Glenn K. Miyataki, Ph.D.
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
While the legacy of the Sansei is still being written in many countries, I accepted an invitation to write this essay because of the unique circumstances that distinguish Sansei in Hawai‘i from Sansei in the continental United States and other countries.
What is it about being a Japanese American Sansei in Hawai‘i that makes this distinction, and what can we do to continue its heritage while our legacy is still unfolding?
Issei Built the Foundation; Nisei Built the Bridge; Sansei Crossed It
Sansei are grateful to our Issei and Nisei, who laid the foundation and built a bridge of opportunity for Japanese Americans. The stories of their trials and tribulations are well documented and we are forever indebted for their contributions.
With each generation, horizons were broadened, and the Sansei crossed the bridge to pursue opportunities both in Hawai‘i and by traveling and living abroad. In charting our own journey, Sansei often became more adapted to American life than the Nisei in behavior and language and in facets of home, careers and communities. On one hand, we appeared to be venturing further away from our home culture. But, on the other hand, we were forming a unique culture that coveted an undeniable spirit of being Hawaiian at heart.
Wherever we grew up, whether on the plantations or in the city, we were part of the Hawaiian culture and residents of the ‘äina. Also, sugar and pineapple plantations developed on the neighbor islands and those immigrants experienced similar plantation life and the Hawaiian culture found on O‘ahu. Throughout the islands, the aloha spirit was an integral part of our daily lives, including the speaking of pidgin English.
A Nisei colleague who spent his childhood years in downtown Kaka‘ako related to me that he grew up as an “internationalist” since he had classmates who were Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Japanese and some native part-Hawaiian neighbors. They grew up color blind going through elementary, intermediate and high school, and he couldn’t recall having a “haole” friend until later in life.
Many of us who were nurtured and grew up in the plantation environment felt this uniqueness, too. Our daily lives were blessed with interacting with individuals who resided in Filipino Camp, Spanish Camp, Portuguese Camp, and Japanese Camp, and through others who lived in the town who were native Hawaiian, part-Hawaiian, Korean and Caucasian. It was an indelible experience getting to know each other through work, play and school.
When we shared aloha, we felt a good sense of togetherness toward our family, friends and even strangers visiting our islands. This feeling came naturally, as we were born into this context and there was an undefined element of trust.
Part of my cross-cultural work of 40 years covered more than 25 countries in Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific and enabled me to interact with thousands of students, professors, administrators, government officials, business professionals and executives from different cultures. It was delightful to know that no matter where I went, one thing remained abundantly clear: Almost everyone thought of Hawai‘i as a special place — a paradise in the eyes of many, a dream for others.
This distinct aura went beyond our beaches, trade winds and the hula. This cultural uniqueness of Hawai‘i had traversed the world and was viewed magically.
Hawaiian Pidgin as a Cultural Generator
One of the factors that created a stronger bond among us was speaking pidgin English. Recently, University of Hawai‘i President Emeritus Dr. Fujio Matsuda noted that pidgin English played a key role in uniting the diverse ethnic groups. Matsuda felt that Hawaiian pidgin grew out of necessity and became the glue that brought cohesiveness among the immigrants.
The Issei needed such a language to communicate with workers of other ethnicities. Soon, both the Nisei and Sansei were using pidgin, too, and three generations of Japanese Americans became assimilated into an island culture.
Pidgin English as a cultural generator provided a common experience that brought us closer together. In general, pidgin is used less today among the Sansei and is hardly heard in the conversations of our Yonsei and Gonsei, although you may find a few exceptions.
However, its universality can even be recognized in Asia and Europe. For example, when you hear a person in Germany say, “No need,” you know immediately that the person is from Hawai‘i. The bond is instant, and after the usual first question, “Eh, which high school you went?” — and a couple more — you can mutually identify an individual that you both know. That’s Hawai‘i, with a degree of separation probably more like one or two instead of the six in global circles.
A Blended Culture of Aloha
Along with American culture, Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i were embodied with Japanese and Hawaiian values with the aloha spirit. This blending produced a special formula for cultural awareness and harmony. It was a recipe to be shared with the world, and it was not a common flavor. It had a special cultural flavor tested and nurtured through time and generations.
For instance, the values of “on,” “gambatte” and “kansha” are as much a part of the Japanese DNA as is the aloha spirit. More specifically, the Japanese values were instrumental in helping the Issei and Nisei survive the backbreaking plantation work, World War II, internment camps and the process of reparations.
“On,” or “obligatory reciprocity,” was an essential value for the Issei and Nisei. Because of “on,” a giver would earn the right to receive a favor in return, and this principle became a common thread that bound all of us together as a community.
For example, when a neighbor wanted to build a fence, the community gathered to help without question. When individuals needed financial support, the community used a system called tanomoshi to pool monies so an individual could achieve an extraordinary goal.
Also, “gambatte,” or “perseverance,” continues to be practiced today in many situations. It is common to find expressions of “don’t give up,” “keep going” or “get tough” when faced with a difficult situation at work, at a sports event or an academic competition.
Moreover, feelings of appreciation for a good deed done were expressed through “kansha,” or “gratitude,” and is commonly practiced in daily life today. Gratitude is expressed in many different ways, such as helping others because you are arigatai, or grateful for having the capacity to do so, or giving an omiyage gift of gratitude to express appreciation to the other person for helping you with a task or an issue, or showing empathy because of your friendship with another. It is more than just saying, “Thank you.” It conveys sincerity for having received an act of kindness, caring and consideration.
With this acquired repertoire of blended cultural values and the aloha spirit, we feel fortunate to live in Hawai‘i. Also, many who now live abroad continue to have this special yearning for Hawai‘i.
Extending the Heritage to the World
This blended culture of aloha is our heritage, unique to the Sansei in Hawai‘i, which separates us from Sansei in other parts of the world. We have an obligation to perpetuate its legacy in Hawai‘i as well as throughout the world. As citizens of Hawai‘i, we can assume a role in enhancing relationships between Hawai‘i, the United States, Japan and other countries because of our cultural sensitivity and understanding.
Aspects of globalization such as global trade and financing, world sports, social media, technological advancements and global climate change are part of the world today. Moreover, these issues weigh on our minds here in Hawai‘i. As part of a critical security objective for the United States, Hawai‘i must forge its own niche to support and contribute to world peace and humanity, especially with increasing challenges of uncertainty and risk.
What is the Sansei’s role and responsibility in promoting this multicultural understanding to advance humanity in society?
As illustrations, many Sansei are doing their part in perpetuating this heritage in Hawai‘i, such as Colbert Matsumoto in insurance and corporate law, Art Ushijima in medical care and health, David Nakada in youth development and social entrepreneurship, Lynne (Kimoto) Madden in consumerism, and Kathy Matayoshi in primary and secondary education, to name a few.
In addition to contributing in Hawai‘i, several have expanded their heritage internationally, such as Duane Kurisu in leadership development, Jeff Watanabe in children’s social and educational development through Sesame Street, and Susan (Miyamoto) Eichor in fashion design and apparel. They export the blended culture of aloha to other countries.
Perpetuating Our Heritage Among the Yonsei and Gosei
In addition to helping with the role of Hawai‘i in the world, we need to “light the fire” and consciously pass on our heritage to younger generations instead of taking it for granted that it will happen. Today, the Yonsei and Gosei know less about the trials and tribulations of the Issei and Nisei, and perhaps just a little more about their Sansei parents and grandparents, respectively. The values they learned were by observing our behavior and how we treated other people. Occasionally, they learned through stories told by their grandparents and parents about the good ’ol days.
As we move forward, we need to recognize that career competencies and functional expertise are important; however, it is equally important to teach younger generations about the philosophies of life and the values that persist through time. We need to enrich their human potential, and this can be done through introspection and perspectives of inner core values.
More specifically, how can we increase awareness of and perpetuate these blended cultural values among the Yonsei and Gosei living in Hawai‘i and abroad? Can we consciously transfer the values that we each have practiced individually and collectively throughout our lives to our younger generations?
Gail Honda’s Hawai‘i Herald series on the “Legacy of the Sansei” draws attention to this issue and is an important catalyst for creating a timely movement for discussion, contemplation and action. We need to put together our concerted efforts to enhance the awareness of our future generations of Japanese Americans as they face a changing world.
This article is merely one Sansei’s view of encouraging our Yonsei and Gosei to understand and perpetuate their heritage. We want our Yonsei and Gosei to enhance Hawai‘i and its place in the world through cultural understanding and interpretation.
Our goal is to pursue the highest quality of life in Hawai‘i through a just, moral and sustainable society . . . with a heart of aloha. I like to believe that the Sansei in Hawai‘i and of Hawai‘i have a role in making a difference through our individual and collective efforts.
Each Sansei can decide how best to answer the call, if they will!
Glenn K. Miyataki, Ph.D., is an organization development consultant.