Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: The Herald recently decided to expand its “Legacy of the Sansei” series to include essays by Sansei living on the continental United States. Brian Niiya, who was a contributor to the series last year, introduced series coordinator Gail Honda to many insightful and influential Mainland Sansei as prospective contributors. A good number of them accepted her and Herald editor Karleen Chinen’s invitation to share their perspective. We are honored and delighted to present their essays, which add breadth and depth to last year’s essays by Hawai‘i Sansei.
When I was a kid in the early 1960s, each Memorial Day, my family of seven would go to a Seattle cemetery and place flowers at the grave of Staff Sgt. Francis “Bako” Kinoshita. While my parents lingered at Bako’s gravesite, I would grab extra flowers and play a game of finding tombstones with other Japanese names to place the flowers. I knew my uncle had died while fighting in the war, but his death had always felt distant and somehow normal, given all of the other tombstones with Japanese names and dates of death in 1944. Years later, one powerful family photograph would bring me much closer to Uncle Bako’s memory.
In 1996, after seven years of creating software products at Microsoft, I left the high tech industry and helped to start Denshö, a nonprofit that promotes social justice by preserving and sharing the stories of the World War II Japanese American experience. We believed the world was going digital and this was an opportunity to create online archives, references and textbooks that included the Japanese American story.
One evening, after 14 years of immersing myself in Japanese American history, my Nisei mother placed an old photo album on her kitchen table for me to see. She said there were some pictures that might interest me. While my mom watched, I flipped through baby photos of her. I smiled and commented on the posed, unsmiling images. On another page, I expressed surprise, because I did not know that she had visited Japan as a child and marveled at the photos of her, her younger brother Chuck and their mother traveling in Japan. She smiled and told me a story of how a distant and childless uncle and aunt had wanted my grandmother to leave my mom and Chuck in Japan for them to adopt. My mother laughed as she told me this story, saying my grandfather — who at the time was in Seattle — would have “raised hell” if my grandmother had left her and Chuck in Japan.
I continued casually flipping through a few more pages of my mom’s preteen and early teen years, and then stopped, my eyes riveted to a photo of my grandparents that I had never seen.
I whispered to my mom, “Was this for Uncle Bako?” As I looked up to see my mom nod, I saw her eyes well up and could feel tears streaming down my own cheeks. The photo was of an outdoor memorial service for her older brother in the Minidoka, Idaho, concentration camp. It shows my grandparents accepting an American flag for their eldest son, killed in action in Italy while fighting with the 100th Battalion. Seeing my grieving grandparents, my mother’s tears, knowing what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, I felt an emotional punch to the stomach as I traveled back in time to this memorial service on a dusty field in Minidoka.
When the photograph was taken in 1944 my grandfather was 57, three years older than I was when I discovered this photograph. I can only imagine the despair he must have felt to lose his eldest son, who, by all accounts, had such a bright future. As I looked at the photo, I wished that I could have been there to give him some comfort and tell him that he and Bachan would survive the injustice and indignity of being held in an American concentration camp. Moreover, although they had to initially struggle without any money or assets, their family thrived after the war and his 19 grandchildren would joyously celebrate his 80th birthday with him.
I share this story as an example of the important role Sansei play in strengthening not only family ties, but also the Japanese American community.
Let me explain. A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that reaffirmed my belief that knowing your family’s story, especially if the story includes overcoming hardships, is the best predictor of resilience and happiness. The article noted that right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, researchers found that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” These children were more resilient, happier and better able to cope with stress because they had a “sense of being part of a larger family.”
In a similar way, the more Yonsei and Gosei know about the difficulties and successes of the Issei, Nisei and Sansei, the more they will develop an intergenerational self and know they belong to something bigger than themselves. My Yonsei children grew up with a steady diet of Japanese American stories at the dinner table, usually after I had finished a Denshö oral history interview. Here they heard about a little Issei woman standing up to a burly Army soldier who asked her, “Are you a human being?” They also heard the plea of a Nisei draft resister to let his family out of an American concentration camp before he would fight for his country.
These dinnertime stories were the building blocks that connected my children to the core of the Japanese American community. My son became interested in American history, did oral histories with San Francisco Nisei and now wants to become a high school social studies teacher. My daughter studied filmmaking, wrote and directed documentary films promoting social justice, and is currently working on projects about the injustices against the African American and American Muslim communities, her stories grounded by understanding the racism Japanese Americans faced.
The stories from our Japanese American ancestors inspire gaman (to endure hardship in silence) inside and bind us together. A legacy of the Sansei will be to preserve and share these vivid photographs, personal stories, and intense feelings from the Issei and Nisei. It is from these rich materials that current and future generations will discover, learn, and grow — and also find how to fight for the liberties and dignity of our community and others. This is a legacy worth having.
Tom Ikeda is a former Microsoft general manager and the founding executive director of Denshö, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes social justice through the preservation and sharing of the World War II Japanese American experience through its nationally acclaimed website at www.Denshö.org.