Friday, August 15, 2014

US Commission on Civil Rights is now one-fourth Japanese

In conversations about racism in the US, the narrative tends to focus exclusively on whites and blacks. Asian Americans are often completely absent from the narrative and even from any conversation about race issues in the US. So I was surprised to see this tweet from Michael Yaki today about the US Commission on Civil Right's letter to the DOJ re: Ferguson.

I looked up Michael Yaki and found out he is one of two Japanese American commissioners on the US Commission on Civil Rights. There are only eight commissioners so Japanese Americans make up one-fourth of the Commission. Yaki is hapa - he is also of Chinese and native Hawaiian descent and is yonsei on his father's side. Karen Narasaki (twin sister of actor/playwright Ken Narasaki) was just appointed by President Obama last month (note: she isn't listed on the Commission's website yet). Narasaki is also yonsei on her father's side (Wikipedia mistakenly identifies her dad as nisei). Both of their fathers were incarcerated by the US government during WWII in spite of being third generation US citizens, yet both men ended up working for the government Narasaki's father served in the 442nd and Yaki's father served for 30 years in the Foreign Service. Their families' experiences as both victims of US government-sanctioned racism and employees of the government played an important role in Yaki and Narasaki becoming involved with civil rights issues.

Further reading:

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sea of Trees seeking Japanese extras for filming in Massachusetts

Ken Watanabe at Inception premiere Photo credit: Ninha Morandini

Just got an email from a friend that a film starring Ken Watanabe is seeking Japanese extras, male & female 18+. I was surprised that a film needing Japanese extras would be filming in Massachuesetts so I did some poking around and found out Gus Van Sant's new film Sea of Trees started filming last month in Foxborough. The film is about an American man (played by Matthew McConaughey) who travels to Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji also known as Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees, to commit suicide. (Aokigahara is one of Japan's most popular suicide locations.) There he befriends a Japanese man (played by Watanabe) and "instead of killing themselves, the duo embark on a reflective journey through the forest together."(Hollywood Reporter) The F. Gilbert Hills State Forest will stand in for Aokigahara.

The film is expected to be released next year. Should be interesting to see how it does in the US and Japan. Japan's suicide numbers have been described as epidemic (nearly twice as many as the US - see Wikipedia) though they have been declining since 2010 since following the Japanese government's increased efforts to reduce their suicide rate.

Encore screenings of A2-B-C @ Newburyport Documentary Film Festival

Last year some I went to see A2-B-C at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival with some Tewassa members. We just heard from filmmaker Ian Ash that they've decided to show the film twice this year. The film raises questions about whether the Japanese government and medical community are being open and transparent regarding the health of citizens, especially children, following the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Ash doesn't have any answers, but felt it was important to help these families tell their stories. Newburyport is a little out of the way for most people but the film is definitely worth seeing.

A2-B-C @ Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
Running time: 70 minutes
Followed by audience discussion

"Synopsis: Eighteen months after the nuclear meltdown, children in Fukushima are suffering from severe nose bleeds and are developing skin rashes and thyroid cysts and nodules. Citing a lack of transparency in the official medical testing of their children and the ineffectiveness of the decontamination of their homes and schools, the childrens mothers take radiation monitoring into their own hands."

Dates & Times
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Sunday, September 7, 2014

$8 at the door. No advance sales.

This info is not up on their website yet but there is a Facebook event.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

69th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

The ruins of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall Source: U.S. National Archives

This Wednesday and Saturday mark the 69th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Massachusetts Peace Action is holding events this week to mark the anniversaries. Students from Showa will perform (dance and taiko) at Wednesday's Boston Remembers Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Moving from Violence to Unity event. Video from last year is here.

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.

Update 8/11/14: Details have been posted to their blog. Matsuri will be 11am - 3pm. Admission is free but there will be a charge for games and food.

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 post-arrest 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 side of the family has been here for over 100 years. Her 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. 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 voilĂ  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. 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, 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. Some Asian Americans 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 belief 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 kid who eats weird, 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, some legal, some illegal.

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. A few months ago I heard Dr. Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, speak in Newton 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 have been 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 their stories matter.

The vast majority of 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 as we know it would not exist. We have to acknowledge that this country is a country built by immigrants and that's probably our greatest strength.

* 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 or do anything about it if you don't mention to them that you kept your other country's citizenship.

** 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 foreign accents, even though being bilingual is an accomplishment. People with heavier accents suffer more prejudice including being perceived as less truthful. However accents don't always relate to level of English fluency and general intelligence and competency. 

If you have a Japanese undocumented immigrant story 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.
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.

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.