Christine R. Yano
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Sansei live in a strange and unique position. We form the last of the generations of Japanese Americans with direct knowledge of Japan in the form of grandparents. That tie, for many, is both very real and very tenuous. Because most of us did not grow up speaking Japanese, the tie itself is relatively mute. Japanese was what our parents and grandparents spoke when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. And we complied, accepting the language barrier even as the occasional household words of admonition (“abunai,” “yakamashii”) poked through. So although our grandparents were certainly there in the house, at gatherings, maybe cooking food or working in the garden, we didn’t have real conversations with them. We talked around them. (I write this feeling very clearly the difference that language and generation makes. Three of my grandparents were Issei and thus spoke only Japanese. My one Nisei grandmother spoke both English and Japanese, and she was the only one with whom I could talk. As a Nisei who attended school in Hawai‘i, she already had one foot firmly planted in American soil. This language — and, to a certain extent, cultural — barrier made a world of difference in terms of my relationships with them all.)
As Sansei, our notions of Japan formed around our grandparents, since this was our most immediate and constant contact with that country. That contact was fuzzy, inchoate, a blur of sounds that we didn’t quite understand, but could somehow feel. That contact was and is undeniable and deeply emotional. Through our grandparents we saw Japan, not as a romanticized fairy tale, but as a place of hardscrabble lives that would impel people to leave for better opportunities. We grew up witnessing not only the remnants of Japan past, but perhaps of greater relevance, the immediacy of immigrant lives built around continual hard work. My grandparents never stopped working, whether they were at their jobs or at home. And it is this combination of hints of Japan and the hard work of immigrant lives that forms the background hum to our own Sansei lives. That hum persists — sometimes barely heard, often taken for granted, but always there as part of the chordal structure of who we are. We know it in ways that our children never will, because it is something that cannot be taught. It is a hum most powerful because it was and is lived. If that hum were to drop out (as if it could), the silence would feel strange and uneasy. The silence would feel like loss.
Background hums may be our foundation, but they are only part of who we are. We are lots of things, and our daily lives attest to this with their busy-ness. We play many roles and do many things — some big, some small, some public, many more private. We have families, jobs and responsibilities that take us outside ourselves and sometimes pull us away from the hum.
The Hawai‘i Herald’s “Legacy of the Sansei” series coordinator Gail Honda asks, “What is the legacy of the Sansei, if there is, will be or should even be one?” She asks a serious question filled with responsibility and possibility. This question only arises in the context of a passing generation, as indeed many Sansei have passed on. By asking the question, Honda gives us pause for thought. Talk of legacy sounds grand; my grandparents would never have even dreamed of it. But times have changed and mention of legacy shows perhaps just how far we’ve come. Instead of working in fields, some Sansei manage companies that have taken over those fields. And instead of being forced to quit school in the eighth grade to help with the family income, some of us teach at the universities of our grandparents’ employers. The ironies of legacy abound.
But perhaps the only way for us to think of legacy without a smirk is to take it down a notch, to replace “Legacy” with “legacies.” “Legacy” implies a body of achievement to be passed down to future generations; “legacies” implies the many small parts of our lives that become part of other intertwined lives through our relationships. Legacy is fine and public and grand: Society needs and thrives on Legacy. But people need and thrive on legacies — the everyday gestures, words and deeds that bind us to each other. So perhaps in considering legacy, we can think big while acting small — we can think Legacy while enacting legacies.
Understanding how and why to act small — to enact legacies in our daily lives — brings us back to the hum of our grandparents. We can’t know exactly what they thought. Perhaps some of them did think Legacy. But what has left a far greater imprint on me are the legacies of their daily lives that make up a part of who I am. Those legacies writ small remind me of their lives living on in me. I am not their sum total, but that hum and its inevitability are a part of me.
Here is the strange and unique position of Sansei: Legacies from the past frame our lives in ways that are lost to future generations. This makes us the last direct link with firsthand knowledge of family ties to Japan or to immigrant labor. The hum of the past shapes us, even when heard only indistinctly, sometimes inaudibly. In the end, Sansei legacies may rest in this: lives informed by the hum, even while singing songs of our own making. Legacies thus limited and highly varied — that may be enough.
Christine R. Yano is a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.