know the language, and might not be able to help their children either with their daily life or school work.

Furthermore, my situation was essentially that of a "temporary" resident in a foreign country whose final destination was his/her home country. However, in the case of immigrants, their final destination "is" the country that they have arrived at. They must find a way to adapt and acculturate themselves to the new culture. Psychologically, this is not easy.

Returnees from China

Shu (1991) conducted a survey of the children of Japanese nationals who "returned" to Japan from China. The main purpose was to see how the children were adapting themselves to Japanese society. The results show some of the problems of identity the children were facing:

To the question why did you "return" to Japan, it was found that the children's motivation was not strong - 80% responded "because the family moved back to Japan."

To: What do you consider your nationality to be, 55 said Japanese, 57 said Chinese, and one did not answer.

To: Do you wish to obtain Japanese citizenship? Out of the 57 who answered 'Chinese' to the previous question, 28 said yes, 7 said no, and 20 said that they had not decided.

To: Do you think you are Japanese or Chinese? 5 said they were Japanese, 35 said Chinese, 50 said they were both, and 22 said they did not know.

To questions related to the children's school environment, many children responded that there was pressure in school to assimilate to Japanese society.

In response to questions related to psychological conflicts due to the pressure to assimilate it was found that if the children's assimilation to Japanese society was smooth, then the possibility of a loss of ability to communicate with their parents tended to become stronger. To the question about language use, the children replied that with their parents, they tended to use Chinese, whereas with siblings and friends, they used either Japanese or a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. The above results show the indeterminacy of the children concerning their identity. It is interesting to note that out of the 113 children surveyed, 50 said that they were "both" Japanese and Chinese. This is actually a healthy response, especially when compared with the 22 who answered "I don't know." Being able to accept the fact that a person can have more than one cultural background forming his/her unique identity, is one of the most important steps in the making of a multicultural individual. However, the results also show the difficulties encountered by the parents in relation to the acculturation of their children. A "cultural gap" begins to appear between the children and the parents. The gap is caused not only because of the difference in language use, but also because of the differences seen in the acculturation rate and depth between young children and older people - - a gap which is very difficult to fill.

Levels of Acculturation

Research in bilingualism shows that a person's identity is normally determined by the age of about 10 . Minoura (1984), for example, shows in her research with Japanese children living in Los Angeles, that children who went to the United States before the age of 9 or 10 and had been living there for over four years would not only acquire English to a near-native degree, but would also think, behave, and feel like an American. Thinking, or the cognitive level of acculturation to a culture, is something that anyone can attain, regardless of age. The level of behavioral acculturation is more difficult, especially for older people. However, it is possible to behave like the people living in the local district if that were required in that society (e.g., bowing instead of shaking hands, and vice versa).

The feeling, or affective, level is more difficult to attain--especially in a country like Japan. This presumes being able to feel that what you are doing is natural and normal - despite the fact that the behavior might be something foreign to your own culture. This is the level of true "identity," in the sense that it is only at this level that people would be able to identify themselves with the cultural behavior without feeling hypocritical.

The results of the survey on the children of Japanese returnees from China and their parents can partly be explained by Minoura's research. It does become difficult for the children and their parents to communicate with each other on the same level, because, whereas the children might already have reached the "affective" level of acculturation, the parents might never be able to reach that level.

An understanding that this gap is not simply the result of the children's deliberate rejection of their L1 culture, nor the result of the "stubbornness" of the parents to change, is very important. Can the parents accept the fact that the children have taken on a cultural identity different from their own? Can the children accept the fact that their parents are the way they are because they are proud of their cultural identity, and that it is no longer easy for them to acculturate themselves to the L2 culture as their children have?

Last year, the results of a nationwide survey on the state of Japanese as a Second Language education in Japanese schools (外国人子女の日本語指導に関する調査研究協力者会議、1998) came out. The results show that although 80% of the children are at a level of Japanese where they can get on with their daily lives without much trouble, 40% of the parents are at the "greetings" level, where they still have problems even conducting their daily lives. In fact, only 15% of the parents are proficient enough in Japanese to read the reports and announcements their children bring back from school. Also, to the question concerning the children's future, only 18% of the parents answered that they planned to return to their "home" country. On the other hand, 53% of the respondents answered either "undecided" or "I don't know" - many of them hoping, at least, to have their children receive higher education in Japan. As can be seen, the problem of language between the children and the parents is a real problem. Also, the problem of identity most probably will have to be dealt with by those families who are yet undecided about their stay in Japan.


People often say that bilingual children are lucky because they get to acquire two languages without much effort. Many monolinguals say that they envy bilinguals. But not many people know that until the 1960s research showed that bilingualism was a hindrance to an individual's linguistic, intellectual, and personality development (cf. Hakuta, 1986). Multilingualism and multiculturalism do have positive effects on an individual's development. However, if treated negatively, the multilingual and multicultural environments could result in psychological and personality problems. As can be inferred from the case studies of the three young returnees, as well as the research conducted by Murata & Tokorozawa, the Japanese mentality towards homogeneity and conformity to Japanese norms and values can exert a strong negative influence on the development of our children.

At the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that children's identity in a multicultural environment will necessarily take on a different character from that of their parents. Theirs will tend to be a unique identity - based on the unique experiences they have in the environment they are brought up in. On the other hand, in the case of adults, the task of becoming bicultural - let alone bilingual - is not as easy. It could be inferred from McCarty's research that adults with a positive attitude towards learning other languages and cultures should probably understand that a complete acculturation - resulting in affective attitude changes towards the two languages and cultures - to a second language culture is very difficult. The idea of attaining a "wider" view of the world on the basis of their own L1 identity is probably a more realistic goal for them to attain.

In this paper, I have dealt with the problem of identity from two different perspectives. The problem of bilingual identity is a multidimensional one. On the one hand, the sociocultural values of the community can exert a strong influence on the development of the an individual, and on the other hand, the more basic problem of age and psychological flexibility is all important. Japan is still in its infancy in accepting foreigners, as well as Japanese returnees. Much more research as well as educational considerations are needed to lead Japan into the inevitable multilingual/multicultural world into which it is heading.


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