Five Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Note: I’m now a regular monthly columnist for Discover Nikkei, the multilingual project of the Japanese American National Museum. For years they’ve repurposed my blog posts, but now the tables will be turned: I’ll write something for DN first, then post them afterwards here. This is the first column I wrote for them.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

I can still remember March 11, 2011, the night of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated a huge swath of northeast Japan, as if it were last week.

It was just before midnight in Denver when I got an alert on my phone. An earthquake had been reported off the eastern coast of Japan. I turned on CNN and watched in horror for the next couple of hours as the footage came in. I saw the tsunami rolling over farmlands and crash into cities, carrying with it buildings and cars and ships. I saw footage of people trapped on rooftops. I saw houses being shoved aside as if they were origami boxes being blown by the wind, before they burst into flames. That was just the beginning; the seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were caused by the quake, and the cleanup around that disaster is still ongoing.

The disaster remains the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, and the fourth worst in the recorded history of the world’s earthquakes. The toll was awful: almost 16,000 people have been confirmed dead, and over 2,500 still missing. Almost 229,000 people have been relocated or are still living in temporary housing.
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Is China’s economic domination coming to an end?

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I follow news from all over Asia. Primarily, I pay attention to all the news happening in Japan, from the goofy stuff to the serious headlines. But the world is so interconnected these days, that Japan can easily be affected by news developments — political, economic, cultural — in other parts of the globe, and especially Asia. The crazy dude in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, for example, has been shooting missiles into the sea to flex his weak muscle and try to scare Japan and it allies, like the U.S. and South Korea, whenever the U.S. conducts military exercises in the region.

The most important news from Asia is often about China. China is the 800-pound economic gorilla of Asia. A more appropriate description might be a slinky Asian tiger or dragon, but the enormity of China’s outsized impact is like a gorilla: brute strength sometimes flailing about like King Kong beating his chest and romping through Manhattan — Wall Street, to be exact.

For years, China’s economy was growing so fast that it attracted laborers from rural regions (of which there are many) to the cities where good paying manufacturing jobs were available. For years China invested huge amounts in building cities and the infrastructure to reach those cities. For years, China’s growth and spending was a windfall for the rest of the world, which was happy to supply the raw materials and technology to help China become the second largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan.

The whole world got richer as China got rich, and the Chinese got rich too, relatively speaking. A middle class developed in the cities, and China became one of the biggest markets on Earth for cars. Hollywood studios regularly court China’s humongous audience, these days flush with disposable income and able to go see the latest theatrical releases. Luxury goods and Western brands are all the rage with the nouveau riche, and Chinese tourists, who now have the cash to travel all over the world, are visiting Japan in droves and returning with modern rice cookers and fancy heated toilet seats.

The downside to all this growth is captured in the nervous joke that’s been making the media rounds: “When China sneezes, the world catches cold.”
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Immigration, refugees and the gift of citizenship

Denver's Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

Denver’s Mayor Michael B. Hancock welcomes the 100 applicants and their family members to the citizenship ceremony.

I was born in Japan, but because my father was born in Hawaii when it was a U.S. territory, I am an American citizen. I didn’t have to take a test, and recite an oath of allegiance. After my family moved to the States in 1966, I remember helping my mother, who’s from a small town in northern Japan, study for her citizenship test. I was eight years old.

I don’t remember the ceremony when she repeated the oath and was given her naturalization certificate, but it was probably something like the wonderful ceremony I saw today, on the top floor of the Emily Griffith Technical College, a school that teaches English as a second language and gives many immigrants the skills for them to find jobs in America (full disclosure: I’m a member of the Emily Griffith Foundation‘s Board of Directors).

One hundred people became American citizens today in Denver. They came here from all over the world, from Bhutan to the Ukraine, Canada to Cote d’Ivoire. Some held small American flags in their hands as they waited, and waved them when they were asked to stand to represent their soon-to-be-former countries.
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Being JA v2.0 is here, and I’m so glad to be JA!

I gave a re0ent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose's lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

I gave a recent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

During a recent trip to San Francisco to attend the annual conference of the Asian American Journalists Association, I squeezed in two readings from the new revised edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” The two events reminded me why I wrote the book in the first place and why I love speaking to JA audiences. I love being JA!

The first edition was published in 2004, but a lot has happened since then: Japanese culture is even more popular now in the US than a decade ago, but so is Asian American culture in general. The Internet was around in 2004, but social media has exploded on the scene since “Being JA” v1.0 came out. During those years, Asian American have been early adopters and leading lights on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – we’ve embraced digital media because we’re invisible in mainstream media.

Yet, even in mainstream media, we’ve made some huge strides: Hollywood movies still suffers from “yellowface” casting of whites in Asian roles, but there are more of us in starring and co-starring roles. John Cho was even cast the romantic lead in a short-lived sitcom this year, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the comedy that showcases an AAPI family, is filming a second season.

In a sad reminder of our inherent “foreignness” in the US, the March 11, 2011 disaster in Japan of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown sparked a fury of racists all over social media shouting how the disaster was god’s revenge on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor — as if the US disintegrating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs weren’t “revenge” enough. Whenever ugly emotions like that well up from under the shallow surface of political correctness, I and other JAs are reminded how we’re easily lumped together with events in Japan, even if we’re generations removed. That’s what caused our community to be imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, and what caused many of us to grow up dreading December 7 every year, when we’d be pelted by the stings of hateful taunts from other kids “Remember Pearl Harbor!” The tsunami stirred up a lot of the same emotions for me.

So it made sense when my publisher Stone Bridge Press reached out and asked me to update the book with new text, additional historical photos and interviews with more JAs, Japanese Canadians and mixed-race Japanese.

The book covers he history of Japanese immigration and of course the WWII concentration camp experience, but it’s also about our culture, community, food and families, and the future of JAs.
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Artifacts contain our cultural history, that’s why they’re so precious

Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items  that would have been auctioned.

Hand-carved wood panels made in Amache in Colorado during WWII. These were among the items that would have been auctioned. Here’s a link to the announcement on JANM’s website.


 
UPDATE MAY 3, 2015:T he Japanese American National Museum announced last night at a gala fundraising honoring George Takei (who’s a JANM board member as well as a community activist) that with Takei’s help, the museum will take in the collection of Japanese American concentration camp artifacts that were originally slated to go to public auction. This is great news, and a brilliant public relations move by JANM and its CEO, Greg Kimura. When can we expect to see the “Eaton Collection Exhibit?” Here’s the Facebook Page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” with announcements and reactions from the community.
 


I’ve watched the news in horror as ISIS forces have systematically destroyed ancient mosques, temples, artwork and artifacts in their zealous pursuit of religious absolutism. It’s patently offensive to me that there could be such callous disregard for an entire civilization’s recorded and preserved history.

Compared to such crimes against humanity, some people might think that the auction of a personal collection of artifacts from the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II must be a minor controversy.

But the auction, which was to be held April 17, was canceled two days before, following an ad-hoc social media campaign and mainstream media coverage that was sparked by outraged Japanese Americans, was not a minor controversy.

It blew up into a big deal. A Facebook page named “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale” gained almost 7,000 followers after it was created on April 9. A Change.org online petition created just a few days before the auction got almost 8,000 people signed on.
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