Defining a Community: Complex, Diverse, Evolving


Participants in the roundtable discussion: (front row, from left) Tritia Toyota, Yuko Kaifu and Nancy Oda; (standing, from left) Alan Nishio, Lauren Kinkade Wong, Haru Takehana and Mike Okamoto. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)


Eager to widen the lens through which Japanese and Japanese Americans are viewed, The Rafu Shimpo convened a roundtable discussion. The goal: Define what it means to be Japanese in America today.

Seven Nikkei leaders were invited in late November to take part in a unique group conversation intended to examine the complexities of a community that has become increasingly more diverse and, therefore, more challenging to define.

The Rafu Shimpo extends sincere appreciation to the following individuals who generously lent their time, experience, and insights to help make this project a reality:

Yuko Kaifu, Shin Issei, is the president of Japan House Los Angeles and former executive with Union Bank and the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). In collaboration with JANM Chief Executive Officer Irene Hirano Inouye, she established the Japanese American Leadership Delegation. She came to the United States 17 years ago as a member of the Japanese consulate staff.

Lauren Hanako Kinkade-Wong, Yonsei Hapa, has held executive positions in private business, is an entrepreneur, singer/songwriter, former Nisei Week queen, and mother of two. She grew up in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and is actively involved in the Southern California Japanese American community.

Alan Nishio, Sansei, president, Little Tokyo Service Center Board of Directors, has also held leadership positions with the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, California Japanese American Community Leadership Council, and California Conference for Equality and Justice. He hails from Gardena.

Nancy Kiyoko Oda, Sansei, grew up in Boyle Heights. She is president of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, past president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, and a retired school administrator.

Masao Mike Okamoto, Shin Issei, architect and community leader, came to the United States as a young man and went through numerous transformations, having attended high school in New York and college at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has served as Nisei Week Festival chair, Rotary Club of Little Tokyo president, Little Tokyo Community Council chair, and Asian American Architects & Engineers Association president. He was recently elected president of the Little Tokyo Business Association.

Haru Takehana, Shin Issei, born in Nagano, came to the U.S. to study international business and was hired by a Japanese steamship company, where he worked for 17 years. He subsequently went to work for another Japanese corporation. After retiring, he started his own real estate business while also becoming actively involved with several community organizations and pursuing his interest in calligraphy. He is currently president of the Pioneer Center and holds leadership position with numerous other community organizations.

Tritia Toyota, Sansei, anthropology professor, has extensively researched the Shin Issei community and is preparing her second book on subject. An award-winning television news anchor, she transitioned to academia after earning her Ph.D. degree and currently teaches full-time at UCLA.

Representing the newspaper were Gwen Muranaka, senior editor; Jun Nagata, Japanese Section associate editor; Yukikazu Nagashima, business development executive; Mario Reyes, photo editor; Mie Aso, staff writer; and Ellen Endo, interim chief operating officer.

QUESTION: Nisei and Sansei seem to mark time around World War II. What is the war’s legacy to the Sansei? To the Shin Issei? Why is the war a pivot point of Japanese American life?

Oda: I introduce myself as Tulean because I was born in Tule Lake. I once went to a meeting where (a former Japanese language school administrator) said, “You are stuck in the war. I want to know about what happened after the 1950s.” I feel I have an obligation to my parents to tell their stories because they are gone. My time is short, too. (Psychologist) Satsuki Ina says that it’s the trauma, that’s what we’re stuck on. I wonder what my life would have been like under a different set of circumstances. What I’m hoping (is that) The Rafu will be able to grasp what the new America is going to be…but not forget the past.

Nishio: Being a Sansei, the war is important because it’s the defining moment. If I see my peers, (we ask) “what camp was your family in?” We lived in the same communities, attended the same schools. It’s understandable to have the same focus. For Shin Nikkei, Yonsei, and Gosei, it’s less of a defining moment. We have to balance that as we move generationally. We cannot forget what happened (during the war), but we cannot allow that to define what/who we are. For our community, if we do not stand up, we will miss an opportunity to educate the nation about what (can) happen in a time of national stress.

Okamoto: Before I came to the U.S., I never studied Japanese American history, especially the wartime problems. It was shocking to learn. It’s also a civil rights issue, which (Japanese) don’t understand. Then I got to know Alan and others in the community. We have to keep educating (people from Japan). That’s what I have been emphasizing with the Japanese Business Association (JBA) through JANM and Nisei Week. Thanks to Yuko-san (Kaifu), the gap has been lessened. When “99 Years of Love” (a television drama Japanese Americans) was shown in Japan, it was the first time they came to understand.

Kaifu: I was heavily involved in “99 Years of Love.” It drew high ratings of 15-19.2 percent, which was huge. Viewers in Japan learned something about history but also about perseverance (and) shikata ga nai, all these values that Japanese Americans carried on. I got a lot of responses about that. The program was screened at the JACCC. Hundreds watched. They were shedding tears, (saying) “I don’t speak Japanese, but I finally understand why my Issei parents were whispering in Japanese and what they went through. That’s what makes me cry.”

Okamoto: People don’t understand why a Nisei flying into Japan and seeing Mount Fuji starts to cry.

Kaifu: Even though “99 Years of Love” had some issues, there was a lot of interest. Personally, I feel that the Japanese section of Rafu Shimpo could teach more about (Japanese American) history.

Takehana: One of the reasons I devoted my time to the Japanese community is that I can learn about the history of Japanese and Japanese Americans during the war. I feel that (I can continue to learn). As long as I keep healthy, I can devote my time. Going back to the late 1880s, 20 years after the Meiji revolution, Japanese started coming to the U.S. Not too many at the beginning (but) by 1910, the Japanese population grew to 10,000, working on the farmlands and in rich hakujin (white people’s) houses. Around that time, the discrimination started…not just after Pearl Harbor but from the early 1900s.

QUESTION: Do Sansei or Yonsei have anything in common with Shin Issei? If so, how are they are alike?

Kinkade-Wong: Unfortunately, and fortunately, the Yonsei community is very diverse. A lot have lost their connection to their Japanese side. I can’t say we carry the same characteristics. I’m more Japanese than my mother. That’s what my mom says. She said she was told not to speak Japanese. For me, I’ve always loved history. I am the only Hapa hakujin among the grandchildren. Everyone else is full Asian, (yet) I am the only one who is part of the Japanese American community. None of (the other grandchildren) retained the Japanese connection. So, it varies from family to family. I feel honored that I have the connection with my grandmother that I can carry forward to my children.

Oda: I went to Maryknoll (Japanese Catholic school). I am married 53 years and have grandchildren. They are all Hapa. It’s a struggle to keep the (Japanese) traditions. I try to do New Year’s just the way my father did. How do I feel about Japan? Every time I go, I cry.

Nishio: The strength of our community is our organizations (that) link generation to generation. Per capita, we have more organizations in the Nikkei community than any other community I can think of. And it’s a strength. By far, our associations keep us united. When I was growing up, it was not something to be proud of, to be Japanese American or to be related to Japan. When we played war, I would play the “Jap.” We didn’t speak Japanese at home. I wanted to emphasize the American side. (Now) I see us coming full circle. I see Yonsei, Gosei being proud of being Japanese. I have a grandchild who is one-quarter Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino, and she’s studying Japanese.

Japanese and Japanese Americans are beginning to embrace the commonality. I think the Rafu reorganization is a positive step. It’s about time. The Keiro situation shows why we need to have a common view between Shin Issei and the JAs. Decisions (are) being made by Sansei without even considering the needs of the JA community.

Takehana: There was a period when (our kids) hesitated to learn Japanese. My (Shin Nisei) kids studied Japanese up to high school level. They hated it at the time, but now they appreciate it.

Okamoto: My daughter is Shin Nisei. Every time she made a public speech, she felt conflicted because she was not directly impacted by the JA wartime (experience). However, when she had a baby, she donated a tile to the Japanese American National Museum (in her child’s name).

Toyota: Sawtelle Gakuen is on a capital campaign because they’ve run out of space due to the Shin Issei and the demand for Japanese language classes. There are so many challenges associated with the Shin Nisei, a generation that is multicultural and multiracial (and have) transnational fluidity because they have Shin Issei moms who are married to Americans. So, The Rafu needs to take a leadership role, identify the issues facing this new (Shin Nisei) generation, and report on those issues.

Kinkade-Wong: A very good point. I am married to a Chinese American, but I met him through the JA community. We go to all the Obon and Nisei Week events and dress up in yukata. My children will be attached to the JA side, (but) we also make sure they learn about the Chinese American side. I’ve actually had a lot of discrimination in my life. I’m a half-JA, half-white girl who looks Latina. (In Texas) my mom got thrown out of a video store. I’ve experienced it from the JA community (“You don’t deserve to be here”) because I didn’t look the part, but my heart is stronger than many full Japanese.

Kaifu: To Lauren’s point, it depends on the parents. If you are Japanese American who is married to a Chinese American, your husband’s culture might be dominant as your children grow up. Inter-ethnic marriage rate is very high among JAs. Whereas many Shin Issei and Shin Nisei (have) an affinity for Japan as well as for their Japanese identity, more Sh