By WARREN YAMASHITA, MD MPH

The Model Minority Myth is a silent serial killer. For Japanese Americans in the 1970s, it meant the death of hundreds of teenagers who overdosed on drugs. And today, history may be repeating itself. 

Four generations ago, a wave of Japanese immigrants embarked to America in hopes for a better future. This 1920s farming diaspora, known as Issei for first generation, could not have known the hardship that they and their second-generation children (Nisei) and third-generation grandchildren (Sansei) would face in this new land.  

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, America awoke to an attack on Pearl Harbor by an imperial Japanese aircraft fleet. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. which incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese American men, women and children in concentration camps.  

Despite this betrayal, 18,000 Nisei Japanese American men volunteered to serve in the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated fighting units of WWII. They enlisted to prove that they and their families were loyal American citizens.  

The Nisei left a legacy of heroism that the Japanese American community has since rallied behind. Yet, as if erased from the collective memory of Japanese Americans, almost no one remembers the 1970s drug overdose epidemic that plagued the Sansei, a generation traumatized by America’s residual racism against “Japs,” physical displacement being released from concentrations camps into urban poverty, and cultural alienation with their stoic Nisei parents.

Why this sudden amnesia? The Model Minority Myth does not permit Japanese Americans to speak of this cruel decade of our history.  

Home to 11% of all Japanese Americans after the war, Los Angeles County saw a spike in Sansei teenagers dying from heart attacks in 1970. In that year, there were at least 31 Sansei teen deaths recorded from barbiturate overdoses, but local activists knew the coroner’s report miscategorized stimulant overdoses as heart attacks and failed to capture many unrecorded overdoses occurring in the community.

Amy Iwasaki Mass, a Sansei Los Angeles social worker, said that after the war, “For the Nisei generation, [they] wanted to be seen as a model minority… There was a conscious drive to be 110% American… But when you do that, you’re denying your children their humanity, because all of us make mistakes and have problems…If you have parents who can’t tolerate that, can’t allow that, then I think it is really easy to turn to drugs.

Today, every ethnic group is under assault from a drug epidemic that eclipses what we saw in the 1970s. In this last year alone, overdose deaths from all types of drugs increased by 30% nationwide with 91,862 fatalities from October 2019 to October 2020. Although Asian Americans have the lowest recorded rate of overdoses among all the ethnic groups, it’s likely that these deaths are also underreported due to the Model Minority Myth.

The despair hitting all Americans after this COVID-19 pandemic is alarmingly reminiscent of the despair that hit the Japanese American community after WWII. Yet if we allow the Model Minority Myth to blind us again, we risk turning to a blind eye to thousands of Asian American and Pacific Islanders suffering under this drug epidemic.  

To my Japanese American community, we do not need to fear dishonoring our Nisei heroes by shedding off the Model Minority Myth. Rather, acknowledging we are just as prone to trauma and substance use as anyone else – acknowledging that we are human – highlights our Nisei soldiers’ bravery and valor even more.  

Let us borrow from their civil rights era flame and choose to embrace our whole past so that we might draw from their battle-hardened grit and tear-laden wisdom in our current overdose epidemic struggle.  

Warren Yamashita is a family medicine and addiction medicine physician who works at an underserved federally qualified health center in Orange County with primary care, addiction medicine and homeless patients. He is adjunct faculty at Stanford’s Addiction Medicine Fellowship, where he leads their Diversity Equality and Inclusion curriculum. He serves as chair of the Christian Medical and Dental Association’s Addiction Medicine Section and is a committee member on CMDA’s Racism, Reconciliation, Equality, and Diversity Committee. He is passionate about caring for the whole person and exposing myths and stigmas that exacerbate addiction, overdoses, and poor health in our communities. He can be reached at wyamashi@gmail.com.

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