Published Dec. 29, 2016
Editor’s note: The year 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the influential “101 Ways to Tell You’re Japanese American,” originally published in The Rafu Shimpo in March 1996. The list, in ways both serious and funny, was a revelation at its time, helping to spur conversation on what it meant to be Japanese American in 1996.
We recently caught up with authors Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi to discuss the impact of their article and how the Japanese American community has evolved. Kuida worked in the Child Development program at Little Tokyo Service Center for the past 11 years and is now working part-time as a grant-writer for Koreatown Youth and Community Center. Osumi is a third-grade teacher at 68th Street Elementary School and is director of Camp Musubi. They live in Culver City with their daughter Maiya.
The original list appears after this article. A new list, “101 Ways JAs Can Be Greener,” can be found in the Columnists section of the Rafu website.
Rafu: How did you come up with the idea for “101 Ways” and what was the most surprising reaction?
Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi: At the time there were similar 101 Ways lists put out by Chinese American, Filipino and Asian Americans on the Internet, so we thought we’d give it a shot for JAs. We were surprised at how excited people were about the list. It traveled throughout the JA community like wildfire and took on a life of its own, inspiring regional lists in San Jose, San Francisco, Utah and Hawaii. The Rafu published two follow-up stories where readers added their own ideas. The list grew to over 180. It was exciting hearing how families were connected with the list and each other as they shared stories and laughter.
Rafu: What do you think the listing tells us about what it means to be Japanese American? Do you think the listing revealed certain hidden traits and characteristics?
JK and TO: We think that Japanese Americans had these things they thought were particular to their own family, but then to see the list all pulled together and realized they weren’t the only ones that mixed shoyu and mayonnaise or had a pet named Chibi or Shiro. Maybe it gave readers a sense of belonging and being in the “in” group. Those are powerful feelings when you grow up a minority in the U.S. excluded from mainstream culture and power. Then here comes a list where your life is front and center.
Rafu: What changes have you seen in the JA community since the first list?
JK and TO: The biggest and most obvious change to the JA community is definitely the passing of the older generations. When the original list was written, a few Issei were still living and the Nisei were very active. Now many Sansei are grandparents and enjoying retirement.
Today’s Nikkei don’t really identify themselves through their generations the way the Nisei and Sansei once did. It used to be that when you knew someone who was Nisei, you could assume certain life experiences — that they had been in camp, where they lived, and the kind of work they did. Now, we don’t use the terms Gosei and Rokusei when describing the generations.
Since the November election, we’re sure to see more changes. Some of the hatred, racism and divisiveness we see is not a new phenomenon. The Issei and Nisei faced tough times. In the original 101 Ways introduction from 1996 we wrote:
Although written in good fun, understanding what it means to be JA helps define who we are as a community and the issues we face. More importantly, as we further study Japanese/Asian American history, we might begin to see current issues like immigrant-bashing, attacks on civil rights/affirmative action and the growing concentration of wealth and resources upward to a select few, in new ways.
The introduction often gets left out when reprinted, but it was a call to action. Today more than ever, we hope JAs will not only reflect on what makes us JAs, but will use our collective experiences — as minorities with immigrant roots who’ve faced and fought labor exploitation and civil rights violations — to stand up for fairness and justice for all people, especially Muslim Americans.
Rafu: How has becoming parents changed your feelings about the importance of being active in the JA community?
JK and TO: We’re just as passionate about community activism. But it changes form with parenthood. Late-night community meetings get replaced with JA basketball games and team parent responsibilities. Helping plan community events gets replaced with attending those same events with kids in tow. You can’t do it all, but you got to do something so your kid grows up seeing society is changeable — that people working together is the driving force for making history. Winning redress as a unified community pushing forward taught us that.
Our parenting decisions involve giving Maiya a Japanese American cultural experience as well. In elementary school, she attended a Japanese language immersion program, learning Japanese, something neither of her parents can do. She also had the opportunity to take taiko, karate, and Nihon buyo Japanese dance since kindergarten.
We’re grateful to all the community organizations that work with youth. Programs like Nishi Center preschool, Saishin Dojo, LABCC (Los Angeles Buddhist Coordinating Council), and opportunities our 11-year-old daughter Maiya has had with Tuesday Night Project and Great Leap. We feel the same way about the Manzanar Pilgrimage and NCRR’s Day of Remembrance programs. We believe they’re building a strong sense of self and community. We’ve also worked to expand her humanity by supporting labor issues, immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter in age-appropriate ways.
Rafu: Are you working on any projects for 2017?
JK and TO: Jenni is on the board of the Venice Youth Council as a junior basketball commissioner. Tony is active with Nikkei Progressives, a new group in Little Tokyo focusing on social justice issues. Anyone interested is welcome to join them at their next meeting on Jan. 11 in Little Tokyo.
On Jan. 21, we plan to attend other families in the Los Angeles Women’s March to defend the civil rights, working families, and the environment against the new administration. We both plan to continue writing for The Rafu Shimpo and support fundraising efforts for the Budokan in Little Tokyo in 2017.
THE ORIGINAL 101 WAYS TO TELL YOU’RE JAPANESE AMERICAN
By Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida
1. You know that Camp doesn’t mean a cabin in the woods.
2. The men in your family were gardeners, farmers or produce workers.
3. The women in your family were seamstresses, domestic workers or farm laborers.
4. Your Issei grandparents had an arranged marriage.
5. One of your relatives was a “picture bride.”
6. You have Nisei relatives named Keiko, Aiko, Sumi or Mary.
7. You have Nisei relatives named Tak, Tad, George, Harry or Shig.
8. You’re Sansei and your name is Janice, Glen, Brian, Bill or Kenji.
9. You’re thinking of naming your Yonsei child, Brittany, Jenny, Lauren, Garrett or Brett with a Japanese middle name.
10. All of your cousins are having hapa kids.
11. You have relatives who live in Hawaii.
12. You belong to a Japanese credit union.
13. Your parents or grandparents bought their first house through a tanomoshi.
14. The bushes in your front yard are trimmed into balls.
15. You have a kaki tree in the backyard.
16. You have at least one bag of sembei in the house at all times.
17. You have a Japanese doll in a glass case in your living room.
18. You have a Neko cat in your house for good luck.
19. You have large Japanese platters in your china cabinet.
20. You have the family mon and Japanese needlepoint on the wall.
21. You own a multi-colored lime green polyester patchwork quilt.
22. Your grandma used to crochet all your blankets, potholders and dishtowels.
23. You check to see if you need to take off your shoes at your JA friends’ houses.
24. When you visit other JAs, you know that you should bring omiage.
25. When you visit another JAs, you give or receive a bag of fruits or vegetables.
26. When you leave a JA house, you take leftover food home on a paper plate or a styrofoam meat tray.
27. You keep a supply of rubber bands, twist ties, butter and tofu containers in the kitchen.
28. You have an air pump thermos covered with lilacs.
29. You’ve heard Warren Furutani speak at least once, somewhere.
30. You’ve been to the Manzanar Pilgrimage and danced the “Tanko Bushi.”
31. Wherever you live now, you always come home to the Obon festival in your old neighborhood.
32. You know that Pat Morita doesn’t really speak like Mr. Miyagi.
33. You’re mad because Kristi Yamaguchi should have gotten more commercial endorsements than Nancy Kerrigan.
34. You know someone who has run for the Nisei Week Queen Pageant.
35. The Japanese American National Museum has asked you for money.
36. If you’re under 20, the first thing you read in The Rafu Shimpo is the Sports Page.
37. If you’re over 60, the first thing you read in The Rafu Shimpo is the obituary column.
38. When your back is sore, you use Salonpas, Tiger Balm or that flexi-stick with the rubber ball on the end that goes, katonk, katonk.
39. You’ve played basketball in the Tigers Tournament.
40. You loved to shop at Fedco.
41. You’ve bowled at the Holiday Bowl, or at least eaten there.
42. You’ve been to the Far East Cafe at least once.
43. You’ve eaten at Mago’s or Kenny’s Cafe on Centinela.
44. After funerals, you go for China meshi.
45. After giving koden, you get stamps in the mail.
46. You fight fiercely for the check after dinner.
47. You’ve hidden money in the pocket of the person who paid for dinner.
48. You don’t need to read the instructions on the proper use of hashi.
49. You know that Benihana and Yoshinoya Beef Bowl aren’t really Japanese food.
50. You eat soba on New Year’s Eve.
51. You start off the new year with a bowl of ozoni soup for good luck and the mochi sticks to the roof of your mouth.
52. You know not to eat the tangerine on top of the mochi at New Year’s.
53. You have a 12-pack of mochi in your freezer — that you still refuse to throw away in July.
54. You pack bento for road trips.
55. You know that the last weekend in April is Opening Day at Crowley Lake.
56. You stop at Manzanar on the way to and from Mammoth.
57. You see your relatives at the California Club in Las Vegas more often than you see them in L.A.
58. Your grandma made the best sushi in town.
59. You cut all your carrots and hot dogs at an angle.
60. You know the virtues of Spam.
61. You were eating Chinese chicken salad, years before everyone else.
62. You know what it means to eat “footballs.”
63. You grew up eating ambrosia, wontons and finger Jello at family potlucks.
64. You always use Best Foods mayonnaise and like to mix it with shoyu to dip broccoli.
65. You use the “finger method” to measure the water for your rice cooker.
66. You grew up on rice: bacon fried rice, chili rice, curry rice or red rice (osekihan).
67. You like to eat rice with your spaghetti.
68. You like to eat rice in a chawan, not on a plate.
69. You can’t start eating until you have a bowl of rice.
70. You use plastic Cool Whip containers to hold day-old rice.
71. Along with salt and pepper, you have a shoyu dispenser at your table.
72. You have a jar of takuan in your fridge.
73. You buy rice 20 pounds at a time and shoyu a gallon at a time.
74. Natto: you either love it or you hate it.
75. As a kid you used to eat Botan rice candy.
76. You know the story of Momotaro — The Peach Boy.
77. You have had a pet named Chibi or Shiro.
78. Someone you know owns an Akita or Shiba dog.
79. You went to J-school and your best subject was recess.
80. At school, you had those Hello Kitty pencil boxes and sweet smelling erasers.
81. When you’re sick, you eat okayu.
82. Milk makes you queasy and alcohol turns your face red.
83. Your dad owned a Members Only jacket.
84. Someone you know drives an Acura Integra, Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
85. You used to own one of those miniature zori keychains.
86. You have a kaeru frog for good luck charm hanging in your car.
87. Your parents compare you to their friends’ kids.
88. You hang on the illusion that you are superior to other Asians.
89. Your dentist, doctor and optometrist are Japanese American.
90. You know what “S.J.” stands for.
91. You socialize with groups of eight or more people.
92. Whenever you’re with more than three people, it takes an hour to decide where to eat.
93. You and your friends call yourselves “Buddhaheads,” but don’t like it when white people do.
94. You’ve heard your name pronounced a half-dozen different ways.
95. You use the derogatory term Kuichi and Kurombo when you should be using Jewish and African American or black.
96. You know what the acronyms M.I.S., 100th/442nd, J.A.C.L., C.Y.C., N.A.U., S.E.Y.O. and S.C.N.G.A. stand for.
97. The name Lillian Baker makes your fists clench.
98. You know that E.O. 9066 isn’t a zip code.
99. You’re not superstitious, buy you do believe in bachi.
100. You never take the last piece of food on a plate–but will cut it into smaller pieces.
101. As much as you want it, never ever take the last anything. Enryo, enryo, enryo.
(copyright 1997 by Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi
I’m hapa & grew up in Ohio in the 1950’s & 60’s. So it was interesting to go through this list. I was surprised that I had 20 yes’s! I think that’s not bad since I’ve never lived near any Japanese! I especially laughed at the Botan candy!!
I smiled while reading this list…..never knew how much my culture affected my sansei upbringing. It is amazing that even growing up somewhere other than California the experiences of growing up were so very similar.