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A Cup of Water: JA Generations and Practicing Sansei Hope From The Middle

My car radio, usually turned to a news station, has been tuned to a classical music station for months. I don’t avoid the news, but I have had to figure out when to listen to the news, and to protect myself carefully. For the first time in my life—and I know I am fortunate here—I’ve had multiple physical panic attacks since the last presidential inauguration. I think back to November 2016, seeing camp history revisited on current news and feeling a sense of despair, and an inward heartfelt apology to my father and my Nikkei relatives. I am so sorry. We said ‘never again,’ and yet it is all happening again.

It feels like so many of the places, issues, people that I care about are under attack. At times I haven’t known where or how to find the energy to practice hope. Family separation, travel bans, children abused while in indefinite detention. Undocumented immigrants. Refugees. Unions. GLBTQ rights to marriage, adoption, lives free from conversion therapy. “It’s like one dumpster fire after another, isn’t it?” I said to my friend. “Yeah,” she said, “and what do you do? Do you put a cup of water on each of them? Where do you put your energy?”

Origami cranes folded for the Tacoma Japanese American Day of Remembrance 2018. These cranes were sent to Asian Health Services (Oakland, CA) in support of their 20,000 crane collection for delivery to the Department of Homeland Security in support of immigrants who are in detention.

Technically, I’m Sansei—my Nisei dad and his family were incarcerated in Tule Lake. But I’m a young Sansei, since my dad married pretty late. I’m probably closer in age to my Yonsei friends. Maybe because I’m also half Filipina—feeling neither here nor there—I’ve thought about what each generational identity means. What is it to be where I am— in the middle of Nikkei generations, Sansei and Yonsei? These days, sometimes, it feels like a solitary cup of water in a forest fire.

There are stories that I’ve grown up with about different historic generations of Japanese Americans.

Postcards to Voters being sent, July 2018

The Issei are our resourceful and brave pioneers, the ones who had the immigrant audacity to start over in a new land. The Nisei are our “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed their lives, whose loyalty was evident through their quiet cooperation or military service. Being Sansei means political organizing, social justice. The cross-racial and anti-imperialist “Third World” movements. GIDRA. The fight for reparations and redress. It feels strange to be talking about the Yonsei as a generation (perhaps because I’m closest in age to this one), but I have been inspired by their art making, advocacy, and understanding of political organizing, and intergenerational trauma. I am glad there are so many Yonsei who are speaking up now, who are organizing politically, legally, taking direct action, and making art to tell our truths.

And yet I also know now that each generation, being made up of complex humans like any other, also carries its converse. Historian Eiichiro Azuma’s work on the Issei has made me think about that generation’s claiming of upper-class status and even (in some cases) a form of cultural supremacy. Mira Shimabukuro’s work on the Issei Mothers of Minidoka and Frank Abe’s work on the Heart Mountain resisters—not to mention my family history of resistance—have expanded and enriched my initial impressions of “quiet” Nikkei cooperation and ways of proving loyalty to American ideals.

For the many Sansei I know who are still involved in organizing and political justice, there are also Sansei who did their very best, for one reason or another, to blend into mainstream “American” society, to not make any waves. And Yonsei poet Brandon Shimoda has made me think about Japanese Americans who have not yet been memorialized, whose stories are still being told. I also wonder about my friends who are more recent Japanese immigrants or who come from more recent waves of immigration, and I think about how to practice solidarity there as well.

We later generations have the benefit of deep historical knowledge, intersectional and cross-racial struggles. We have had ethnic studies (though it’s still fighting), truths spoken during the Congressional hearings for redress and reparations, online archives where documents and interviews and oral histories are relatively easy to find. We are still finding ways to practice solidarity across our own communities as well as with others.

I used to think I was born too late, but now I think I’m grateful to be in the middle. I am grateful that I can turn to the examples of my Nisei auntie and uncle, Sadako and Hiroshi Kashiwagi. I am grateful for my Sansei cousins, Soji and Hiroshi F. Kashiwagi, who inspire me to give back to communities.

I also appreciate my Sansei friends in or near Seattle like Eileen Yamada Lamphere and Stan Shikuma. Eileen, president of the Puyallup Valley JACL, points to the Japanese values like ‘okagesama de,’ passed on to her by her relatives. “Living by [their] example,” she says, “has taught me that ‘shigata ga nai,’ ‘gaman,’ and ‘ganbaru’ are not just Japanese words but beliefs to weather life.” Stan Shikuma, founder of Seattle Kokon Taiko and member of the Tule Lake Committee, points to the energies generated by the pilgrimages at sites like Tule Lake and Minidoka. “‪My concern is that we move beyond words on a page, whether in convention resolutions or Facebook posts, and take it to organizing actions. There are lots of places for solidarity work: NW Center for Immigrant Rigths, ACLU of WA, CAIR [Council on American and Islamic Rights]-WA to name a few.”

Seattle artists like Gosei Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor and Yonsei Lauren Iida are creating artwork reflecting tributes to heritage history and memory. Tacoma Sansei theatre producer (and actress) Aya Hashiguchi Clark is producing shows that reflect and refract Japanese American history and experience, like “Building the Wall” and “Never Again,” based on a compilation of Nikkei oral histories.

Social media campaigns like #StopRago and #SaveTuleLake have helped me to connect with like-minded Japanese Americans across the country. Michael Ishii and Ryan Yokota (Sansei and Yonsei) are building emerging networks like the Japanese American Action Network. We have new technologies to connect with each other. Being in the middle, I can look backwards in time and feel the resilience and resourcefulness of my ancestors; I can look forward to the hopes and energies of current and future generations.

Protest sign for “Families Belong Together” rally, June 2018, Tacoma, Washington

When I think about being in the middle, then, I know that I have what I need.

To circle back to my earlier image: maybe the trick is not to think about a cup of water, but a chain of supply. Someone helped to find the water, someone else brought the water, someone made the cup. Perhaps most importantly, there will be other cups of water. The water supply, if we can tap into it, is abundant. This is how we envision and move towards a collective healing.


© 2018 Tamiko Nimura

activism community generations identity never again sansei