By Gil Asakawa
(Originally published in the Dec. 16, 2016-Jan. 26, 2017 Holiday Issue of Pacific Citizen.)
Wow, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad 2016 is coming to an end. Not that I think next year will be better — I have a lot of trepidation about the future — but I can hope, can’t I? There were some great things about this past year. I love to travel, and I traveled twice to Las Vegas for conferences, as well as Washington D.C., San Jose and Ft. Lauderdale.
My wife and I just returned from a family reunion trip to Hawaii.
My wife and I were also able to take my mom, who has dementia, for a “farewell tour” of Japan, including Sapporo, where her brother lives; Nemuro, her small hometown in eastern Hokkaido; and Tokyo, so she could visit a longtime family friend. And in September, I was invited by the New Mexico chapter of JACL to give a reading of my book, “Being Japanese American,” at the chapter’s annual fall festival, Aki Matsuri.
When I travel to L.A. or Hawaii, I know I’m going to feel right at home with all the Asian faces.
I didn’t expect to feel right at home in New Mexico, too!
When we think of Japanese Americans, we mostly think of the West Coast, where JAs are concentrated. But I live in Denver. The JA community here is nothing like being in L.A., San Francisco or Seattle, but we have Sakura Square, our “Tiny Tokyo” — the one-block haven for the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple, one Japanese restaurant and a family owned Japanese grocery store.
In Albuquerque, there is no Tiny Tokyo, no Japanese market, so I was a surprised to meet a whole bunch of Japanese Americans. Some were born and raised there, and others were transplanted from the West Coast, or even Hawaii. Albuquerque is smaller than Denver, but I give credit to the local JACL chapter — its membership and the New Mexico community that’s interested in Japanese things came out in force for Aki Matsuri.
Victor Yamada, who is one of the leaders of the New Mexico JACL chapter, set up my trip. I had had breakfast the past spring with him when I was in Albuquerque for a journalism conference.
The event was held on the grounds of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, featuring vendor booths and a food tent, which was a fundraiser for the JACL chapter. One side of the outdoor plaza had a large stage set up for performances from taiko drumming and martial arts demonstrations to traditional Okinawan dancing. My reading was inside, in a room that featured a fabulous exhibit of movie posters from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese producers of Hayao Miyazaki’s classic series of animated feature films.
My abiding impression of my trip is the terrific variety of JAs in Albuquerque and the number of mixed-race JAs who identify with the Japanese side of their heritage. Paul Mayer, the man with the movie posters collection, is mixed-race and has traveled extensively to Japan and speaks Japanese. Wanda Day and her son, Joey, are friends in Albuquerque and are Japanese and Latina/Latino. I also met a handful of others who are mixed-race. In most cases, I had no idea from looking at them that they might be part Japanese.
I thought more about mixed-race JAs last week during my trip to Hawaii. So many people in Hawaii are mixed-race. Yet, it doesn’t matter to anyone — for an Asian American like me, Hawaii feels like the most welcoming, comfortable place in the world. It’s good to be the majority!
Some of my wonderful cousins in Hawaii are also part-Japanese. One of them told me sad stories of wishing she looked more Japanese when she was growing up because she felt like she didn’t fit it. That’s the reverse of Asians on the mainland, of course, who might grow up wishing they looked more white.
Albuquerque is also diverse, though in a different way, from Hawaii. So much of the driving spirit of New Mexico is derived from the state’s American Indian and Hispanic heritages. Caucasians might be in the majority in Albuquerque, but the place and its people are rich with the culture of people of color.
One of the most powerful aspects of my trip to New Mexico was learning about Victor Yamada’s research on the Justice Department camps where people of Japanese heritage were imprisoned during WWII.
The JACL chapter has worked with Colorado State University on “Confinement in the Land of Enchantment: Japanese Americans in New Mexico During WWII,” studying the New Mexico prison camps in Lordsburg, Santa Fe, Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch. I’ll have to go back and tour those sites sometime.
Especially now, with the tumult of the presidential campaign, the country’s divisions and the statements about banning Muslims and then creating a “registry” of Muslims — we all need to be vigilant and remember the racial fear and hatred that led to the Japanese American incarceration. And now, with so many more mixed-race people in our country — not just Asian American but also African-American, Latino and Muslim, too — will the country’s racial divisions be more complicated?
That’s why 2016 was tough for me — it felt like justice was on the ropes at times. I hope 2017 will be better. Feb. 19 will be the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, so it’ll be a good opportunity to educate America about our flawed past and move past it to a brighter future.
Gil Asakawa is the Editorial Board Chair of the Pacific Citizen. He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com and is a consultant for AARP’s AAPI marketing team.