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Japanese American Identity Across Three Generations

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Between Disillusionment and Hope: Japanese American Identity Across Three Generations

Brandon S Killen

Comparative Women and Gender Research Seminar

Dr. Elizabeth Clement

1 May 2013

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Often, when one Japanese American meets another for the first time, the question of

the camps inevitably comes up.1 The still-living Nisei (second-generation Japanese

Americans) ask each other if they were “in camp” and where, and then proceed to list the

names of those they knew or remember. The Sansei and Yonsei (third- and fourth-

generation Japanese American) ask about parents and grandparents. For all, the history of

internment functions as a common denominator of experience, a reference point for family

histories and experiences of ethnicity and race. Another defining moment in Japanese

American history, less familiar but no less important—the movement for redress— brought

together Japanese Americans in the effort to demand an apology and restitution from the

government for the injuries of internment. Ultimately successful in obtaining an official

apology and twenty thousand dollars in monetary redress to each surviving victim, the

redress movement also gave rise to a new sense of ethnic identity among Japanese


Scholars have documented and analyzed these two transformative moments in

 Japanese American history in great detail. Broadly speaking, two perspectives dominate the

literature. Initial histories and memoirs of internment emphasized Japanese American

loyalty and patriotism, military service, and closely connected the economic and social

1 A note on terminology: I use the term Japanese American to refer to people of Japanese descent who lived

or are living in America (regardless of citizenship). The use of the terms relocation or evacuation confuses

those Japanese Americans who “voluntarily” moved out of the exclusion zone and those forced into

camps. Scholars (e.g. Daniels 1986) have further observed that the term relocation camp was a favored

euphemism by officials and government agencies intended to minimize the significance of what took

place. Some deliberately use the term concentration camp in response. However, this term often evokes the

experiences of Jews during World War II and leads to an equation between “concentration camp” and

“death camp.” I therefore use the terms internment and internment camps.

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achievements of Japanese Americans with postwar assimilation.2  Later histories

emphasized the racist foundations underlying the creation of the “concentration camps”,

celebrated dissent and protest within the camps while denouncing collaborationist actions

with the government, and attributed the economic and social achievements of Japanese

Americans to the persistence of distinctly Japanese values.3 Recent historians have explored

how these competing perspectives of internment came to a head during the movement for

redress, with activists from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) pushing the first

perspective and the more radical activists from the National Council for Japanese American

Redress (NCJAR) posturing with the second.4 

In this paper, I circumvent this fractious debate and focus more closely on lived

experiences of ethnicity and race. In my examination of several personal memoirs, as well

as written and oral testimonies, I find that at the heart of every experience central elements

of both perspectives—acculturation and the continuation of ethnic tradition,

accommodation and dissent—existed in an ambivalent relationship. These competing

“strategies” color every defining moment of Japanese American history, as each generation

confronted unique challenges of racial discrimination. First, I will explore first-generation

Issei understandings of identity and the formation and maintenance of an ethnic

2 See, for example: Bill Hosokawa’s Nisei: The Quiet Americans (New York: William Morrow, 1969) or

Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).3 See Bruce Iwasaki’s “Response and Change for the Asian in America” in Roots: An Asian American Reader 

(Los Angeles: University of California Asian American Studies Center, 1971),William Hohri’s Repairing

 America (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1984), or Mei Nakano’s  Japanese American Women:

Three Generations (Berkeley CA: Mina Publishing Press, 1990).4 See Alice Yang Murray’s Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for

Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

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community that attempted to stand socially and economically apart from a racist white

America that excluded them. I then look at how the trauma of internment during the

Second World War led to the disintegration of this ethnic community and the emergence of

a new ethnic identity among the Nisei that favored minimized Japanese values and

 behaviors and a new generation more closely aligned with the ideals of postwar America.

Finally, I will examine how this process of homogenization confronted the Sansei with a

crisis of identity who, although seeing themselves as American in values and behavior, still

found themselves racially estranged from mainstream culture and society. Inspired by the

ethnic movements of the 1960s and 70s, the Sansei embraced the burgeoning Asian

American movement that established the intellectual and social basis for the later redress


The Issei: Ethnic solidarity, 1890-1942

People from Japan emigrated to the United States in significant numbers following

the political and social changes of the Meiji restoration beginning around 1868 until the

Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. This act, which banned all migration from Asian countries, led

to the unusually clear delineations of the generational groups within the Japanese American

community. Japanese Americans living in mainland America were an extremely small

minority.5 Although initially employed as laborers for Western manufacturing, mining, and

5 In California, the state with the largest Japanese American population, Japanese Americans totaled only

about 2 percent of the total population. See Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore. New York:

Hachette Book Group, 1998, p180.

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railroads, as their numbers increased white Americans increasingly began to see Japanese

Americans as economic threats. White workers in the 1910s and 20s started to wage a series

of hostile and sometimes even violent campaigns to exclude Japanese Americans from the

labor market. Within the context of this American ethnic antagonism that defined them as

strangers, Japanese Americans sought to protect and support themselves through ethnic

solidarity. Denied access to employment in industrial or trade labor, many Issei turned to

self-employment as shopkeepers and farmers within the Japanese American community

and ethnic economy.6 This highly successful strategy only further aroused exclusionist

agitation and fueled racist claims of their unassimilability and foreignness.

“Nihonmachi” or Japan towns developed in the more urban areas on the West coast

in the first quarter of the 20 th century. Bustling and gossipy, these tight knit communities

formed the core of the Japanese ethnic economy and family life. In Seattle, for example, the

 Japanese community numbered about 8,500 people who mostly resided in a pocket of only

about half a mile wide on either side of Main Street between First and Cherry Hill. S Frank

Miyamoto described it as a dense, but highly organized community where it was common

to see two Issei greet each other with a bow and “hear the soft modulations of the Japanese

language.”7 At its hub there were a cluster of shops and offices which catered to the ethnic

population, two Japanese-language newspapers, the Japanese Association headquarters (a

6 Edna Bonacic , “A Theory of Ethnic Antagonism: The Split Labor Market,”  American Sociological Review ,

37.5 (October 1972): 547-559; Edna Bonacich and Mark Modell The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small

Business in the Japanese American Community (Berkeley, 1980).7 S Frank Miyamoto, “Introduction” in Monica Sone’s Nisei Daughter (Seattle: University of Washington

Press, 1979), x.

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quasi-governmental confederation of smaller clubs and organizations that structured the

community), the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and a well-used recreation center. Uphill

to the east, apartment houses and single family homes intermingled with Buddhist temples

and Christian churches. Naturally, Nihon Gakko, the Japanese language school was also

located here.

Issei parents saw learning Japanese language and culture as a crucial priority for

their children. Their reasoning was twofold: First, as legal aliens living in a country where

they were not eligible for citizenship and faced with tremendous racial discrimination and

hostility, the Issei always remained conscious of the possibility that they may have to leave

the United States and return to Japan. In such a situation, they wanted to prepare their

children as well as they could. Secondly, the economic lifeblood of the Issei in America

depended heavily on maintaining a network of friends and business partners within the

 Japanese American community. If the Nisei stayed in America, the Issei logically saw little

likelihood that white America would accept them into mainstream society and wanted to

ensure that their children could succeed within the ethnic economy and community the

Issei had developed.8 

Prior to the formation of Japanese language schools, some Issei sent their children to

 Japan for education.9

 However, this decision sometimes led to drastic consequences. Frank

8 Interview II with Frank Miyamoto, Segment 7. Densho Archive.9  Japanese Americans later referred to these as “Kibei” (literally, returnees) in contrast to the “Jun-Nisei”

(literally, genuine Nisei).

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Yamasaki remembers how his parents, disturbed at his older sister’s Americanization

decided to “discipline” her by sending her to Japan: 

She would curl her hair and my father would be angry. She would put on some

limited makeup and he would call her a prostitute. She loved dancing—as a child

she would have me step on her toe and we would dance… [voice breaks, crying]

This is very hard for me… she loved art, she loved to sing, loved to dance… She was

sent to Japan because she was considered too “rowdy.” She had to be disciplined.

[…] The reason why I got emotional was because she died there… And I had to read

the telegram.

The emergence of Japanese language schools or “tip” schools helped parents educate

their children in Japanese language and culture without the painful separation that

involved in sending children to Japan. For the Nisei, however, the experience of a dual

education seemed to split them in half. Monica Sone, in her memoir Nisei Daughter ,

described the schizophrenic experience as almost like being “born with two heads”: 

Nihon Gakko was so different from grammar school I found myself switching my

personality back and forth like a chameleon. At Baily Gatzert School I was a

 jumping, screaming, roustabout Yankee… [But at Nihon Gakko] we behavedcautiously. Whenever we spied a teacher within bowing distance, we hissed at each

other to stop the game, put our feet neatly together, slid our hands down to our

knees and bowed slowly and sanctimoniously.10 

The sense of dual identity was common among the Nisei. Yoshiko Uchida first sensed this

when she noticed a difference the Nisei children who attended language school and those

who had not. As she relates in her memoir Desert Exile, at an event at the Olympic Games in

Los Angeles, Uchida became acutely aware of her duality as a Japanese American and how

her personal understanding of what that meant clashed with that of her cousins:

10 Sone, Monica. Nisei Daughter (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 22.

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Dressed in my red, white, and blue outfit, I was cheering enthusiastically for the

American team when I became aware that my cousins were cheering for the men

from Japan. It wasn’t that they were any less loyal to America than I, but simply that

their upbringing in the tightly-knit Japanese American community of Los Angeles

and their attendance at Japanese Language School had caused them to identify with


As these passages makes clear, the Nisei subculture within the ethnic Japanese American

community was a mixture between the Japanese culture of their parents and their American

environment. They spoke English, they knew its idiom and slang, they reveled in popular

culture and idolized the same celebrities as all other Americans. But because of their race,

they found themselves marginalized from mainstream American society and more “at

home” within their ethnic communities. 

Whether out of the stubborn refusal of their children or inconvenience, some Issei

parents did not enroll their children in Japanese language schools. However, teaching

 Japanese culture remained a priority. In her memoir, Uchida related how as a child she

resisted this education. For her, “learning Japanese was just one more thing that would

accentuate our ‘differentness.’”12 Despite her protests, every summer Uchida’s mother

would attempt to inject a little knowledge of a very difficult language into two very difficult

sisters. Uchida’s mother would also be sure to share aspects of Japanese culture that her

daughters found less odious. One of Uchida’s cherished childhood memories was the

yearly Dolls Festival celebration. Every year on March 3, Uchida’s mother would set out her

vast collection of rural folk toys, dolls of eggshell and corn husks complete with miniature

11 Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family  (Seattle: University of

Washington Press), 40.12 Uchida,40.

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dishes and utensils. The ritual could take several hours as her mother opened the boxes and

put her collection out for display. “How nice to see you,” she would say, and she always

remembered to include her daughters American dolls at the foot of the display table just so

“they wouldn’t feel left out.”13 Most of the stories Uchida’s mother read to her as a child

were Japanese folktales or children’s stories from books she had ordered from Japan. She

sang Japanese lullabies to her daughters at night and taught them their evening prayers in

 Japanese. This, in particular, made a lasting impression. “Long after I became an adult,

when it came to praying, I found it more natural to use my mother’s native tongue,” Uchida


Uchida’s memories of her mother’s language lessons complement several other

accounts on the key role mothers had in transmitting Japanese culture to their children. One

of Sone’s fondest memories of her childhood was how her mother would play Jan-ken-pon (a

 Japanese version of Rock Paper Scissors) with her children. Grace Shibata remembers how

her mother, despite knowing English, would only speak with her daughters in Japanese.15 

Of course, all mothers transmitted culture through food—maze gohan (rice with pickled

vegetables), onigiri (rice balls), ochazuke (green tea poured over rice), miso soup, udon.

For all their emphasis on maintaining a self-reliant ethnic community, personal

accounts of the time period also show that Japanese Americans always kept one eye out for

potential alliances with friendly whites. Mary Matsuda Gruenewald recalled a story her

13 Uchida, 30-31.14 Uchida, 29.15 Shibata, Grace. “Okaasan: A Portrait of an Issei Mother” in Mei Nakano , Japanese American Women:

Three Generations 1890-1990 (Berkeley: Mina Press, 1990), pp 73-95.

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father told her about his time working for a fish cannery in Alaska. A group of white

workers, angry at the influx of Japanese Americans working at the cannery, planned to

attack the camp of the Japanese American workers. Gruenewald’s father had become quite

friendly with a young hakujinn (white). Feeling obligated because of their friendship, the

young man warned Gruenewald’s father before the attack. The Japanese American workers

packed up their belongings and left before the violence started.16 Monica Sone described the

several white men who worked at her father’s hotel as “part of the family.”17 The rural town

near Grace Shibata’s family farm, honored her father for starting a successful agriculture

association and packing house exchange by naming one of its street’s after him.18 These

relationships would prove to be an invaluable asset for Japanese American families in the

wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Nisei: The Legacy of Internment, 1942-1944

On February 19, 1942, in the aftermath of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor,

President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the internment and

relocation of over 110,000 Japanese Americans living along the Pacific coast to “War

Relocation Camps.” Nearly two-thirds of the internees were American citizens, half were

children. Internment decimated the ethnic economy the Issei had formed and shattered

16 Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, Looking Like the Enemy. (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 2005).17 Sone, 30.18 Shibata, 93.

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Nisei assumptions about their status as US citizens, transforming Japanese American

understandings of their ethnic identity in the process.

In her memoir Desert Exile , Yoshiko Uchida offers keen insights into the disruptive

impact of internment on Japanese American family. The disturbance of Uchida’s peaceful 

family life began almost immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Within hours after news

of Pearl Harbor first broke on the American mainland, the FBI took Uchida’s father into

custody. Three days later, they finally learned that Uchida’s father was being held at a

deportation center in San Francisco and that the army would soon transfer him to a prison

camp in Missoula, Montana. For the first time, the Uchida women had to assume all

financial and business responsibilities. As Uchida explained, “My father had always

managed the business affairs of our household, and my mother, sister, and I were totally

unprepared to cope with such tasks.” The daughters sent flurries of letters to their father,

asking for instructions on how to endorse checks on his behalf, when and how to pay bills

and expenses, and how to file his tax return.

Within a few weeks, the Uchida women found themselves having to evacuate. They

had ten days to put their belongings in storage, sell their car and large furniture, give away

their dog. They could only take what they could carry. Upon arriving at the First

Congregational Church, the designated “Civil Control Station”, Uchida saw armed guards

standing at every doorway with rifles mounted with bayonets, and only then realized the

full horror of the situation. Hundreds of Japanese Americans crowded onto buses that

shipped them off to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack that the government had

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hastily converted to house thousands of people. Uchida’s new “home” was a converted

horse stall, fresh linoleum had been sloppily laid over manure-covered boards and a coat of

white paint smeared across jagged boards. Their father soon joined them at the camp and

there the family lived—in a horse stall for four. Shoved into tiny quarters, the once close

family wanted nothing but to get away from each other. Towards the end of their stay at

Tanforan as other families began leaving for the more permanent relocation camps, Uchida

and her sister moved into a unit of their own.

Uchida’s perceptive eye also noticed the ways in which internment disrupted the

lives of other families in the camp. Parents often had little control over older children and

had little means of offering a sense of normalcy for younger children. Parents watched,

horrified to see that whenever the children played house “they always stood in line to eat at

make-believe mess halls rather than cooking and setting tables as they would have done at

home.” It was sad, Uchida noted, “to see how quickly the concept of home had changed for


Monica Sone’s description of internment in her memoir Nisei Daughter complements

Uchida’s account. The structure and organization of internment, with its overcrowded

 barracks and regimented meal times, frustrated family life and led to a breakdown in

 Japanese American community structure. However, Sone’s account tends to emphasize the

more lighthearted moments of her time at camp, alleviating to a certain extent the overall

horror of her situation. Sone, in the last pages of the book, suggests that internment actually

19 Uchida 88.

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strengthened her sense of self and helped her to resolve the sense of duality her Japanese

and American upbringing had instilled within her. It also reinforced her American

patriotism. “In spite of the war and the mental tortures we went through,” Sone writes, “I

think the Nisei have attained a clearer understanding of America and its way of life, and we

have learned to value her more.”20 

But the same Sone who ended her 1953 memoir by writing “The Japanese and

American parts of me were now blended into one,” gave a much different interpretation of

her experience in her 1981 testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and

Internment of Civilians. When she left Minidoka to attend a mid-Western college, she said

she felt “like a mauled creature, afraid of what lay before me”: 

In April 1943, I boarded the train alone in Twin Falls, Idaho, to go to Indianapolis. I

sat in my seat, shrunk in its corner, hoping that I was not too visible. I kept my face

 buried in a magazine. I had feelings of guilt, self-hate, and fear. My guilt came from

the feeling that I had abandoned my aging parents in camp.

Another guilt, she explained, “was the old, ongoing one of having a Japanese face.” Her

self-hate, Sone admitted, “came from having allowed myself to be uprooted and interned…

Many times I wished I had disobeyed the order and been arrested.”21 

The shame and guilt of internment, confusedly associated with being Japanese,

prompted many to change their name (Monica Sone’s , for example, childhood name was

20 Sone, 236.21 Testimony of Monica Sone, Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Chicago,

September 22, 1981. Quoted in Murray, Alice. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and

the Struggle for Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 222. 

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Kazuko). May K. Sasaki recalled her decision to use the name May instead of her Japanese


Up until the time I had gone into camp, everyone referred to me as Kimiko… But I

 began to sense that it was because I was Japanese that I was in this camp… It was

then that I came to this decision: whenever I get out of here, I wouldn’t be Japanese

anymore. I never said this to anyone… But when people would call me Kimi-chan, I

would pretend not to hear them. I wasn’t going to be Kimiko anymore—I was going

to be May. I never used Kimiko after.” 

Years later, during a Japanese cultural activity in the 80s, an older Nisei woman challenged

her, asking Sasaki, “Why are you doing this when you don’t even use your Japanese

name?” Despite nearly forty years since internment, the feelings of guilt and shame

surrounding the loss of her name still reverberated. “I just started crying... And here I am

an adult. It didn’t seem like something I could be mad at her for. But I was ashamed

 because I gave up my name.” Even sixty years later, the emotion remained raw. Merely

speaking of this incident brought Sasaki to tears.22 

This incident reveals the centrality of shame in interpretations of Japanese American

identity within the Nisei generation. Ashamed of being Japanese, of having a Japanese face,

a Japanese name, Sasaki attempted to change in whatever capacity she, as a twelve year old

girl, could. But the rejection of her name stood in for more than a mere rejection of the

cluster of syllables by which her family and friends identified her—it represented an entire

rejection of the values and culture of the community and family which surrounded her.

Hurt by what many Nisei saw as a personal rejection and insult, many such as the older

22 Interview with May K. Sasaki, Segment 23. Densho Archive.

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woman who challenged Sasaki, would only amplify the feelings of guilt and self-alienation

through their censure.

A similar dynamic arose out of the various responses to questionnaires the War

Relocation Authority administered to Japanese internees in 1943 in the hope that it would

generate support for an all-Nisei regiment and the future release of interned citizens. The

WRA prepared two forms, one given to male citizens stamped with the seal of the Selective

Service; the other labeled “War Relocation Authority Application for Leave Clearance.”

Both of these lengthy forms asked questions the WRA thought could be used to determine

loyalty. Demographic history, foreign travel, the names and relationships to those still

living in Japan, organizational memberships, and even the newspapers and magazines they

had read were deemed relevant. However, two poorly worded questions (drafted by the

army) would prove painful for Japanese Americans for decades.

Question 27 asked internees to answer if they were “willing to serve in the armed

forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered.” Question 28 asked,

“Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and

faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic

forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or

any other foreign government, power, organization?

Showing a profound lack of understanding of the depth of internee anger against

their incarceration, the WRA staff expected Japanese Americans to eagerly take the chance

to serve in the armed forces or leave the camps to resettle in the Midwest or East. 68,000

answered the loyalty questions with an unqualified yes, approximately 5,300 answered no,

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and roughly 4,600 refused to answer either question. Only 1,200 internees decided to take

the “opportunity” of serving the country that had incarcerated them. WRA staff members

struggled to distinguish between

the No of protest against discrimination, the No of protest against a father interned

apart from his family, the No of bitter antagonism to subordinations in the relocation

center, the No of a gang sticking together, the No of thoughtless defiance, the No of

family duty, the No of hopeless confusion, the No of fear of military service, and the

No of felt loyalty to Japan.23 

As a former WRA employee recalled, Question 27 and 28 did not measure internee loyalty

to the United States or Japan, it “sorted people chiefly into the disillusioned and the defiant

as against the compliant and the hopeful.” The Nisei men who answered “no” to both

questions were known as the “no-no boys.” For decades, a bitterness fermented between

the ‘traitors’ who refused to fight for their country and the ‘collaborationists’ who did. 

Although many on both sides understood or sympathized with the actions of the other,

they nevertheless found themselves trapped in a cycle of blame and guilt.

Tensions between the disillusioned and the hopeful began tearing the once tight-knit

community apart. Yoshiko Uchida recalls how the spring of 1943 at the Topaz internment

camp in Utah was characterized by a heightened feeling of unrest, as a relatively small

group of “pro- Japan” agitators became increasingly threatening:

These men, tough, arrogant, and belligerent, blatantly fashioned knives and otherweapons from scrap metal and sat sharpening them in front of their barracks. Some

were Issei, some were Kibei. All were angry, and focused their resentment primarily

on those Issei who worked in positions of responsibility and leadership requiring

close contact with the white administrative staff.

23 Quoted in Murray Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress 

(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 79. 

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Similarly, a very pregnant Aiko Herzog remembered tension after the Manzanar

uprising and fights breaking out over suspicion of “informers”: 

There were fights… we heard of informant activities and people getting beating up. I

remember going to a movie at the rec hall. There was a fight. I remember these

 benches and chairs starts to fly around… I don’t remember who instigated the fight

or who started the fight…. It probably had to do with actions against those who

were alleged to be informers for the white administration.24 

After such tension and conflict, the unity and solidarity characteristic of pre-war

 Japanese American community life was lost. Upon leaving the camps, although many

returned to the west coast, the overall Japanese American population was more spread out.

The Nisei left camp knowing that they had been incarcerated for suspected disloyalty and

many left camp intending to never find themselves in such a situation again. They would

raise a new generation more closely aligned with American culture, values, and behavior in

the attempt to leave the dark past of internment behind them.

The Sansei: The reaffirmation of ethnicity, 1965-1980

The Sansei were predominantly born and raised in the postwar era, when their

parents found it much easier to participate in the mainstream economy and society. Unlike

their Nisei parents, the Sansei grew up apart from a dominating Japanese American

community. The majority of Sansei children did not learn Japanese in their childhood other

than certain cultural terms or phrases associated with jokes or food. Most Nisei did not

explicitly teach children Japanese values such as filial piety or enryo (reservation), though

24 Interview with Aiko Herzig, Segment 13. Densho Archive.

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many encouraged the same kind of diligence and hard work that their parents had instilled

in them. Many Nisei encouraged their children to “Americanize 200%.”25 Yet, still marked

racially apart from a majority of their American peers, the Sansei generation continued to

feel a sense of dual identity.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Asian American movement emerged out of a rise

in ethnic and racial consciousness in American society. The political movements of the

day—antiwar, civil rights, black power—created a climate in which Americans of Asian

descent began to reassess their present and past positions in society, particularly in

reference to the white-oriented American power structure. In Asia, there are no Asians—

only people that identify themselves culturally or nationally as Chinese, Korean, etc. But in

the 70s and 80s, a broader pan-ethnic racial, “Asian American”, emerged out of the gauntlet

of racial discrimination and exclusion faced by all Asian groups in America. Asians in

America became a community united in a shared resistance against racism.

How might we understand the acceptance of “Asian American” identity among

these diverse groups? Scholar Lisa Lowe sees the articulation of this kind of pan-ethnic

Asian American identity as a useful organizing tool that provides a concept of political

unity, enabling diverse groups of people to see shared circumstances and histories of

inequality and discrimination as related. The label ‘Asian American,’ then, is not a natural

category, but rather a “socially constructed unity, a situationally specific position that we

assume for political reasons.” Calling upon the work of cultural studies theorist Gayatri

25 Sansei writer and poet David Mura notes that “Americanize 200%” was a favorite phrase of his father

learned while in camp. (Turning Japanese [Kindle edition], Grove Press, 2012).

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Spivak, Lowe describes this political maneuver as “strategic essentialism”—a conscious

utilization of specific racial or ethnic markers for the express purpose of contesting or

disrupting discriminatory policies.26 

The Sansei came of age during the rise of this Asian American movement and

increasingly found themselves at the center of it. Sansei Susan Hayase recalls how although

her parents did not want her to join the all-Asian dormitory at Stanford (perhaps afraid that

she would make herself a target), Hayase found herself increasingly attracted to Stanford’s

Asian American Student Association. Since she grew up relatively isolated from other

 Japanese Americans and Asians, she was intensely curious about the similarities of

experience she found among students in AASA. The black power movement and other

ethnic movements further crystallized the experience of being a minority in American

society. Many Sansei, like Amy Uyematsu, began to equate assimilation with an abdication

of ethnicity and race: “They have adjusted to the white man’s culture by giving up their

own languages, customs, histories, and cultural values. They have adopted the ‘American

way of life’ only to discover that this is not enough.”27 Inspired by other minority

movements, the Sansei increasingly rejected the pursuit of assimilation and sought to

reclaim what they saw as their cultural heritage.

A renewed interest in Japanese culture began to take root and blossom. Classes in

 Japanese dance, flower arranging, music, and painting all grew in popularity among the

26 Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” Diaspora: A Journal of

Transnational Studies. 1.1 (1991), 30.27 Amy Uyematsu, “The Emergence of Yellow Power in America”  

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Sansei. This revived interest in Japanese culture also accompanied another wave of name

changes, only this time in the opposite direction. Although certainly smaller in scope, the

practice was just common enough to attract the scorn of other Sansei. I recently asked my

mother if she had ever considered changing her name, Cheryl.28 She snorted, “Like Fumi?”

Although we were speaking over the phone, I could practically hear her eyes roll. Fumi was

my mother’s cousin. Roughly the same age, her and my mother attended college together.

Mom told me how “Fumi” emerged after her increased involvement in a group who called

themselves the vaguely threatening “Spurs or Fangs.” I asked my mother why the name

change irritated her. “It seemed fake, phony. But then…” Mom paused, and I wondered if

she was going to confess a hidden insight, “if Mom and Dad had called me Esther…”29 

(Only later did I discover the rich irony that Esther/Fumi’s father was one of the Nisei who

had adopted an American name—“Masuo” became a “ Jim.”)

My mother’s view on the phoniness of adopting a Japanese name also points

towards what some Sansei saw as the contradictory nature inherent to third-generation

 Japanese American attempts at ethnic revival. Although most Sansei saw the increased

interest in Japanese language and culture as sincere, many realized that learning a few

traditional Japanese arts and crafts or casually studying Japanese language could hardly

constitute a “genuine” Japanese American ethnic identity. For some Sansei, like writer and

poet David Mura, interactions with Japanese culture only made the Japanese American 

28 My mother is a third-generation Japanese American whose parents were one of the few Japanese

American families who avoided internment by “voluntarily” relocating.29 Personal interview with Cheryl Killen.

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aspect of their identity that much clearer. In his memoir Turning Japanese , Mura recounts his

year long journey to Japan. Although Mura cherished the newfound ability to racially blend

with his surroundings, he could not help but feel culturally out of place. Although visiting

 Japan gave him some insight into the cultural struggles his Issei grandparents faced, his

experiences in Japan did not offer him a cipher by which he could crack the code of his own

identity. Despite the title of the memoir, Mura’s trip to Japan led him to realize one simple

fact, “I was not Japanese, I was Japanese-American.”30 

However, the urge to construct an ethnic identity on such a fragile foundation as the

adoption of a few elements of Japanese culture becomes explicable when one keeps the

entire context of the Sansei in mind. Many Sansei grew up ignorant of the history of their

families. Donna Nagata remembers finding a jar of brightly colored shells under her

grandmother’s kitchen sink. When she asked her grandmother about it, her grandmother

told her to ask her mother. Her mother’s response was, “I made them in camp.” With the

enthusiasm of a child, Nagata asked if camp was fun. “Not really,” her mother replied.

Camp, as far as Nagata was concerned, “was a fun place where children roasted

marshmallows and sang songs around the fire.” Her mother’s reaction did not seem happy

and this puzzled her, but she also sensed that she should not ask more questions.31 Like

Nagata, many Sansei grew up with vague references to “camp”, to some time in the past,

the past of their parents and grandparents and relatives. It was not until high school when

30 Mura, David. Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Kindle edition). (Grove Press, 2007), Locations 5886-

5887.31 Nagata, Donna K. Legacy of Injustice. (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), vii.

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they learned the full significance of that word. This silence, characteristic of most Japanese

American families after the war, hid the history of racial discrimination their grandparents

and parents had faced and hid the motivations that pushed them to assimilate. In such a

context, it was easier for the Sansei to adopt Japanese culture wholesale or to adopt the

more generalized Asian American identity than to try to interpret the specifics of their

identity without a detailed understanding of their history.


In this paper, I have looked at Japanese American ethnic identity across three

generations. I have observed that each generation confronted unique challenges rooted in

racial discrimination and each generation chose different strategies to overcome those

challenges. When faced with a hostile white culture and exclusionary laws, the Issei

generation formed self-reliant ethnic communities. Faced with the destruction of those

ethnic communities by internment, the Nisei sought to blend in with white American

culture. However, the memories of internment continued to haunt the Nisei and their

children. Still marginalized by white America, the Sansei rebelled against the assimilationist

tendencies of their parents and sought to revive a sense of ethnic identity.