On writing about the JA community

I started my writing career as a music critic and became a journalist with jobs at various mainstream media newspapers and later, websites, and wasn’t much concerned with covering the Japanese, Japanese American or Asian American Pacific Islander communities or issues.

I became curious about my roots when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t until a few years later before I started writing about being Japanese American. I met my wife, who is Sansei, in the late ‘90s and one of the first things she said to me was that I’m a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

She was right, even though I was actually born in Japan.

My dad was a Nisei born in Hawaii but my grandfather took the whole family back to Japan in 1940 and my dad and his siblings were stuck there during WWII. That’s a book that’s been stewing in the back of my head for a long time.

He stayed in Japan and became a houseboy at 13 for the US soldiers stationed there during the US Occupation. When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Army and he began getting a carton of Lucky Strikes every week as part of his GI rations. That was his ticket to lung cancer, I’m afraid – he smoked until his death.

My mom was born and raised in the small fishing town of Nemuro, on the easternmost tip of the northernmost island, Hokkaido. My dad was stationed there during the Korean War, and that’s where they met.

My early childhood was very bicultural – my family lived in Tokyo (and for a year, Iwakuni, near Hiroshima) neighborhoods and my brother and I took the bus to American schools on US military bases. It never occurred to me that I was living a split personality as Japanese and American. One year for Halloween I dressed as a cowboy, complete with western pistols on my hip; the next I dressed as a samurai. I played ninja with my Japanese friends and had crushes on white girls at school.

But when I was eight years old and my family moved to the states where my dad got a transfer to Washington, DC, it took me just a few weeks to become all-American. I learned every English cuss word, for one thing, even though I didn’t know what most of them meant. And, I forgot most of my Japanese (I never learned to read and write hiragana or katakana, even though my mom the equivalent of “Dick and Jane” language primers with us to America).
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Being JA v2.0 is here, and I’m so glad to be JA!

I gave a re0ent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose's lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

I gave a recent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

During a recent trip to San Francisco to attend the annual conference of the Asian American Journalists Association, I squeezed in two readings from the new revised edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” The two events reminded me why I wrote the book in the first place and why I love speaking to JA audiences. I love being JA!

The first edition was published in 2004, but a lot has happened since then: Japanese culture is even more popular now in the US than a decade ago, but so is Asian American culture in general. The Internet was around in 2004, but social media has exploded on the scene since “Being JA” v1.0 came out. During those years, Asian American have been early adopters and leading lights on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – we’ve embraced digital media because we’re invisible in mainstream media.

Yet, even in mainstream media, we’ve made some huge strides: Hollywood movies still suffers from “yellowface” casting of whites in Asian roles, but there are more of us in starring and co-starring roles. John Cho was even cast the romantic lead in a short-lived sitcom this year, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the comedy that showcases an AAPI family, is filming a second season.

In a sad reminder of our inherent “foreignness” in the US, the March 11, 2011 disaster in Japan of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown sparked a fury of racists all over social media shouting how the disaster was god’s revenge on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor — as if the US disintegrating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs weren’t “revenge” enough. Whenever ugly emotions like that well up from under the shallow surface of political correctness, I and other JAs are reminded how we’re easily lumped together with events in Japan, even if we’re generations removed. That’s what caused our community to be imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, and what caused many of us to grow up dreading December 7 every year, when we’d be pelted by the stings of hateful taunts from other kids “Remember Pearl Harbor!” The tsunami stirred up a lot of the same emotions for me.

So it made sense when my publisher Stone Bridge Press reached out and asked me to update the book with new text, additional historical photos and interviews with more JAs, Japanese Canadians and mixed-race Japanese.

The book covers he history of Japanese immigration and of course the WWII concentration camp experience, but it’s also about our culture, community, food and families, and the future of JAs.
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Want to get a photo in v2.0 of my book, “Being Japanese American?”


Japanese American friends: Help me make the revised edition of “Being Japanese American” the best book it can be!

I’m looking for photographs of the Japanese American experience, to include in the revised 2015 edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” Not just portraits but photos that capture our lives as JAs. Here are some examples of things I’m looking for:

gil-selfportraitIt would be great to have photos of festivals, cultural classes, church or temple services, JA food (family dinners), holiday get-togethers (July 4th, New Year’s!), community picnics, JA sports teams or players, JAs playing music (like me above), JAs in traditional Japanese clothes maybe at obon but also JAs in American clothes (kids playing in jeans and t-shirts), JAs at tourist spots like Disneyland, JAs with long hair from the ’60s or ’70s (like me at right in my pretentious art school self-portrait), JAs with ’80s hair, or dressed up for prom or homecoming….

If Stone Bridge Press uses your photo, they will send you a free copy of the book, when it’s published in June, 2015.

Please scan your photos at high resolution (300 DPI is ideal) and email them to me at gilasakawa@gmail.com, with an explanation of who is in the photo and what’s going on. I’ll send them to the publisher, and they will make the decision on which ones to use.

Thanks everyone!

Martha Stewart needs etiquette lessons for asking an Asian American, “Where do you come from?”

Martha Stewart needs some etiquette lessons in how to speak to Asian Americans.A reader named Robin, who is Japanese American and born in Iowa and bakes apple pies, sent me this email:

“I was wincing yesterday when Martha Stewart asked an asian american woman in the audience (Sumi somethingorother, who baked an apple pie for Martha’s contest) “Where are you from?” and the woman said with no accent “Oh I’m from here…New York City.”. Martha continued with the (stereo)typical line of questioning something like ‘where are you really from because if you are from Asia it’s unusual to make an apple pie’. I don’t have it verbatim but it was painful. Just another “What ARE you?” type of conversation. I really don’t think Martha is a bigot but as she is the standard bearer of suburban white women I think it was totally disappointing for her to go down that path as if it were totally fine to question someone with Asian features about where they really come from.”

She sent a link to Martha Stewart’s page for the pie show, but there isn’t a video of the entire program, at least not yet. It looks like they only upload excerpts instead of entire shows, but I’ll keep an eye out for YouTube postings of this segment.

UPDATED: Today, Robin commented below on this blog post with a clarification:

“The video is up, check at the 2:00 minute mark:


“Verbatim it’s :
‘Where do you come from?’ (answer Here NYC)
‘Oh you do, oh, okay, because if you came from Asia this would not a typical pie, right?’ (answer ‘right…right…’ you can kind of hear the ‘what the heck!?’ in her tone)

“So it’s not as blatant as it struck me the first time but still the question and that type of follow up would be seen as really bizarre if she asked it of someone with a German name.”

It may not be as obnoxious as it could have been (I agree with Robin that Martha’s probably not a racist), but it still betrayed Stewart’s expectation that the audience member with an Asian face was a foreigner. She even sounded disappointed when the woman said she’s from New York, because Stewart wanted so badly to make her point about Asians not baking pies.
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