Stephen Sumida, Ph.D.
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: With the publication of the following essay by recently retired University of Washington professor Dr. Stephen Sumida, we conclude this “Legacy of the Sansei” series. The series, which ran for two years, was conceived of by Herald contributing writer Gail Honda, who also served as its coordinator. The 2016 essays spotlighted the views of Hawai‘i Sansei. This year, with assistance from Denshö researcher and writer Brian Niiya, we reached out to Sansei living on the continental U.S., all of whom offered interesting perspectives on the Sansei legacy. Although we are wrapping up the series, rest assured that should we come across other interesting points of view on the subject, we will make every effort to share them with you.

Thank you again to Gail Honda for all her hard work on this project.

For the most part, we Sansei are the generation who were not there. We were not there when the Issei decided to leave Japan. We were not there sweating with them on the plantations of Hawai‘i and working the truck farms, canneries, forests and lumber mills and the railroads of the American West. We were not there when Nisei of the West Coast grew up with some believing that one day one of them could be president of the United States, only to be crushed by mass incarceration by “reason” of their race. We were not there when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. We were not there in battle during World War II. We were not there in the martial law blackout of Hawai‘i. We were not there in the World War II camps where Nikkei were held.

As a result, we Sansei inherited a responsibility to listen, learn and pass on this history of our forebears. It is, after all, our history. In turn, this process, this way of perpetuating history, is our legacy to the next generations. Even if some Sansei do remember from actual experience in a distant, almost mythical past, the stink of toes and rotting feet when Issei and Nisei pulled off their boots at pau hana (end of work day) time, we are too young to say that Japanese American history before and during the war is a matter of “personal experience” to us.

It may seem as if I’m saying the obvious: We were not born yet. But we have, in fact, been blamed for not being born yet, for not being there. At the 1982 national convention of the Japanese American Citizens League, JACL leader Mike Masaoka ranted, “All the historians in their Ivory Tower who were never there, and people who wanted to write scenarios for books and scripts for plays — they weren’t there . . . !”

We Sansei are among those historians and writers, community as well as academic people who have been studying not just our own individual, personal histories and experiences, but the experiences of many, adding up, we hope, to a history of our people that itself will be revised by future generations because it is a living, changing history. By the time Masaoka criticized us in that speech, I could take his blaming personally. And I was not alone, because I am a Sansei, an entire generation whose own experience is about learning from the experiences of others, at the very least, in order to understand our own.

Issei and Nisei pass their experiences on to us Sansei through their stories. Collectively in their stories we find differences, contradictions, controversies, conflicts, as well as congruence and, sometimes, harmony. The differences within and among the stories of individuals bring the stories to life. I admit that even in the late 1970s when a group of us called ourselves “Talk Story, Inc.” and put on a conference highlighting Hawai‘i’s own literature in 1978, I had only a good-fun idea of what “Talk Story” could go on to mean in our studies and our writings about history, culture, literature and the arts. I had yet to learn that if it weren’t for stories that by their very form are concerned with continual change (what we call their “plots”), we might be stuck in believing that being “Japanese American” is measured by unchanging standards of “Japanese values” such as shikata ga nai (acceptance with resignation).

I thought “shikata ga nai” was a Japanese value we Nikkei have preserved. But a Japanese graduate student asked me why it is that we Nikkei put so much emphasis on “shikata ga nai.” Well, I thought, if you think you’re powerless, a minority in your country, then you might excuse yourself from being responsible for your life by saying and believing that “it can’t be helped.” The student responded that earthquakes, tsunami, occurrences of natural phenomena cannot be helped. But human responses to natural and social phenomena can be helped because humans make them happen in the first place. “Shikata ga aru!” she said. We were talking about Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and the atomic bomb. To the student, it was abhorrent that anyone would say “shikata ga nai” to that complex of human decisions and actions resulting in the bomb — and in the treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II. In that instant she changed my previously fixed and unchanging idea of something in “Japanese culture.”

We Sansei were not there when Hawai‘i was a sovereign nation and culture. But through stories, we can and should bear witness to that time and its life in the present.

Japan’s attack on Dec. 7, 1941, had everything to do with the colonization of Hawai‘i and military use of Pearl Harbor by the United States. Imagine, if the American warships weren’t parked in Pearl Harbor, would Japan have targeted it? Consider, too, how the name “Pearl Harbor” has all but obliterated “Pu‘uloa” and, for sure, has erased from history the name Kuki‘iahu, a war fought between the chiefs of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i in 1794 on the shores of that harbor and in the taro lands of Kalauao and the ‘Ewa slope of ‘Aiea a few months before Kamehameha invaded the island. These stories show how colonization has eclipsed what once was sovereign and is preserving what most of us Sansei grew up believing we know about this land we call home.

The legacy of the Sansei is also what we ourselves have lived. We were there growing up during the Cold War and the heights of America’s anti-communism. We were there in the fights over civil rights. We were there when a presidential candidate’s being a Catholic was controversial. We were there witnessing the assassinations.

When I was a senior at Mid-Pacific Institute, one evening, we were taken to a talk by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Central Union Church. High up in the back of the church, I strained forward to see the man speaking. By then, Dr. King was developing his stand against our involvement in what the Vietnamese call the “American War.” Years afterward, I can’t find any report of that visit by Dr. King. Maybe I dreamt it. But I’ve looked forward to telling Barack Obama that when he was a wee 1 or 2 years old and maybe living in that apartment of his grandparents across Beretania, Dr. King was speaking one night. I was there. Even if we just sat and listened, our generation, like our forebears, had participated in the making of history.

Stories are like that. They enact change, something that the powerless cannot do. A legacy of the Sansei is to pass on this idea of our making history. It is both an idea and a practice in which experience, memory, story, history, and the power to participate in continual change create and perpetuate (as contrary to preserve) a living culture.

Stephen H. Sumida is professor emeritus of American Ethnic Studies and adjunct professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington. Among his published works is the book, “And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai‘i.” Sumida grew up on his family’s watercress farm in ‘Aiea. He and Gail Nomura have been raising their family of Yonsei and Gosei in Seattle since 1999. Sumida also played the voice of Hawai‘i Nisei Kazuo Yamane in the recently premiered film, “Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawai‘i.”


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