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Nikkei Voice: Being JA Is a Celebration of Being American

By August 24, 2015No Comments

Gil AsakawaBy Gil Asakawa

During a recent trip to San Francisco to attend the annual conference of the Asian American Journalists Assn., I squeezed in two readings from the new revised edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” The two events reminded me why I wrote the book in the first place and why I love speaking to JA audiences. I love being JA!

The first edition was published in 2004, but a lot has happened since then: Japanese culture is even more popular now in the U.S. than a decade ago, but so is Asian American culture in general. The Internet was around in 2004, but social media has exploded on the scene since “Being JA” vol. 1.0 came out. During those years, Asian Americans have been early adopters and leading lights on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter — we’ve embraced digital media because we’re invisible in mainstream media.

Yet, even in mainstream media, we’ve made some huge strides: Hollywood movies still suffer from “yellowface” casting of whites in Asian roles, but there are more of us in starring and co-starring roles. John Cho was even cast as the romantic lead in a short-lived ABC sitcom this year, and that network’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the comedy that showcases an AAPI family, is filming a second season.

During a recent trip to San Francisco, Gil Asakawa appeared at two book readings to talk about his book "Being Japanese American." Photo: Gil Asakawa

During a recent trip to San Francisco, Gil Asakawa appeared at two book readings to talk about his book “Being Japanese American.” Photo: Gil Asakawa

So, it made sense when Stone Bridge reached out and asked me to update the book with new text, additional historical photos and interviews with more JAs, Japanese Canadians and mixed-race Japanese.

The books covers the history of Japanese immigration and, of course, the WWII concentration camp experience, but it’s also about our culture, community, food and families, as well as the future of JAs. We’re not always accepted as American and have to deal with lingering racism here, but we’re not quite Japanese either. I love the things that make us Japanese (cultural values, food, taking off shoes inside) but also the things that set us apart. Even before we open our mouths, Japanese people know right away we’re American because of our gait, our clothes and the way we make eye contact.

Also, the way we speak — some of us know a lot, some hardly any at all — marks us as sort-of-Japanese. That’s because most JA families arrived in the U.S. between the 1880s and 1924, when immigration from Japan was sealed off. So, some of our culture, including some of our words, are old fashioned and little-used today.

My favorite distinctly JA word is one I like to use to describe my book: “Being Japanese American” is a perfect “benjo book.”

Benjo, or “O-benjo,” means “bathroom” to JAs, and to Japanese way back in the day. But Japanese today use more refined words. The most polite term is o-te-arai, or “place to wash hands.” But most common today is toi-leh, which is how Japanese pronounce “toilet.” But JAs still use the old word. At the end of every big holiday feast as people are leaving with the nokori or “leftovers,” you’ll hear Auntie so-and-so yell out ,“Wait a minute, I have to go benjo first.”

Being Japanese American Gil AsakawaI tell audiences that my book is a perfect benjo book. Japanese Americans guffaw and everyone else gives me a quizzical look. Japanese from Japan frown slightly because they think I’m just being rude and crude. But the book is organized in chapters with short bits of text in the margins (common words and phrases and their meanings, or quotes from JA and Japanese Canadians, and increasingly, mixed-race people, about how they relate to the ethnic identity). So, it’s easy to read in small chunks, a few minutes at a time.

Like I said, a perfect benjo book!

I often sign my books with the phrase, “To celebrate JA culture is to celebrate American culture!” But I’m going to add a new phrase next to my signature: “Be JA!”

Gil Asakawa is a P.C. Editorial Board member and former Board Chair. He is AARP’s AAPI Marketing Communications Consultant, and he blogs at A new revised edition of his book, “Being Japanese American,” has just been published in August by Stone Bridge Press.