Norma Field nixed the expression “Japanese American” when her editor drafted a publicity blurb for In the Realm of a Dying Emperor (Pantheon), her book about contemporary Japan. Field, a professor at the University of Chicago, says in Japan the comparable term is haafu, a label based on the English word “half.”

“I’ve been described as ‘blue-eyed,’ which is absurd,” says Field, whose eyes are not blue. “That used to be a standard way of referring to white foreigners in Japan.” The daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, Field attended school on a military base during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II. She recalls trying “madly to eliminate all traces of Japaneseness from my person and my tongue”–to the point of insisting, unsuccessfully, that her mother speak to her only in English. She was aware of her minority status, both among her American classmates and at home with her mother’s kin. Field credits reading novels with preserving her “precarious sanity” in this bicultural limbo. She laments that fiction may not hold the same promise for today’s youth, including her own American-born children: “Picking up novels is not a natural thing to do–moving the eyeballs across the page is more and more an exotic activity.”

Inspired by Japan’s deathwatch over Emperor Hirohito in 1989, Field’s book blends memoir and political reportage compiled during a yearlong sojourn in her native country. “I must become, again, daughter, granddaughter, and even niece, a process akin to regenerating amputated limbs,” she writes. Although “the Japanese imperial family is notoriously uninteresting,” the protracted illness of Hirohito–“rectal bleeding as a sign of humanity”–furnishes a sociological foil for exploring the incongruous strains of individualism and nationalism in modern-day Japan.

In her portrait of “a society that passionately believes in the advantages of being genuinely opinionless if possible and unassertive if not,” Field profiles three individuals marked by their strong opinions: an Okinawan owner of a supermarket who burns the flag to protest Japanese cultural dominance over his island home; a Christian widow who lost a 15-year fight to prevent the state’s Shinto enshrinement of her dead husband; and the mayor of Nagasaki, who deals with death threats and an assassination attempt after publicly blaming the emperor for Japan’s role in World War II. Despite the country’s “vaunted nonlitigiousness,” Field is drawn to these anomalous dissenters, combining their stories with asides about her own family history. She sees her past struggles mirrored in these controversies.

Field, who’s currently teaching a graduate seminar on the history of Japanese feminism, has discovered her angle elicits divergent responses. In the Realm of a Dying Emperor struck American readers as an ideological tract (she added “A Postscript on Japan Bashing” to the paperback edition), while Japanese readers took it as autobiography. “I wish the two readings could have been brought together in the same language,” she says.

Memoirs have always explained the views of individuals to the larger society, and have been especially valuable in illuminating lives outside the cultural mainstream. Growing Up in Two Worlds–a panel discussion with minority writers on the role of the arts in America–will feature Field in conversation with fellow memoirists Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Touchstone), and Brent Staples, author of Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (Pantheon). It takes place this Saturday at 1 PM at Columbia College’s Hokin Center Annex, 623 S. Wabash. Admission is free. For more information, call 663-1600, ext. 652.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.