SANSEI: On Being Japanese American in a Time of Crisis

This guest post is adapted from a speech delivered by Stanley N. Shikuma at the 2019 Day of Remembrance Taiko Fundraiser organized by the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee and co-sponsored by Seattle University.

Back in April 2017, I was asked to speak on what my Japanese American identity means to me, and how that informs my values of social justice, particularly in relation to my being “third generation” (Sansei). This was shortly after the second attempt at a Muslim Ban was blocked by the courts but before the third attempt succeeded and prior to the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the Justice Department that precipitated the crisis of family separation, mass imprisonment of children, and denial of lawful asylum claims at the southern border. Sadly, my updated response seems even more relevant given these events.

Some would say I am 100% Japanese by birth — by ancestry and heritage, by physical appearance, by genetics.

Some would say I am 100% American by birth — by where I was born, by language and culture, by law.

Japanese American is how I was born and raised; it is who I am. It is my family and my community.

I have always been proud of my heritage and comfortable in my own skin. I believe this comfort with my own identity has made it easier to appreciate and admire other cultures, countries, ethnicities, religions, sexual identities, and ways of life. It’s engendered a greater tolerance of diversity in my life
— or maybe something more than mere tolerance.

Maybe that comfort leads to a greater curiosity about — and a deeper appreciation of the great multitude of differences between peoples and communities — that reflect back and accentuate the even greater similarities.

As a Sansei, I grew up having only a vague idea about the WWII concentration camps. My Nisei parents, like most Nisei, did not talk about the camps openly, yet it was clearly a touchstone that demarcated our lives. “Before the War” and “After the War” were two different realities, different worlds that I could sense even through the studied attempts by my parents to hide it from the kids — no doubt to spare us the pain, or perhaps the shame.

Shikataganai it can’t be helped.
Gaman persevere and carry on.

When I learned what really happened from talking with my nesan (older sister) who was drawn into the Asian American Movement at UCLA, and when I read the copies of Gidra and other movement literature she sent me, and then sought out articles and books about the camps that began to appear during the 1960’s, I was appalled and angry. Looking at my Issei grandparents and Nisei parents, aunts, uncles, and friends, I was so grateful to them for working so hard to rebuild our lives, yet so outraged by what our government had put them through. I guess you could say this stoked a sense of justice — and injustice — in my life.

My Nisei parents raised me to respect everyone because every human being deserves respect — the kind of respect the government and too many of our fellow citizens failed to extend to them. They knew what it felt like to be disrespected, distrusted, and pre-judged, so maybe that is why they taught me to look at and respect everyone’s humanity rather than their titles, power, or wealth.

My Nisei parents raised me to judge people on their actions (what they did) rather than their words (what they said). Because our government said a lot about the noble words enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
— but failed to live up to them during WWII, when the President, the Congress, and even the Supreme Court surrendered our civil rights in deference to racist arguments of “military necessity.” So, I learned to lead by example; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you; to never ask others to do anything I was not willing to do myself.

My Nisei parents raised me to look out for others less fortunate, to pay things forward, and to appreciate that what goes around, comes around. My father told me that many Japanese American farmers lost their land and their belongings during WWII — but not our family, thanks to Tony Tomasello.

Tony Tomasello was an Italian immigrant, similar in many ways to my grandfather. Both immigrated to America as teenagers, got into farming and started families. Both were hard working. Both believed in the dream of opportunity and equality in America. And both spoke almost no English.

Mr. Tomosello was an apple grower, and my grandfather worked for him planting some of his orchards before starting a farm of his own. When the war came and the Shikuma family was taken away to camp, Tony Tomosello offered to take care of the family farm until we got back. He knew that if the government had treated Italian immigrants the way they were treating Japanese immigrants, he and his family would have been locked up too. He didn’t think that was fair, so he did what he thought was right by helping Japanese American families that he knew. And thanks to him — a man of his word, a man of honor, a true American — our family farm survived the war.

Now we find ourselves engulfed in a new era of fear and prejudice. Racism, war-like hysteria, and a failure of political leadership threaten to once again lead us away from our democratic principles. With new declarations of a national emergency at our borders, many immigrant groups and Muslims in general are being targeted as disloyal, untrustworthy, criminal. Calls are being made to deny them asylum rights, repudiate their immigration papers, deny their citizenship rights, treat them differently, and even lock them up and deport them, based solely on religion, national origin, or immigration status.

As Japanese Americans, our families have lived through this before.

Our communities have been targeted like this before.

We know how this story could end.

And we say, “Never Again!”

So now, it is our turn to step up and help however we can. To be the voice of reason.

To bear witness to past wrongs.

To ensure that Democracy endures, that Civil Rights are respected, and that Justice prevails.

In this day and age, that is what it means to be Japanese American.

That is what it means to be truly American.

Never Again Is NOW!

Stanley N Shikuma is a writer, taiko (Japanese drum) artist, and community activist who has attended every Tule Lake Pilgrimage since 1979 and currently serves on the Tule Lake Committee Board. He is the editor of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee monthly newsletter, and is active in the Japanese American Citizens League, where he serves on the board of the Seattle Chapter and represents the Pacific Northwest District Council on the National Education Committee. Stan performs with Seattle Kokon Taiko, directs Kaze Daiko (a taiko youth group), and helps organize the North American Taiko Conference. He is a Unit Rep in his union, the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) and is also active in the Seattle chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). He helped start From Hiroshima to Hope, the oldest and largest annual program in the United States to commemorate of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he continues to speak on peace and nuclear disarmament. He recently joined a community-centric tech coalition headed by the ACLU that seeks to hold big tech corporations (like Amazon and Microsoft) accountable for civil rights threats posed by new surveillance technologies.

[Blog header: A mural Erin Shigaki (Purple Gate Design) installed in Seattle’s historic Nihonmachi in honor or the 2019 Day of Remembrance.]


3 Comments
    • 20/02/2019 at 1:34

    Thank you, Mr. Shikuma, for this piece. I’m Sansei too. I was born in 1966 and grew up hearing my mom talk about “camp” for years before realizing she wasn’t talking about some kind of summer camp. She was at Poston, AZ and her dad, a physician helped set up the camp hospital. I was brought up to notice and appreciate every Asian American who accomplished something. Tricia Toyota, a LA new anchor, Connie Chung, or any Asian face that was featured in the media – they were pointed out and appreciated by my mom who told me of being jeered at and spit on once or twice as a high schooler when she returned to LA. She also became progressive in her beliefs and would try to reason with friends who were anti-immigration. Not many of the Nisei generation are left, but they experienced and accomplished so much we have to be grateful for.

    • 23/02/2019 at 13:33

    Hi, my name is Alice Yoshiko (Shimizu) Maxon. I am sansei and live in Guadalupe, California,
    I’m interested in this site. Hope to hear from you. Thank you.

    • 25/02/2019 at 14:16

    I was born in Nagoya, Japan in 1951 & raised on Columbus, Ohio. My mother was born in LA & was 16 when she was sent to Heart Mountain & then Tule Lake. Her family repatriated to Japan after the war. She met my American father while being a bilingual secretary for US Occupational Forces, where my father was a US MP. So, my life was very different from my cousins who grew up in the LA area. My mother has only told me a few things about her time in camp & living in post-WWII Japan. She said they didn’t starve because her family grew rice, which was being black-marketed. She is 94 & I asked her to talk to Densho since only a few thousand Japanese repatriated to Japan, but she just won’t do it.

    Since I grew up in Ohio, I experienced racial discrimination & was isolated from any Japanese community. I’m just now researching & discovering about my mother’s & the 120,000 Japanese’s experience in camps. Last year I went to the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. In October I gave a TedX Talk about my childhood experience, my mother’s camp experience & my concern about what’s happening now in America.

    I’ve recently joined some Japanese FB sites as I now try to connect with & learn about Japanese communities. I also hope to meet Sansei/Hapa who might’ve had similar childhood experiences, isolated from any Japanese communities. I’m also reading/researching to learn more about the WWII Japanese experience. Now, on my bucket list is to attend a Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

    Thank you for your article. I have your same concerns about America & I’m hearing the same words said to me, now to Muslims &/or Latinos. I’d appreciate your feedback if you watch my TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC07U6ePhR4.

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