By J. MAYA HERNANDEZ and MITCHELL MAKI
In a positive twist of living through these pandemic times, the two of us recently met via a Zoom call. We are different in age, gender, generation, and ethnic backgrounds. Our conversation initially focused on our generational differences, but to our delight, our exchange of experiences quickly highlighted and validated our similarities.
Despite coming from such different backgrounds, there was an immediate understanding and comfort knowing we shared the common ground of being Japanese American.
Maya was born in Japan in the early 1990s. Her father is a first-generation Mexican American; her mother is Shin-Issei. Having spent significant parts of her childhood in Japan, Maya is bilingual and very familiar with the culture of contemporary Japan. Her family’s experience includes the lasting effects of the atomic bombing, occupied Japan, and migration.
Maya has moved over ten times to vastly different locations across the U.S. and Japan, but has recently found her place in the JA communities across California while pursuing her Ph.D. in social ecology. Maya doesn’t quite fit into a singular cultural category: Shin Issei? Shin Nisei? Hafu? What does fit, however, is her identity of being Japanese American.
Mitch was born many years before Maya. He is a traditional Sansei, born and raised in Los Angeles with parental roots in Hawai`i dating back to the early 1900s. Mitch witnessed the struggle for redress, participated in candlelight marches, and shed tears as he listened to testimony at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in the 1980s. He built a career that cherishes the traditional Japanese American experience. He knows only a few words in Japanese – mostly food and bad words! What he does know is that he, too, is Japanese American.
Seventy-five years after closing of the camps, our community continues not only to exist, but to progress and thrive. Undoubtedly, our once “homogeneous” community has evolved. “Japanese American” no longer refers to those of purely Japanese descent, nor does it refer only to those whose ancestors immigrated around the early 1900s. The boundaries of our community have grown more fluid and, in turn, more inclusive. There is now a wealth of diverse generations, ethnic backgrounds, regions of origin, intersecting with a diversity of personal identities and faiths.
The Japanese American community in many ways manifests America’s promise – the promise that in our nation, we are not to be judged by the color of one’s skin, the God whom you choose to worship, the nation of one’s origin, or the person whom one chooses to love. Yes, the Japanese American community is more inclusive – certainly inclusive enough to easily include the two of us and so many more.
We both understand from our differing vantage points that the courage and sacrifices of the original Issei and Nisei paved the road for the eventual inclusivity of the community. The losses, bravery, and persistence of those who came before us allowed Maya’s Japanese mother to immigrate to California in the 1980s, and for Maya, being biracial, to feel the sense of constant belonging and support. The realization that the Japanese American experience is truly a great American story is what empowers Mitch to continue to tell the story wherever he can.
Today, as we reflect on the Day of Remembrance, we join with the Japanese American and broader American community to commit ourselves to ensuring that the forced incarceration of Americans simply based on race shall never happen again. However, as the two of us reflect upon the original Issei and Nisei, we realize that there is much more to remember than the egregious constitutional violation. What also needs to be remembered and cherished is the dignity, strength, and, most of all, resilience of the original members of the Japanese American community.
The values of our community guided us through the turbulent times of World War II. The strength of the families who endured the humiliation of confinement in concentration camps must be remembered. The courage and the sacrifice of the young men and women who demonstrated their Americanism by serving in the U.S. military must be remembered. The principled stand taken by young men who refused to serve until their rights were restored must be remembered.
Most of all, the resilience of the Japanese Americans in Hawai`i and the continental United States who persisted, rebuilt, and maintained our community must be remembered. Our community is what it is today and what it will become tomorrow because of these values.
We are an ethnic community that overcame oppression. We are an American community that shed its blood to prove its loyalty. Most of all, we are an evolving community that continues to welcome and nurture its increasingly diverse members.
Especially on this Day of Remembrance during another pivotal period in history, let us never forget how we got here nor where we have yet to go.
Maya Hernandez is a Japanese-Mexican American who grew up in all corners of the U.S. and in Japan. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Johns Hopkins University and is currently pursuing her doctorate at UC Irvine studying adolescence, racial-ethnic identity, and digital media. She was a part of the 2018 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program Court and She remains an active member of the Japanese American communities as a NCCBFQP co-chair and a Nisei Week Foundation volunteer.
Dr. Mitchell T. Maki is the president and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center, a nonprofit organization committed to maintaining and contemporarily applying the legacy of the WWII Nisei veterans. Dr. Maki is nationally recognized as an active leader in the Japanese American community and has authored numerous articles and book chapters about multicultural social work issues. He is the lead author of the award-winning book “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” a detailed case study of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.