Forced to Carry the Burden of War

Karleen Chinen
Reprinted (and re-edited) from Dec. 6, 1991

Clayton Ikei and Steve Okino were coming of age at the height of the Vietnam War. And although the two sansei can relate to the ugliness of that war, it is the burden of World War II that has followed them for most of their lives.

“Yes, Vietnam was the war of our generation. But it’s not the war Japanese Americans have had to live with,” explained Ikei, a Honolulu attorney.

Ikei was born in Hawai‘i, but spent most of his formative years on the Mainland because his father was in the Army. His family moved there when Clayton was 4. After assignments in Baltimore, Md., and Chicago, they settled in a Chicano neighborhood in East Los Angeles, where Ikei got into a scrap with a Chicano kid who had called him a “Jap.” “I was really mad at him for calling me ‘Jap.’ Here I was, I had always been told I’m an American, and he’s calling me a ‘Jap.’”

Ikei had never thought of himself as anything but an American — not even while his father was stationed in Hokkaidö. “I was an American; they were Japanese,” he explained.

The Ikeis returned to L.A. in 1956. “Every Dec. 7, there was always something that happened — ribbing, teasing” — some of it by his friends. “It just seemed that throughout the year I was Japanese American. But on Dec. 7, I was a ‘Jap.’”

“It was one of those things — unintended, but racist, anyway; it made me feel uncomfortable.
. . . It was Dec. 7 and here was Clayton, and Clayton is, after all, Japanese American, so let’s razz him.” That‘s what made it harder, he says. “If these people were racist, then I could say, ‘Well, they don’t know any better.’ But it wasn’t that.”

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