My name is Timothy Kazuo Steains, I am of Okinawan and white Australian descent, and am 26 years old. I was born in Australia and have always lived here. As a child I attended Konomi Yōchien, and the Sydney Japanese School. I speak conversational Japanese, and have a modest repertoire of enka that I like to sing at karaoke.
My parents (Satsuki and Chris Steains) met through Buddhism. My mother has lived in Australia for almost 40 years, she’s from Ginowan in Okinawa. My father grew up in Newcastle.
My PhD work in Cultural Studies at Sydney University focuses on representations of Japan in contemporary Australian literature and cinema (and probably other media as well). I’m interested in Australian perceptions of Japan, Asian-Australian and Japanese-Australian interconnections, as well as Asian Australian and Japanese Australian mixed race. Broadly speaking my work uses postcolonial, multicultural, and transnational approaches.
My work started with an oppositional attitude towards white Australian representations of Japan. I examined Orientalist perceptions of Japan (take for example the feminisation of Hiromitsu in Japanese Story), the persistence of stereotype, and the marginalisation and exclusion of Asian Australian voices. I used critical race approaches that have helped me to understand my place in discussions of race and multiculturalism in Australia. While this attitude still informs my work to a significant extent, I’ve also been trying to broaden my approach in various ways.
Attendance of various international conferences this year has given me new perspective on my work. Speaking about Australia in Japan on two occasions this year has contrasted in interesting ways to speaking about Japan in Australia. I feel that my criticism of nationalising forces can also be done in conjunction with an analysis of transnational flows between Japan and Australia. I also had problems with the limits to what a largely critical approach could achieve. And while I can’t foresee where my work is going, I’ve tried to open my work to new possibilities.
One inflection of these possibilities is my desire to focus on the work and experiences of Asian Australian and Japanese Australian peoples, this includes Japanese Australian mixed race peoples. I want to see how the perspectives of these people disrupts the oppositional framework of my earlier writing. How do Asian Australians offer new local and global identifications and affiliations? And how do they offer different terms for cross-cultural interaction?
My own identifications as Asian Australian and mixed race testify to the complexity of these categories. While I grew up speaking Japanese and interacting with Japanese people, nowadays it’s very difficult for me to conjure up signifiers of my Japaneseness. Japan can, in many ways, seem quite distant to me, and at other times I think I like to believe that I’m closer to Japan than I actually am. I’ve learnt aspects of Japaneseness from my upbringing, I feel it in the nostalgic taste of green tea ice-cream, and it returns to me when I retrospectively understand the meaning of Japanese nursery rhymes learnt as a child. In this way, my Japaneseness is something largely intangible, and yet irrationally desired.
Also, my identification with Japan or Asia always changes. It changes when I learn more about Okinawa, both in my studies and through my family. It changes with every trip to Japan; I feel the space of Japan differently every time; my perceptions of my place within that space shift constantly. My own identifications with Japan change the nature of my work, and likewise my work changes my perceptions of Japan. The mutually constitute relationship there is always reimagining itself and I cannot pin it down.
These oscillating and moving interconnections at the level of the local and the global have become increasingly interesting to me. There is potential for both a disruptive and subversive force in the ambivalence of these movements, as well as potential for connections and exchange.
I am hoping also, in my later work, to look at different kinds of media, not just literature and cinema. These may include blogs and online communities. What kinds of opportunities for intercultural interactions do these media create?
This year my cousin on my father’s side, John Taggart, and an Okinawan woman, Yasue Kinjo, got married. Many of our family members attended their second wedding in Okinawa this year. As my family history uncannily repeats itself, it goes without saying that I look forward to playing some kind of role in the lives of their future children. For my family, celebrating the union of both of our cultures in the space of Okinawa held particular importance, especially perhaps for my sister Sophie Yoko and I. I never travelled to Okinawa as a child, I never really knew anything about it.
The difficulties of my mother’s relationship with her family there meant that I grew up largely as half Japanese, not really half Okinawan. We ate goya champuru at home, never really believing our mother when she said it was Okinawan food, never really knowing what Okinawa meant. Three years ago my sister, mother, and I went to Okinawa. It was the first time for my mother in 35 years. She reconnected with all her family there, and a new chapter in our lives was opened. We met Yasue who eventually came to Australia and ended up marrying John. Being in Okinawa for this wedding will strengthened a cultural connection that has often been distant and fragile in my life. Formally (and perhaps not so formally) embracing and celebrating both heritages was an important landmark in my family’s lives. This connection will surely lead to new pages in the family history, and I imagine that many new connections will grow from it. Connections like these motivate my work, and I hope to develop on them further as I continue.