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.

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12 Responses to Turning Japanese (again): A question of identity

  1. Caroline says:

    Great, insightful article! I can relate on some of things you wrote about. I definitely feel that I idenify more with Japanese American culture than Chinese American although I am both. And since I am both, I identify myself as Asian American. Perhaps it is different since you and Erin are full Japanese vs. being from a mixed Asian background?

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Caroline, I’m sure it’s a different experience for mixed-race Asians (hapa), because you have more than one cultural heritage tugging at you. And if the cultures are both Asian (as opposed to Asian and white, or Asian and black), the cultural competition must be bewildering at times. We’ll have to talk about that sometime.

  3. C says:

    May I ask a personal question?

    Being a shin-nisei (I don’t like the word, actually), I identify myself more as American Japanese than Japanese American and definitely not JA–having no grandparents interned in the camps.

    Making the assumption that (perhaps wrongly, apologizes beforehand) that maybe your family wasn’t directly impacted by the incarceration experience…

    Have you ever felt out of place in an organization like JACL?

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Conrad. That’s a very good, interesting and important point — whether the internment experience is a shared “Japanese American” experience, and whether if our families weren’t interned, we’re the same as those that did.

    I think we are all Japanese Americans, whether we have internment in our past, or whether we’re more recent immigrants. You’re right, I was born in Japan of a Nisei dad (actually Kibei, since he was stuck in Japan during WWII) and an Issei mom, and I don’t have internment in my past. But Erin’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all were interned. She definitely has a different perspective on being JA, but we also share so much culturally, values-wise, etc. that I wouldn’t want to make a distinctions between us on such a basic level. We’re both JA, we just have pretty different backgrounds as JAs, as you do.

    This is a pretty heavy conversation, one worth ,ulling over! Thanks!

  5. saeb says:

    Hi, nice article. having more than one cultural background is very interesting. You get double the holidays to celebrate, double the kinds of food you grow with, and double the friends!

  6. Great post, Gil.

    It sounds like you have found some wonderful groups and ways to connect! I hate to admit it but I read it and felt a small pang of jealousy.

    I’m Guamanian and growing up we were always the kids that people could never figure out. Our brown skin had people assume we were of Hispanic nationality. My dad’s “slanted eyes” had people guess some sort of Asian.

    Now I’m trying to find a way to expose my children to more of our Pacific Island culture and I’m striking out up here in Northern Colorado.

    But perhaps in my own ways (even if they are limited) I can pass on to my children pride in their heritage.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Rebecca. I can empathize with your sense of isolation. Colorado does have a pretty active Pacific islander population, but I think few Guamanians…. One thing we have in common is that we’re both Army brats! That’s a community and culture unto itself, though my dad switched to civilian employee of the Army early on while we were in japan and then later went to work for the Federal Govt instead of military when we moved to the States.

    I enjoy your blog, btw….

  8. Diamondswamp says:

    Gil, I was born in Japan to a “Buddhahead” dad and his war bride mom. My dad was in government services (GS) and worked with Pacific Stars and Stripes. I considered myself a brat since I graduated from a high school on a U.S. air force base near Tokyo.

  9. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Diamondswamp, our family came to the states when I was in third grade… I remember going to three different grade schools in a year and a half, when we moved from Tokyo to Iwakuni (near Hiroshima) and then back to Tokyo before moving to the states. Ah, the travails (and travels) of a military/GS family!

  10. I have been reading your Blog now for over a year and have enjoyed the insight it gives me to a culture I have married into. My wife is Yonsei, and I was still the first non-Japanese to marry into the family. The family use to participate in JACL a lot many years ago but they fell away from it … their church was the first Japanses Christian church in San Diego but has since merged with a primaraly white church … until my wife did a photo album for her Grand Mother, she never knew that the whole family was interned and that Grandma made extra money by bootlegging sake she made under the floor boards of the barracks. The point is I sometimes feel I have more of an interest in the Japanese heritage than the rest of the family. Maybe it has something to do with spending my formative years growing up in Okinawa … or my brothers unexplainable intrest in all things Japanese since he was a small boy (long before going overseas) or the fact that since I am white I have to try harder to be part of the clan … but in general I sometimes feel uncomfortable that I see the loss of their heritage and when I vocalize my opinion it falls on deaf ears. I walk a fine line between being called a “want-to-be” and sincerly trying to help the Japanese community. I know I will always be an outsider to some degree but it feels strange to be known as “The other white guy” (thats a different story to tell) and to walk in a culture that the people that are born into do not see or acknowledge. Maybe it is easier to view life from the outside of the bubble.

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Robert,

    I’m surprised you’re the only non-Japanese to marry into your wife’s family — since the 1970s the Japanese community has been the Asian population with the highest out-marriage rate. I married two Caucasian women before marrying my Yonsei wife, so I’m part of the statistic. It sounds like you’re a great addition to the family, and the community. It’s sad your comments about culture aren’t always heeded, but keep bringing them up. Some will be acted on, eventually. And everything helps.

  12. Robert Austin says:

    I said I was the first … the Caucasians are now slowly taking over the family with 4 of us marrying into the Arakawa family! BTW I was very surprised I was the first also. Quick story:
    My future wife invited me over to her house for Christmas in 1986 … we had only gone out on a few dates, I asked who all was going to be there and her response was “Just the family” … I grew up as a military family (Mom, Dad, brother, sister … thats just the family) and even though I have known many Japanese families I was not prepared for the closets 78 reletives with me being the only white face in the house … I absolutly loved it.

    I notice you are Facebook friends with John Higa … we went to Kubasaki High School together. Small world.

    Thanks for writing back!

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