May 28, 2009

The question of racial, cultural, and generational identity has been a constant at Densho. The makeup of our staff over the years has consisted of Sansei and Yonsei from Seattle’s Nikkei community, half-Japanese Sansei and Yonsei from further east, and marriage partners of Japanese Americans from Seattle and beyond. What’s more, we are building relationships with Shin-Issei and Japanese leaders. From our various audiences, we hear comments and questions about the future of the Nikkei community. Our Nisei supporters wonder if the high rate of intermarriage means the loss of Japanese American culture. Our Yonsei and Gosei students and volunteers tell us they consider themselves Japanese American while not rejecting a second or even third family heritage.

Densho surveyed our eNews readers to ask their opinion of what it will mean to be Nikkei after the World War II generation gives way to an increasingly multicultural Rokusei generation. We share some of the responses here. (Illustration is by Roger Shimomura, from “An American Diary” series.)

What components of Japanese American culture are important to preserve?

I think anything that tries to link the present to the past is important for our future generation, because if we do not know of our past, our current privileged generation will never appreciate what we have today. I also think learning Japanese and visiting Japanese ancestral homes are important, because that is something many our parents and grandparents never had a chance to do. If the family ties are really slim, we can become the superglue that recreate that bond that was gone for so long. For this to happen, we need to learn our language, and sum up our courage to do so, because it is up to my generation and future generations to define our future as a Japanese-American and define what it means to be Japanese-American.

How Japanese does a Japanese American need to be? Do you consider hapa or quarter Japanese people to be full members of the Japanese American community?

I don’t think it’s blood that makes some one Japanese, but rather it’s the way of thinking. The Japanese mind of discipline, humility, and pride I think is what makes someone “Japanese.” If somebody with even 1/16 Japanese blood chooses to identify as a Japanese-American, they should be able to, because that choice to identify with a culture is the most important key in becoming a “member” of any community.

What does the future Nikkei community look like?

The War changed JAs perspective of and relationship to Japan; we are not as tied to Japan as others in the diaspora (Mexicans, Peruvians, Brazilians, Cubans). It is best summed up in a question of a son to a mother on Pearl Harbor Day 1941: “What has your country done to mine?” We are Americans; regardless of what the American populous thinks; we have to work not for acceptance but for 100% inclusion of all Americans at every level; this should be our community legacy.