Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 New England Summer Festivals

Sorry, I completely forgot I needed to write this post!

The 31st Annual Black Ships Festival, is happening in Newport, Rhode Island this weekend. It began today and runs through Sunday. Check their website for details. The festival commemorates the history of kurofune, Western ships that opened up trade with Japan. Rhode Island might seem like an odd location for such a festival but Newport is the birthplace of Commodore Matthew Perry who negotiated the Kanagawa Treaty, the first treaty between the US and Japan.

Next month on Sunday, August 24, 2014, Hana Japan Restaurant in Newburyport, Massachusetts will host their fourth annual Natsu Matsuri (summer festival). Unfortunately, details aren't up on their website or Facebook yet but it's definitely happening. The Genki Spark announced in their newsletter that they will be there again and Tewassa will also be there. The Natsu Matsui is small and family-friendly and includes games, dancing, taiko, and wonderful food. Photos from last year's matsuri. I will update this post when I have the hours. Based on previous years I'd guess it will be in the early afternoon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Define American

I've been meaning to write something to answer Define American's call for stories. In light of founder Jose Antonio Vargas's arrest yesterday I thought now would be a good time. Jose was detained by the US government when he tried to board a flight to California at the McAllen-Miller International Airport in Texas, a few miles from the US-Mexico border. Due to its proximity to the border, people flying out of McAllen are screened by Border Patrol agents in addition to the TSA, something which is not mentioned on the airport's website or CBP's website. Jose said he was unaware before he arrived in Texas that he would have to pass a Border Patrol screening in order to get to another part of the US.

Jose has been living in the US for the past 21 years since his grandfather brought him here illegally from the Philippines at the age of 12. The United States is his home. He feels and believes that he is an American, but he has no papers to back that up and he has no reasonable path to citizenship available to him because he's too old (by four months) to qualify for citizenship under the DREAM Act. Jose was only held for a few hours before being released and it's unclear if he'll be deported when he appears in court. The media is speculating that he won't be deported since he's not the sort of person who is a high priority for deportation. (See his first interview with ABC.)

If you need a primer on how our legal immigration system works, Reason magazine laid it out in a simple one page chart back in 2008. To learn more about US Border Patrol checkpoints, see the AP's story, Answers About Immigration Checkpoints.


My mom's parents emigrated to Hawaii from Okinawa when it was still a territory. My grandfather came over with his dad at age 14 in 1912 and my grandmother followed as a picture bride ten years later at age 16, sailing on the SS Tenyo Maru. So my mom's side of the family has been here for over 100 years. Although my grandparents lived and toiled in Hawaii for decades and had 10 children there, they were not eligible for US citizenship until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act) repealed racist laws that had denied citizenship to Asian and other non-white immigrants.

Although I was born in Japan, I have been legally American since birth. How did I manage that? By having the sheer luck to be born to a woman with American citizenship. My mom reported by birth abroad and voilà I was a US citizen. I held dual US-Japanese citizenship until age 20 (the age of majority in Japan). At that point my mom and I struggled our way through the paperwork at the Japanese consulate in New York to renounce my citizenship (my dad wasn’t available to come with us). A college friend with dual US-Australian citizenship told me I was crazy for giving up my citizenship since there were places I would be able to travel more easily under a Japanese passport. This was before 9/11 and I didn’t give it any thought. I had to give up one or the other because Japan doesn't allow dual citizenship for adults and since I could barely read and write Japanese at that point and had no plans to ever move back it seemed like the only sensible thing to do. I’ve since found out that I have a number of friends with dual US-Japanese citizenship who simply didn’t renounce citizenship for one country. The Japanese government doesn't seem to mind.

So at age 20, I became solely a US citizen. But did that make me more American?

When I was younger, I struggled to fit in everywhere. At American school I was the Asian kid in a predominantly white school who brought weird and funny-smelling lunches (onigiri, spam okazu) in plastic boxes (bento) while my classmates were eating sandwiches out of plastic bags. I eventually convinced my mom to send me to school with Wonder Bread and Oscar Meyer baloney sandwiches so I wouldn't have to endure taunting over my lunches. Since I learned to speak English from a native speaker and came here at a young enough age I never had an accent. At American school I was an excellent student in most subjects. I loved learning even though I didn't love my bullying classmates.

On the other hand, at Japanese school, I may have looked similar to the other kids (though not quite the same since most of them were not half Okinawan like me) but since my parents chose to speak English at home my Japanese comprehension got worse over time and I struggled to understand my classmates and teachers. Six and a half days of the week I was surrounded by English and for a torturous Saturday morning, I was immersed in Japanese and expected to learn. My dad helped me with my homework but towards the end it was always a fight and I cried a lot because I didn’t see why I should have to learn Japanese if we were living here and not planning to go back. I hated learning and hated my bullying classmates. My parents let me drop out after 6th grade.

I spent much of my life believing that because:
  • I’d been raised in the US…
  • spoke unaccented flawless English…
  • had a document that declared me American…
  • and had white American friends...
...that I was American.

However, I always identified somewhat with my Japanese origins. Although I had one parent who was a native English speaker, I had another parent who was not. Every time my dad opened his mouth and spoke heavily accented, grammatically incorrect English or yelled, "Baka!" in Japanese I was reminded that I’m not from here.* When my paternal grandparents were still alive I wrote letters to them in my other native tongue. I loved going to shop at the Sanrio store after Japanese school and picking up treats at the Japanese grocery store. I loved it when I received origami paper from family and family friends and would spend hours making models. I loved it when we went out for Japanese food or when we had my favorite Japanese dishes for dinner. I loved eating onigiri on road trips. I loved the custom of omiyage - what kid wouldn’t like getting presents all year long? Food, arts, and toys were the primary ways through which I connected with being Japanese.

It wasn’t until I finally connected with the Japanese community in Boston a few years ago and started seeing a Japanese therapist that I realized that much of my discomfort in my 20s and some of my difficulties with my white friends and partners had to do with the fact that I am NOT American. Of course, I’m not Japanese either. I’m painfully aware of that every time I struggle to understand when people are speaking to me in Japanese and I have to ask red-faced if they can switch to English instead, when I wonder if I’m using the proper tense or the appropriately polite form of a word, when I think I’m not bowing low enough or slurping my noodles loudly enough, and when I can’t even read my own native tongue.
It’s a rare occurrence, but on occasion when I’ve been cranky or haven’t liked the way I’m being interrogated about my origin by a total stranger, I’ve lied and said I was born in the US, as though somehow by claiming an American birth, it makes me more American. I know some Asian Americans who don’t like to be called "Asian American" or "[insert ethnicity here] American". Some think we should be called American Japanese because that would emphasize our American-ness instead of the country of our ancestors. Others just want to be called American, just like white European descendants. I always told people I was Japanese-American because that's what my mom said I should tell people, but I've stuck with it, including the hyphen, which gets some Asian Americans upset, because I feel like it’s the most accurate representation of my dual identity as someone who was born in Japan, is ethnically and culturally Japanese, but who holds US citizenship and is also culturally American. I may have lost my other native language skills and my Japanese citizenship but Japan will always be in my blood, my heart, and my taste buds. If that makes me less American, oh well. I can't change who I am and I've finally stopped pretending that I can.

As a legal immigrant I’ve been free to embrace as much or as little of my Japanese identity as I've wanted to because legally I have nothing to prove. When I was younger I bought into the Japanese American message that we must assimilate because what child doesn't want to fit in with everyone around them? However, now that I'm older I see that's not entirely possible for me, nor is it necessary. I couldn't have written this blog 10 years ago since I was still too busy trying to fit in with my friends and their interests instead of asking myself, "What am I interested in?" I suppose it's lucky for me that Japanese food and pop culture are so trendy now so I'm no longer that weird kid who eats strange-smelling food. I wasn't comfortable with myself until I accepted that I will never be fully American by some standards nor do I want to be. Without my Japanese parts, I wouldn't be me.

We rarely see images of people like Jose (i.e.: professional, not Latino) being taken away by authorities for immigration violations. When someone says “illegal alien” what comes to mind? Probably something like Mexicans crossing the border at night or perhaps other Latinos from Central and South America - the sorts of folks you see working as custodians and food service workers. While Latinos do make up the majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the US, it's not as though they're alone. Unauthorized Asian immigrants are estimated to be around 11% of the undocumented population. Given the focus on Latinos you might have missed that Asians were the fastest-growing racial group in the US in 2012. Sixty percent of that growth was the result of immigration.

After I wrote about Documented, I heard from some Japanese people that they know undocumented Japanese living in the US. There's this notion that since Japan is a polite society and its' citizens are very law-abiding that all Japanese immigrants must come here legally. It's not true though. It's also not true that we don't have a history of illegal immigration. We do, but it's something most Japanese Americans don't want to admit. I heard Dr. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, speak in Newton a few months ago and was surprised when he mentioned that his dad had come to the US as an undocumented immigrant. Rather than be ashamed of his dad's choice, he sees it as an act of civil disobedience at a time when the US was restricting Asian immigration for racist reasons. I wish more Japanese American families would share these stories.

Last summer the JACL National Council voted 72-0 to pass a resolution calling for Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. It's great to see them involved with immigration reform but I feel like it would be more compelling if it had been accompanied by personal stories of undocumented Japanese immigrants — current or past. I'm sure that current numbers of undocumented Japanese in the US are probably a very small fraction of the total undocumented population, but these stories matter.

Most Americans would not be here had our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or other ancestors not come to the US. Without the contribution of immigrants, both legal and illegal, the United States would not exist today. We have to acknowledge that this country is a country built by immigrants and that's probably our greatest strength.

* I felt so ashamed the first time I heard G Yamazawa’s piece about his father in which he says, “thank you for your broken English that reminds me I am Japanese.” [Trigger warning: the piece deals with physical abuse and G's dad having cancer.] It had never occurred to me to see my father’s imperfect English in a positive light. In America we often look down on people with accents, even though being bilingual is an accomplishment. You can't judge a person by their accent. My dad received a Master's degree in the US and was a successful international businessman.

If you have a story of a Japanese undocumented immigrant that you would like to share (yours or a relative's), please email me at keiko dot in dot boston [at] gmail dot com. If you have any friends who are undocumented Japanese immigrants please consider passing this along to them. Thank you.

Friday, July 4, 2014

George Takei @ TEDxKyoto: Why I love a country that once betrayed me

It seems appropriate to share this on the 4th of July. A friend just sent me George Takei's talk at TEDxKyoto last month in which he talks about his heroes - his dad who taught him about democracy and the nisei who fought in the 442nd. He started by talking about his incarceration by the US government when he was just five years old. I've heard him talk about it many times but I think this was the first time I heard him refer to the camps as "prisoner of war camps" (5:30 on the TED video and 5:33 on the YouTube video). George doesn't mince words when he talks about what happened to him, his family, and the 120,000 other Japanese and Japanese Americans who were imprisoned without cause during WWII. He portrays it as the terrible injustice is was.

Being American isn't about the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, your religion, or what kind of utensils you eat with. It's not even about where you were born. It's important to keep this in mind as the immigration debate rages on and some Americans continue to believe you have to be straight, white, and Christian to be a true American.

Thanks, George, for continuing to remind the younger generations of Japanese Americans of the sacrifices the issei and nisei had to make for us to be here.

"They are my heroes. They clung to their belief in the shining ideals of this country, and they proved that being an American is not just for some people, that race is not how we define being an American. They expanded what it means to be an American, including Japanese-Americans that were feared and suspected and hated. They were change agents, and they left for me a legacy."
- George Takei on the 442nd

If you don't know about the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, you may find my introductory post helpful.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

George Takei: It Got Better

I had wanted to write something for LGBT History Month but it’s the end of the month and I didn’t get my act together. Instead I’ll share a new It Gets Better Project video from a series called It Got Better in which George Takei tells his story from being incarcerated by the US government as a child to figuring out he was different from his straight friends shortly after getting out of camp to Stonewall and coming out to his mom. He talks about meeting Brad and his decision to come out to the general public in 2005 after being upset by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failure to support equal marriage by vetoing a bill that would have made it legal in California. It’s all stuff he’s talked about before but his narration is intercut with family photos which I hadn't seen before. It's nice to see that context. One thing he talked about that I hadn't heard him discuss was how his career, which he'd been protecting all those years by not discussing his sexuality openly, took off after his public coming out.

George & Brad Takei @ Columbus Pride June 21, 2014
Photo courtesy of Rachel B.

Last weekend, George had the honor of being grand marshal at Columbus Pride. He and his husband, Brad, rode a float along with last year's grand marshals, Stephen and Joshua Snyder-Hill. My friend Rachel sent some photos of George talking to the crowd as he rode by! I wish I could have been there. Note that they are holding signs that say, "Takei Pride Parade" a nod to the time George offered to the people of Tennessee that they could use his last name as a synonym for the word "gay". (In 2012 the Tennessee legislature attempted to pass SB 49 & HB 229 which would have prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality in the classroom. It was nicknamed the "Don't Say 'Gay'" bill.)

In other news, I'd like to officially announce that I'm a contributor to Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum. They approached me in January after someone on staff found my post about Hawaii Five-0's season 4 episode Ho'onani Makuakane. I didn't announce it then because I wasn't sure if I would become a regular contributor. This month I decided that for pride  I would submit my coming out story. They accepted it and it was just posted! I hope to contribute more posts to Discover Nikkei in the coming months.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Film: Documented

So, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve paid virtually no attention to the immigration debate because I didn't think it had anything to do with me. My mom’s parents emigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii before it was even a state, but they did so legally. My dad also came to the US legally. On the Hawaii side of my family, I’m the only one of my generation who wasn’t born in the US, but because my mom was a US citizen and she registered my birth abroad, I am technically not an immigrant - I  automatically got US citizenship. I didn't have to do anything for it. I did not realize how privileged that makes me.

After going to see Vincent Who? last month it seems the New England ADL automatically put me on their mailing list and a few weeks ago I got an invitation to a screening of Documented: a film by an illegal immigrant undocumented American. The trailer was captivating and Jose Antonio Vargas, the subject, writer, director, and producer of the film was going to be on hand for a Q&A so I went. I didn’t realize until the opening credits were rolling that Japanese American producer Kevin Iwashina (whose films I keep finding myself watching) co-executive produced the film!

Since Jose is a journalist I had expected a newsy documentary with lots of facts and figures and arguments with his personal story as a backdrop, but instead the film was a deeply personal narrative about how he came to be in the United States illegally and what happened after he found out. When he was 12, his grandfather (who had immigrated to the US legally) arranged for a smuggler to bring him to the US so he could live with his grandparents and have a better life than he could back in the Philippines. When he was taken to the airport, he was told the man was his uncle. It would be another four years before he found out that his documents were fake. After that he found it easier to come out of the gay closet than the undocumented closet and he spent years mostly hiding his immigration status (sharing it with only a few trusted mentors) before eventually coming out in the New York Times Magazine at age 30. At the time he'd been living in the US for 18 years - more than half his life. The Philippines was no longer home. He considered himself an American but he had no papers to back that up. His only paths to citizenship would be to go back to the Philippines, wait ten years, then apply to come back to the US or marry an American, which was complicated by us not having equal marriage in all states and the federal government not recognizing those marriages at the time. Since DOMA was overturned, the federal government has begun to allow people in same gender relationships to sponsor their spouses. Jose told us after the film that he has 16 lawyers and they think that marrying a man might be the solution, but they're not sure.
Jose is in a rare position. So far, ICE hasn't tried to deport him. He acknowledged afterwards that he knows he's the most privileged undocumented person in America. He's educated. He has a lot of support. He has a high profile because he worked as a journalist for many years. He has a lot of connections (not too many undocumented Americans can say they know Marc Zuckerberg). He even won a Pulitzer Prize. He was quick to emphasize that his story is only one of millions, but it was a story he felt he should tell because he's in a position to do so. Much of the film focuses on the difficulties he's had with his mom who was left behind in the Philippines. He hasn't seen her in person since he left and their relationship became strained over the years after Jose learned about her part in sending him here illegally and he was upset that she didn't follow him as promised. He sent a crew to film his mom in the Philippines so you get to see both her perspective and Jose's about what it's been like for them to be separated all these years and the ups and down their relationship has gone through. Jose hoped that people would be able to connect with his story on a human level. Everyone understands family.

I was struck by Jose's path to activism. In the film he talked about watching YouTube videos of young undocumented people who were speaking up as being "undocumented and unafraid". He began to feel guilty. Here were people younger than he risking deportation to try and change things so that they and others in the same boat could get citizenship and stay in the country they call home. It reminded me a lot of why I came out. I watched a lot of It Gets Better videos on YouTube mainly from people younger than I, and I felt guilty. If they could be brave, why couldn't I? During the Q&A Jose said he saw parallels between the battles for LGBT rights and immigrant rights. He thinks immigration reform will go like LGBT rights - state by state. Equal marriage has only been possible because the culture shifted before the politics did. He believes that stories and art have the power to liberate people which is why he made the film. For the past few years he's be traveling the country showing the film and hoping to change the dialogue about illegal immigration, proving it's never too late to become involved.

I wish the Q&A had been longer and better organized. We didn't get to hear much from Jose because questions weren't screened and most of the people who "asked questions" seemed to be more interested in hearing themselves talk than in hearing Jose speak. The last question was really excellent though. A young American man told Jose that his best friend was undocumented. His friend is smart and interested in politics but he's feeling hopeless because right now he doesn't see a way out of his situation or a way to achieve his goals. The young man wanted to know how he could encourage his friend. Jose commended him for being a great ally and said to pass on to his friend, " I just hope you don't say no to yourself."

I would imagine that undocumented Japanese numbers are pretty low these days given overall Japanese immigration numbers which are down (unfortunately I couldn’t find any stats), but certainly not all the issei who came here back in the day came here legally. But that was a long time ago. Why should we care? I found a great piece on Racialicious - Japanese Americans and Immigration: Where We Fit that explains why it's still relevant to Japanese Americans. It was written by yonsei Kristin Fukushima a few years ago when she was Public Policy Coordinator for the Japanese American Citizens League Pacific Southwest District.

Until now Documented has only been shown at private screenings, but if you have cable, you can watch it tomorrow on CNN. They snagged the US distribution rights and the film will have it's television premiere tomorrow, Sunday, June 29th at 9pm ET and will air again at 11pm ET. If you miss it tomorrow CNN will air it again next Saturday, July 5th at 9 and 11pm ET. Details here.

If you're not able to watch the film on CNN, they're currently taking pre-orders for streaming or download on the film's website.
This post has been crossposted at Discover Nikkei, a multi-lingual Nikkei online community. 

From their website: "Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history." Discover Nikkei is coordinated by the Japanese American National Museum and supported by The Nippon Foundation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

G Yamazawa schooled me on spoken word

The first time I was exposed to spoken word poetry was at my hippie liberal arts college. I didn’t get it. It seemed silly and pretentious. Annoying and boring. I found it embarrassing to watch. Over the years I'd occasionally get invited to a poetry slam or open mic night and I always said no because I thought that spoken word was an art form I just didn’t appreciate. As it turns out, that’s only because I’d never heard any Asian performers so I'd never heard any spoken word that spoke to me, about my life experience.

A few days ago I came across Japanese-North Carolinian spoken word artist, G Yamazawa’s incredibly powerful piece, "Home" via sansei writer Gil Asakawa’s blog, Nikkei View. (There's a less shaky video with better sound quality here if you can't watch shaky videos, but it's a less fiery performance than the one Gil linked to so I recommend listening to the one above.)

Listening to "Home" I felt a tightness in my chest and tears in my eyes as he talks about 3.11 and knowing something was wrong, feeling the 18-wheeler parked in his heart and seeing in his mom's eyes that she wanted to return to Japan (I did too) and about how his mom told him he couldn't understand because he wasn't born there.

She said: "ジョージお 分からんと思う、そこで生まれてないから。"  "Jōji o wakaran to omou, sokode umare tenaikara," which G translates as, "I don’t think you’d understand. You’re not from there." My brain translated it as, "George, you don't understand, you weren't born there," which is a little closer the original. My friend who helped me with the Japanese (Thanks, Stacey!) said a direct translation would be, "I don't think you would understand, George, because you weren't born there."

The funny thing about getting older is that at some point you cross a line and all your teachers stop being older than you. This is the week that 23-year-old nisei G Yamazawa schooled me on spoken word. He may sound like a Southerner but he looks like he could be my cousin and although he's in a different generation both demographically and culturally (he's nisei, I was born in Japan but identify as sansei because my maternal grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s so I have a nisei mom), his experiences resonate. Perhaps growing up as an Asian in the South in the 90s/2000s was similar to growing up as an Asian in the Northeast in the 80s?

Some more of my favorites:


On a local note, I was surprised to learn recently that Cambridge is home to East Meets Words, the longest running Asian American open mic night series in the country. I had no idea we had a thriving Asian American arts community. They've been running since 2005. It happens the second Friday of every month at 8pm at East Meets World (934 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139), which used to be a Chinese-language bookstore called East Meets West. Next one is this Friday.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Photos: 2014 Japan Festival in Boston @ The Cambridge River Festival

I volunteered at the Tewassa booth at the third annual Japan Festival in Boston last Saturday, which was held in conjuction with The Cambridge River Festival.

I'm not sure that the festival within a festival concept worked all that well. This year's Japan Festival was really lacking in matsuri atmosphere. Although the River Festival had many stages none of the performers were Japanese so there was no Japanese music and due to the River Festival's vendor requirements matsuri games were not permitted (because it's an art festival, not a carnival, apparently). There also didn't seem to be that many Japanese people in attendance, although it could just be that it was hard to tell because so many people were there for the River Festival. I suppose it's better that something happened rather than nothing but I have to say I enjoyed this year's Sakura Matsuri much more even though it was smaller.

Anime Boston and some other Japan Festival booths

I only wandered around a little, although there wasn't much to see in the Japan Festival portion. There were 19 art and community booths, a far cry from what they had the first two years. They did at least cluster the Japanese booths together except for the two food booths which were way down on Sidney Street with the other food. 

Cooking okonomiyaki

The lines for hot food were crazy when I went down there so I didn't bother waiting. There was a booth listed on the website as JREX but they had Itadaki signs on the booth (they're a JREX member). I did spot Kazu Aotani (owner of Snappy Sushi & Snappy Ramen) manning the yakisoba grill so I guess it was a joint effort between JREX members. They were selling yakisoba, okonomiyaki, teriyaki corn, kakigouri (shaved ice), and Ramune.


Next to them was a booth listed on the website as "Cold Udon by Japan Block Fair". The booth was actually selling sōmen and appeared to be staffed by students from Showa Boston.

I thought Yume Wo Katare was not at the festival because they didn't have a food booth but I ran into a pack of Yume staff on the T and found out they had a non-food activity booth listed on the website as "Yume Festival" where they had a tanabata-like activity where people could write their dreams on a white board and have a Polaroid taken then hung up.

Japanese dolls @ Japanese Women's Club of Boston

There did appear to be a lot of activities for children although I didn't get near most of them and there were a lot of beautiful and ridiculously low-priced handmade goods at our booth, the Japanese Women's Club of Boston, and JB Line. JB Line had these adorable miniature macaron-like coin purses that I didn't manage to get a photo of. Apparently they're popular in Japan.

Tenugui @ wuhao newyork

One vendor came up from NYC: wuhao newyork. They primarily sell tenugui, a type of lightweight Japanese towel. They had some really beautiful ones as well as whimsical ones with maneki neko and dinosaurs!

Boston Special Needs was selling artwork by autistic and special needs children. They even had an artist working on site!

I do appreciate the hard work that the Japan Festival organizers put in to making this happen this year at all. I know people must be wondering what the plans are for next year's Japan Festival. I've heard some rumors but haven't confirmed anything yet. I'll post if I hear anything concrete.

Additional photos here.