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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

17 December, 2001


For most of my life, I assumed that Japanese family values were solely concerned with stoicism and assimilation, the need to look forward, not look back, and a decided lack of sentimentality about the closeness of family.

My father's family wasn't close, and that's how I assumed all Japanese American families were supposed to be.
When my father died of cancer almost a decade ago, I undertook a search of his family members - a brother in Hawaii, sisters in Detroit and an oldest sister in Seattle. I looked in address books, file cabinets, and through letters… and found nothing.

No names, no addresses, no phone numbers. It was almost as if my father had no relatives. I knew this wasn't true - he had spoken of his sister in Seattle, and we had visited his sisters in Michigan when I was a young kid. Even earlier, we stayed with my uncle in Hawaii when we moved from Japan to the States. So I relied on my reporter's experience and tracked down an aunt in the Detroit area to tell her my dad had passed away. She gave me my other aunts' numbers, and a number for the uncle in Honolulu, although she admitted none of them had spoken to their brother in years.

Each of my relatives was surprised to hear that their brother George had died of cancer, but none broke down at the news. My uncle was downright evasive when I offered to send him some family photographs from the 1930s that I had found. He refused to give me his home address (I had called him at his work, at United Airlines' Honolulu International Airport offices) and finally gave me his work address to mail him the photos.

My father's family wasn't close, and that's how I assumed all Japanese American families were supposed to be.

To me, it seemed natural that these Nisei, who were all born in Hawaii but stuck by circumstances in Japan during WWII, would scatter to the winds and mostly spread out over the United States to forget their childhood experiences. That they didn't keep in regular touch was a natural extension of this diaspora, I figured. Why keep strong ties with each other when the goal was to leave the past behind and start their own families?

It was only after I started researching my father's - and his siblings' -- fascinating childhood that I realized that my father was close at least to his oldest sister, my Aunt Mikki, who has since died. When I visited her the year after my father's death, I found out she knew all about my life and my brothers' lives, because every time my dad happened to be in the Seattle area for a business trip, he took the time to visit her family. I found it odd that he never kept us abreast of Aunt Mikki's family after he returned to Colorado. But then my dad had many mysterious sides to him that still have not been revealed.

My Issei mother's family is more traditionally Japanese - and perhaps more tied to obligation. She keeps in touch with her brothers, sisters and mother in Japan, by phone and mail. She sends regular care packages, and visits them about once a year. One time she flew to Japan on short notice to visit her mother, who was in a coma and was expected to pass away, only to have obaachan wake up when my mother entered the hospital room and ask, "Why did it take you so long to get here?"

My own relationship with my two brothers and mother today is a bit like my father's family, and a bit like my mother's. We unfortunately do not socialize much together, even though we live relatively close to each other. I try to see my mother every week or two, to help her out with things around the house or with paperwork, but sometimes those visits feel like obligations.

In the years since I have been with Erin and her family, I have come to know a more "normal" Japanese American family. She has lots of relatives in the Denver area, and large family gatherings are an expected part of holidays and major life events. We dine regularly with her parents, and we are involved with Erin's son (and my stepson) Jared's schoolwork and busy 16-year-old's life, although he sometimes feels we're merely prying into his privacy.

One thing that I think is more an American phenomenon than Japanese is divorce. In Japan, where marriage is almost universal (it's still rare for a woman to remain single into middle age), the divorce rate in 1992 was 14.5%, compared to 47% in the US. This does not reflect whether women are happy in their marriages, and the percentage has probably gone up since the early '90s. In the US, divorce is common and often an acceptable way of dealing with relationships that don't work. I know - I'm twice divorced myself.

But children are too often the casualty of divorce. Although many children grow up fine in single-parent homes, it's a hard path. It's much easier when both parents are equally involved in their upbringing, but women usually walk the path alone.

I admire women who have raised their kids as the sole parent, and have worked hard to impart strong values despite the dual pressure of motherhood and career. These values, in our case, have been Japanese American values, ripe with Japanese ethics, honor and tradition… and respect for the family unit.

Within this family unit, I am both a newcomer and an outsider, but one in which I am proud to be a called a "parent" and proud to call Jared my "stepson." I have enjoyed going to parent-teacher conferences, helping him with his homework, attending roller hockey and football games, driving him to his first homecoming dance, helping with his driver's education classes and watching him earn the freedom of his driver's license, worrying about his grades, following his friendships, giving him gas and lunch money and hoping he gets a part-time job, talking to him about his hopes and dreams and aspirations, complimenting him for jobs well-done and yes, admonishing him for not doing some of the things teenagers are supposed to do around the house but often don't. I accept the risk of his hating me from time to time, if being a parent requires that.

I'm happy that Erin no longer has to shoulder this awesome responsibility alone. I'm happy to be a stepdad, and urge all parents to take a more active part in their childrens' lives and bask in the rich rewards of the role.

Even when my father was most distant from his family, he held me and my brothers close to his heart. And I hope he sees, from wherever he is now, that I'm honoring him in everything I do, including working hard at being a new parent in a Japanese American family.

This column was originally written for the annual Holiday Issue of the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League.


Copyright 1998-2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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