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The mission of the NY/SC is to “raise awareness of AAPI issues and engage and develop young leaders who create positive change in our community.” (Photo: Kelly Aoki)

National Youth/Student Council members reflect on their hopes and dreams for their country and community.

By Kenji Kuramitsu, NY/SC Representative

As the holiday season approaches, members of the JACL’s National Youth/Student Council have shared meditations on this year’s Pacific Citizen Holiday Issue theme: “Hope. Harmony. Healing.” I spoke with seven members of the NY/SC about their work within the JACL, their frustrations and joys, and how these relate to their hopes and dreams for our country and community.

Intermountain District Council Youth Representative Eric Tokita sees his work as having to do with primarily thoughtful advocacy for his district’s young people. Tokita has been active in the JACL since grade school, and he initially became involved through local fundraisers and cultural events.

Tokita sees his identity as an Asian American as helping him to foment awareness around injustice and identify meaningfully with other groups who are experiencing oppression. Tokita’s current work is focused on bringing district youth together across geographical distance in order to create shared experiences and a greater sense of common belonging.

“I am a member of the NY/SC and JACL because I identify areas in my life that could benefit from a greater JA presence in my life,” he said. “I believe that others share similar sympathies, and I want to create a space for this community to flourish.”

Tokita believes that while ideas like harmony are important components of defeating “the growing hate actions across the globe … today’s hyperconnected world has desensitized most people to such words, and more drastic actions must be taken.”

For Tokita, these actions must go beyond words in order to help us center our present activism in the testimony and tapestry of our community history.

In talking about what might be done in order to reconnect disaffected youth with today’s Nikkei community, Tokita said, “Remembering the past is crucial to legitimizing many claims and worries about the direction our society might be heading.”

Mieko Kuramoto during her travels to Japan as a Kakehashi Project participant. (Photo: Courtesy of Mieko Kuramoto)

Midwest District Council Youth Representative Mieko Kuramoto first became involved in the NY/SC to deepen a sense of community with other Asian American youth. Meeting other multiracial Nikkei who were politically active also helped to foment Kuramoto’s sense of participation in this community as one that celebrates Nikkei who are mixed, queer, as well as those from diverse family backgrounds.

Kuramoto shares that her Nikkei identity reminds her of the importance of caring for others in difficult times. She consciously goes about “grounding myself in my own Japanese Americanness and the history that comes with it” as a clarifying action that increases her solidarity to those experiencing violence and exclusion. This commitment emerges when hearing rhetoric about undocumented immigration from Latin America and the supposed economic and social dangers they carry.

“It strikes me that some decades earlier, that kind of conversation was about my family and people who look like me,” Kuramoto said. “Who am I, then, to say that it’s not my problem because I’m not LatinX?”

Kuramoto has been meditating on the place of hope in light of the pressing political context that faces us today. Kuramoto recalls the events of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., and the overwhelming despair that many LGBTQ+ community members experienced after this attack.

“I remember being devastated and scared after that happened,” Kuramoto shared. “I felt pretty hopeless, and in the moment, ‘hoping’ that things would get better seemed kind of useless.”

At the same time, Kuramoto recognizes how hope came to play a crucial part in the community’s reconstitution.

“It was hope that drove the healing,” she says, as through remembrance and resilience the community slowly remembered itself “to facilitate recovery, love and support, as well as to promote activism and strength.”

However, she warned, “Only hoping is not a strategy … but at the same time, I believe that hope is an essential part of any activism.” This is central to building what Kuramoto calls “love relationships” — friends, family, significant others and acquaintances who help make the world feel a warmer and more kind place.

Pacific Northwest Council Youth Representative Tammy Le joined JACL in March 2017. Le is a Vietnamese American member of the NY/SC, and outside of her role on the council, she is involved with voting rights, union organizing and other social justice work in the Pacific Northwest.

Le highlights the importance of coalition-building and working alongside and within diverse communities to push for social change.

“Some challenges I face is taking care of myself and being transparent with my own struggles,” she said. “Doing meaningful work keeps me motivated and brings me a lot of joy.”

Like Tokita, Le believes that suffering must drive us to house the stories of our ancestors in the present: “We need to remember the past but also relate it to the present.” To Le, the legacies of history may remind us of what we are fighting for today and “that acts of discrimination, hate and bigotry [are] not new.” Ideals such as harmony and hope are what lead Le toward working in a world filled with more altruism and kindness.

Chair Kota Mizutani gives an NY/SC update to the JACL National Board at the October National Board meeting. (Photo: Stephanie Nitahara)

Kota Mizutani is the National Youth/Student Council chair, a role that sees him overseeing relevant programming, youth membership recruitment and representing the voice of young Nikkei and AAPIs at the national level. Mizutani joined the JACL in 2009 at the age of 13, and he began to learn about the organization’s structure through participation in the NY/SC Chicago convention mentorship program.

As a Shin-Nikkei, Mizutani is aware that individuals with his identity are not always explicitly included as members of the Japanese American community. A dual citizen, Mizutani occupies a liminal space that drives him toward his own long-term ambitions for change. “Beyond [ending] oppression,” he said, “I hope to see a day in which borders and geopolitics don’t prevent active and healthy relationships between diasporic peoples and the countries of their heritage.” In that middle space, Mizutani feels called to enhance authentic “relationship between Japan and Japanese America that highlights and engages identity.”

Mizutani recognizes that his involvement in the JACL, like his call to engage internationally between Japan and the United States, is bound with his own meaningful past experiences.

“The JACL was the first organization to invest in my interest in civil rights and political advocacy,” he said. “I would not have the opportunities I have today without the JACL’s undying support.”

While Mizutani expresses frustration with the sometimes petty politics and intergenerational challenges faced by the JACL, he emphasizes his ongoing inspiration and sharpening by the work of many NY/SC and JACL leaders who challenge him toward more holistic and transformative applications of social justice.

Michelle Huey, Juli Yoshinaga and Stephanie Nitahara at the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage (Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie Nitahara)

To Mizutani, the Japanese American story has wider resonances not only for ourselves “but also Nikkei around the world, AAPIs and the greater public.” When it comes to the crucial task of deploying these legacies within a contemporary context, Mizutani argues that “Nikkei youth have always been on the forefront of expanding how we apply and interpret the incarceration experience to the present time.” He sees one of the strengths of his work in the NY/SC lies in the council’s ability to bring together a diverse array of intersections and experiences.

Kelly Aoki, a fifth-generation Japanese American, serves as the Central California District Council Youth Representative, where she works with district youth; she is currently planning a summit alongside NCWNP and PSW partners.

Aoki’s grandparents, longtime JACLers, introduced her to the organization at a young age through picnics and holiday parties, and she officially became a member in high school.

After participating in the Kakehashi Project and the recent National Convention in Washington, D.C., Aoki joined the NY/SC this past fall. It was her Kakehashi experience that sparked an interest in an exploration of her ancestors and identity, as well as cemented Aoki’s involvement in the organization.

“I’ve always known that I was Japanese American, but I didn’t always know what that meant to me,” she said. “Honestly, until recently, I never gave it much thought. I figured, ‘We’re all Americans, right?’ Maybe that’s how our grandparents felt before they were incarcerated during WWII.”

Aoki spoke of the importance of the NY/SC’s October visit to Chicago’s “Then They Came for Me” exhibit, which documented the incarceration.

“Numerous times, I saw visitors baffled, asking things like, ‘How could this happen?’ or, ‘How did I not know about this?’ and it shocked me. People still don’t know about the Japanese American experience, and until they do, we’re in danger of history repeating itself.

“Being part of the NY/SC has opened my eyes to issues on a broader, national scale,” Aoki continued. “Our group is very diverse with a range of youth across the country. It is very easy to become accustomed to one way of thinking, so being exposed to different viewpoints is beneficial to individual growth.”

Amidst the divisive and violent context that we find ourselves in today, Aoki believes that we should move from exclusion to embracing and celebrating America as a cultural mosaic, which in turn celebrates human diversity.

Juli Yoshinaga is the Pacific Southwest District Youth Representative and a representative on the Pacific Citizen Editorial Board. She additionally leads the NY/SC’s communications campaign, which is responsible for the triannual NY/SC newsletter Nikkei-Mashou. Yoshinaga joined the JACL after meeting her predecessor in the PSW at a Japan American Society event, attending district events and national conventions.

Yoshinaga is a Shin-Nikkei and a fourth-generation Japanese American who says she struggled to find her sense of identity as an adolescent.

“I struggled with my identity growing up because I didn’t know where I fit in,” she said. “I spoke fluent Japanese, so I was either too Japanese for the fourth generations in L.A., or I was too ‘whitewashed’ for Shin-Nikkeis.”

Yoshinaga has “learned to appreciate both Nikkei identities as I grew older,” and she sees finding the NY/SC as a part of fomenting her identity. On joining the JACL, social justice and civil rights were not initial concerns for Yoshinaga, who simply wanted to become a part of a community that accepted, respected and understood the fabric of her ethnic identity. Yet, from challenging peers and their hopes and passions, she has learned about a plethora of issues “along the way.”

Experiences of bullying and oppression have helped to enflesh this critical awareness in Yoshinaga, and it has produced within her an empathy for others who are suffering.

“My identity has shaped me to want to be an ally, to provide a voice and stand up for people that are misrepresented,” she said. Yoshinaga disagrees with those who believe that Japanese Americans focus “too much” on the story of the incarceration, arguing that Nikkei youth must be steeped in these stories to become truly cognizant of what is happening today.

According to Yoshinaga, “Knowing why Japanese Americans were so keen on assimilating to white America and why we lost our language” is an important lesson to herald. She suspects the divides between Shin-Nikkei and third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Nikkei stem from incarceration histories, which encouraged many diasporic families to erase their Japanese identity in shame. There is still internal healing needed here. Yoshinaga is laboring for hope, harmony and healing because these are life-and-death affairs.

“I hope for white nationalism to one day understand it’s not all about them — there are other people in this country, too, that are just as human as them. … I hope we can all coexist in harmony without feeling fear or embarrassment with the skin or soul we’ve been given,” she said.

Eric Langowski serves as the Midwest District Council Youth Representative. Initially, he entered the JACL through Hoosier chapter events, which he viewed as “family picnic”-type gatherings. Langowski is passionate about sharing the community he has found within the NY/SC with wider circles of Japanese American youth, traveling frequently and running young adult programming throughout the Midwest.

With a mathematics background, Langowski works with civic engagement and studies hate crimes.

“My career goal is to become a data-expert and work to quantify injustice in a way that furthers the struggle for equality and equity,” he said. “I always say that ‘never again’ happens everyday.”

This urge to reveal the quotidian sufferings that surround us is related to Langowski’s hope for Japanese Americans to “move beyond the incarceration experience in a way that acknowledges our community’s trauma and diaspora in the context of our privilege today.” Langowski also argues that while “we have our history and story, and we’ve told it a million different ways across the country, we must be compassionate and sympathetic of those who do not have the luxury to take a moment to heal.”

Langowski does not see this call to “move beyond” history as a way to sever himself from his ancestors and their past resistance but rather as a way of deepening and broadening those legacies. Langowski says he is a JACL member in order to continue his grandmother’s “fight against injustice,” while acknowledging that his advocacy differs from her own in focusing on issues “like mass incarceration, black lives matters or socioeconomic issues/capitalism that perpetuate injustice today.” Above all, he treasures the support of his grandmother and is working for the JACL’s survival to the next generation by uplifting the voices of youth membership.

He also believes that the wider organization “is extremely critical of the youth voice,” a point Langowski finds evidenced by actions taken at the recent July National Convention. Langowski points to how a proposed resolution regarding divestment from the Dakota Access Pipeline, which caused consternation, had to have its teeth filed down in order to pass.

“I was so moved by the youth and members who wrote that resolution,” Langowski recalled. “Yet, their vision — which was fresh and new, and the young people spoke so eloquently — was not effectively heard by JACL the institution.”

Where are these liberative textures like harmony, hope and healing to be created but in the stickiness of daily institutional life? It is on the floors of convention halls and in board rooms, in chapter gatherings and district council meetings, at “family-style picnics” and cultural events to the political and social arena that we make our political commitments real and expend our lives.

The various professional spheres represented by NY/SC members include artists, activists, data researchers, clergy, political, community organizers, business students and leaders, as well as far more. Members express how the diverse and sometimes conflicting views of fellow council members have only strengthened their commitments to civil and human rights.

Forums such as the Pacific Citizen are also important venues for our community to foster sharp and necessary conversations around social justice.

Photographed in Chicago at their fall retreat in October are, from left, Kelly Aoki, Mieko Kuramoto, Kenji Kuramitsu, Michelle Huey, Eric Langowski, Juli Yoshinaga, Kota Mizutani, Tammy Le and Erik Tokita. (Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Aoki)