Discover Nikkei

My International Family


I grew up in multi-cultural Hawaii, a 3rd generation Japanese American (Sansei) of two Nisei parents, whose Issei parents had immigrated from Hiroshima (father’s side) and Sendai (mother’s side). We grew up speaking English (and Pidgin English), no Japanese (because of the backlash from WWII), and ate foods from all cultures.

As a Japanese American growing up in Hawaii I learned to appreciate my own culture (sushi, Obon festivals, hanafuda cards, shamisen music, kimonos, etc.) but the other cultures as well—such as Hawaiian luaus & hula, Korean kim chee, Chinese dragon dances & fireworks, Puerto Rican kachi-kachi dancing, and Filipino clothing. I thought this was all just “normal” life until I moved to the mostly white U.S. Mainland.

Years ago in the Trust Territory of Hawaii one of my Nisei uncles took a brave step and married a Hawaiian/Caucasian (haole) woman, my Auntie Annie. It could not have been easy for either family, but their mixed family endured, producing four children, numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren of various mixed ethnicities. Hawaii (unlike some of the other U.S. States) had no miscegenation laws, so such a marriage was possible back in the 1930’s. Uncle Nobu led the way for acceptance of inter-marriage in our Sugiyama family.

My extended family is now full of “foreigners.” In fact, most of our in-laws are from another country.

My older brother married an Australian.
His bi-racial oldest daughter lives with a Kiwi fellow in New Zealand.
His bi-racial second daughter is married to a guy from Casablanca, Morocco.

I married a German.
Our bi-racial son is dating a girl who is Indonesian/Dutch. His previous girlfriend was Korean/Japanese/English.

My younger brother’s wife is from Kumamoto, Japan.

In fact, not only did my 3rd & 4th generation Japanese American family inter-marry, we inter-married with people from other countries & continents: Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Morocco. And so we have family members who speak English, German, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, and French.

Just my nephews alone represent blended ethnicities, cultures, and religions: an adopted half-Turkish nephew in Germany, my nephew-in-law from Morocco aforementioned who is a Muslim (the first in our mostly Buddhist family), a step-nephew originally from East Germany, and the Kiwi partner of my niece in New Zealand.

This type of family may be the way of the future for our world. Actually I hope so as Hawaii, the 50th American state, has demonstrated how mixed ethnicities can live & work together in peace and friendship. And having such a diverse global family has taught all of us an appreciation for different languages, cultures, and religions. I wish most people would and could date other people from another ethnicity or culture, so there would be more tolerance and acceptance in our world.

So what does this mean for my immediate family of my native German husband and our son? We taught him about all of our cultures: Japanese, Hawaiian, German, and American. He learned to dance at summer O-bon festivals in his hapi coat and eat saimin with chopsticks, but also enjoyed German Streusselkuchen & Bratwurst, and had wooden nutcracker toys at Christmas. From the day he was born, my husband only spoke German with him, and I spoke English with him. And he even learned to dance the hula.

Our son now lives in Hilo, Hawaii and is enjoying the “local lifestyle” as a hapa-haole (half white) person, blending in with the many other mixed race people there. But he coped equally as well when he lived in Karlsruhe, Germany, for a summer, as he is a heritage speaker of German. We are proud of our inter-racial family and proud of all of our blended ethnicities.

And as for me, what does it mean to be Nikkei? I look into the mirror every day and I see a Japanese face, but I am mostly surrounded by white people in the state of Arizona. I am a member of our Tucson Japanese Culture & Origami Meet-Up Group (where I teach hanafuda [flower card game], which is very popular in Hawaii), and I still dance at O-bon festivals back in Hawaii wearing a hapi coat. Japanese cuisine is my “comfort food,” and thankfully there are many Japanese sushi bars & restaurants in Arizona, where we chose to live. And most recently I am helping to organize the Japanese community here for the newly formed Southern Arizona Japanese Cultural Coalition. Although as a Sansei I do not speak Japanese I have studied it a bit and appreciate the beauty of the language, and am learning more about the culture & art of Japan, as it has been imported to the U.S.

I have always been proud to be a Japanese American because my parents were proud of who they were and where our family came from in Japan. And often I thank the spirits of my deceased Issei grandparents (Hiyakuji & Tai Sugiyama, and Chuzo & Chiyo Koseki) for their fortitude and courage to leave Japan on those large immigrant ships to sail, one couple to the Kingdom of Hawaii, and later, the other to the Trust Territory of Hawaii. They suffered impoverished lives as indentured servants on the Hawaiian sugar plantations, but ultimately they gave all of us descendants a better life.

© 2012 Carolyn Sugiyama Classen

Arizona Buddhism communities culture families generations hapa Hawaii Japanese Americans multiethnicity Nikkei Obon racially mixed people religions Sansei United States
About the Author

Carolyn Sugiyama Classen was born & raised on a sugar plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii, now lives with her professor husband in Tucson, Arizona. She got a law degree and worked as a Legislative Aide for U.S. Senator Dan Inouye in Washington, D.C. She was instrumental in the creation of the National Commission on Wartime Relocation & Internment of Civilians, which investigated the wrong done to Japanese Americans during WWII. She is now a blogger/writer at the online, as “Carolyn’s Community” and also serves as a Hearing Officer at the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts Small Claims Division. She occasionally freelances articles for books and  journals, such as Oasis and Tucson Woman.

Updated August 2012 

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More