June 22, 2017
I leave tomorrow morning for Japan. We are taking the kids on a two-week adventure through Tokyo, Fukushima, Sendai, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, and back to Tokyo. I’ve been watching videos of food and scenery in Japan. I am really excited, and this is strange for me. It’s taken a long time for me to feel this way about Japan. Even when Geri started planning this trip last year, I didn’t feel more than a mild curiosity about Japan. As I’ve thought about it for the past few months, I think I understand why.
For most of my life, I assumed I never needed to visit Japan. As a fourth generation American, I, like so many others, inherited layers of self-loathing and shame from my family because of the camps. During and after the war, most Japanese Americans felt they had to prove their allegiance to America by turning their backs on all things Japanese. It makes sense. Being Japanese was the one thing that made them suspect and criminal, so the safest thing to do was to be as American as possible. This makes the bravery of people like Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, Min Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo even more remarkable.
But for my family, Japan was kind of the enemy. There was no standing up for what was right. There was only a need to survive. Whatever mixed feelings my grandparents had for Japan became disinterest, at best, and outright hatred, at worst, in my parents. That’s right. I grew up feeling no connection to Japan. At some point in my parents’ lives, they became aware that some people in Japan see them as lesser Japanese because they grew up in America. Born during incarceration camps and having worked and struggled to achieve middle class success, my parents resented this.
My brother and I picked up on the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle negative feelings my parents had about Japan and Japanese people. It was a weird place with weird people. My own struggles as a minority and a life lived as an immigrant despite being 4th generation American meant I had the same chip on my shoulder as my dad. I worked my ass off to fit in with white people. Why would I want anything to do with a country and people who might not even claim me as their own when I’ve worked so hard to find identity and belonging in America?
I have friends whose families come from China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Phillipines, and just about every other country that could be considered, “Asian.” From early on, I noted how their identity included aspects of their “home” countries compared to my disdain for Japan.
I figure I got to be the way I am thusly: 1. My grandparents were proud Japanese people. They got stuck in camps and lost everything because of their being Japanese, despite their complete loyalty to America. They saw their friends and relatives suffer, serve in the military for the very country that fucked them over, and then they all returned to a hellscape of 1940’s California where they were hated by most of the population. Being Japanese, their quiet resolve to put their heads down and push through to survive made them speak very little, if at all of their heritage. Their fear of being seen as an enemy made them speak in hushed tones about their heritage and culture. 2. My parents’ generation internalized this silence on all things Japanese and also had to survive life in America. They were better equipped to make it with their perfect English and natural-born citizenship. They assimilated and owned the “model minority” concept, bettering their lives exponentially from those of their own parents. To my own parents, all things Japanese are strange and foreign. They are gosh darn Americans, after all.
My generation has noted all of this. People like my brother have lived in Japan and found out for themselves what it is to be Japanese. My parents were slightly worried and more than a little offended that their son even wanted to do this. To them, it was counter-intuitive for their son to want to explore this (he taught English and learned Japanese) after all the “progress” the family had made in the 80 years in America.
I am late to the game, but I’m going all in. I am going to Japan. I was hesitant, but curious. After a few months of thinking about it, I am ready. I am Robbin Scott Okamoto. I am a fourth generation Japanese American. I’m proud of my Japanese heritage, and I’m going to see for myself the land from which my family originated. From Heart Mountain to Mt. Fuji (see the similarities?). I can’t get there soon enough.