THROUGH THE FIRE: My Japanese American Identity: Everything But the Kitchen Sink


(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on September 1, 2010.)


My parents were insistent on having my brother and I experience things outside of our comfort zone. Due to their involvement in many communities, our lives extended beyond the quaint, secure confines of the Japanese American (JA) community.

No matter how far I ventured, I always felt attached to my cultural foundation. During grade school, I was never part of a student body that had more than 10 students of Japanese ancestry. And of those 10 students, I was friends with no more than a third of them. My JA identity was obviously not nurtured by my academic upbringing. Where was my source of JA appreciation outside of my own home? Growing up, my JA identity was recharged weekly through the JA sports leagues. Whether it was basketball in the fall and winter or baseball in the spring and summer, I was engulfed in JA culture year round. One thing that epitomized JA culture was the elaborate spreads at the post-game potlucks. Chicken wings, spam musubi, Chinese chicken salad, Giuliano’s torpedo sandwiches, tamales, and 7-layer dip always trumped the outcome of the game.

Today, my JA identity is recharged in a more mature, specialized fashion. I have had the pleasure of having friends on the past three Nisei Week courts, connecting me with new and old friends in the JA community. I recently attended a Japanese American National Museum Young Professionals Network event. Food, music, engaged discussions, and a youthful spirit filled the second floor of the museum. I was pleasantly convinced that my generation was alive and well.

But, my JA identity goes beyond the present time and community that I live in. History is inherently linked to my identity. What is my history? What do I relate to? I know very little about the recent history of Japan. Emperor Showa’s role in World War II. The occupation of Manchuria and Taiwan. The Liberal and Social Democratic Parties. The Heisei (post-Cold War) Period. To me, these significant pieces of Japanese history are merely facts in history books. My JA identity is more closely associated with that of American history, including the signing of Executive Order 9066 that lead to the incarceration of over 100,000 people of Japanese decent, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the resulting “War on Terrorism.” February 19, 1942. April 4, 1968. September 11, 2001. May 31, 1985. All of these dates intertwine to form my JA identity and history.

I am fully comfortable and confident with my JA identity. Is that true for the rest of my community? How do you define Japanese American? Is there a set definition that can be obtained in a dictionary or on the Internet? The most easily accessible and comprehensive summary of “Japanese American” is found on Wikipedia. Covering culture, history, politics, communities, and notable individuals, does this summary do us justice? One significant point that has been omitted was highlighted at a recent family reunion. Surveying the individuals of my extended family, I made a profound observation. Out of the first and second cousins of my generation and younger, there were only two that were full Japanese. My brother and myself. This holds true for both sides of my family. Out of about two-dozen first and second cousins, there are only four of us who are 100% of Japanese decent. This overwhelming ethnic diversity is prevalent throughout the JA community. This does not dilute cultural purity. This actuality makes our community that much more special.

The JA community is reaching farther and farther into other magnificent communities, adding depth to our vibrant culture. We transcend cultural boundaries while building proactive ethnic bridges. The Japanese American identity is marvelously fluid. It is imperative that we continue to embrace and appreciate everything that makes our community, history, and identity so extraordinary.


Joey T. Furutani can be contacted by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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