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Whose Legacy is it Anyway?

By October 24, 2014No Comments

By John Tateishi

In the years after the war, the word hapa was not yet part of the Japanese American lexicon, although we were familiar enough with kids our age who were from mix-race marriages, usually those of Japanese war brides.

We didn’t treat them well. We Sanseis shunned these kids of war brides. We viewed mixed-race marriages — Japanese female, white male — as somehow a threat to our sensibilities as Japanese. It set our equilibrium off balance. I’m sure it had everything to do with the fact that whites were the ones who abused us and did so much to take away our humanity.

What I came to understand later as I reflected on that time in our lives was that we didn’t know how to relate to Japanese American kids who came from mixed marriages because it was our own discomfort that caused us never to try to befriend any of them. Unlike whites, who seemed to look down on these hapa kids as social outcasts, we didn’t view them as inferior in any way but simply didn’t know how to relate to them.

Sadly, children from those marriages suffered from discrimination on all sides. Eurasian kids, as they were called, were shunned by whites and by us. They never joined in the fun with us wherever we were, probably because we never made them feel welcomed to join us.

The image in my mind that captures all of that was a time when we had a church picnic at Santa Monica beach, with our families all gathered on blankets and tatami mats with umbrellas and bentos and having a good time together. A little ways off from us, there was a couple with their two hapa kids, much farther from us psychologically than the 20 feet of sand that separated us. My father invited them to come share our blanket, and even though they joined us, we could never get comfortable with each other.

All that has changed. Mixed-race marriages have become much more common among Japanese Americans, even to the degree that some in our community are concerned with the disappearance of “pure” Japanese Americans.

The question about “pureness” troubles me because it expresses an underlying judgment that implies anything less than 100 percent Japanese threatens the racial integrity of the community. It’s a judgment that states that if your racial lineage goes back to Japan on both sides of your family, your cultural legitimacy as a Japanese is somehow superior to someone who may have half or a quarter or an eighth Japanese blood.

But you and I know that isn’t true. I know Sanseis who care no more about preserving their Japanese cultural heritage than do their non-Japanese partners. And that’s fine. To each his or her own. I certainly don’t judge that because it isn’t something that concerns me, and besides, it’s none of my business.

Preserving our cultural heritage and legacy is one thing, but judging who is best qualified to preserve it is quite another. It goes back to the question I’ve asked before, “What does it mean to be Japanese American?” Language? I hope not because if that’s it, we’re all screwed since so few of us speak Japanese. The way we look? Racial features? Yes, mostly but that’s not all. I think it has to do with cultural values we inherit from our parents and community. Values inform behavior, right? We understand enryo or gaman or kanshin, etc., all those things we start to learn from our parents soon after birth.

Last month, I spent a few days with college-age students who were in California as participants of the Chicago chapter’s Kansha program. They were in Little Tokyo to experience and learn about the Japanese American legacy, and then they visited Manzanar on an overnight trip.

Six of the 10 participants were hapa with a variety of mixes: Irish, Norwegian, Lebanese, Swedish, German and more, and of course Japanese. The one thing the participants had in common — whether they were full Japanese or mixed-race — was their search for identity as Japanese Americans, something they shared equally.

I was deeply moved when I listened in one workshop session to the participants describe how they each have had to struggle with identity issues and how acceptance and rejection have been such a part of their lives. Living in areas where there are not large populations of Japanese Americans like on the West Coast has made their personal quests that much more difficult and even painful.

You would think being in California where multiethnicity is not at all uncommon these days among younger Asians and certainly among the Yonsei would afford the Kansha participants the opportunity to be totally free of the very notion of identity.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. On one of the tours in Little Tokyo, a guide apparently questioned the legitimacy of one of the participants identifying as Japanese. I was angered when I learned about this the next day, knowing how painful it must have been to be the brunt of this kind of narrow-minded ignorance.

It’s a reminder of how important it is for us to remember that hapa youth who identify as Japanese American embrace their Japanese heritage as much as (and maybe even more than) the rest of us do. We take it for granted, while they cherish that part of their identity.

This year’s Kansha group was awesome, each and every one of them. On the flight back to San Francisco, I thought about them and thought, if they are our future and the bearers of our legacy into the future, our legacy will be more than just fine in their hands.

John Tateishi is a former JACL National Director.

 Originally published on July 25, 2014