Kotonks & Buddhaheads: How Japanese American Experiences Differ on the Mainland and in Hawai'i

As a Japanese American who grew up with family ties in Hawai'i but came of age in California, I've encountered some cultural differences based on experiences and history. Here, I attempt to unearth some of that history.

A lot of Americans I know are well-educated on their family lineage and have been since they were young, mostly thanks to the family tree projects that were forced upon all of us in school.

I remember drawing a stick figure on a sailboat to represent the matriarch of my family: my great-grandmother, who came to Hawai’i from Japan in the early 1900s to meet –– and marry –– my great-grandfather, a complete stranger.

But there’s so much that construction paper and some glue can’t capture. Studying your family tree can teach you about where your ancestors came from, but there’s nothing that can easily explain how your family’s beginnings have informed your own experiences. It may be hard to understand because we spend so much of our time living in the present, but a lot of our childhood experiences and cultural nuances stem from things that have either happened to our families or have been ingrained in our culture for decades –– even centuries. And when we fail to investigate this personal or cultural history, we may feel confused about why things are the way they are. We might even feel lost.

This is how I’ve felt for years as a Japanese American person with familial ties to Hawai’i struggling to understand why I felt so different from my Japanese American peers in Southern California, where I was born and raised. If we were of the same generation (Yonsei, or fourth generation), didn’t that mean our families came over on boats around the same time? And we’re all Japanese and American, so aren’t we the same?

I was overjoyed to visit the Japan Overseas Migration Museum in 2017. The museum is dedicated to "those Japanese who have taken part in molding new civilizations in the Americas" and chronicles the migration patterns of Japanese.

It would take me time to learn that just as the Asian American community contains a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, and experiences, the Japanese American community itself is also not a monolith. To uncover some historical truths that could explain the differences between being Japanese in Hawai’i and being Japanese on “the mainland,” which is how I refer to the continental U.S., I’ve delved into books, interviewed professors and scholars, and absorbed tidbits of history from wise aunties and uncles I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my two years working in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles’s Japantown.

It would take me time to learn that just as the Asian American community contains a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, and experiences, the Japanese American community itself is also not a monolith.

Through countless details and interactions I’ve picked up on over the years, I’ve managed to trace cultural differences between "kotonks," or Japanese Americans on the mainland, and "Buddhaheads," or Japanese Americans on the islands, to a few historical events and factors. These nicknames were affectionately (read: mockingly) given to both groups by soldiers in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which were all-Japanese combat units formed in WWII. Japanese soldiers from Hawai'i and those from the mainland butt heads on numerous occasions but managed to see eye-to-eye (but that's a whole other story).


The Welcome Wagon: Japanese Immigration in the 1880s

One easy way to understand how the experiences of Japanese people varied on the islands and on the mainland pre-World War II is to learn about how immigrants were welcomed… or not welcomed.

While Hawai’i is a state today, it was a monarchy when Japanese workers immigrated in the 1880s as a result of King David Kalakaua’s commitment to strengthening relations between Hawai’i and Japan. King Kalakaua’s proposal to have Japanese settlers work on Hawai’i’s agricultural plantations resulted in nearly 22,000 immigrants coming to Hawai’i between 1885 and 1924 – my great-grandparents were among those immigrants.

“When the Issei first generation step foot in Hawaii in 1885, they were welcomed by the king himself,” Dr. Dennis Ogawa told me. Dr. Ogawa is a professor and former Chair at the University of Hawaii, American Studies Department and the author of JanKenPo: The World of Hawai’is Japanese Americans, among other publications. “King Kalakaua was on the dock when the ship came in, ready to welcome them on behalf of the kingdom. And it was a true, sincere welcome."

While visiting family in Honolulu in 2018, I was able to see the Gannenmono exhibit at the Bishop Museum. The gannenmono were the first Japanese immigrants to arrive in Hawai'i in the late 1860s.

Japanese settlers who immigrated to the mainland, however, did not receive a warm welcome, and were immediately subjected to harsh discrimination from white Americans. More than 127,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States between 1901 and 1908 as a direct result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – the first U.S. law to bar immigration solely on the basis of race. Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. because anti-Chinese racism prevented more Chinese from immigrating to provide cheap labor.

“I like to say that the Issei who came to the mainland were the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Dr. Ogawa. “The U.S. was already anti-Asian and had just kicked out the Chinese.”

The Japanese were replacements for Chinese laborers, and racist white Americans treated them no differently. Anti-Japanese sentiment would eventually lead to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas on all immigration from Asia. Additionally, the California Alien Land Law was passed in 1913 specifically to prevent Japanese immigrant farmers from owning and farming land – farmers would have to get creative and register their land in their U.S.-born children’s names.


The Camps: Japanese American Incarceration in WWII

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the experiences of Japanese people in Hawai’i and those on the mainland is that of WWII incarceration. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which provided for the unconstitutional imprisonment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the West Coast.

Most of the Japanese American friends I’ve made in California have family that was incarcerated in one or more of the 10 “relocation centers” established by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), including Manzanar, Tule Lake, Poston, Gila River, and more. This historical event has had a massive impact on the Japanese American community in the U.S. and specifically in California, where the last four Japantowns remain. Countless families and activists have dedicated their lives to educating others on incarceration as well as fighting the incarceration of other communities.

Mass incarceration didn’t occur in Hawai’i because Japanese people made up a crucial part of the labor force. At the time, the Japanese were the largest ethnic group in the U.S. territory – the economy would have plummeted without Japanese workers. This doesn’t mean that those of Japanese descent weren’t impacted by Pearl Harbor. Martial law was enforced, Japanese immigrants were forbidden from traveling outside of the islands, and several prison camps like the Honouliuli Internment Camp were established to incarcerate the “dangerous” Japanese: local community leaders like Japanese language teachers, pastors and priests, and business owners.

This historical event has had a massive impact on the Japanese American community in the U.S. and specifically in California, where the last four Japantowns remain. Countless families and activists have dedicated their lives to educating others on incarceration as well as fighting the incarceration of other communities.

The trauma and consequences of the camp experience have manifested themselves in countless ways, some of which I came into contact with as a teenager. During my first week of college at UC Irvine, I was overjoyed to learn there was a Japanese culture club on campus and showed up at the first meeting alone. I was quickly intimidated when I caught on that a lot of people already seemed to know each other, including freshmen like myself, all of whom had met through their local Buddhist temples and Japanese American basketball leagues.

This was my first time learning about the basketball leagues. Though I’d visited the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and Little Tokyo several times at that point, I still had a lot to learn about the community despite having grown up in California myself. I had no idea that there were youth basketball teams comprised entirely of Japanese Americans, and though I know I would’ve sucked if I joined myself, I was still hurt that I didn’t grow up with this experience.

I allowed my intimidation and lack of understanding to get the better of me, and I eventually stopped going to the club’s meetings. It was only much later that I learned Japanese American basketball leagues and Asian sports leagues in general were formed as a result of discrimination. White American youth leagues barred Asian children from joining their teams, so community parents and leaders form their own leagues.

Basketball and baseball also served as a favorite pastime for Japanese American youth in the concentration camps, and some people made friendships through their teams that would last for their rest of their lives. This is something that I didn't grow up understanding because my family wasn't incarcerated during the war.


The People Power: Japanese Representation in Hawai’i

From a young age, I understood Hawai’i to be a magical place because everyone looked like me, used the same words as me (“I gotta go shishi, mom”), and ate the same foods I enjoyed eating.

Though I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Orange County, most of my summers were spent visiting my grandparents, aunts, and cousins on Maui and Oahu. I couldn’t believe my cousins’ luck in getting to live in a place where not only did they have access to pristine beaches and spam musubi year-round, but they also were surrounded by Japanese friends and taught by Japanese teachers.

“A fundamental difference is that in the continental U.S., you’re a tiny minority, while in Hawai’i in the 20s and 30s, you’re the largest ethnic group,” said Brian Niiya, the content director of Densho and former curator for both JANM and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, and who edited two print editions of the Encyclopedia of Japanese American History. “Even in present day, Japanese Americans are 20 to 25 percent of the population in Hawai’i. That’s really different. There are things that happen here that you can’t imagine happening back in California.”

My cohort from the Kakehashi Project at the Japan Overseas Migration Museum. Among us are Japanese Americans from California, Hawai'i, Illinois, Idaho, and more.

Though Brian is a Los Angeles native, he spent over 30 years in Hawai’i and has spent a lot of time himself thinking about the cultural nuances of being Japanese on the mainland versus being Japanese in Hawai’i. He recalled his work in calling for the state to acknowledge the Honouliuli Internment Camp as a National Park Service unit.

“We had to visit the Congressional offices to get approval, and immediately after we gave our presentation, Neil Abercrombie acknowledged how terrible the camp was and began outlining what he was going to do to help us,” said Niiya. “Activists have had to go through so much to get Manzanar and other sites to be recognized in the continental U.S., but because the Japanese are such a huge voting block in Hawai’i, there was no substantial opposition to what we were trying to do.”

In other words, Japanese Americans are represented in Hawai’i, and have been for decades. Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress in 1964, and she was a Sansei (third generation) Japanese American woman from Maui who attended Maui High school – just like my mom.

My family has grown up among people who looked like them and were represented by local officials who shared the same experiences as them and who they trusted (for the most part) to understand their needs. It makes sense, then, why my family has never felt an urgent need to educate us on discrimination and representation –– they’ve had the privilege of feeling seen.

I also wonder if Japanese people’s influence on “local culture,” or the blending of various ethnic cultures like Chinese, Filipino, Native Hawaiian, and more is what made me not as curious to explore Japanese American history until I was older. I’ve noticed that a lot of people in Hawai’i identify primarily as local – proud of their culture and eager to distance themselves from haoles. It’s only after you ask them what their ethnicity is that they’ll say they’re Japanese. Meanwhile, a lot of folks I know here in Southern California are quick to identify themselves as Japanese American – not simply “Japanese.”

My family has grown up among people who looked like them and were represented by local officials who shared the same experiences as them and who they trusted (for the most part) to understand their needs.

Needless to say, I still have a lot to learn. The thing about nuance is that it’s so subtle that you have to actively catch it in order to study it. But through the work I’ve done so far, I’ve been able to make sense of the feelings of confusion and isolation I felt as a kid. I didn’t live in Hawai’i, so I don’t feel like a true local. My family doesn’t have a traditional “JA” (that’s a mainland term!) history, so I felt separated from the community in California.

However, I know that all these histories are intertwined, and that Japanese Americans from all states and regions have far more commonalities than differences. My own history and experiences don’t fall into one category, but are, rather, one silk string of a web that connects all of us in the Japanese diaspora.


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