I'm what the Japanese American community calls, "Shin-Nisei": my parents are both originally from Japan and I was born here. I grew up with strong Japanese culture and influences, spoke Japanese at home, went to Japanese school, and often visited Japan to visit my grandparents.
I grew up on American public school education, which meant that my knowledge of the concentration camps and related events was unfortunately summarized in a short paragraph in my history textbook. I had no family members who could teach me anything and because I grew up Japanese (versus Japanese American) my ties to the JA community were existent, but shallow. After college, I took a job at the Gardena Valley JCI (GVJCI). I was in charge of programs and events and one of the events I put on was Day of Remembrance (DOR). For those of you who are unfamiliar, Day of Remembrance commemorates the signing of Executive Order 9066 which forcibly put 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into concentration camps around the country. The GVJCI puts on an annual program for over 200 people every February. When I first took the job I didn’t think too much of it. It was honestly another program, part of my job. Although by this time, going through high school and college and being in an NSU, and a summer camp counselor for several JA camps, my knowledge of the war and concentration camps had grown much more since my earlier days.
Most of the programs that I put on as program staff, were coordinated by myself for the most part. However, being such an important and large event, this DOR had an organizing committee. This committee consisted of myself along with several community members. Everyone in the committee, except for myself, had a personal connection to the camps. Their parents, cousins, uncles and aunts, family friends—they all had someone close to them that were in the camps. The group was great and while it had a learning curve for myself, I was grateful for the committee. The only thing was that from the start, a small voice inside of me would whisper, “Are you allowed to do this?” I had no relatives, no one close to me that I heard stories about growing up. Even worse, that voice inside me would tell me, “75 years ago you could’ve been the enemy." Should I be the one leading this event? Imposter syndrome was real, but I tried to justify it. It was part of my job, and I had to jump that hurdle.
During one of the committee meetings, one of the members said to the group casually during a conversation, "I would never go to Japan." My first instinctive thoughts were, Why? Japan is a great country. But then she told me about how she doesn't speak Japanese, while looking Japanese. How the Japanese would judge her. I didn't say anything. I understood where her feelings came from, but I was also sad that she felt that way. A couple years earlier, I had gone to get my wisdom teeth extracted. The receptionist was a JA woman. She heard my mom and me speaking Japanese and asked about it. She told me she was discouraged from speaking Japanese when she was growing up and could not speak it. She said I was lucky with a grimacing smile. I didn't know what to say. Sorry, felt too detached. You can still learn! was not a good option. I don't remember what I replied back to her, but over the years, I first-handedly felt this generational trauma of the war and how JA folks were ashamed that they were Japanese, something I didn't have to experience.
When the Trump administration came, things got a little more jarring. Many citizens were faced with the threat of the Muslim ban amongst other threats to non-citizens (or those who seemed so), a similar occurrence to what happened with the Japanese/JA folks. Something we thought we were past long ago, something we figured people learned their lesson of, was happening again. #EO9066NeverAgain trended on social media in the JA community. I witnessed first hand the fear of innocent people getting threatened with force removal or incarceration, because of something they could not change all because somebody was "afraid." Putting on DOR became more of a personal subject matter too, more than before. It was no longer just a historical program but a call to action to our current and future generations.
The several years I was a summer camp counselor, I noticed every year, we had more and more campers (elementary school kids) who had no personal connection to the camps, like myself. More folks from Japan were immigrating here and having kids. I think about these kids who will likely lead a similar path to myself. They will grow up around JA kids, learn about history through school, NSUs, and public programs. They'll learn about the camps, maybe question their validity on being able to put on similar programs, to be on the teaching end.
My advice: if you ever feel like you're not valid to put on programs, go to pilgrimage, or to teach people about the war, that's okay. Feel those maybe uneasy feelings head-on. But at the end of the day, I hope you can be there for the JA community to teach the next generation of what happened, and what we can do to prevent anything like this happening again, even if you don't have direct ties to it.
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