For whatever “academic inadequacies” the fledgling ethnic studies was accused of back in the early 1970s, what did the institutional establishments of higher education expect when it had all but erased the contributions of people of color in the historical development of the U.S.?  Despite these so-called academic inadequacies, the mass movements of people of color along with the larger movements for “relevant education” at the time forced the hand of our academic institutions to give ethnic studies “a chance.”

One of the basics of Asian American Studies “101” that remains today is to do a family history, reconnecting Asian and Pacific Islander students with how their ancestors came to be part of the U.S. fabric. This has always served to open students’ eyes to how their own family history is intertwined with what they had learned in U.S. and world history classes. They suddenly become connected to larger historical events, and suddenly history takes on a new meaning. At least that’s how it worked for me, and many more generations of ethnic studies students.

Grandpa Jiro Morita in his U.S. Army uniform, World War I.

I recently found some of my mother’s old term papers that she had written while taking some Asian American Studies classes at UCLA. As the administrative assistant of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, she was given the opportunity to take AAS classes, as was written into the AASC’s employee handbook. At the time, the founders of the Center thought it to be beneficial for its staff to be knowledgeable in AAS — as it should be. While it was never required, the strength of the Center was definitely enhanced with a staff that was united in the project of Asian American Studies.

Having found my mother’s family history that she wrote for her class, I have learned things that I didn’t know about her side of the family back in Japan, and the difference in values and ethics that were part of the norm back then as compared to now.

I learned that my mother’s great-grandfather was a ”large landowner in Katase, in the province of Shizuoka, Japan, who leased land to tenant farmers. His father also owned three ships which were used to carry rice from Shizuoka to Tokyo. The rice was used to pay taxes.” 

Portrait of young Jiro Morita.

His son, Totaro, father of my grandfather, was sent to the U.S. to “see this new country. He was indeed impressed. The value of money in the U.S. was about five times that of Japan and he was treated cordially.”

“After his return to Japan, his father’s ships were wrecked in a typhoon and the crew lost at sea. The Morita family was obligated to take care of the families of the crew and subsequently went into heavy debt.” In today’s dog-eat-dog world, it is unheard of for a wealthy family to go bankrupt because they feel responsible for their employees’ families. 

So Totaro came to America and did well enough working for a rich sugar broker to send his first son to Waseda University, his third son to Keio University, and his daughter to high school. Mom writes: “I don’t know if he [Totaro] sent my father any money while he was attending college in Pasadena, since he was considered the ‘black sheep’ of the family.”

She goes on to describe my grandpa, Jiro, second son of Totaro: “As a young boy, Jiro was known to be incorrigible, he was always involved in fights at school and was known as a gang leader. The family didn’t know what to do with him so when he was finally expelled from school after a particularly bad fight, he was sent to his father in America.” 

Jiro and Reiko Morita at their home in Pasadena.

Jiro was 17 years old when he came to America in 1909. It was rumored that he had cut another boy’s ear off in the fight that got him expelled from school. 

Wow, my grandpa was a BADASS! What Asian American Studies did for my mother, a Nisei, was to retrieve a family history that could have easily been lost forever. It must have been a somewhat rare occurrence for a Nisei to take an Asian American Studies class at that time especially. And maybe even more rare, my Grandpa Jiro also attended an Asian American Studies class in Pasadena City College. 

According to blogger Brian Carroll, “. . .while I was taking a year of Japanese language at Pasadena City College, the school offered ‘Sociology of the Asian in America.’ The course might qualify among the ethnic studies courses that have just been outlawed by the state of Arizona, but I look back upon it as one of the most fruitful classes I ever took. Three hours one night a week, with a 20-minute break, I quickly began spending those twenty minutes — and the walk to the parking lot after class — with Jiro Morita. At 80, he told me he was taking the class ‘to stay young.’”

Carroll goes on to quote from a poem by my sister Amy about Grandpa Jiro — “Desert Camouflage” from her book “Stone Bow Prayer,” and also had a chance meeting with Gordon Hirabayashi in my mother’s office at AASC in the early 1970s (from his blog written in January, 2011).

It amazes me how these stories unravel aspects of our lives that help explain and bring new understandings of where we came from. I can now consider myself a third-generation “black sheep” of the family, starting with Grandpa Jiro, followed by my mother, Elsie Uyematsu Osajima, and me, second child who could not possibly follow in the high-achieving footsteps of the first child.


Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat:  Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at:

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