A history of oppression, a life of privilege: What it’s like to be 4th generation Japanese American in the movement for social justice
Most Asian Americans in the U.S. today are immigrants or the children of immigrants, so people are flabbergasted when they find out that not only were my parents born here, but my parents’ parents were born here too. I’m fourth generation, as are a lot of Japanese Americans around my age.
Every previously-held belief about Asians is fundamentally challenged when they meet me.
Do you speak Japanese?
Nope. I took 3 years in high school, but all I got from that was the ability to say “it is raining” (ame ga futte imasu) and “the apple is red” (ringo wa akai desu).
But your parents speak Japanese.
Nope. I think my dad knows a little Spanish. He grew up in Boyle Heights.
So you must not be in touch with Japanese culture at all. You’re basically white.
The Japanese American community is quite close-knit. We’re so close-knit that we’ve not only managed to pass down Japanese cultural values, traditions, and food, but we’ve created our own uniquely Japanese American (JA) culture. Hang out with any JA who grew up in SoCal and you’ll get hints of it. There is a 90% chance, for example, that we played in a Japanese American basketball league. We probably also were in JA Girl or Boy Scouts. We most likely did both of these things at a JA Buddhist church, and between basketball practice and games and Vegas tournaments, Girl Scout meetings, and church youth group conferences in Arizona, the community commanded total ownership of our weekends. We have JA scholarships, newspapers, political internships, even an online encyclopedia. There are so many things happening in the JA community at any given time that people have joked one of our main problems is that we are over-organized.
We’re doing quite well as an ethnic group; solidly middle and upper-middle class. So it’s pretty crazy when you think that 75 years ago, all of us were imprisoned in concentration camps for two and a half years by our federal government on the basis of racism and wartime hysteria.
And here’s the super trippy part: my dad was one of these prisoners. Meaning the Internment really didn’t happen that long ago.
Compare how chill life is for us now with what it was like back then:
From the time they started arriving in the late 1800’s, Japanese immigrants (Issei) had it rough. They were mostly low-income workers and were banned from owning land or becoming a citizen. The government halted immigration from Japan entirely in 1924. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government immediately arrested all the Japanese American community leaders (our newspaper editors, our Buddhist temples priests, etc) and then, a few months later, issued that fateful Executive Order 9066 to make my family give up their entire life to live in a desert prison camp, based on literally zero evidence of any Japanese Americans spying for the Japanese government.
When my dad returned from the concentration camps, he had to live in a Japanese American church in Boyle Heights because his family literally had nothing — no home, no jobs, no possessions. And it was exceedingly difficult for JAs to rebuild their lives from scratch, still dealing with racist neighbors and institutions. But they organized themselves, supporting each other economically, emotionally and spiritually. They continued to build all the amazing Japanese American institutions that I grew up enjoying.
In the meantime, our government quietly tried to erase all evidence of their disastrously racist actions. They destroyed most of the concentration camps. They didn’t mention the Internment in schools. And most Issei and Nisei (second generation) were too traumatized and ashamed to talk much about their experience. And who could blame them?
But their children, the 3rd generation Sansei — including my mom—slowly uncovered the truth of what happened and organized a campaign to demand the government officially apologize for what they did to their parents. It was a long, heart-wrenching fight. They were able to get a commission formed to investigate the causes of the Internment. Nisei came forward for the first time ever to speak about their experiences publicly. The commission concluded that the E.O. was caused by “racism and wartime hysteria”, never finding any evidence of espionage. My mom and dad flew to DC and trailed congress members down the halls of the Capitol, urging them to pass the redress bill.
And amazingly, they won. Ronald Reagan of all people signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, marking the first time ever that the U.S. admitted they messed up and were racist af. Everyone who was imprisoned also got $20,000. A pretty huge deal, all in all.
The first, second and third generation Japanese Americans were all super badass. Organizing farmworkers’ movements, dealing with being imprisoned by our government and in some cases fighting back, becoming US senators, joining the Black Panthers, winning Redress, speaking out against anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11.
And then there’s us, the fourth generation Yonsei.
Growing up, we didn’t have to deal with any of the nonsense my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went through. They worked mind-bogglingly hard so we could enjoy lives of privilege.
Because college back in the 50’s was completely free (a post for another time), my dad managed to get into UCLA and successfully broke into software programming. He got his MBA and eventually became the CIO of a large software company. My parents moved to Yorba Linda, a mostly white suburb of Orange County that was also one of the richest cities in the entire country.
And that’s where I spent my adolescence. Think white picket fences and identical looking rows of two-story homes, perfectly paved streets and even an artificial lake. Think stay-at-home moms overly active in their children’s PTA. In Yorba Linda, “the Land of Gracious Living”, all my classmates in my honors and A.P. classes were white or Asian and upper-middle class. On the weeknights, my dad helped me with my Calculus homework and in the summer, I went to horseback riding and science discovery camps. On the weekends, of course, I did Japanese American extracurriculars.
The only racism I experienced growing up was the occasional jerk kid making slanty-eyes at the Asian kids at recess or that one time when my US History teacher referred to me as “his yellow friend”. Sucks, but still limited to the person-to-person kind of encounters that didn’t really bother me because I was too busy racking up community service hours for college applications. Of course I experienced internalized racism—I struggled for many years with feeling inferior to white people — but it wasn’t too bad because my mom fought white supremacy in a bunch of creative ways, from starting a Multicultural Week program at my elementary school to coloring over my plastic doll family’s blond heads with Black sharpie so I would have more relevant playthings.
But systemic racism on the level of real oppression? That felt very much like something confined to my history textbooks. Which probably wasn’t helped by the fact that said textbooks were very fond of explaining that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech effectively ended racism. Even the Internment and what happened to my own family seemed abstract — part of a far-away past that had zero bearing on my life.
When I think about it now, it’s fairly ironic that my community’s struggle and success resulted in me being too privileged to be able to conceptualize the oppression my family faced as anything other than abstract and far-away, but that’s what happened. And that’s the reality of the vast majority of fourth generation Japanese Americans like me. We take our community institutions for granted. We’re complacent. We’re content with the status quo.
If I hadn’t gone to college and made friends from different ethnicities and socio-economic classes and learned there that systemic racism is still a very real thing, I would still be just as complacent and clueless to this day.
But thankfully, I eventually realized that I was so insulated against racism my entire life not because racism magically disappeared after the camps. Rather, it was because white people decided to be less racist towards Japanese Americans.
White people decided to paint a new public image of Japanese Americans during the Civil Rights movement when Black people were fighting their own battle against institutionalized racism. They deemed our cultural values of hard work and humility the reason we were able to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. They declared us a “model minority” that they could use against Black people to discredit their fight for liberation because if those Asian American whiz-kids could make it, why can’t you?
It’s crazy to realize that this contrived model minority label is the reason white people don’t see me as a threat, when just a few decades ago, they were calling for my dad to be locked up in prison camps. The label is the reason they assume I’m smart and hard-working. It’s the reason I can navigate white relationships and institutions with ease. It’s the reason I won’t get followed through a store or shot by the police.
In the meantime, other communities get painted as gangsters, drug addicts, criminals, and terrorists. Black people are the most villainized, and everyone else follows (depending a lot on their intersectionality). With our new Presidential administration calling to ban Muslims from the US and deport all undocumented immigrants, the same thing that happened to our community is happening to others.
Oh well, we shrug. It’s a pretty sweet deal for us.
But it’s not.
Our privileged standing in society isn’t real. It’s something white people gave us. As long as white supremacy exists, it can be taken away. All it takes is another Pearl Harbor for all the racism and oppression of the past to come back and screw us over.
That’s why we have such a huge stake in ending racism against everyone. Because we’ll never be free until we are all free. Until the humanity of Black people, the most oppressed among us, is affirmed and their safety and freedom is secured, all people of color will still be second-class citizens.
75 years after the passage of E.O. 9066, the Japanese American community is at a crossroads. What will we do in the face of unprecedented direct attacks on others?
Will we join the protests when ICE drags undocumented immigrants out of their homes the way we were once dragged out of ours, or will we stay silent?
Will we speak out against our country’s deterioration into a fascist regime feeding on the racism and xenophobia that devastated our own community, or will we turn a blind eye?
It’s a moment of truth for all of us. The moment calls for us to reckon with the privilege we have and why we have it. And it calls for each of us to look deep inside ourselves and ask what comforts we are willing to sacrifice for freedom.
No one spoke up for us when FDR threw us in prison camps. If we are silent when others are under attack, White Supremacy will win once again. But if we speak out, our support will be powerful. Our potential as Japanese Americans in the movement for social justice is unlimited. To stand in solidarity with Black and Brown liberation despite the many benefits our model minority status gives us would be a huge blow to White Supremacy.
As one of the most well-organized and well-resourced communities out there, imagine the impact we could have. Our ability to fundraise instantaneously, quickly bring hundreds of people together, and utilize our professional talents and skills would all be invaluable to the movement. We could take over our elected officials’ offices after church every Sunday to demand sanctuary cities, train all of our Girl Scout troops in direct action organizing against ICE, raise money for Black Lives Matter. The possibilities are endless. I can see the Buzzfeed headlines now.
So on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, at a time when immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ folks are under severe attack, I believe the best way to honor my family and my community’s struggle is to fight for justice — for everyone. I’ll make a ton of mistakes along the way, undoubtedly, because there’s so much I still don’t know. But I’m going to try.
And if all of us try, that’s how we’ll win.