Becoming JA

Posted by on May 29, 2015 in Rants & Reflections, Sue's Blog | 7 Comments
Becoming JA

Something happened over the past year. Somewhere in-between my trips back and forth to Hawai’i and my many hours rethinking my career, I turned into a Japanese-American.

Many people have a story to tell about their ethnic awakening. Usually it’s a moment that involves an old person, and maybe a food or an artform. Lately, I’ve had many such experiences that might qualify. But truthfully, the recognition of my JA-ness was not so sudden. It has been a very, very gradual process for me.

But before I get into that…

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a VERY big difference between being a Japanese-American born and raised on the mainland and being a Japanese-American from Hawai’i.  I’m the latter, and growing up, we actually never even used the term “Japanese-American” or “JA”. We were just “Japanese” (or Japanese-Chinese, or Japanese-Chinese-Hawaiian-Haole, etc.) The vast majority of my teachers were Japanese. My doctors, lawyers and bankers were Japanese. Heck — the governor was Japanese! (Everyone could mimic the Ariyoshi eyebrows)… From a political standpoint, we were the equivalent of the privileged white majority.

Now contrast this to growing up Japanese-American on the mainland. I can’t even describe what that feels like, and I won’t even try. A little over 30 years before I was born, Executive Order 9066 forced everyone of Japanese ancestry into the internment camps. Anyone who looked like me and lived where I do today lost their homes, businesses, and possessions, and were shipped to prisons in the middle of the most god-awful regions of this country.

EO 9066 is why I originally felt like I was NOT a Japanese-American. My family did not have to go through any of this. During WWII, about a third of the population of Hawai’i was of Japanese ancestry, so it was simply not feasible to incarcerate everyone. Growing up, I learned about the internment the same way other American teenagers do — a brief lesson during history class.

When I attended college on the mainland, I discovered my identity, not as a Japanese-American, but as a “person-from-Hawai’i” (which, by the way, is NOT a “Hawaiian” — a separate topic altogether). And this is still one of the first things that comes out of my mouth whenever I introduce myself in a JA crowd — “I’m from Hawai’i” — with the proper pronunciation of the ‘okina (but not the ‘w’) — which sometimes prompts the response, “I can tell from your accent.”

After college I returned to the islands and back into the melting-pot. By then I was firmly in my “taiko player” identity. I started playing with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble, and my relationship with Kenny and Chizuko Endo introduced me for the first time to the plight of the JAs on the mainland, and the role that taiko played in community activism. Many of the pioneers of North American taiko were sansei (third-generation JAs). They were born after the war as their parents were rebuilding their lives outside of the internment camps. They came of age in the 60’s and 70’s at the height of the Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement, and taiko became a symbol of the voice of the new JA generation. It was loud, powerful, clearly “Japanese” — yet so different from the generation who obediently went into the camps. I understand that taiko also played a role during the 80’s, during rallies for redress and reparations, which resulted in a formal apology from the U.S. Government, and financial redress of $20,000 for every surviving internee. I was proud to be a member of the taiko community, continuing this legacy.

But this still isn’t what made me become JA.

In 2005, I moved back to the mainland, and once again donned the “from Hawai’i” identity, this time expressing it alongside my pidgin-speaking, Chinese-American husband who was born and raised in Kaimukī. We host big get-togethers, cook massive quantities of food, and proudly drink Bud Light.

My taiko-life also continued, this time at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple, where I started to practice informally with a bunch of Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and Stanford Taiko alumni. We eventually named ourselves Jun Daiko (using the Japanese character that means “to meet again”) and in exchange for teaching classes for temple members, we were allowed to use their practice space and drums. It’s a symbiotic relationship that continues today.

Even though only 2 or 3 of our 16-or-so Jun Daiko members would consider themselves Buddhist, the MVBT community has embraced us as their own. Our taiko classes perform each year at MVBT’s amazingly awesome Obon festival. And in addition to what we do behind the drums, we’re invited to roll up our sleeves and help out in other ways (shucking corn and running the Saturday evening BINGO shift). We also try to help out at other year-round events and fundraisers like chicken teriyaki and the massive end-of-year mochi-pounding. Over the last 10 years, I’ve gotten to know not just my taiko students, but also their families, other leaders, and the many other JA “characters” that make up a loveable Buddhist temple community.

But this still isn’t what made me become JA.

(Don’t worry… I promise, this is the final section.)

So what finally did it?

Well… last August, as most of you know, I quit my job, and for the last 9 months or so, I’ve been trying to launch a new consulting business with one foot in Silicon Valley and one in Hawai’i. About a month ago, I decided that the two-front approach wasn’t working out, so I decided to just stay put for a bit and only pursue clients here on the mainland. Once the back-and-forth flights to Hawai’i stopped, I think I relaxed and could finally focus on the community right in front of me.

As an independent consultant, one of my favorite places to work or have meetings is Roy’s Coffee Station, in the heart of San Jose Japantown. It was one day, while sitting at an outside table with my laptop in front of me that I realized how happy I was with this life. And I think a big part of that came from the opportunity to slow down and get to know my community. I do remember thinking to myself:

“Wow… I think this might be my place. I think these are my people.”

I remember once when I was in Hawai’i, helping out with a proposal for educational funding from a big private foundation, there was a phrase that was written throughout the application — sense of place. I think that day when I was sitting at Roy’s, was the first time that I knew what that meant. I find it funny that I never felt it before in Hawai’i, which I will always call my home. Yet a coffee shop in San Jose J-town could make me feel it.

So that’s the story about my very, very gradual process of becoming JA. It kinda just happened one day at Roy’s. Thinking back over the last few months, I also recognize a few other things I had done to formally demonstrate my membership in this community. For example, at the beginning of the year I had joined MVBT as a temple member (even though I still need to learn about Buddhism). At some point I became a member of the Japanese American Museum San Jose. I’ve also been paying more attention to issues like the controversial auction of artwork done in the internment camps (which thankfully was stopped) and George Takei’s Allegiance project (which I learned about with hubby when we saw him speak a few weeks ago at Stanford).

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to lead a design thinking workshop at the Board Retreat for the San Jose Japanese American Citizens League. It allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people who are active in the San Jose J-town. In preparing for that activity, I did a series of empathy interviews that immersed me in the history of the San Jose JA community. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m looking forward to continuing my relationship with JACL. I also filled out the form to become a card-carrying member… so I guess now I’ve officially “become” JA.

7 Comments

  1. Gay Clyburn
    May 29, 2015

    Thank you for this post. I learned so much…not just about you, but about Japanese Americans and Hawaii.

    Reply
    • Susan Yuen
      May 30, 2015

      Glad you enjoyed it, Gay!

      Reply
  2. Susan Price-Jang
    May 29, 2015

    We should have coffee. I am obviously not Japanese, but there is a long story there. Nihonmachi is where I go to feel at peace. J-town was where I landed after leaving Japan in 1979 after three years there as a young adult (okay I first returned to LA for a a year, but it was WAY too big for the me that returned from small town Japan). I ended up marrying Victor Jang who was part of Asians for Community Action at SJSU and we went off to China to teach from 1981 to 83. Before we left we got married in the Rose Garden and then had a Hiroen (wedding meal) at Grant Ranch Park where San Jose Taiko (Roy and PJ) performed as did my friends in SJSU Naginata and other friends did a Lion Dance.. It was a wedding done on the cheap because we had no money. “Where are you registered?” Me: “What’s that?” “What do you want for a wedding present?” Me: “From you, a performance.” Or “a salad.” Potluck wedding. Married in a complete Japanese wedding kimono (actually, two kimono) I bought at a Kyoto temple flea market for $35. By the Chinese monk who lived next door with translation…..three years ago I led a group of 20 people from my church on a pilgrimage to Tule Lake on the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. (Earl Warren was the villain in that story and J. Edgar tried to stop it)…. You know Akemi and Hien? I’ll stop here.

    Reply
    • Susan Yuen
      May 30, 2015

      Wow, Susan! How cool is that. You’re a part of that generation that all of us taiko-people admire! Yes, let’s meet up for coffee sometime soon… at Roy’s!

      Reply
  3. Meriel
    May 29, 2015

    So happy for you Susan! Finding your sense of place is really awesome! It’s what life is all about! Joy to you! Congrats!

    Reply
    • Susan Yuen
      May 30, 2015

      Thanks, Meriel! It’s great to hear from you!

      Reply
  4. Mariel
    May 30, 2015

    Hi Sue, Thank you for this thoughtful blog. I’m happy you found more of your JA self! I obviously relate to the “Japanese” (not JA) in Hawaii part. I had a recent conversation with a Chinese American (who married JA) who wishes Hawaii had a stronger local Japanese experience for tourists. Something I’m still pondering if I agree with. Nevertheless, I like how your story becoming JA is about having strong connection to a place so intimate and personal. You could make “Lucky you live San Jose” decals!

    Reply

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