Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Turning Japanese (again): A question of identity
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Turning Japanese (again): A question of identity

The Asakawa family circa 1960 in Hokkaido, Japan: (from left) George, Gary, Gil and Junko (stranger in front).

I was born in Japan, so I can say this with a straight face: I’m becoming a born-again Japanese, and it’s kinda fun.

For years now, Erin and I have thought of ourselves as Asian American first, and Japanese American second. Mostly, it’s because we’re interested in and feel a kinship with other Asian Americans, whether their heritage is Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Hmong, Indian, Filipino, whatever. We certainly have immersed ourselves in the local Asian American Pacific Islander community, through being involved in events such as the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, the AAPI Heritage Month Community celebration, the (now defunct) Aurora Asian Film Festival, Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program, Asian American Journalists Association and others. Erin spent six months last year serving as editor of the feisty little local pan-Asian magazine, Asian Avenue.

It’s wonderful to feel a part of a larger community within which we share lots of cultural values and appreciate the various cuisines. We’ve become friends with and learned about Asians across many borders, and generations from immigrant gens to very Americanized.

It’s also partly because the Japanese community in Denver is small, and insular, and tribal, and … well, small. It’s not like LA or San Francisco or Seattle or New York, where there are lots and lots of JAs to hang with, as well as tons more AAPIs in general. We just felt too constricted sometimes by the local community.

But lately, I’ve found myself being among Japanese, and enjoying it.

It’s nice to say stuff like “takai” (“that’s expensive”), “mendokusai” (“it’s too much trouble”) or “zannen deshita” (“too bad”) and have people around me chuckle or nod their heads in agreement. It’s nice to hear our food and other words pronounced correctly. It’s to be with people who are already familiar with Japanese food.

I’m sure everyone in every ethnic community feels the same comfort level when they’re with their home group. It’s just that we have seldom gone out of our way to do that in recent years, and it’s just nice.

Oh, we’d go to the Cherry Blossom Festival and attend various Japanese American events. last year, we were involved in the Japanese American National Museum’s conference in Denver. But we avoided working closely with local groups and causes, because we looked out at the larger Asian American community instead.

For example: I’m goin g to start attending the monthly meetings of the Mile-Hi Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, for the first time in almost a decade. A long time ago, I was the president of the chapter, but frankly, the chapter used to be like a dysfunctional family, with maybe too many generations of the family living under one roof. Because I think JACL is a very important civil rights organization, I opted to be active as a national board member, and serve as the Editorial Board Chair for JACL’s excellent Asian American newspaper, the Pacific Citizen.

I went to the Mile Hi chapter’s meeting last night, held in Sakura Square downtown (pretty convenient for me, because I could go over after work and then drive home). I decided to become involved again because after several changes of the guard, the current president is a young and energetic woman named Suzy Shimasaki, who just moved to Denver from California last year.

She promptly joined the Mile Hi chapter (many JA in California grew up with JACL as a constant presence in their families), and volunteered to be president. Because she’s new here and isn’t familiar with some of the entrenched community dynamics, I wanted to help her out. It feels like she can make some real changes within the chapter, and make it a vibrant part of the local AAPI scene (it’s more often than not been self-focused and invisible outside of the JA community).

Suzy is also involved in all the same AAPI organizations and events that Erin and I are hooked up with (wait ’til she attend the Dragon Boat Festival, she’ll love it).

But she helped start another group that invited Erin and me to join: J-Spot, whose purpose is “to preserve and re-introduce the Japanese culture.”

I find this a refreshing blast of ethnic cultural pride, and all the more significant because it’s coming from a group of earnest young professionals who have grown up as American as apple pie and want to connect with their roots. Some of the members play taiko drums; many speak Japanese. Unlike a similar group in New York that does not allow non-Japanese, J-Spot is open to anyone and everyone who’s sincerely interested in Japan and Japanese culture.

It’s an informal group, with some social events and the website to share news and information. We just joined and missed a backyard barbecue to meet the other members, but we’ll go to something soon, I’m sure. I joke with Suzy last night at the JACL meeting, when she said the group is for people between 20- and 40, that Erin and I must have been invited to be the “Ji-chan” and “Ba-chan of the group (I’ll kindly translate that as “wise elders”).

She laughed at the joke and said we’re young at heart and of course we should stay in the group. But the mere fact that she understood “Ji-chan” and “Ba-chan” reminded me that I’m back hanging with my original tribe again, and that it felt good.

We’re still pan-Asian in our worldview. We just attended an event of the Colorado chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals (ain’t that a mouthful!) and we’re both volunteering (though not on the organizing committee) of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival in July.

It’s a treat to be able to operate on multiple levels — I’m Japanese American. I’m Asian American.

And oh yeah, I’m just plain ol’ American too. And proud of it all.