The more I think on it, the less clear is my relationship to my Japanese and American “sides,” and to other JAs

By Gil Asakawa, Nikkei View


April 28, 2003 – With all the books that have been written about Asian American identity, you’d think I’d have a solid idea of who I am as a Japanese American. Yet the more I think about it, the less clear I become on the relationship between the Japanese and American sides of me, as well as my relationship to other Japanese Americans.

One thing I’ve decided is that it’s difficult to pigeonhole all Japanese Americans as a group, because we’re all different and we all weigh in at different places on the scale between our two cultures.

Another is that for most Japanese Americans, the “Japanese” within us is a peculiar form of Japanese culture. If we are sansei, yonsei or gosei, third, fourth or fifth generation JAs, our immigrant ancestors arrived in the US decades ago, or possibly even a century or more. That means what Japanese heritage we have retained within our families is one that’s frozen in a time capsule, generations ago. Our values, our language, even our recipes, may be ones that have changed and evolved over the years in the “old country.” We would seem quaint if we tried to fit into Japanese society today.

Japanese American Web Resources

Japanese American National Musuem

Japanese American Network

National Japanese American Historical Society

Stuart Terashita’s Japanese American Geneaology Home Page

Japanese American Citizens League

Immigrants from recent decades aren’t immune from this time warp. I’m a sansei but I happened to be born in Tokyo, and our family moved to the States in 1966 when I was 8 years old. I used to think I’m very Japanese, but I realize now that I was wrong. I was probably most Japanese when I was a kid playing with Japanese friends in a tree-shaded Tokyo neighborhood after school, but while in school, I hung with American military kids, so I had a split identity even then. But the years have turned that split into a chasm. Even many words that I know from back then have changed in the intervening years. And the Japanese popular culture I remember from my childhood has evolved so much, there’s little comparison between “Astro Boy” and “Spirited Away” or the dozens of other anime that are popular today, or between “Sukiyaki” and anything by Utada Hikaru or any other Jpop artist on the Japanese music charts. And that’s only in the 30-something years since my family left the country!

No wonder why few young JAs today speak much Japanese. No wonder why some JAs aren’t very familiar with many types of Japanese food. No wonder why some JAs don’t take their shoes off in the house. And no wonder some JAs don’t understand such fundamental (but by today’s Japanese standards, probably old fashioned) concepts as “gaman” (endure, accept, persevere), “enryo” (practice restraint) and “giri” (obligation).

Few JAs seem to pay any attention to what’s going on in Japan, watch Japanese news or read Japanese newspapers (many of which are available online in English versions). And most JAs seem to have never given any thought to visiting Japan – something I think about all the time.

To exacerbate matters, for some families, one of the aftereffects of internment during World War II on the JA community was the shunning of their very “Japaneseness” — including the banning of Japanese language and culture in the home — and an even stronger need to assimilate be “good Americans” than before. I was speaking recently with a sansei who said his nisei parents after WWII never spoke Japanese to their children, so they grew up only speaking English. This man regrets today that he can’t speak any Japanese. Even though I was raised speaking Japanese, today I can only speak in sputters. I’m embarrassed by my poor language skills, even though I gamely try to speak Nihongo when I meet Japanese, even to staff in Japanese restaurants.

But what I’ve come to realize after seeing all this variety in the range of the Japanese American experience is that none of it makes for better or worse Japanese Americans. Levels of Japaneseness are not a measure of a JA, nor levels of Americanness. I’m even trying to accept my lousy language without being so embarrassed by it – after all, I’m Japanese American, not Japanese, and my primary language is English. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being a banana.

What makes us all JAs and ultimately a shared community is simply the fact of our bloodline, and for most of us, our appearance. Within American society unfortunately, we’re still considered outsiders in some ways, and except for those of us who are hapa and have less and less Japanese within us, we can’t blend in with the Caucasian majority and “pass as white.” Sometimes that fact is hammered home by overt racism and prejudice, but most of the time it’s a quiet underlying fact of our lives. As for our Japanese side, whether we choose to embrace it, ignore it, or choose instead to be actually Japanese (and live and work in Japan as some have) is an optional element to our identity.

Still, I would urge the younger generations to hold onto whatever heritage they were raised with, and if they weren’t raised with any, to reach back and find it in their families. Because without exception, our shared history and culture, are there if you look. And I believe firmly that my life is so much richer for embracing my Japanese side, and I want other JAs to dig a little deeper for their own roots. One of my best friends, whose great-grandparents came from Germany, told me the other day how he marveled at my constant search for culture and identity. He never followed his family history going back to Europe, and wished he had. Well, it’s never too late….

My mistake in thinking about my identity is that I’ve always thought we must be in touch with our Japanese roots, or we’re not proper JAs. Now, I realize that even the farthest branches are always connected to the tree, and that we’ll always have our roots coursing through our veins. It doesn’t really matter if they’re visible, or obvious.

We’re all Japanese Americans, and we’re all reaching for the sky in our own way.

Still, I do wish my Nihongo were better. Sigh.


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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,, and, and Denver’s 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 at 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.