A couple of days after the tragic earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan’s main island on March 11, the Newark Star Ledger newspaper ran an article with a headline that promised Japanese Americans’ concerns for relatives in Japan: “Japanese-Americans in Fort Lee, Edgewater describe frantic calls to loved ones in quake’s wake.”
I was bemused — and a little disappointed — to find that the story wasn’t about Japanese Americans. The reporter went up to some shoppers in Mitsuwa, a Japanese supermarket in New Jersey, and from their names and their quotes, I could tell immediately that the people quoted were Japanese. You know, Japanese Japanese. Immigrants from Japan. Or more precisely, shin-Issei, or “new first-generation” Japanese. Or maybe even just Japanese families of business men (or women) or diplomats assigned for a year or three in the U.S. before rotating back to Japan or to another post elsewhere in the world.
There are fewer Japanese Japanese in America than other Asian populations, because fewer Japanese are immigrating to the U.S. than in the past. As of the 2000 census, about 7,000 new Japanese immigrants came to the U.S every year. In contrast, 50,900 Chinese and 17,900 Koreans per year came to the U.S.
So it’s not surprising that a mainstream news organization would mistake Japanese immigrants for Japanese Americans. (I should note that West Coast newspapers did better, and when they interviewed Japanese Americans they were indeed JAs, and when Japanese nationals were interviewed, they were identified as such.)
But still, it struck me that many Japanese Americans are not necessarily closely connected to Japan.
That’s because many Japanese American families came to the U.S. in the late 19th or early 20th century — before 1924, when immigration was shut off by anti-Japanese legislation. That’s why many Japanese American customs and traditions and even language are old-fashioned to modern Japanese. It’s as if our community were collectively frozen in a time warp, like Asian Rip Van Winkles who fell asleep for decades.
So when we yell “I gotta go benjo” (“I gotta go to the bathroom”) to the family before we head out the door, a Japanese Japanese person standing nearby will cringe with embarrassment because we’re using such lowbrow, antiquated slang that it’s never used anymore in modern Japan. There are much more polite words for bathroom these days (O-te arai,” or “place to wash hands.”)
When I wrote my book “Being Japanese American” in 2004, I informally surveyed JAs across the country. To my surprise, I discovered that a lot of Japanese Americans — especially Sansei, the generation that grew up post-internment with much of their culture suppressed by the Nisei — weren’t particularly interested in visiting Japan. Mostly they’re ashamed of not being Japanese enough, and self-conscious that they can’t speak Japanese except for those words our grandparents yelled at us, like “yakamashii,” “abunai,” “urusai” and of course the classic “baka.” (Loosely translated, “Stop making so much noise,” “that’s dangerous,” “stop being loud” and “dummy.”)
A lot of Japanese Americans simply don’t feel that close to Japan. For many, their relatives are very distant relations. Going to a Japanese restaurant for sushi and teriyaki beef, and maybe dancing in an annual obon dance might be as Japanese as they get.
But if there’s a blessing in the disaster of March 11, it’s that Japanese Americans might feel a little more of a bond with their roots than before. For one thing, everyone they know has been asking them if they have family or friends who were affected by the disaster. “No, thank god,” we politely say. Or even weirder, people we barely know come up as if at a funeral service and say “I’m so sorry — if there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
These awkward interactions remind us that we’re Japanese after all, somewhere deep inside even if we haven’t acknowledged it much in our lives. And, we’ve banded together and “Liked” Facebook campaigns for Japan relief, and read the articles about the difficulty of getting aid to the affected towns in Japan. We’ve helped organize fundraising concerts, events, fashion shows, performances and just pain old donation drives. We’ve texted the various relief agencies so part of our phone bills can go overseas.
The quake, tsunami and nuclear threat have awakened our hearts and reminded us that we care about Japan. And we’ve shown it by donating, and by sharing articles and news.
What Japan will really need in the month — and years — to come, is for us to get up our nerve, learn a little more modern Nihongo, and travel to Japan. Because surely, that’s the kind of personal aid they’ll seek the most: reconnecting with our families and the country from which our ancestor emigrated.
(This column was originally published in the print edition of the Pacific Citizen newspaper.)