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.
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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.”