Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When I was a kid, I used to tell people who asked me what generation I was that I was “Ni-hansei,” or second-and-a-half. That’s because although my father was a Nisei who was born in Hawai‘i (a kibei, technically, because his family moved to Japan in 1940 and he was stuck there during the war . . . but that’s another essay), I was born in Japan.
My dad was in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and met my Issei mom in Hokkaidö when he was stationed there. My two brothers and I were all born in Tökyö — I’m a prime baby boomer, born in 1957. Our family moved to the states when I was 8 years old and my dad got a civilian job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C.
I was plopped down right in the middle of a white bread suburban childhood in northern Virginia. If you’re familiar with the TV sitcom, “Wonder Years,” that kid was me — a geeky, gawky kid with crushes on girls, but no social skills to act on them.
But I was different from most American suburban kids — white kids — because I’m Japanese American. And yet, I’m different from most Japanese Americans I know because my early years were spent in Japan.
The Japan I remember was still the country that manufactured cheap stuff: If something said “Made in Japan,” it meant it was not very expensive or very well made. We moved stateside before Japanese manufacturing became known for its high-tech, cutting edge quality. We came to the U.S. just before Japanese cameras and audio equipment became the world standard. Before Japanese cars took over American roads in the late 1970s (thanks to better gas mileage, mostly). Before anime, J-pop and other Japanese pop culture became hip with American youth. And long before sushi became available in every supermarket across America — even though it’s mostly pretty crappy sushi.
I arrived in Virginia in 1966 as a third grader, during the early days of the anti-war movement and in the middle years of the African American civil rights movement. On TV, I watched the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, coverage of Woodstock and the moon landing. I wanted to be a hippie, but had to argue with my mom for her to buy me my first pair of jeans. I became an all-American kid.
But as a younger Sansei born in Japan, I was different from other JAs in one crucial aspect: I had no one in my family who had been affected by the World War II incarceration experience. My dad had spent the war years as an outcast stuck in Japan; my mom’s hometown in northern Japan was firebombed by Americans a couple of months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated. But no one related to me was sent off to American concentration camps.
That gives me a different perspective on the legacy of the Sansei. Whatever I know of our community I have learned from reading every book I could find and watching every documentary and the two or three movies produced about JAs. I’ve written a lot about the JA experience. I’m serving my second term as editorial board chair of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Citizen newspaper. I blog about identity, culture and politics at nikkeiview.com. I’ve even written a book, “Being Japanese American.”
One topic I return to a lot as a Japanese American with direct Japanese roots is the importance of maintaining, nurturing and growing those Japanese roots.
I know that because of intergenerational transmission of trauma, there was, sadly, a rise in suicides by Sansei in the early 1970s. I know JA families who minimized their Japanese-ness to the point where, after World War II, they stopped speaking Japanese and even kept their shoes on in the house. The Nisei generation’s shame for having been incarcerated was tragically palpable and many families never spoke of it. But the Sansei persevered and spearheaded the movement to gain redress and an apology from the U.S. government.
From a high-level perspective, that is the Sansei legacy: the overturning of the Supreme Court decisions defending the camps, and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
For myself as an individual, I worry that families are still disconnected from their heritage. I’m saddened every time I hear JAs say they don’t care if they travel to Japan. Every time I go there, I find another amazing piece of myself in the places I visit and the people I get to know. Japan’s not perfect by any means, but it’s such an important part of who I am that I urge all Sansei . . . and Yonsei, and all other JAs, to take a visit and find themselves, too.
I know these attitudes vary in different areas, like Hawai‘i or California, where the JA community is vibrant and alive. But sometimes it feels faded in places like the Midwest and in Denver, where I’ve lived since the 1970s. Here, being Japanese American can feel a bit lonely.
I’d love it if the Sansei (and Ni-hansei, like me!) revive our connection to Japan and embrace the culture and history of the country from which our families came. I would be proud if that were our legacy.
Gil Asakawa is a journalist, author, blogger and social media expert who covers Japanese American and Asian American issues and culture. He is a nationally recognized speaker, panelist and expert on Asian American and Japanese American issues. He also authored “Being Japanese American,” which was published by Stone Bridge Press (revised edition 2015). Asakawa is a columnist on the Discover Nikkei website and for Nikkei Voice newspaper in Canada.