What’s the aspect of your heritage you most want to hold onto?

by Gil Asakawa, Nikkei View


When I was younger, I didn’t give much thought to my cultural heritage.

What’s the aspect of your heritage you most want to hold onto?

For a meaningful commemoration of Heritage Month this year, please take a moment to to us what you really value in your Asian and Pacific Islander heritage.

I took it for granted that my parents spoke to me in a mixture of Japanese and English, which I understood perfectly, and that I would have Japanese food with dinner, whether it was the main entrée or a side dish like pickled vegetables. It never occurred to me that it might be unusual for me to know my way around an American supermarket one day and a Japanese grocery store the next.

At home, I knew I was Japanese, but outside the home, I never had to think about it. Once we moved to the US from Japan, I grew up with no Japanese friends my age close by to play with, so I naturally fell into the habit of thinking I was the same as all my day-to-day friends: Caucasian, suburban, American. It was as if I was denying my roots, although it wasn’t for malicious reasons.

Now, in my middle age, I feel much more connected to my Japanese roots.

Thanks to my life with Erin and Jared, I am much more aware of Japanese food, customs, traditions, and family values. Thanks to various local organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League, Japan-America Society of Colorado and the Japanese Association, and national groups such as the National Japanese American Historical Society, Japanese American National Museum and even the Japanese American National Monument in Washington DC, I feel a part of a strong and vibrant community.

I’ve also traveled twice to Japan as an adult, and felt comfortable, as if I were at home there. I’ve tried to take Japanese classes, though I stopped because I was too advanced for the beginning class and not advanced enough for the advanced class. It’s one of the curses of being born in Japan but moving to the States as a child, that I have just enough knowledge of the language and culture to be cute with it but not enough to actually function in both worlds.

Language is the biggest cultural heritage that I wish I had held onto.

It’s the most difficult to learn, but can be the most crucial career-wise. I can understand a fair amount of Japanese and speak haltingly with my limited vocabulary, but I never learned to read or write, even in the simpler Japanese alphabets of Hiragana and Katakana. I’ve been faced several times with great employment opportunities – including working for AOL Japan – except that I couldn’t read or write Japanese. Erin also is asked regularly in her job if she can read Japanese (she can read some, luckily) or if she can speak the language.

Heritage is more than just eating some food at home. It can be a very real asset to one’s life.

So I’m glad to see many young people who are also connected to their roots. I see them all the time at community centers such as the Denver Buddhist Temple, where kids can attend Japanese classes every weekend, practice and perform in such traditional musical ensembles as a taiko drum group, make mochi rice cakes for New Year’s celebrations, and take martial arts classes in various disciplines such as judo, karate and aikido. Jared, who at 15 has outgrown the Japanese class at the Buddhist Temple, is planning to take private instruction from Hiroko-sensei, who teaches the DBT class. We’re glad because it will undoubtedly help his career options.

Recently we had my 12-year-old niece Joann from Colorado Springs over for a sleepover in Denver. I’ve spent precious little time with Joann all her life. Even when I lived in Colorado Springs for a few years, it seemed I never had the chance to see her much, and Erin and I felt it would be fun to have her up and hang out with us and spend a weekend shopping Denver-style without my brother Gary and his wife Pok Sun.

We had a great time – Joann’s a great kid, smart, pretty and open-minded (and a killer shopper: we spent 10 hours just shopping!). She’s also polite, easy-going and fun. She’s interested in pursuing journalism as a career, and she’s also interested in photography, so we share a lot of interests.

Nikkei View
by Gil Asakawa
A regular column of pop culture and politics from a Japanese American perspective

Except for the fact that she’s more shy than I was at her age, I can identify with Joann, even down to her relationship with her heritage. Joann is exposed to Japanese and Korean culture (Pok Sun is Korean) at home but she has non-Asian friends in school, and for the time being she doesn’t plan on learning either Japanese or Korean. She’ll take French in high school, which is great (at least it’s a “living” language – I took three years of Latin when I was in high school!) for her career goals too.

I wouldn’t criticize her for the decision, because she’s a bright kid and she’ll do fine in whatever direction she travels in her life. But I do hope that sometime soon, while she’s still young, she gets the bug and dives into her Korean and Japanese roots. They’re both rich and powerful, and will give her a high, sturdy platform from which to survey the rest of her life.

More than anything, I hope she gets interested in studying either the Japanese or Korean language (or both). With international business opening up to one global market thanks to the Internet, both languages will be critical in years to come, and people who can not only speak multiple languages but who are familiar with multiple cultures and customs will be in great demand indeed.

I can tell her from personal experience: Learn languages while you’re young. It’s much harder when you get older and your brain gets set in its ways!

Gil Asakawa is author of the book, Being Japanese American (Stone Bridge Press June 2004).  He has 20 years of experience covering popular culture and the arts, as a music critic, feature writer and editor of a weekly arts and entertainment magazine. He has served as Content Editor for Digital City Denver, TRIP.com, and ServiceMagic.com, and Denver’s TamTam.com. His writing has appeared in Denver Rocky Mountain News, Rolling Stone, Pulse, and Creem, among many others, and he is co-author of The Toy Book, a history of baby-boom era toys (Knopf 1991). A comprehensive archive of his art and writings awaits you atNikkeiview.com.

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