Gosei Kacie Yamamoto with her sansei grandmother, Doreen Yamamoto. (Photo courtesy Kacie Yamamoto)
Gosei Kacie Yamamoto with her sansei grandmother, Doreen Yamamoto. (Photo courtesy Kacie Yamamoto)

Karleen C. Chinen

Happy New Year! I hope your 2020 is off to a good start.

When I looked ahead to 2020 early last year, the only major event that registered was this summer’s Tökyö Olympics. That didn’t last very long, however, as I soon realized that 2020 also marks the start of a new decade and a long list of milestone anniversaries.

For starters, this year marks 135 years since the first group of 944 kanyaku imin, or Japanese contract immigrants, arrived in Hawai‘i in February 1885. It was the start of mass immigration from Japan that continued until 1924 and led to the development of Hawai‘i’s Japanese community.

Fifteen years later, in January 1900, the first 26 immigrants from Okinawa came ashore in Hawai‘i, so 2020 also marks 120 years of Okinawan heritage in our Islands. The Okinawan community’s growth and level of activity led to the building of the Hawaii Okinawa Center, which this year celebrates 30 years since it opened its doors in 1990, on the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawai‘i.

The Hawaii Okinawa Center was built as a tribute to the Uchinanchu Issei, and the leaders of the then-United Okinawan Association of Hawaii wanted as many of the surviving Issei to attend the opening and know that it was built, okagesama de — with utmost gratitude — for the hardships they had endured as pioneers in what became their adopted homeland.

This year also mark 75 years since the end World War II, which claimed so many young lives in Europe and the Asia-Pacific warfronts, including men whose lives began here in Hawai‘i. We cannot ever forget those who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today. During the year, we will also pause to remember the innocent lives lost in the Battle of Okinawa and in the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II.

All of these dates are markers in our Japanese American history. They connect us to our history and our identity.

As a Sansei, I’ve always felt connected to my Japanese American and Okinawan history and heritage. With the exception of my mom’s Issei mother, my siblings and I knew our grandparents — they weren’t just photographs in a family album. My Nisei father served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and was in that first group of AJA soldiers who shipped out of Hawai‘i just seven months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, not knowing what the future held for him. I wasn’t around for all of that, but I did have the chance to talk with my parents about some aspects of their lives. Those experiences helped me to understand my place in our AJA history.

Now consider the life of the Herald’s summer intern, Kacie Yamamoto, a Gosei — a fifth generation AJA — who graduated from Moanalua High School just seven months ago. When staff writer Jodie Ching suggested taking Kacie and contributing writer Jackie Kojima on their collective first visit to the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i’s “Okage Sama De” exhibit, it sounded like a great idea. I asked Kacie if she was open to writing about her visit — she liked the idea. She returned a few hours later, impressed with all that she had learned.

I then suggested that she interview her Sansei grandmother, who had lived through some of the history that she had learned about in the exhibit. When Kacie turned in her story just before heading off to L.A. to start her freshman year at USC, I was impressed with not only her writing, but her insight, as well. She got me thinking.

How many times had I quietly criticized the Yonsei and Gosei generations for being “clueless” about their heritage as Japanese Americans? Years ago, I remember my shock at hearing a yonsei-age student ask out loud: “Who is Jack Burns?” How could she not know who Jack Burns was!

Kacie’s story was a wake-up call for me, just as it should be to other Sansei who think the only thing Millenials and Gen Z-ers care about are their Smartphones, K-pop, social media and video games.

We in the “OK boomer” generation need to help them — and challenge them — to find their place in the history of their people through their own family stories, just as Kacie found her place by talking with her grandmother after seeing the exhibit.

It’s easy for us to roll our eyes and write off young people of Kacie’s generation, just as it’s easy for teachers to check off “curriculum covered” in a lesson plan. A really good teacher will help his or her students connect to their history and culture and find the “personal” in it. Really good teachers will make that history and culture come alive and mean something to their students so that it will be relevant to them long after they leave the classroom. And, we all have a role to play in clearing pathways and opening doors for young people to enhance their knowledge not only through books, but also through hands-on participation. The goal of my generation and every teacher should be to inspire students to dig deeper and to learn more about their connection to their own history and culture by talking with family members who lived it and participating in activities that foster their understanding.

Two generations from now, will anyone care that Japanese immigrants began arriving en masse in 1885, and Okinawans in 1900, and that they labored hard, determined to improve the lives of those who would follow them? Will it matter that the Nisei soldiers from Hawai‘i fought not only for their dignity and rights as American citizens, but also to protect their Issei parents, the Japanese community and future generations, as well . . . and then came back and changed Hawai‘i so we could walk tall with our heads held high?

I hope it matters, for it is in learning that history and their connection to it that young people like Kacie will find their grounding and grow new branches in a big and beautiful tree.

Thank you, Kacie, for being our teacher.


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