NEW YORK TIMES: Young Japanese-Americans
Honor Ethnic Roots
By MIREYA NAVARRO
Monday, August 02, 2004
LOS ANGELES - In her rhinestone
crown, Nicole Miyako Cherry had an air of royalty as she grabbed a heavy
mallet and took a swing at a wooden barrel full of sake during the opening
ceremonies of the Nisei Week Japanese festival in mid-July.
Not too long ago, the traditional ''breaking of the sake barrel'' to celebrate
a notable event would not have been on Ms. Cherry's to-do list. As a Southern
California teenager growing up in the suburban comfort of South Pasadena,
Ms. Cherry was into skating on the beach, playing intramural soccer and
Boyz II Men.
The daughter of a Japanese-American
mother and a white American father, Ms. Cherry, 24, said her integrated
lifestyle allowed for few conspicuous ethnic markers other than perhaps
wearing a kimono for Halloween or attending an obon festival.
But last year, she competed
for, and won, the title queen of Nisei Week, the oldest Japanese-American
cultural event in the region.
"If people in my generation
don't get involved, who's going to take over?'' she asked.
Ms. Cherry's transformation
from typical American teenager to ethnic ambassador is a statement about
how young Japanese-Americans have struggled to hold onto an identity of
their own. Shrinking population numbers, high intermarriage rates and
the legacy of the rush to assimilate after the World War II internment
experience created an uncertain cultural path for the sansei (third generation)
yonsei (fourth) and gosei (fifth).
Ms. Cherry is among a minority
awakening to an unsettling realization - it is up to them to fight the
forces of cultural extinction, even if most of them may not speak Japanese,
or have visited Japan or, increasingly, even look Japanese.
Gil Asakawa, author of "Being Japanese American," said a reason
some young Japanese-Americans are asserting their ethnic identity might
be that it has become cool to be Japanese.
"Japanese culture is hip
in American mainstream, so the door has been opened for these Japanese-Americans
to embrace the culture more,'' said Mr. Asakawa, who said he was jolted
into consciousness about his heritage by the death of his father in the
But even as Japan's exports
like anime and karaoke, not to mention its influences in food, technology
and design, have become popular globally, many among the younger generations
of Japanese-Americans say they are also looking in another direction,
at what it means to be Japanese-American, not just of Japanese descent.
Central to Japanese-American pride is surviving and thriving after the
indignities of World War II.
"The culture and the traditional
aspects go back to Japan, but I tend to look at the Japanese-American
experience - my grandfather being in an internment camp,'' Ms. Cherry
said. "That's huge.''
Many other groups also struggle
to nourish their ethnic roots, but Japanese-Americans are going about
it with a sense of urgency.
The number of Americans who
identify themselves as Japanese declined to 796,700 in the 2000 census,
from 847,562 in 1990, partly because of low immigration and birth rates.
The wave of new immigrants from other parts of Asia, including China,
South Korea and the Philippines, now dwarfs Japanese-Americans, who once
made up the largest Asian group in the United States.
The trends have left some Japanese-Americans
feeling as if they are disappearing.
Although Buddhist temples, sports
leagues and families sustain the ethnicity, many longtime Japanese-American
organizations and institutions are losing members or eroding. Only three
Japantowns are left in California, where there had once been dozens.
And "outmarriage,'' mostly
to whites and other Asians, is diluting the ethnicity to the point that
Larry Hajime Shinagawa, director of the Center for the Study of Culture,
Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York, said most Japanese-Americans
face only two directions - assimilating into "whiteness'' or adopting
a "pan-Asian'' identity.
But that kind of obliteration
is not yet evident in people like Ms. Cherry, who just spent a year immersed
in all things Japanese (tea ceremony, kimono etiquette, a visit to Japan)
or at places like the University of California, Los Angeles, where taiko
drumming is suddenly the rage.
With an undergraduate student
body that is about 41 percent Asian-American, there is a dynamic pan-Asian
youth culture on campus, said Don T. Nakanishi, director of the Asian
American Studies Center, but half of more than 60 Asian-American student
groups are still "ethnic specific.''
Among these is the Nikkei Student
Union, formed when Japanese-American students predominated among Asians
enrolled at U.C.L.A. and now open to "anyone interested in Japanese
culture,'' said Tracy Ohara, 22, a past president.
One member, Jason Osajima, 19,
said his parents sent him to Japanese-American "cultural summer camps''
and basketball leagues as a child, but that he grew up mostly with Caucasian
friends and not particularly connected to his Japanese side. But last
fall, when he enrolled as a freshman, he said, "I realized I really
wanted to get involved with the Japanese community.''
"Before college, I didn't
realize how important that was, but in college you have so many cultural
resources,'' he said.
Mr. Osajima now spends some of his time planning Japanese cultural events
and commemorative pilgrimages to the sites of World War II internment
camps and, on a recent Thursday night, could be found at U.C.L.A.'s athletic
center barefoot, with legs spread and sticks wielded like swords, pounding
a fat drum used in the ancient art of taiko drumming.
He was in a practice session
of Kyodo Taiko, U.C.L.A.'s drumming ensemble and a group so popular that
it holds auditions and has led to a second, nonperforming group and recreational
The group includes members with
names like Lee, Fuller and Avila, and its Japanese-American version of
taiko includes swing, hip-hop and other American genres.
Mr. Osajima said some friends
of an aunt visiting from Japan were "shocked'' when they saw one
of the group's nontraditional performances, but for him, he said, "You
just feel you're preserving a part of your Japanese ancestry.''
Older Japanese-Americans said
that time has given the latest generations distancing from the traumatizing
effects of the internment and a clean slate. Ms. Cherry said her maternal
grandfather, who was an intelligence officer for the United States during
World War II, once brushed aside her questions about her family crest.
He did not want to get into it, she said, as if trying to erase any memory
"They had to prove they
were American'' after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, she said, "and
that pushed more for assimilation. Our generation is kind of reclaiming
that. I'm lucky to have my grandparents around, so I'm trying to get all
this information now.''
Bill H. Seki, a 43-year-old
Los Angeles lawyer, said both his parents were interned in camps before
they met (his father left his by volunteering to serve in the American
military). After they married, no Japanese was ever spoken in their home
as a way of proving, Mr. Seki said, "that they were Americans first,
not enemy aliens.''
That experience was so searing,
Mr. Seki said, that after Sept. 11, the Japanese-American Bar Association,
which he presided over last year, offered legal assistance and moral support
to Arab-Americans and Muslims who felt singled out by new antiterrorism
Mr. Seki said his awakening
to the culture came in his late 30's as he realized that the nisei, the
generation that was interned during the war, were dying off. Last year,
for the first time, he went to Japan as part of delegation put together
by Japanese American National Museum, which sponsors programs intended
to create interest in Japan among Japanese-Americans.
"Others don't feel like
we have a separate identity, but our story is so compelling,'' he said.
"People just take Japanese-Americans for granted. One comment you
commonly get is, 'You're just like another white guy.' No, that's completely
In their movement to maintain
their ethnicity, Japanese-Americans have become more accepting of those
with partial Japanese ancestry, known as hapas, or part Asian.
Eric Tate, a 34-year-old lawyer
in San Jose whose mother is Japanese and father African-American, said
he co-founded one of the first hapa student groups in the early 1990's
as a student at the University of California, Berkeley in response to
feeling unwelcome by Japanese-American groups and sports leagues.
Mr. Tate said the tide had turned.
Along with those who identified themselves as Japanese in the 2000 census
were more than 350,000 who cited Japanese and other backgrounds, the highest
rate of multi-ethnic identification of any Asian group.
"There's been a shift in
paradigms from 'Oh, outmarriage is a problem' to 'Aw, shucks, we have
to make these people embrace the culture because there won't be anybody
left to embrace it,' '' Mr. Tate said.
Phenotype and experiences like
today's shared Asian culture may be part of an evolving ethnic identity,
but Japanese-Americans from various generations said there was plenty
to hand down.
Mr. Asakawa, 46, executive producer
of the Web site of The Denver Post, said he wrote his book to explore
the things "that keep us connected as Japanese'' - values like honor,
endurance and loyalty to family, and, of course, food.
"There will always be rice in your life,'' he said.
John Tateishi, national executive
director of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization,
said: "We have a really rich history in this country and we have
a history of real pride, and we want to pass that on to our kids. It's
like giving religion to your kids. You hope they go away with the moral
teachings if not the religion.''
Ms. Cherry, whose boyfriend
is Mexican-American, clings to her biracial identity. "I won't take
sides,'' she said.
But Ms. Cherry, who will soon
become a social work therapist, said she would like her own children to
learn Japanese, go to Japanese festivals, play in Japanese sports leagues
and have a Japanese first name.
"Even if they're a quarter,
I want them to know that that's still part of who they are,'' she said.
For now, she will be passing
on her crown to the next Nisei Week queen during this year's festival
Aug. 7 to 15. Of all she learned during her reign as goodwill ambassador
for Japanese-Americans, she said, visiting Japan last year was an eye-opener.
"All the girls dye their
hair brown and they're obsessed with expensive jeans,'' she said. "Even
in Japan, they're becoming very American.''