Last summer, as part of the Saishin Dojo Summer activities, we took a trip to Los Angeles's Little Tokyo, beginning with a tour of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). I was hoping to work with two of my other friends who were volunteering but, of course, we were split up to help different grades. I was to chaperone the third graders through a guided tour of the JANM, which entailed taking two kids around selected exhibits to help them write answers to the guided questions.
The questions themselves were fine– “What is one interesting artifact and why?” “What are some similarities between the people who were sent to the camps with your own life?” –but asking third graders to reflect on the racial injustices in WW2 America felt like a task well above my meager High School diploma.
I went rogue on my chaperone duties and got off script. “Do you know if you have any family members or community members who went to the camps?”
One of the kids, a little girl who was always carefully and conspicuously dressed with matching headbands and clips, nodded. “My mom said my great-grandma was there.” She seemed unsure herself, but it also seemed like a question she had heard before. The other kid, a boy who spoke more directly to his shoes than to me, shook his head. “My grandpa was in Japan.” And then, “I’m only part Japanese.”
I’ve been thinking about both of those answers a lot recently. Similar to the girl, I knew from a young age what the camps were as a concept; that my older relatives grew up there, that temple members mentioned it sometimes, that it was important to them and, therefore, was important to me. And similar to the boy, I was also part Japanese.
But unlike him, “Japanese” and “Chinese,” were often interchangeable orders– both of which always came before “American.” I grew up in communities that constantly acknowledged my mixed identity, and allowed me to explore both. Somewhat contradictorily, I felt that I could move between both identities, becoming “Japanese American” or “Chinese American” depending on where I was, or who I was talking to. I wondered why I could lean more easily into my Japanese side, whereas he felt so starkly aware of its absence–What creates the difference between feeling “part Japanese,” without the “only?”
I wondered why I could lean more easily into my Japanese side, whereas he felt so starkly aware of its absence–What creates the difference between feeling “part Japanese,” without the “only?”
The first time I was asked to define myself was my first day of the Kizuna Leadership workshops in July of 2017. We sat around folding tables, down the basement of a church, surrounding a piece of butcher paper with the word “Identity” circled in the middle. I knew only a handful of people in that room and felt, for the first time in a very long time, like the new kid. Most of us were newly fourteen, about to enter high school, and had never needed to know who we were, or why we were. All we knew– all I knew– was that if I wanted to fit in, my best chance would be to stick to the people I knew already. Here was an activity designed to do the opposite, to name things that set us apart from everyone else.
And so we sat in that basement, staring at the butcher paper– and the wall behind it, and the ceiling lights above it, and the tile floor below it– in silence. Eventually someone was volun-told to speak, and they said, “dancing.” Someone else was called and said, “Girl Scouts.” Another said, “basketball.” By the end of it, there was a near-visible cloud of Sharpie fumes, and the paper was filled with activities and descriptions that defined each of us, and all of us.
That summer, despite myself, I made more friends than I knew what to do with. And I felt infinitely less alone.
For many kids in the JA community, basketball is a defining factor of their childhood. However, it isn’t always a positive facet.
For years, basketball was synonymous with pressure and expectation, something that I felt should have come easily to me but didn’t. It wasn’t just the pressure of having a dad and brother who were former CYC players, but the underlying, overarching community aspects. J-League teams bond through eating post-game Hawaiian food together, by selling chili-rice at Obon together, and by carpooling to overnight tournaments together just as much as they do at practice and games. To turn away from those experiences feels like turning away from a central place in the community. Especially when that place feels like it was painstakingly carved out for you. It’s near impossible to explain that kind of pressure to someone who’s never heard of J-League.
And besides that are the rules.
The unwritten rules of Japanese American validity; if the team has enough kids who are an eighth or more of Japanese descent, the team is allowed a certain number of non-JA kids.
Japanese American basketball can be a shocking concept if you didn’t grow up with it, or if you didn’t know its necessary birth during a time of exclusion and racism in a post-WW2 America. The community it fosters, the values of teamwork and shared community it upholds isn’t always apparent so many years later. Oftentimes, an explanation of the J-League rules is met with the same questions: What counts as Japanese? Is it by blood or by nationality? Does this apply to coaches, too?
Like most unwritten rules, they’re finicky– for example, a non-Japanese kid adopted by JA parents counts as Japanese. But what if those parents are less than an eighth? These are all hypothetical questions, of course, but as the generations go on and the pool of Japanese Americans diversifies– not just in the gene pool, but in the cultural sphere– they become real issues.
I’m not saying there’s something inherently toxic or exclusionary about J-League– like many, it was my first experience with a community– but being such a prominent, iconic part of this community means it has the highest amount of potential to affect the most people. It’s a very real worry for some people that the space that felt painstakingly carved out for them won’t be open to their kids. The rules that were meant to protect us, to include us, could just as well shut us out.
The rules that were meant to protect us, to include us, could just as well shut us out.
In 2019 I visited Japan for the first time with Senshin’s Junior YBA group. My family tagged along through the sweltering heat to nearly every temple, restaurant, and tour, and although we went to sleep every night exhausted and slightly sweaty, it was an amazing experience.
One of my fondest memories from that trip was visiting a small temple in Amagasaki, presided over by a friend of Rev. Furumoto’s. Like Senshin, this temple served as a daycare/summer school for elementary-aged kids. They sang two songs for us (two of the most adorable performances I have ever witnessed) and then invited us to eat watermelon together.
Throughout the entire trip, traveling with Sensei shielded us from the awkwardness of our language barrier. All of us knew the words and phrases we grew up with, but we had no real reason to converse with anyone beyond ordering in a restaurant or buying something, both involving more pointing than talking. So we were wholly unprepared to be sitting criss-crossed surrounded by swarms of tiny, curious kids.
It was overwhelming, not just because of the cuteness, but because of the sudden realization of how American I was. Sitting on that floor with those kids trying to nod along with what I could only assume to be an elaborate and exciting story, I felt obtrusive. What was I doing wearing jean shorts and a tank top, in a country that I hadn’t even bothered to learn a full sentence of?
Even more than that was the disappointment. Being so far divorced from this culture, I felt like an imposter– to look like one thing but, in reality, being another. In both America and Asia, I was an imposter. As the years go on, I wonder if the cracks will deepen, and I wonder if we’ll remember what laid on the other side.
These questions about identity, about the future, torments me. Foucault made the point that so much power lies in the categorization, the labeling, of things. Where did this obsession with labels come from? From the divide of being Japanese or American came the term “Japanese American,” but what happens when we outgrow that?
Right now, my generation of Japanese Americans are the ones who use machines during Mochitsuki, who wear jean shorts and tank tops under their yukatas, who smash Ramune bottles in empty garbage bins in the temple parking lots. We’re both Japanese and American, we’re both more and less. We made our homes in the cracks, and but didn’t allow ourselves to break apart.
It is our longstanding emphasis on connection and shared empathy that has held this community together.
As the generations of JA’s grow further and further removed from the camps, the assumption is that things get lost in translation. But maybe culture isn’t so much about what is passed on, but about learning and respecting what’s come before. It’s what Sanseis, Yonseis, and Goseis have been doing all along. It is our longstanding emphasis on connection and shared empathy that has held this community together. While it’s true that what future Japanese Americans look like will ultimately be up to the choices of those generations, they will inevitably be shaped by every generation that’s come before.
We were still stuck in the first exhibit while the rest of the third graders had gone on. The little boy and the little girl were more interested in the record player, the photographs, and the school uniforms to care about the reconstructed Manzanar barrack that made up an entire third of the room. And why would they? I thought to myself. Slats of old wood mean nothing to anyone without memory and meaning– Thesus’s ship, or something like that. Is it really a barrack if no one’s inside it? I read the last guided question anyway.
“How does this exhibit make you feel?”
I was prepared to write something like, “sad,” and call it a day. But the little girl and the little boy looked at each other, then at the dark, barren walls. They looked impossibly small in face of the looming barrack.
“Cold,” the little girl said. “It feels cold.”
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