Last night dancer Kenichi Ebina won the annual American talent competition: “America’s Got Talent.” More than 10 million Americans voted for Kenichi, a Japanese man- over stiff competition. In the finals Kenichi was up against “All American” archetypes like Jimmy Rose: a humble country singer who is a veteran and coal miner, Cami Bradley: a beautiful young woman who sings like an angel at her church or Collins Key: a young teen heartthrob and magician. Why did Kenichi; a Japanese man barely five feet tall who speaks broken English and had a stoic persona on the show; win a million dollar talent competition in America? He won because he was exceptional- not only a brilliant and unique dancer but a multi media artist who creates elaborate backgrounds to interact with on stage. The other acts in the competition were all great and some of them may go on to stardom- but as judge Howard Stern said at the end of the competition, “America got it right.” Kenichi was the most deserving because he combined exceptional talent with dedication and hard work to deliver an exceptional and one of a kind act for the audience. On the show the audience was reminded often that Kenichi was Japanese and was performing to give a better life to his wife and daughter back in Japan. (Some news pieces report that the couple are now based in NYC) There were many beautiful backstories on the show of performers struggling to make it in America. The audience votes for the winners each week and they do so completely anonymously.
What does it say about America? Perhaps it says what is the greatest characteristic of America; we are a true meritocracy. If you can contribute something valuable you will be supported in America-despite where you or your father was born or what your last name is. If you are ready to contribute, we are ready to accept and even celebrate you.
My grandfathers generation fought the Japanese in the most bitter and devastating war of the last 100 years. As a nation we even unjustly imprisoned Japanese Americans for no other reason than their ancestry. Yet today only a couple generations removed we reward a Japanese man with a million dollar prize and headline show in Las Vegas. In much of the world racial grudges and animus last for centuries or even longer, but not in America. America isn’t perfect but most Americans are willing to give people of any race or nationality a chance.
There has been some talk recently of American exceptionalism- the idea that America is truly special, different, exceptional in the world. Many doubt that America is exceptional, and in recent years our nation has had a crisis of confidence. America is exceptional because we value merit above all else. We have built a nation on the idea that those that want to come here and work hard can share in the American dream.
Journey is a classic American band started in the 1970’s; in 2008 they were looking for a new singer. The bands’ classic ballads are difficult to sing and require a unique powerful voice with range and stamina. The band searched the world for a great singer and they found one in Arnel Pineda. Arnel isn’t from Detroit, LA or New York City- no he was a poor cover band singer in The Philippines. Arnel could sing the bands catalogue like no other and he was committed to joining and touring with the band. What developed was a great story- but would everyday rock and roll loving Americans accept a short, asian front man for the all American band? The answer was a resonding yes as Americans fell in love with Arnel after experiencing his passion and powerful voice. Journey has toured all over America selling out venues in every region of the country.
All of us deserve the chance to live up to the best of our abilities, we want our hard work and dedication to pay off and lead to a better life for ourselves and our families. In America it doesn’t matter where you are from; bring your greatness and America will be good to you. Kenichi and Arnel are proof that America is still exceptional.