Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | The Legacy of the Sansei from a “Ni-hansei” perspective
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The Legacy of the Sansei from a “Ni-hansei” perspective

When I was a kid, I used to tell people who asked what generation I was, that I was “Ni-hansei,” or second-and-a-half. That’s because although my father was a Nisei born in Hawaii (technically a Kibei because his family moved to Japan in 1940 and he was stuck there during the war, but that’s another essay), I was born in Japan.

My dad was in the US Army during the Korean war, and met my Issei mom in Hokkaido when he was stationed there. My two brothers and I were all born in Tokyo; I’m a prime baby boomer, born in 1957. Our family moved to the states when I was 8 years old, and my dad got a civilian job with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, DC.

I was plopped right in the middle of a whitebread suburban childhood in northern Virginia. If you know the TV sitcom “Wonder Years,” that kid was me — a geeky gawky kid with crushes on girls but no social skills to act on them.

But I was different from most American suburban kids — white kids — because I’m Japanese American. And yet, I’m different from most JAs I know because my early years were spent in Japan.

The Japan I remember was still the country that manufactured cheap stuff — if something said “Made in Japan” it meant it was not very expensive or very well made. We moved stateside before Japanese manufacturing became known for its high-tech, cutting edge quality. We came to the US just before Japanese cameras and audio equipment became the world standard. Before Japanese cars took over American roads in the late 1970s (thanks to better gas mileage, mostly). Before anime, Jpop and other Japanese pop culture became hip with US youth. And long before sushi became available in every supermarket across America — even though it’s mostly pretty crappy sushi.

I arrived in Virginia in 1966 as a third grader, during the early days of the anti-war movement, and in the middle years of the African American civil rights movement. On TV, I watched the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, coverage of Woodstock and the moon landing. I wanted to be a hippie but had to argue with my mom for her to buy me my first pair of jeans. I became an all-American kid.

But as a younger Sansei born in Japan, I was different from other JAs in one crucial aspect: I had no one in my family who had been affected by the WWII incarceration experience. My dad had spent the war years as an outcast stuck in Japan and the city where he lived, Fukui, was firebombed by the US a few weeks before Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb. Likewise, my mom’s hometown Nemuro in northern Japan was firebombed by Americans a couple of months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But no one related to me was sent off to American concentration camps.

That gives me a different perspective on the legacy of Sansei.

What I know of our community, I’ve learned from reading every book I could find, and watching every documentary and the two or three available feature films about JAs. I’ve become educated through the experience of others – both side of my wife’s family were incarcerated during the war. Drawing on that knowledge, I’ve written a lot about the JA experience. I’m serving my second term as editorial board chair of JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper. I blog about identity, culture and politics at I’ve even written a book, “Being Japanese American.”

And one topic I return to a lot as a Japanese American with direct Japanese roots is the importance of maintaining, nurturing and growing those Japanese roots.

I know that because of intergenerational transmission of trauma, there was a sad rise in suicides by Sansei in the early 1970s. I know JA families who’ve minimized their Japaneseness to the point where after WWII, they stopped speaking Japanese and even kept their shoes on in the house. I know JAs who don’t pronounce their names “correctly” by Japanese standards because their families assimilated so well into mainstream America. The Nisei generation’s shame for being incarcerated was tragically palpable, and many families never spoke of it. But the Sansei persevered and spearheaded the movement to gain redress and an apology from the US government.

From a high-level perspective, that is the ultimate Sansei legacy: the overturning of the Supreme Court decisions defending the camps, and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

For myself as an individual, I worry that families are still disconnected from their heritage. I’m saddened every time I hear JAs say they don’t care if they travel to Japan. Every time I go there, I find another amazing piece of myself in the places I visit and the people I get to know. Japan’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s such an important part of who I am, that I urge all Sansei … and Yonsei, and all other JAs, to take visit and find themselves too.

I know these attitudes are different in different areas like Hawai’i or California, where the JA community is vibrant and alive, and traditions are maintained (even if the obon music and dances are ones from Japan of a century ago). But sometimes it feels faded in places like the midwest, including Denver where I’ve lived since the 1970s. Here, being Japanese American can feel a bit lonely.

I’d love it if the Sansei (and Ni-hansei like me!) revive our connection to Japan, and visit and embrace our families’ roots and embrace the culture and history of the country where our families came from.

I would be proud if that were part of our legacy, as a generation. I hope it’ll be mine!

NOTE: An earlier version of this commentary was originally published in the Hawai’i Herald as part of the newspaper’s series on the Legacy of the Sansei.