101 Ways to Define a Community

Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida with their daughter Maiya Kuida Osumi at the Little Tokyo Sparkle clean-up event in November. (Photo by MIKE MURASE)

Published Dec. 29, 2016

Editor’s note: The year 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the influential “101 Ways to Tell You’re Japanese American,” originally published in The Rafu Shimpo in March 1996. The list, in ways both serious and funny, was a revelation at its time, helping to spur conversation on what it meant to be Japanese American in 1996.

We recently caught up with authors Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi to discuss the impact of their article and how the Japanese American community has evolved. Kuida worked in the Child Development program at Little Tokyo Service Center for the past 11 years and is now working part-time as a grant-writer for Koreatown Youth and Community Center. Osumi is a third-grade teacher at 68th Street Elementary School and is director of Camp Musubi. They live in Culver City with their daughter Maiya.

The original list appears after this article. A new list, “101 Ways JAs Can Be Greener,” can be found in the Columnists section of the Rafu website.

Rafu: How did you come up with the idea for “101 Ways” and what was the most surprising reaction?

Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi: At the time there were similar 101 Ways lists put out by Chinese American, Filipino and Asian Americans on the Internet, so we thought we’d give it a shot for JAs. We were surprised at how excited people were about the list. It traveled throughout the JA community like wildfire and took on a life of its own, inspiring regional lists in San Jose, San Francisco, Utah and Hawaii. The Rafu published two follow-up stories where readers added their own ideas. The list grew to over 180. It was exciting hearing how families were connected with the list and each other as they shared stories and laughter.

Rafu: What do you think the listing tells us about what it means to be Japanese American? Do you think the listing revealed certain hidden traits and characteristics?

JK and TO: We think that Japanese Americans had these things they thought were particular to their own family, but then to see the list all pulled together and realized they weren’t the only ones that mixed shoyu and mayonnaise or had a pet named Chibi or Shiro. Maybe it gave readers a sense of belonging and being in the “in” group. Those are powerful feelings when you grow up a minority in the U.S. excluded from mainstream culture and power. Then here comes a list where your life is front and center.

Rafu: What changes have you seen in the JA community since the first list?

JK and TO: The biggest and most obvious change to the JA community is definitely the passing of the older generations. When the original list was written, a few Issei were still living and the Nisei were very active. Now many Sansei are grandparents and enjoying retirement.

Today’s Nikkei don’t really identify themselves through their generations the way the Nisei and Sansei once did. It used to be that when you knew someone who was Nisei, you could assume certain life experiences — that they had been in camp, where they lived, and the kind of work they did. Now, we don’t use the terms Gosei and Rokusei when describing the generations.

Since the November election, we’re sure to see more changes. Some of the hatred, racism and divisiveness we see is not a new phenomenon. The Issei and Nisei faced tough times. In the original 101 Ways introduction from 1996 we wrote:

Although written in good fun, understanding what it means to be JA helps define who we are as a community and the issues we face. More importantly, as we further study Japanese/Asian American history, we might begin to see current issues like immigrant-bashing, attacks on civil rights/affirmative action and the growing concentration of wealth and resources upward to a select few, in new ways.

The introduction often gets left out when reprinted, but it was a call to action. Today more than ever, we hope JAs will not only reflect on what makes us JAs, but will use our collective experiences — as minorities with immigrant roots who’ve faced and fought labor exploitation and civil rights violations — to stand up for fairness and justice for all people, especially Muslim Americans.

Rafu: How has becoming parents changed your feelings about the importance of being active in the JA community?

JK and TO: We’re just as passionate about community activism. But it changes form with parenthood. Late-night community meetings get replaced with JA basketball games and team parent responsibilities. Helping plan community events gets replaced with attending those same events with kids in tow. You can’t do it all, but you got to do something so your kid grows up seeing society is changeable — that people working together is the driving force for making history. Winning redress as a unified community pushing forward taught us that.

Our parenting decisions involve giving Maiya a Japanese American cultural experience as well. In elementary school, she attended a Japanese language immersion program, learning Japanese, something neither of her parents can do. She also had the opportunity to take taiko, karate, and Nihon buyo Japanese dance since kindergarten.

We’re grateful to all the community organizations that work with youth. Programs like Nishi Center preschool, Saishin Dojo, LABCC (Los Angeles Buddhist Coordinating Council), and opportunities our 11-year-old daughter Maiya has had with Tuesday Night Project and Great Leap. We feel the same way about the Manzanar Pilgrimage and NCRR’s Day of Remembrance programs. We believe they’re building a strong sense of self and community. We’ve also worked to expand her humanity by supporting labor issues, immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter in age-appropriate ways.

Rafu: Are you working on any projects for 2017?

JK and TO: Jenni is on the board of the Venice Youth Council as a junior basketball commissioner. Tony is active with Nikkei Progressives, a new group in Little Tokyo focusing on social justice issues. Anyone interested is welcome to join them at their next meeting on Jan. 11 in Little Tokyo.

On Jan. 21, we plan to attend other families in the Los Angeles Women’s March to defend the civil rights, working families, and the environment against the new administration. We both plan to continue writing for The Rafu Shimpo and support fundraising efforts for the Budokan in Little Tokyo in 2017.


By Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida

1. You know that Camp doesn’t mean a cabin in the woods.

2. The men in your family were gardeners, farmers or produce workers.

3. The women in your family were seamstresses, domestic workers or farm laborers.

4. Your Issei grandparents had an arranged marriage.

5. One of your relatives was a “picture bride.”

6. You have Nisei relatives named Keiko, Aiko, Sumi or Mary.

7. You have Nisei relatives named Tak, Tad, George, Harry or Shig.

8. You’re Sansei and your name is Janice, Glen, Brian, Bill or Kenji.

9. You’re thinking of naming your Yonsei child, Brittany, Jenny, Lauren, Garrett or Brett with a Japanese middle name.

10. All of your cousins are having hapa kids.

11. You have relatives who live in Hawaii.

12. You belong to a Japanese credit union.

13. Your parents or grandparents bought their first house through a tanomoshi.

14. The bushes in your front yard are trimmed into balls.

15. You have a kaki tree in the backyard.

16. You have at least one bag of sembei in the house at all times.

17. You have a Japanese doll in a glass case in your living room.

18. You have a Neko cat in your house for good luck.

19. You have large Japanese platters in your china cabinet.

20. You have the family mon and Japanese needlepoint on the wall.

21. You own a multi-colored lime green polyester patchwork quilt.

22. Your grandma used to crochet all your blankets, potholders and dishtowels.

23. You check to see if you need to take off your shoes at your JA friends’ houses.

24. When you visit other JAs, you know that you