Growing up as a Japanese American, the differences of opinion regarding various subjects and current events across different generations intrigued me. These differences in opinion would lead to thoughtful insight and lessons learned from my grandparent’s nisei generation, as well as intense arguments with my parents, the sansei generation.
Whether it is lessons to be learned or passionate debates, I think that we all can gain something from a new perspective. This series looks to offer perspective through the lens of three different generations of Japanese Americans concerning one topic. March’s topic is “Cultural Arts,” and we have 3 generations from the legendary Ito-Wong family weighing in: Representing the sansei perspective we have Barbara Ito, for the Yonsei generation, Leslie Ito, and for Gosei vibes, Zoe Ito Wong. Let’s see what these powerful community leaders have to say!
1. What is your name? Age? Generation?
Sansei: Barbara Ito, 74 years old
Yonsei: Leslie Akemi Ito, 47 years old
Gosei: Zoe Phoenix Ito Wong, 15 years old
2. What is your ethnic/cultural identity? (list all that are applicable)
Sansei: Japanese American
Yonsei: Asian American, Angeleno, Yonsei
Gosei: I am half Japanese and half Chinese.
3. What does the word “culture” mean to you?
Sansei: Culture is the tradition that is passed down from generation to generation.
Yonsei: Culture is fluid, ever changing and yet it is also what roots us and connects us.
Gosei: To me, the word culture means living my life the way I do. This takes into consideration food, traditions, holidays, superstitions, values and beliefs, clothing, mannerisms, sports, arts, and language.
4. Do you practice/participate in any “traditional” Japanese cultural arts? If so, how long have you been practicing? And how/why did you start practicing?
Sansei: In high school, I took ikebana lessons from a little old lady. I took it with my girlfriends once a week in her garage. She did a sample and we would copy it with the flowers that she provided. It influenced my life long interest in flowers.
Yonsei: I wouldn’t say I “practice” a cultural arts, but I do feel connected to chado or the tea ceremony. I love everything about it. The principles that Sen no Rikyū set forward – harmony (和, wa), respect (敬, kei), purity (清, sei), and tranquility (寂, jaku) – resonate with me. I love that chado cannot exist in its best form without the work of so many artisans from ceramic artists, papermakers, calligraphers, wood workers, metal workers, tea farmers, ikebana, culinary experts, tatami makers–the list goes on and on. It’s a complete microcosm of Japanese culture. Some say that it was constructed this way in order to preserve Japanese culture - so that if we focused on just one cultural form, chado, it would mean we were preserving all that goes into the tea ceremony.
Gosei: Currently, I don’t participate in any, but I used to take taiko lessons. I don’t even remember why I started playing, it was probably because my mom just signed me up to keep me busy. I’ve also tried other traditional cultural arts here and there during my Nishi Center and Saishin Dojo days. Origami is something I’ve been doing for many years because it is simple and fun. I do it so regularly that I totally forgot that it is a traditional Japanese art. It’s something I do when I’m bored in class or when I have candy wrappers or random paper.
5. What is one cultural art that you have never tried but is at the top of your list? Why do you want to try it?
Sansei: Chado. I like the idea of it but not the formality.
Yonsei: Chado, because of all that it stands for. But I agree with mom, the formalities have prevented me from trying. (Auntie Jojo, please don’t recruit us!)
Gosei: I’d like to try shodo again. I used to do it during Saishin Dojo and tying again seems fun because I am into calligraphy and lettering.
6. Is there a cultural art that you think is boring? Or one that you just do not understand the purpose of? (To readers this is a judgment-free zone, we just want honest answers to the hard hitting questions).
Sansei: I would never take martial arts. It’s too physical.
Yonsei: Martial arts. I would probably end up hurting myself.
Gosei: I haven’t participated in various Japanese cultural arts enough to judge them. However, I think that tea ceremonies are a very slow process that are sometimes too tedious for me.
7. If you had to associate your personality with one cultural art, what would it be? What about your choice vibes with you?
Sansei: Dumb question.
Yonsei: Sogetsu Ikebana. It’s free-forming and often incorporates non-traditional materials.
Gosei: I’d say maybe I’m like origami, because I’m precise and small. I can be a really complicated person, yet simple and laid back which is also similar to origami.
8. For the Japanese cultural arts below, associate a “non-traditional” song that you would want to listen to while participated/practicing the art.
We are a three-generation BTS Army family. This question was answered together. Think of it as a BTS playlist for Japanese Cultural Arts.
- Ikebana (flower arranging): Spring Day
- Karate (martial arts): On
- Shodo (calligraphy): Singularity
- Chado (tea ceremony): Crystal Snow
- Origami (paper folding): Life Goes On
9. If you could create a cultural art mash-up of two or more types, what would they be? How would the new mashup be practiced?
Yonsei: I would combine karaoke and tea ceremony. I like the idea of singing Stay Gold by BTS while whisking some matcha.
Gosei: If I could combine two, it would be Ikebana and Origami would be cool. That has probably been done already, but I think flowers and origami match well together because they are both colorful and could be extremely customizable.
10. What is your fondest memory/experience involving cultural arts?
Sansei: Going to Nisei Week’s Ondo Dancing and Obon.
Yonsei: In 2016, I met Seiwemon Onishi, a 16th generation tea kettle maker in Kyoto. He allowed me to feel a first generation kettle made by his ancestor. He conducted a private tea ceremony for me (and my translator) at dusk. I drank matcha from a 300 year old tea bowl. It one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It takes him three years, start to finish to make a tea kettle. He also taught me that there are five different sounds of boiling water that can be observed during tea ceremony.
Gosei: My favorite memory is during Saishin Dojo. During 5th grade when I had Mr. Jeff, we did this project where we folded many tiny silver foil paper cranes. Then, we arrange them into a Kanji character. I remember I was one of the first people to finish because I was super good at folding cranes since I’ve been folding them since kindergarten while others were just learning how for the first time. The character I chose was 小 because it means small which perfectly describes me since I’m really short.
11. Have you ever been bullied/teased (or felt othered) because of a certain cultural art that you practice? If yes, how would you handle that situation if you could go back in time? If not, what advice would you give someone who is experiencing that situation?
Sansei: No, I grew up in Crenshaw with other Japanese Americans.
Yonsei: Hmmm… I don’t think I’ve experienced bullying or teasing based on Japanese culture. It’s hard to believe this still happens in a world where Japan has so much cultural influence from culinary to anime to fashion, design, and architecture.
Gosei: This isn’t really considered bullying but in 5th grade, we were folding cranes to hang for our promotion. Parents came in to help volunteer and show people how to fold them. I remember they gave a slideshow about the history of origami and what cranes represent. I forget what I added, but I remember I told the class something else that cranes also represented that wasn’t already on the presentation. Then, one of the parents said I was wrong and that what I said was not true. This made me very mad because the parent was not Japanese, but was telling me I was wrong about a Japanese art form that I’ve been taught about and know much about for years.
12. Are there any traditional Japanese arts that have been adopted and altered by the American experience to form a new Japanese American cultural arts?
Sansei: Floral arranging that I do for special occasions for friends and family that was influenced by ikebana.
Yonsei: Japanese culinary arts is a great example of how traditional Japanese arts have been modified in America. There are so many examples: the California roll, mochi ice cream, spam musubi, hamachi, and jalapeno.
Gosei: There is none that I can think of.
13. When does sharing a culture with others cease to be a celebration of the culture and transition into appropriation?
Sansei: Your questions are too hard.
Yonsei: Culture is so commodified these days. I think that cultural appropriation and the ills of capitalism go hand in hand. It’s important to know who is creating and making money off of culture. The company Mokuyobi is a great example of a white woman trying to make money off of a culture that is not her own because she thinks it’s cool. It’s flattering, but no thank you.
Gosei: I think that cultural appropriation vs. appreciation is a very complex topic that has many levels to it. However, when people explore other cultures and their traditions, foods, clothing, etc, as long as they are being respectful and giving credit or tribute to the event, then use is okay. What annoys me when I see people online, who are non-Japanese people (most often white people), trying to educate others about Japanese culture.
Trying the cultural aspect itself is fine, however it annoys me when I see people on TikTok trying to explain to me something that they aren’t in a position to be teaching people about. An example of this is when I saw this white dude making matcha. His TikTok was in response to another video that got comments saying he wasn’t making it properly. In response to this, he called the comments criticizing him “gatekeeping,” which really made me mad. There is no gatekeeping when it comes to culture. Gatekeeping is when you don’t want to tell your friend about a cute boy because you want to keep him to yourself. Respecting someone’s culture is not gatekeeping, it's being a polite person who doesn’t culture appropriate. I don’t exactly know how to explain that, but hopefully you get what I’m trying to say.
Another time I saw this cosplayer on TikTok who was explaining how to properly wear a kimono. This bothers me because her TikTok got a lot of views. If an actual Japanese person were to create a TikTok explaining how to wear a kimono, I feel like they would not have gotten as many views. It really frustrates me that white creators make profit and get tons of views off of stealing other cultures, while POC creators do the exact same thing and get a fraction of the views the white creators do. If you can’t even properly pronounce Japanese words, which she was not, you should definitely not be explaining a culture that is not yours. I commented on her TikTok about how I felt, and I’m pretty sure she deleted it. Anyways, I don’t really have an option when it comes to other people wanting to learn about Japanese culture. What annoys me is when white content creators think they have the authority to explain to their platforms about Japanese culture and can profit off this. Not only is it annoying, but it’s also harmful to Japanese content creators. Sorry for going on so long about this question. I got carried away because this topic is very frustrating and complex.
14. What is it about Japanese cultural arts in particular that make them unique?
Sansei: Japanese cultural arts are unique because of their long history - compared to how short American culture has been around.
Yonsei: Japanese culture is unique because on one hand, they are obsessed with cultural preservation and the exactness of maintaining tradition and on the other hand, Japanese culture also embraces innovation and also the wacky and weird.
Gosei: I think what makes them unique is that a lot of them take lots of patience and precision. Many of them are delicate and can take years to master.
15. Why is the preservation of cultural art so important? And what do you think is the best path forward of keeping these traditions alive?
Sansei: It’s important because it’s part of our identity. We want to pass it down to future generations. We need to try to make the cultural arts more relevant to daily living and interesting to younger generations. We need to figure out more interesting ways to teach it too.
Yonsei: On that same trip to Kyoto when I met the tea kettle master, I also met Katsuaki Ogawa. He is a 12th generation landscape designer. We met at one of his ancestors' gardens. As we sat on the veranda looking out to the spectacular garden, he share with me his approach to maintaining his ancestors' work. It is to ensure that the essence continued to be captured in the gardens rather than preserving exactly what his ancestors built. I love this take on preservation. How do we take the essence of a cultural practice and adapt it to flourish in the current times?
Gosei: I think it’s very important to keep culture strong in general. Cultural art specifically is important because art is a form of expression. Cultural arts are something that can be enjoyed by anyone, not only Japanese people. To keep these traditions alive I think the best and most obvious way is to pass it down to our kids and next generations. Someday I will teach my kids how to fold cranes just like my mom taught me.
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