Steven Okazaki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Growing up Sansei wasn’t easy. One summer in 1962, when I was 10, I accompanied my Uncle Yuke and cousin Gary to the neighborhood Japanese American barbershop. I watched with amusement as the barber, Mr. Baba, sheared off my cousin’s hair down to a half-inch, except for an inch in front. Then he whisked off the loose hair, pulled off the cape, looked at me and said, “What about him?”

I thought he was joking. Then Uncle Yuke said, “Sure, give him one, too!” I thought, “No way!” as Mr. Baba gestured towards the chrome and maroon-cushioned chair. But my uncle said, “Go on!” and I did what I was told. Within minutes, my Dennis the Menace-cut was sheared down to a half-inch butch. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t.

When I got home, my sisters rubbed my head and teased me. “What happened?” asked my mother, who had given me all of my haircuts until that day. I whined, “Uncle Yuke made me do it,” trying to convey the great injustice that had been done. I wanted her to get mad and say, “Well, he had no right to do that!” But she just laughed.

As a kid, Japanese men seemed immovably bossy and stoic. My father rarely talked — he mostly grunted. If I did a sloppy job mowing the lawn, he grunted negatively. If I did a good job washing the family Chevrolet, he grunted positively. At Nihon-go gakko, the Japanese language teacher bonked me on the head if I gave a wrong answer. At judo practice, the instructor yelled, “Da-me, do it again!” There was no verbal encouragement. If you did really well, you got a ribbon or a trophy or a bottle of soda pop, but no one said, “I’m proud of you.”

The Nisei faced hardship upon hardship during the war and even after. In the 1950s, up to seventy-five percent of Nisei men were self-employed, which means no one would hire them, so they had to create their own jobs and businesses. And they did. They started their own restaurants, dry cleaners, sporting goods stores, markets, florist shops, pharmacies, photography studios, medical and dental offices, and, yes, barber shops.

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