On Representation

March 5, 2019  • Yuma Terada

I missed all eight of the Obama years. When my American undergraduate education concluded with a joyous graduation ceremony, and my student visa expired promptly and unceremoniously, George W. Bush had been in office. Now, as the Trump administration rigorously questions precisely who belongs in this country, my petition for a work visa fortuitously resulted in my favor, permitting me to relocate from Tokyo to Los Angeles in September of 2018. So it was that the Aspen Executive Seminar, held the following month in Wye River, coincided with my reentry into the United States.

It is impossible not to notice on day one that our group comprises precisely ten men and ten women. Two of my colleagues look black. Two or possibly three of us look Asian. It is eventually revealed that five of us are not Americans. Clearly there has been an attempt—for it can never be more than an inspired attempt—to fairly represent a certain composition of society. And on that particular day, such concern for representation strikes me, perhaps inaccurately, as distinctly American.

Perhaps I am illogically associating America with the concern for representation, having just spent a year trying to represent myself, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services specifically, as accretive to American society. There was something uncomfortable about the whole undertaking, since a representation of me, constructed for such a singular purpose through written text and oral testimony, is inevitably distinct from my person. Of course, no representation is unburdened with the particular circumstance of its construction, and a representation necessarily fails to be identical to that which it represents. Consequently, while I am never dishonest, the portrait of the candidate that was presented for review had looked foreign to my eyes.

Something similar is at work around the table in Wye River. Before any of us have spoken, I am already male, Japanese (even Asian), and if one reads the handout, an entertainment industry professional. Needless to say, I am regrettably ill-equipped to represent any such category, in the same way that I cannot expect a female colleague to represent all women. We all know this of course, but it seems equally absurd to abstain from speaking, for example, as a Japanese person, for I have no other way of speaking. In short, before we have uttered but one word, each of us has already been represented.

A consequence of such representation is that it appears to legitimize certain authorities that none of us deserves. Suddenly, we are in danger of becoming unquestioned experts in the room of Japanese history, of women’s rights, of the civil rights movement. Our personal history is uncritically merged with a larger history, although none of us has made the explicit decision to do so. We are tempted to utter familiar-sounding words that seem appropriate for our assigned roles, until we are reduced to quoting today’s edition of Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Long before we get to day five and read Ta-Nehisi Coates argue that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” we find ourselves unwittingly close to accepting race—and any other classification dictating our representation—as existing a priori.

Diversity, of course, is important, and there is probably no better strategy to achieve it than the inspired attempt at fair representation practiced in this room. But my brilliant colleagues are aware of the necessarily imperfect nature of representation, and it is our shared frustration towards the smooth liquidity with which familiar-sounding words are exchanged that eventually allows us to dismantle our represented selves. Resisting the violence of representation, we rigorously discredit our undeserved authorities, so that we may finally find the words to speak.

The texts of the seminar encourage us in this endeavor. Most obviously, the questions of who is or is not represented and whether or not such representation is accurate are obsessively dissected in many of the texts, from An Agreement of the People to The Angostura Address.

Then, there is the perhaps hackneyed yet still invaluable debate on whether the reading list fairly represents society’s composition. On day five, we find Simone de Beauvoir, writing in 1949 and already wary of debating the woman, since “enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over.” The very fact that woman is a subject of inquiry exasperates Beauvoir, and one suspects she would be horrified to discover that a deliberate effort is being made to include female authors on the reading list, and that she, whether explicitly or implicitly, is brought forth to represent the woman. And yet, her writing is indispensible and must be included, even as the very act of its inclusion illuminates the impossibility of fair representation.

Finally, there are those texts that testify to the discrepancy between a text and what it supposedly represents. On day four when we read The Republic, it appears to represent what Socrates said, but precisely what we read is what Plato wrote that Socrates said. Speech and text again occupy the same territory in Analects and Human Nature, which appear to represent what Confucius and Mencius said respectively, yet the texts testify only to what the unidentified authors wrote that the two men had said. The text as a commodity is alarmingly available for appropriation and dissemination. By day six when we read Isaiah Berlin, his notorious refusal to write—preferring instead to dictate speech—looks like a strategic resistance against representation.

Representation, then, is a frustratingly imperfect act, which is not glorified, but is reluctantly accepted in the absence of an alternative. I remember the grey waiting room of the American Embassy in Tokyo, where we stood for a long time waiting, clutching a wad of documents that we hope represents us well. The documents will always fail to be identical to our persons, and yet a binary and binding decision is made based solely on that representation. None of us can enter a country or a room without having already been represented, and if one is to resist a nihilistic surrender in the face of such precariousness, a certain relentless optimism is required.

That optimism fills the sunlit room in Wye River, and for the first time in a month spent packing and shipping and renting and unpacking, I sense that I have finally arrived. It occurs to me that it is not so much the concern for fair representation, but rather this underlying optimism that I associate—accurately or inaccurately—with America. That much about this country, it appears to me, has remained unchanged.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department.

Yuma Terada participated in the October 2018 Aspen Executive Leadership Seminar.

Yuma Terada is co-founder of CTB Inc., the Tokyo- and Los Angeles-based artist management company. He previously worked at Goldman Sachs and a global equities hedge fund. Terada is author of the book Tokyo Utopia and columnist for Gendai Business, both in Japanese. He graduated from Columbia University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in art history and political science.

To contact the author of this post, e-mail