Gail Honda
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

One year ago, in The Hawai‘i Herald’s 2016 New Year’s edition, I posed the question, “What is the Legacy of the Sansei?” Herald Editor Karleen Chinen suggested that we turn this question into a yearlong series, and she and I came up with a list of Sansei whose thoughts we wanted to seek out. Throughout 2016, I had the honor of contacting the Sansei and inviting them to contribute their views, and the pleasure of collecting their essays and photos to send to Karleen.

The reason I posed this question a year ago was because, to be perfectly honest, I had no clue. I had only observed that in the national press, such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the countless magazines I subscribe to, Japanese Americans were rarely, if ever, mentioned. I wondered what we were doing since we were virtually invisible in the national media.

Over the past year, 30 Sansei responded to my invitation and were published in these pages. All of their stories struck a chord with me in one way or another. The similarities of growing up with Issei grandparents and Nisei parents resonated deeply with me, and the scope of what each contributor had done to perpetuate their legacy was truly amazing.

As I got to know each contributor by email, phone and in person, many of whom I had not previously met, I saw my generation and myself with new eyes. What I knew before, but never verbalized, is that It means something to be Japanese American. My pride in being Japanese American swelled and was further crystallized as I read and heard stories in the media surrounding the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and watched documentaries like “442nd: Legacy of Heroes” — The Nisei Soldiers of WWII. As I read the contributors’ stories, I began to see a contour of a “Sansei Legacy,” one that each of us contributes to in our own way. We each apply our individual talents and abilities to perpetuating the legacies of the Issei and Nisei that have been passed down to us, and in so doing, give rise to a larger generational “Sansei Legacy.”

While a sample size of 30 is hardly representative of Sansei — for this series, we mean Sansei from or living in Hawai‘i — I no longer feel clueless about what we are doing as a generation. Yes, we are passing the culture, history and values of our ancestors to future generations. But we are doing so in a way that is unique to Sansei. The traditions of the Issei and Nisei were brought from Japan or created out of a need to survive. With our largely comfortable lifestyles, we Sansei are taking those traditions and creating something new. We are creating new values and culture, and our motivation, rather than survival, is service. Furthermore, with the privileges largely afforded us by our forebears, such as education and prosperity, we are expanding our service orientation not just to future Japanese American generations, but to all of Hawai‘i and even the world, as well.

Thus, what I’ve learned from these 30 Sansei and their essays, is that the Legacy of the Sansei is to pass on the traditions of our ancestors to future generations, and also to create new traditions and expand whom we serve to all of Hawai‘i and even the world. The following three sections will show how each contributor to the Sansei Legacy series lives this legacy in his or her own way.

Passing On the “Sacred Gift”

Donn Ariyoshi, in his essay, defines the “sacred gift” as follows: “The Issei and Nisei have sound values and rich stories. They made extraordinary sacrifices, survived difficult times and have earned our respect. These combined is their sacred gift to Sansei. The question for us is: What do we, the Sansei, do with this sacred gift?” Some of us pass them on to future generations.

Some Sansei preserve the sacred gift of arts and culture. Ann Asakura, Jan Higashi and Carol Zakahi preserve and perpetuate the arts and crafts of Japan and local culture through the organizations they lead and/or founded: respectively, TEMARI Center for Asian & Pacific Arts; the Japanese Community Association of Hawai‘i and the TNSZ Connection museum.

Other Sansei want to instill a sense of our rich and storied history in future generations. Ken Saiki, Mark Matsunaga and Gwen Fujie urge us, respectively, to learn more about our ancestral roots in Japan; the valor of Nisei soldiers in World War II and Sansei soldiers in the Vietnam War; and the discrimination Okinawan Issei and Nisei faced from their own countrymen, the Japanese people. By sharing and learning from this history, we hope never to take for granted the rights and privileges we enjoy as Japanese American citizens.

And where would we be without the enduring Issei and Nisei values to guide us in our everyday lives? Tyler Tokioka shows us the value of putting community needs first, while Janet Sato echoes this concern in the values of humility and honor and working for the greater good. Lynne Kobashigawa Waihee passes on to her own children the lesson of perseverance she learned from her mother, while Asa Ige feels a drive to meet and exceed any challenge with the same perseverance and determination of his ancestors. JoAnn Yukimura urges us to take a stand and stay involved as a commitment to future generations, while Joyce Tsunoda imparts the value of education by giving each individual student the opportunity to walk his or her own path of learning.

Out of Tradition, Create Something New

George Tanabe writes that our Sansei legacy is to maintain, modify and reject our inherited traditions as we create something of our own. Christine Yano puts it another way: We live “lives informed by the hum [of our grandparents], even while singing songs of our own making.”

In Buddhist tradition, Sansei ministers are transcending Japanese roots to arrive at a broader way of propagating and giving meaning to religion. Bishop Eric Matsumoto stresses that the Sansei generation marks the beginning of universalizing values such as “Arigatai” (gratitude) and “Okagesama de” (crediting others for the person you have become) so they are not limited to or by ethnicity or our Japanese-ness. Rev. Clarence Higa wants Sansei ministers to adapt Buddhist religion to the English-speaking world of the Yonsei, Gosei and beyond.

In terms of values, Ken Inouye wants to turn the Issei and Nisei way of “guiding” one’s children into certain career paths into the Sansei way of encouraging the next generation to find their potential. Chad Taniguchi takes the frugality of the Issei and converts it into conserving resources and energy to combat climate disruption. Grant Kagimoto takes our shared Japanese and local culture of musubi and taking shoes off before entering a home, into a new wearable form of art.

Make Hawai‘i and the World a Better Place

We cannot talk about this last piece of the “Sansei Legacy” without understanding that the ability to try to solve the problems of Hawai‘i at large and the world using our education and our positions is a privilege. We must also remember that not all Sansei enjoy the advantages of education and prosperity. For those of us privileged to do this work, it has been granted to us through our ancestors’ hard work and sacrifice to give us a better life than they had

In Hawai‘i, Colbert Matsumoto was inspired by Nisei values learned on the plantation. He used them to restore trust, accountability and fiscal health to the Bishop Estate; the state Employees Retirement System; and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, as well as to fight for the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in Hawai‘i. Jon Okamura and Carl Takamura remind us to use our legislative powers and legacy gifted to us to increase social and economic opportunities for all people of Hawai‘i. Alan Murakami urges us not to forget the plight of others’ suffering in our state and uses the legal system to preserve the cultural heritage of Hawaiians. Clyde Sakamoto encourages us to use our education and facility with technology to grapple with Hawai‘i’s most vexing issues.

And, finally, in looking beyond our heritage and our shores, some Sansei strive for a more global outlook. Brian Niiya tells of Sansei using their education and positions to secure redress and reparations for World War II internees. He urges us to use our history to speak out and take a stand when the civil liberties of other groups are threatened. Lenny Yajima wants to teach future generations to embrace diversity and become tolerant global citizens. Dwight Takamine wants to take Hawai‘i’s great example of a harmonious and tolerant community to the rest of the world. Glenn Miyataki encourages us to export our blended culture of aloha and multicultural understanding to the world and to apply them in advancing humanity in society.

The Conundrum of Visibility

I now come full circle to my essay of 2016 in which I observed that we were largely absent from the national press. This begs the question: If we are doing all of these wonderful things, why does no one know about them?

I posed this question to the Sansei contributors I had the pleasure of talking to in person. I was gently admonished by all of them and told that talking about ourselves is “not in our [Japanese] DNA.” Self-promotion might be the way of other people, but it is not the Japanese way. It’s enough just to do it, they said; no one needs to know about it.

My motivation for initially asking the question, “What is the Legacy of the Sansei?” is that I equated, wrongly or not, invisibility in the media with being inconsequential, at least in the eyes of society at large. When I was in graduate school, I wanted to write a paper on the internment of Japanese in Hawai‘i. I was told by a renowned history professor that the topic “isn’t interesting.” How do we change that? We don’t experience this here in Hawai‘i, but in other places in America, people like us or who look like us are asked all the time, “What country are you from?” or are told, “Oh, you speak English so well!”

Maybe if society at large knew we were fighting discrimination for all people, or combating climate disruption, or taking a stand when others’ civil liberties are threatened or bringing our multiculturalism to the world, these inane questions and comments and doubts about our American-ness would abate. I for one am thrilled that these 30 contributors wrote about what they are doing for all the world to see.

If some of us Sansei are taking tradition and creating something new, then perhaps my legacy will be to take the tradition of modesty and humility and turn it into propagating our stories and combating the invisibility of Japanese Americans in society at large. This way, I could play a small part in telling the world that yes, It does mean something to be Japanese American.

Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at or 808-942-4783.


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