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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 Shin Nisei are getting involved in organizations for millennials like Kizuna as opposed to Yonsei/Gosei.

Oda: San Fernando Valley Japanese Community Center needs to (become) a multicultural center. It’s no longer Suzume no Gakko (“Sparrow’s School,” a reference to early parent participation schools teaching Japanese culture). Our new SFVJCC members have less time. We have to give them what they come for — culture.

Toyota: About 60 percent of the Shin Issei came to the U.S. between 1975 and 1990. The majority came here as single women, are now married and raising families. We’re all dinosaurs. We’re not the future of the community, which has become multicultural and multiracial. Shin Nisei, another generation, (are an example of) transnational fluidity because they have Shin Issei moms that are married to Americans.

So, what The Rafu really needs to think about, as a source of knowledge for our community for over 100 years, is taking a leadership role, identifying the issues that bring the new generations into the larger Nikkei identity, and reporting on those issues.

More Japanese migrated post-World War II than came here before the war. That (new immigrant) community is still growing and is dealing with the issue of citizenship. We also have a significant illegal population. I was at an event in the South Bay where there were questions like “I’m undocumented. Are there ways to become a citizen? If I leave, will I ever get back in? Or do I float around and still use my fake driver’s license, Social Security number, and still live in the shadows?”

To talk about these issues publicly gives people a sense of belonging to a larger community…but belonging in terms of issues and identity construction. A lot of Shin Nisei are in high school, some are moving on to college now.

Takehana: Before the war, certainly there was discrimination. When I came to the U.S. in 1964, four years after the Civil Rights Act was implemented, I felt a little discrimination. That time was also the beginning of the boom of the Japanese economy. We felt very proud. After the bubble burst, everyone retreated. No high-rise buildings are owned by Japanese now. Times are changing. In 1900, Japanese were the No. 1 Asian immigrant population. Now Japanese are No. 5 behind Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans.

There is a new type of discrimination. Issues such as the comfort women statue are creating a different atmosphere. I feel that now Japanese are being targeted. I am told that Japanese kids are being bullied by other Asian kids at school.

QUESTION: How can we get the word out to someone who is Japanese or Japanese American but not connected (with our community)?

Kinkade-Wong: My concern is for the Shin Issei and Shin Nisei, who don’t realize there’s a newspaper like Rafu. There has to be an online presence. Rafu needs to spread out to other areas.

Toyota: Other than Lauren, everyone else here is not part of the younger generation, not on social media. I’m chair of one of the JA sororities on (the UCLA) campus. It’s not JA anymore. The Nikkei Student Union is not Nikkei anymore. They run the whole gamut. The challenge is figuring out where those groups are and what it is that they’re doing. There is very little in The Rafu that would bring these people in.

Kaifu: I often wonder about the demography of the Japanese section readers. They are interested in reading the stories about their own organizations. Japan Business Association members do not subscribe despite rising interest in learning about the Japanese American community. They don’t think about (Rafu). They are potentially interested but don’t know how to subscribe and don’t have strong motivation to subscribe. It is not very expensive.

Takehana: I subscribe to Rafu. News I receive is outdated. I am interested mostly in community news and obituaries. In Los Angeles Times, I feel the stories are more opinion than fact.

QUESTION: We couldn’t have predicted how productive and informative this roundtable has been. Do you have any suggestions for the next time we do this?

Nishio: Rafu plays a very important role in the community and must confront very important issues. But as a community institution, the newspaper has to be redefined. It’s worth another discussion, maybe around social media like Buzzfeed, other platforms, or adding videos. So easy to do videos these days. It is worthwhile to discuss coming up with a strategic plan.

Kinkade-Wong: Even videotaping a forum like this could be valuable. All of us are trying to ensure that our community remains strong for years to come. I would like to see more organizations take advantage of Facebook and Instagram, which are the cheapest means of promotion. With five dollars, you can reach thousands of people. Everyone needs to take advantage, especially if you want to reach more people. Now is the time to do it.

Nagashima: Now we (at Rafu) are on our way. For the first time, we are combining (Japanese and English) sections. Communication is the most important issue within Rafu Shimpo but also in Japanese community organizations. As Alan was saying, we have a lot of organizations, and it is one of our strongest points.

QUESTION: What have you learned from this discussion and do you have anything to add?

Oda: I feel I learned a lot. I am optimistic in general, that’s my personality. I have been to the Japan House introductory events. I am interested in Tritia’s (new) book. I don’t think there’s a doomsday. I think we’re going to survive.

Nishio: Not every Nikkei is going to want to be part of the community, and some who want to be part of the community don’t have an ounce of Japanese blood. (Our community) is not defined by blood lineage.

Nagashima: A question we have asked ourselves at Rafu is what will happen 10 years from now? Will there be a Japantown here? How many buildings will be owned by Japanese or Japanese Americans?

Nishio: There are a lot of positive things I see emerging. I’m very bullish on Little Tokyo. As long as we can attract talented individuals like the Leslie Itos (JACCC CEO) and Dean Matsubayashis (Little Tokyo Service Center executive director) of the world, we have a bright future.

Okamoto: I would like to speak on how to attract Japanese people. Many have been here for more than 10 years. Expats (expatriates) are here for a limited time, but they are interested in what’s going on in Little Tokyo and interested in seeing The Rafu, too. They’re not used to engaging in conversation or rebuttal, that’s not their culture. Somehow, we have to invite them in. That’s why I have been trying to invite them to Nisei Week, JBA, and (teach them) about JA history. And once they come in, let’s not bite them.

Toyota: Is The Rafu only about Little Tokyo? I don’t think so. The two major issues undergirding these comments are geography and consanguinity. In terms of Shin Issei, where are they? South Bay? I have not seen Rafu articles on where the fastest growing communities are — Lomita, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes, and Torrance. When I talk to Shin Issei, they don’t come here (Little Tokyo). This is not their community.

The redefinition of Nikkei encompasses a larger cultural ideal and not geography. When I talk to my students, they say, “I’ve heard of Little Tokyo. Where is it?” Many do go to the South Bay. What do community organizations look like there? Hiroko Higuchi of the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute is a Shin Issei who has done some incredible work researching that community. Gardena has lost 15 percent of its JA population.

Takehana: In the early 1990s when the Japanese economy busted, a lot of Japanese companies retreated and went back to Japan. That affected the entire community. I witnessed Little Tokyo declining. I didn’t see many people walking around. I wondered, “How are we going to sustain this community?” We felt as long as we can maintain our traditions and culture, we will be okay. Today I see more people walking, even walking their dogs.

As you know, the Olympics will be held in Japan in 2020. The number of tourists to Japan is expected to exceed 40 million. That is good because once people experience Japan, they may want to experience the culture here in Little Tokyo. I feel the future of Little Tokyo is bright.

Kinkade-Wong: I am really honored to be asked to be part of this (roundtable). It’s my community, and I want to make sure it thrives.

Kaifu: A lot has changed since I came here 17 years ago. When the Japanese American Leadership Delegation was created, it was for young Sansei. They told me at the time that they didn’t want to go to Japan because their parents told them they didn’t need to learn the Japanese language. Their perspective has changed. I am executive vice president of JBA, and I’ve been heavily involved in the promotion of relationship-building. They want to learn about the community and are donating to projects like the Budokan.

The community cannot be defined solely by geography. Rafu is one of very few Japanese newspapers. It can be an important source of information and education. We can’t afford to lose it.

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