Not Your Hypothetical: 150 years of Japanese American history & culture
December 27, 2019 5:01 PM   Subscribe

In 1869, twenty-two Japanese immigrants settled on Gold Hill outside Placerville, California, planting silk-producing mulberry trees and tea. Japanese Americans and their distinct culture have been in the United States ever since. This week, many will celebrate Oshogatsu (the Japanese New Year celebration) with community mochitsuki and osechi recipes handed down through generations, surviving war, internment, and dramatic social change. Sean Miura sums up the Japanese American experience in his spoken-word piece Yonsei.

The Issei (first generation) arrived from Japan between 1869 and 1924, when the Immigration Act of 1924 banned further immigration from Asia. (Because Japan was largely a developed country by 1965, when immigration was next allowed, few immigrants have arrived since, and the majority of Japanese Americans fall into similar generational cohorts.) Many Issei women came as “picture brides” in arranged marriages, an experience that Hawaii-based Sansei filmmaker Kayo Hatta chronicled in her 1995 film Picture Bride. The 1922 Supreme Court decision in Ozawa v. United States prevented the Issei from becoming naturalized citizens, which would have weighty consequences during the war.

The Nisei (second generation) were young adults when FDR signed Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent (two-thirds of them American citizens) to remote concentration camps. Because cameras were forbidden, artists such as Chiura Obata and Mine Okubo chronicled their experience in the camps in pen and ink. Members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (motto: Go for Broke) volunteered or were drafted from the camps to fight two wars: the war against the Germans in Europe and the war against racial prejudice in America. Meanwhile, the No-No Boys resisted the draft and were segregated at Tule Lake under martial law.

After the war, in Hawaii’s Democratic Revolution of 1954, Nisei (including future presidential candidate Patsy Mink and veterans Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga) were voted into the territorial legislature: “Well, obviously after going through an experience of that nature where you saw your friends die every day … we weren't ready to go back to the plantations.” And in 2010, hundreds of Nisei, now octo- and nonagenarians, whose studies had been interrupted by the internment were finally awarded their diplomas.

The postwar Sansei (third generation) saw an explosion of activism and artistic expression. Sansei led the redress movement, uncovering the lies told by the American government to justify the internment (a story told in the documentary Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066) and ultimately leading to reparations for internment camp survivors in 1988. At San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley, radical Sansei activists joined other Asian Americans and people of color in the Third World Liberation Front student-led strikes for the creation of ethnic studies departments. In the arts, Lawson Fusao Inada, together with fellow writers Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, and Shawn Wong, compiled the seminal Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers (previously).

Seeing the Trump administration repeat history with the Muslim ban and border camps, Yonsei (fourth generation) Japanese Americans are fighting back with campaigns like Never Again Is Now and Tsuru for Solidarity. The majority of Yonsei are multiracial, something that Rebecca Chiyoko King explored as early as 1997 with her investigation of how mixed-race Japanese Americans perform race in Cherry Blossom Queen pageants. But should Yonsei, so far removed from Japanese culture, even be wearing kimono? Absolutely, says the Fujiyasu Kimono Company, a Japanese company that has provided exquisite kimono worth tens of thousands of dollars to the queen pageant every year since 1973 as an expression of gratitude to the Japanese American community for their support after the war. (Speaking of Cherry Blossom Queen pageants, cherry-blossom viewing isn’t the only Japanese festival that Japanese Americans have put their own unique spin on. There’s also Obon and Oshogatsu, as well as homegrown events like Day of Remembrance and Nisei Week.)

Because of the strong association of the words “Issei” and “Nisei” with generations that came before, the terms Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei (“new first generation” and “new second generation”) were coined to describe Japanese Americans whose families immigrated after 1965. These Japanese Americans have experiences that fall outside the usual narrative, but they’re well represented at community events and help keep the connection with Japan alive. And a small but not insignificant number of yonsei, shin-nisei, and other young Japanese Americans (including comic artist Christine Mari) are now traveling to Japan to explore their roots.
posted by sunset in snow country (17 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Gentle reminder that this post is me, a MeFite, sharing my culture with other MeFites, and to engage accordingly. Here are my great-grandparents in Diamond Head Memorial Park, Honolulu.
posted by sunset in snow country at 5:01 PM on December 27, 2019 [33 favorites]

Lovely telling of a settlement I'd never known about- I've driven that Gold Hill road many times on my way into Placerville town. I'll definitely stop by Okei Ito's shrine and pay my respects!
posted by Jubal Kessler at 6:45 PM on December 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you for this extensive, wonderful post!
posted by filthy light thief at 7:23 PM on December 27, 2019

Thank you for such a considered, well-researched post.
posted by tinlids at 7:32 PM on December 27, 2019

Btw, a fun fact is that the only known descendants of the Wakamatsu colonists are African Americans who were very confused when a bunch of Japanese American geneaologists contacted them a few years back.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:33 PM on December 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

I haven't even clicked a link yet, but seeing the word "obon" brought back a flood of memories. My grandparents were very involved in Japanese community events that always had all sorts of fun games and good food. And there was always a raffle or bingo- when I was 7 years old, I won a 5-gallon can of shoyu! I really wanted the giant Hello Kitty stuffed toy, but my Grandma was so excited about my win it made up for missing out on the toy.

I lost both of my grandparents within the last few years, and with them gone, I feel like I lost a big part of my "Japanese-ness". Thank you for putting this post together, sunset. I feel like maybe my Japanese-ness isn't quite gone yet.
posted by dogmom at 10:13 PM on December 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

Thank you very for this post.

I was at UC Berkeley in the late 80s when reparations to interned Japanese-Americans was being discussed. The mother of one of my roommates had been interned. That made an the history that I had only read about real.
posted by haiku warrior at 7:09 AM on December 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you for sharing this with us.
posted by PMdixon at 7:40 AM on December 28, 2019

Oh this is wonderful - thank you, can‘t wait to read up!
posted by The Toad at 8:07 AM on December 28, 2019

I am visiting back home in California for the holidays and spent yesterday running around the little Japanese market frantically muttering things like “Was I supposed to get more kombu? What the hell is the difference between mizuna and komatsuna? Oh, no! I forgot the katsuobushi!” while my very patient husband and bewildered toddler stared at me.

The workers were a mixed bag of origins, but you could tell which were the store veterans because they were grimly stocking the shelves as though their lives depended on it, steely eyed in preparation of the weekend. The market has a majority of Chinese customers, so I suspect a fair chunk of them, better prepared for a lunar new year hurricane, will be caught in the carnage of folks like myself who descend like a cloud of locust in desperate search of the stupidly expensive fancy fish cakes and multiple kinds of sweet bean blocks which no one but my sister can eat more than a bite of.

Growing up, I went to a different matsuri almost every summer weekend, deeply resented my dad’s not so secretly held wish that his daughters might someday become Nisei Week queens (never a chance in hell!), and went to lots of huge family parties fueled by home cooking and stories about the old days on the pineapple plantation.

Now I live far away from any kind of Japanese American community, and my grandparents are gone, hence why I’m now the one doing the Oshogatsu cooking, and I find myself wondering and worrying about how much and what kind of cultural context I can provide my little hapa kid who vacillates between mac and cheese and nori as the best foods in the world. To that end, I am exceedingly grateful for this post. It is a beautiful and bittersweet boon, reminding me of how much has been forgotten and how much still remains to be preserved.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:24 AM on December 28, 2019 [13 favorites]

Ha, I've been trying to figure out when I dare brave Nijiya Market before the new year. Lacking a family ozoni recipe (though I may get my hands on my grandma's at some point), I just put in whatever I like, which means greens (what IS the difference between mizuna and komatsuna?), carrots with the fancy cutters, shiitake, square mochi, no fish cake, and salmon instead of chicken. I usually just make it for me and my partner and whatever friends stop by, but this year I will actually have family visiting, so it'll be interesting to see what they think!

I didn't grow up going to Obon, but I went to Sacramento Obon (the one featured in the link) a few years back and had a blast. My former Cherry Blossom Queen friend lent me one of her yukata and I lined up with all the little girls to be dressed by her since I have no idea how to wear a kimono. I loved it so much that I bought my own yukata when I was in Japan the following year - the salesladies who helped me asked why I was buying it and were fascinated to hear that we have Obon in the U.S. (And then they wanted to know whether my parents were Japanese and I ended up explaining issei, nisei, sansei, yonsei to them.) I'm determined to make it back this year, hopefully with my mom!

As for the queen pageants, I remember the mixed-race Japanese American TA in one of my Asian American Studies classes in college wanted me to do it. There are racial requirements - one parent must be 100% Nikkei - so I said "Oh actually I can't because my mom has her Chinese stepdad listed as her dad on her birth certificate, too bad so sad." He was mad on my behalf as a fellow halfie which I get but I was just relieved to have an excuse not to do it. I ended up doing just as much work for the community organization I co-chair, but at least none of it involves performing femininity. (That said, the women I know who have been on the court are pretty amazing.)
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:11 AM on December 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Alas, I am of full Japanese heritage and had no such excuse, but I do have truckloads of respect for those Nikkei pageant winners, as I imagine it is damn hard to step onto a pedestal with all of the cultural expectations on your back in addition to the hair, makeup, and shoes. Still, it was weird growing up with those ladies as the stated ideal, particularly because I went to an overwhelmingly white school, have the proportions of a prize-winning potato and a father who is not a fluent speaker and has never taught me any Japanese, but remains bafflingly disappointed by my lack of fluency.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:41 PM on December 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is an excellent post. Thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:21 PM on December 28, 2019

Mizuna and Komatsuna are both cultivars of that old standby Brassica rapa. So technically they are the same species, but when it comes to vegetables that means nothing. Another cultivar of Brassica rapa is the common turnip. Mizuna is typically considered a type of mustard green, which is a tad odd considering the leaf mustard is another Brassica entirely, Brassica juncea. Mizuna grows in upright clumps which makes them easy to space in the garden. They're like a less peppery arugula to my taste buds, but there are so many varieties- YMMV. Komatsuna is one of my all time favorites. I am growing it right now, I'd take a picture but it's pouring. It's sometimes referred to as "Japanese Mustard Spinach" and while that makes no sense whatsoever taste wise, it does resemble spinach in growth pattern, though thankfully not in the bugs it attracts because while growing spinach in my experience is impossible, growing komatsuna is a breeze, as long as you take your usual brassica precautions. I lucked out as the garden center I work at in SF sells these veggies in 6 packs, (and I've gotten my hands on shungiku as well, but that's another class of veggie entirely) but if you'd like to grow your own and you aren't in an area with a large Japanese-American population or good diverse garden center, you can order seeds for these and other Japanese vegetables from the Kitazawa Seed Company, which was founded in 1917 in San Jose CA by Japanese immigrants.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 3:04 PM on December 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm days late on this post, but wanted to mention nisei author Yoshiko Uchida too.
posted by huimangm at 6:46 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just noticed that this is the last day this post will be open to comments, so wanted to add that my Nisei grandmother passed away four days after I made the post (on New Year's Eve, oop - so making ozoni for my family on New Year's Day ended up being even weirder than I expected it to be, but my mom loved it and said my grandma would be proud). The findagrave link I shared in the first comment was (at the time) just an internet photo of a grave marker in a faraway place posted by a stranger, but I got to go see it in person while I was in Hawaii for the funeral last week, which was really cool. This all underlines for me that the Nisei are leaving us and the internment will soon pass from living memory, which seems particularly urgent at a time like today. I've been thinking about making another FPP of internment stories, though it might take me a while. Thank you for letting me share all this with you. ❤️
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:48 PM on January 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you sunset in snow country, and I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:45 PM on January 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

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