Panel Discusses Changing Japanese American Identities

From the Nichi Bei Times Weekly July 27 - Aug. 2, 2006


Nichi Bei Times

To coincide with the 100th anniversary of Japantown in San Francisco in Western Addition, the Consulate General of Japan and the Japan Foundation Center for the Global Partnership held a symposium on “Shifting Japanese American Identities,” on July 24 at the Miyako Hotel.

The symposium panel included Glen Fukushima, the president and CEO of Airbus Japan; Philip Kan Gotanda, a filmmaker, professor and playwright; and Takeya Mizuno, an associate professor of media and communication at Japan’s Toyo University. Michael Omi, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley, moderated the panel.


Relationship with Japan

Japanese Americans have had a long and rocky relationship with their ancestral homeland, according to the panelists. Fukushima said that Japanese nationals often ask him what Japanese Americans think of Japan. The answer, he explains, is complicated, because there is great diversity within the community.

“Japanese Americans are an incredibly diverse group,” he says, “who, in fact, represent the diversity of America.”

Many Japanese Americans, says Fukushima, have tried to distance themselves from the country because of World War II and the mass incarceration by the United States government of persons of Japanese ancestry.

Others, he says, don’t think much at all about the Land of the Rising Sun. With some exceptions, he feels that only a small group of academics are “intensively involved in Japan.”

This is in stark contrast, he says, to other immigrant communities. Chinese Americans, he notes, are interested and involved in the relationship between the U.S. and China. He cited the “Committee of 100” an organization of prominent Chinese Americans whose mission includes the improvement of China-U.S. relations.

Japan has not taken an active interest in Japanese Americans in the past either. According to Fukushima, in 1973 a professor at Columbia University famously stated that Japanese Americans couldn’t play a role in U.S.-Japan relations because “the Japanese don’t take Japanese Americans seriously.”

The culture that gets passed down in Japanese American families is a “fossilized culture” from the Meiji Era, explained Omi. He added that in Japan, people find his Japanese humorously outdated.

Gotanda told a story of his visit to Japan, where, in a small pottery village, the locals thought he was “retarded” because of his strange broken Japanese, his way of dress, and his body language.

But Japan was also a place that, for Gotanda, enhanced understanding of the Japanese American experience. He remembers vividly, that exiting Shinjuku station after a year of being in the country, an inexplicable feeling came over him.

“I walked out and I was struck by a sea of faces that looked like me…, I looked to my left and there was a bank of Sony televisions with a newscaster on it who looked just like me, a billboard with a person smoking that looked just like me,” he said. “At that instant… I felt this huge weight lift off of me. I felt like I belonged.”

He said that at this point he finally understood the impact of having lived in a society where racism was “enforced on all levels, supported institutionally, and psychologically.”

It was this experience that prompted him to go back to America and get involved with the radical movements of the sixties and seventies.

Though he feels he will never be “Japanese,” Gotanda, as well as the other panelists, feel that Japan has become more receptive to Japanese Americans in recent years.

According to Fukushima, increased openness to Japanese Americans is due to several factors. The globalization of Japan, he says, is forcing the country to think about diversity. The children of businessmen who have lived abroad have caused many to question the definition of “Japanese-ness,” and the younger generation is “not burdened with the preconceptions their parents had about Japanese Americans.”

He also sites the economic success of Nikkei and their participation in U.S. government as other factors.

Though he can’t speak for all Japanese nationals, Mizuno adds that he feels “a great deal of familiarity with people of Japanese descent.”

“The difference is so slim,” he says, that if his parents had made a pivotal decision, “I might be sitting (amongst the Japanese Americans in the audience).”
He hopes that through learning about the Japanese American experience, Japanese people can change their attitudes about minorities in their own country.

Fukushima feels that in order for Nikkei to have a normal relationship with Japan, certain things need to change. He feels Japan must recognize that Nikkei are a diverse group of people.

“For historical, political, and cultural reasons,” he says, “it is not reasonable to expect Japanese Americans will play a role similar to the one American Jews play for Israel.

“Don’t be a bridge,” he says to Japanese Americans. “Be a players, actors, and decision-makers!”


New Identities

When talking about Nikkei, Fukushima believes that there are multiple identities to talk about.
The first, he says, is a psychological identity, which is how Japanese Americans self-identify. The second is their legal identity or citizenship. The third is the social-cultural identity, which is how they are viewed by society.

Omi and Consul General of Japan Makoto Yamanaka came up with three scenarios for the future of Japanese American identity. “One scenario,” he said, “is a continuation of a distinctive Japanese American identity, rooted in the Meiji Era of Japan… which has evolved into something unique.”

The second scenario would be the adoption of an Asian American identity. The problem with adopting a pan-Asia identity, he says, is that the Japanese American demographic profile is “distinctly different from that of other Asian ethnic groups.”

In terms of nativity status, median family income, and occupational mix, Japanese Americans don’t fit the general profile of most Asians in America.

The third possibility he sees is assimilation, the withering away of a distinctive Japanese American identity over time. “Japanese American cultural identity is continually being redefined,” says Omi, “and the assumption that the decrease of so-called ‘racially pure’ Japanese Americans means the end of community culture may be a profoundly misleading one.”

”Identity overlaps,” said Gotanda, who feels that, though history must be preserved, change must also be accepted. “It’s an on-going continual of history and present-day life as it’s lived right now, all in constant reinvention so that it might be relevant to the world and to itself and worthy of being called Japanese American.”


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