On the Future of the ‘Traditional Non-Traditional’ Japanese-American Family

By S. D. Ikeda, Asian-American Village

When I first saw her in Arizona that Christmas of 1993, she was sleeping in my grandparents’ room, so I tiptoed inside and waited until my eyes adjusted to the dark. A faint whispering noise made it sound as if she had a cold. Squinting, I could barely make out her cheeks raising and lowering with small breaths. Yet, I immediately recognized her as one of us.

I don’t mean that I accepted her, despite her newness, her foreign origins, her racial distinctiveness. Nor do I believe that it was simply a mystical or chemical or emotional bonding between an innocent and an adult who had eagerly anticipated her coming, though that force was strong. And I don’t even think it was how her arrival eased the ache of my grandfather’s death in this very room not long before. Rather, I mean that I experienced an instantaneous sense that my new cousin — born in Guatemala, adopted by my sansei aunt and hakujin uncle that bittersweet Thanksgiving — already belonged.

Even before I parted the curtains to view her features in the morning light, the baby had exhibited a distinctly Ikeda-like stoicism. Formative months in a clean but understaffed orphanage gave her an uncommon patience in both solitude and company. She had not cried upon waking, but amused herself with a kind of soft crib-singing for some time until we noticed her. She did not protest being picked up by a stranger in a strange dark room. Nor did she panic when her parents did not appear for over an hour, having taken advantage of the many willing baby-sitters to take a rare outing together.

We quietly sized each other up. She tested the foreign bristles of my beard and mustache with her fingertips. They were warm and a bit moist, and it made me feel overly hairy and brutish. And for my part, I marveled at the light-tanned complexion of her round face, the straight, just-short-of-black bangs, the slightly folded lids that spoke to her part-native origins. Mariana appeared for all the world to be the biological offspring of her new adoptive parents. In short, a hapa, like me.


High Anxiety in Japanese America

Since then, I’ve had more experience and occasion to reflect on the little yonsei from Guatemala, and what she means to me both personally and for what I envision for Japanese America in the 21st century. It is a commonplace that JAs overall have been “diluted” in the limited blood-quantum statistical sense, evidenced in our high out-marriage rate and, most concretely, in our younger generations’ mixed-race bodies. It is somewhat less common to observe that our collective wartime upheaval and subsequent hyperassimilation have left even our “pure” yonsei, with two sansei parents, “culturally diluted,” too. As a diasporic people – like the Jews, forcefully dispersed, wandering, surviving in our separate ways – we face a mounting struggle to maintain our distinctiveness, stories, and heritage.

On a national book tour a few years ago, I was fortunate to speak with hundreds of nisei. I recall one at each stop (usually a woman my grandmother’s age) struggling to the podium under five or six copies of my hardback book. She gripped my arm fiercely while I personalized each one for a different grandchild who “doesn’t know anything about our side of the family, isn’t interested in it, and isn’t Japanese at all. How did you get interested in this?” she wanted to know. Ironically, sansei and yonsei always asked, “How did you find out about this?”

A long-standing generational communications gap had created a kind of cultural amnesia among JAs. Mainland nisei had spent so many years not talking about their lives, distancing themselves from things Japanese, forgetting what their parents had taught them. Meanwhile, grandchildren living scattered in mostly-white neighborhoods across the country, thousands of miles from the nearest J-town, had little opportunity to form a sense of JA cultural identity. Later, after redress, when grandparents were ready to answer questions about the family history, the grandchildren had too little background exposure or knowledge to know what questions to ask.

“Thank you for writing about this,” that nisei lady would whisper. Full of anxiety, even panic, she wanted desperately to know what will be left of our Japanese heritage in the near future and seem to fear a kind of extinction. I was not the first author to write about immigration, exclusion, internment, and assimilation, and certainly not the best. But I think what she meant was that the handful of then-young hapa writers like me who had chosen to explore Japanese-American lives in print created some hope that her own family’s interest would also be there before it was too late. What she was really saying, I think, was thank you for not letting “our family” disappear.


Unexpected Forms

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I believe that a distinct Japanese-American culture can and will survive, but perhaps–as Mariana’s Guatemalan origins and place as an Ikeda suggest—in an unexpected form. It will be preserved only very purposefully as family heritage, not automatically as a geographic accident, racial legacy, or birthright. There may be more of us in this century who don’t in fact “look Japanese” or speak Japanese than those who do. If most JAs will look like Mariana and me, we must accept that the JA experience is inherently multicultural and changing — something different from our Japanese roots that we are making up as we go along.

When she was a baby, it was easy for the other hapa cousins to project onto Mariana those Japanese-y traits that connected her more closely to ourselves. Changing her diapers, my cousin and I scrutinized slight dark areas at her lower back and decided they were “Mongolian spots.” In writing and conversation, I have always truncated her name, lending its a sound a pronunciation after the fashion of the Japanese Mariko, the name of a great-aunt.

At the same time, we were conscious of her unique origins. My cousin Gillian, who had studied Spanish in school, played clapping games with Mari in that language. My aunt and uncle made the larger adjustment of moving from their generally homogeneous East Coast suburb to a more multicultural neighborhood in a diverse Arizona school district. As a consequence, Mari may ultimately learn Spanish despite her family’s linguistic deficiencies. A good thing, and not only because of her roots. Like me, she will continuously be greeted and questioned on the street by Hispanics who presume her Spanish fluency based on her appearance. Like me, she may also be taken for Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, perhaps Turk, and will elicit surprise to explain that her maternal family is Japanese.

In any case, she already has a nascent sense of what sets her apart from her mainstream peers. Like her cousins, “she knows she’s different in some way from the blonde, blue-eyed kids in school,” her father says. But, asked if she has a conscious sense of herself as the daughter of a multicultural, multiracial, and ethnically Japanese family, he confesses, “I don’t know. She’s a kid, you know? She’s like a sponge and just takes everything in and processes it somehow,” often without a lot of discussion.

Also like her cousins, she will have a consciousness of her immigrant roots. For one thing, Mari’s parents determined early on to disclose the story of her adoption. Further, she has seen the arranged marriage photos of her great-grandparents, heard the stories of their pioneering emigration from Japan, played with katakana language cards, studied the hanging scrolls, tasted the cuisine, and lived with what heirlooms remain to our family.

But beneath these surfaces – physical appearance, and cultural trappings like sushi and ikebana – I wonder about Mari’s emotional and psychic sense of self as she ages. Will she, too, feel a particular comfort among Japanese and East Asian Americans? Will she desire to travel to Japan to visit our family’s villages, admire JA role models, fantasize about living in Hawaii as a mythical place populated by a majority of people “like us”? Will she date Asian Americans? Or, will the story of her birth and racial roots pull her more forcefully? Will she study Spanish and be able to navigate Guatemala should she choose to visit the land of her birth parents or Japanese so that she can converse with visiting relatives? Or both or neither? And how much does it matter?


(New) Traditional Families

Such reflection arises this time every year as I recall the anniversary of her arrival. Further, I am one of those cursed relatives who selects kids’ gifts based on what’s good for them – educational and empowering. I frequent multicultural toy and book businesses, but when it comes down to it, I never know what to buy. An Asian doll or a South American? This year, I’m weighing Yoshiko Uchida’s The Bracelet about a little girl’s internment against 1621, a book about Thanksgiving from the historical perspective of Wampanoag Indians. Sometimes I tie myself in knots and ultimately settle for a book about Hanukkah or a crafts kit.

I can be accused of over-thinking and perhaps inappropriately politicizing these decisions for a little girl who would herself probably opt for anything featuring Harry Potter. But don’t we all want our kids to see themselves positively reflected in the world around them, to be proud of their heritage and full of self-esteem, and to learn about other cultures and perspectives?

I’ve been thinking about this, too, because in the past few years, two sansei relatives and another family friend have all adopted children, as it happens, from China. As it also happens, all are in interracial relationships. These children will look superficially more like their mothers, and thus like a “traditional” JA family. They will also stand out in any gathering of their much more numerous hapa cousins.

The longer I think about our “non-traditional” family, it begins to seem in fact very traditional in ways that matter. In hours of conversation with my friend Frances Wang, a Chinese-American writer and my colleague on Asian-American Village Online, I have come to think that in general, Asian conceptions of family may be fundamentally different from those of other U.S. ethnic groups. For example, given my grandfather’s eight siblings, the Ikeda clan is large and diverse, and the relationships so complicated that at reunions, everyone is either “auntie,” “uncle,” or “cousin”. Among more traditional nisei, at least, families-by-marriage are families, period; I never heard the distinction “in-laws” spoken by Ikedas, which is unlike my WASP maternal side. A number of non-blood-related folks across the century have been designated auntie and uncle because of our families’ closeness based on original Japanese prefectures. Add to this the unnatural closeness of non-related nisei who had been thrust together in new artificial “families” in camp, relocation, and the army, and the definition of “kin” becomes trickier still. And finally, I have always been made to understand that should I ever get to visit Japan, there was a network of far-distant relations that was eager and duty-bound to take me under their wings pretty much for however long I desired – and vice-versa. Suddenly, the notion of extended family becomes international in scope.


We’re All Hapas Now

There is a line of thinking that suggests we are all – all of us twenty-first century Americans of every background – psychically and culturally hapa. Globalization plus our increasing diversity have rendered us cultural, if not racial hybrids. Maybe Mari will conceive of herself as just another multicultural, individual American.

How much can a kid really understand or care about such things? In the year-round Arizona sun, Mari’s skin has darkened, and her mother believes this will prove increasingly significant to her sense of self as she ages. But at the same time, she has given kimono demonstrations with Grandma to her Brownie troop; last time we were together, we practiced eating with hashi together. Mari knows Grandma is Japanese, but seems not to recognize her mom in that category. Asked what she is herself, Mari admits she doesn’t know…yet.

It takes time, maturity, and wisdom for us to grow into our skins. Some of us never do. I understand Mari’s hesitancy because, as I’ve written elsewhere and at other times in these pages, I too had to “learn to be a Japanese American” after being born – like Mariana – something else. I chose it, worked at it, and my family was my teacher. We’re teaching Mariana about our heritage, and Mariana in turn is teaching me something about the difference between culture and race, between heritage and blood. I am reminded of this every Christmas, when I recall the great gift the Ikedas received in 1993, the huge new love we shared as a family. And what could be more “traditional” than that?


Other Readings of Interest

Crossing the Cultural Bridge: Learning to Build a Child’s Confidence
By Chris Winston, Chairperson, Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network
An adoptive parent’s lessons on building a child’s confidence through role models and community involvement

Reading Resources for Asian Adoptees and Transracial Adoption Families
By Linh Song, Executive Director, Mam Non Organization
Part 1: Books for Asian Adoptees and Transracial Adoption Families
Part 2: Books about Race and Diversity

Jewish with a Korean Face
By Adam Rosen, Pacific News Service
Personal commentary by a “mixed-up” kid viewing his confusing past to uncover a clear path to his future

When My Family Looks Nothing Like Me
By Yayoi Lena Winfrey, AAV Contributing Editor
The joys and challenges of transracial adoption viewed from both sides


Stewart David Ikeda is author of the book, What the Scarecrow Said (HarperCollins-Regan Books), about the Japanese-American immigration, internment and relocation experience, and has taught writing and Asian-American Studies at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan, and at Boston College.

Former Director of Online Content and Editor-in-Chief at IMDiversity.com, he is a new media planning, editorial, and diversity consultant, and served as Editor of the Asian-American Village Online, Editor of Diversity Employers Magazine, and VP of Online Publishing for IMDiversity, Inc.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.