By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The future of the Nikkei community was discussed at a “Ties That Bind” conference held Saturday at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.
This year’s theme: “Am I Japanese/American? Defining Your Place in a New Framework for Action.” Previous conferences were held in Los Angeles in 1998, 2002 and 2005, resulting in the formation of such programs as Camp Musubi for middle-schoolers and the Rising Stars high school leadership program.
The gathering kicked off with an “on-the-street” video by Ryan Togioka and Erin Nakamura in which people attending this year’s Nisei Week Festival talked about their ties, or lack of ties, to the Japanese American community.
Bill Watanabe, chair of the conference planning committee, noted that while some interviewees said that the community has no future and will disappear, others “gave some very good comments in terms of what people are doing to get involved and to learn.”
Craig Tomiyoshi, a member of the planning committee, presented the results of a survey conducted through the “Ties That Bind” website. He explained, “We really felt that we needed some way to gauge the feeling of the community, get a sense of where they’re currently volunteering, why they’re doing it. And if not, why not.”
As of Saturday morning, 597 people had participated in the survey, which consisted of 10 questions. While cautioning that it is not a scientific survey, Tomiyoshi said the results would help “identify some gaps in our outreach and our engagement.”
The majority (nearly 500) self-identified as Japanese Americans; the other options were Japanese, other Nikkei (such as Japanese Brazilian), mixed Japanese heritage, and other Asian American. Among the Japanese Americans, the majority (300-plus) were third generation. “We really wanted to capture more of a younger generation, fourth or fifth, but it really didn’t happen,” said Tomoyoshi. “I think for fifth we had eight or nine responses.”
Volunteering in JA Community
When asked how often they volunteer in general, “a lot of the people said they volunteer once a week or more (200-plus), once a month (100-plus) or at least five or six times a year (50-plus) … But when we asked them how often they volunteer in the Japanese American community in Southern California, the answers are a lot different,” he said. “So what this tells us is that people are volunteering, but for some reason they’re not doing it within the Japanese American community.”
The responses about volunteering in the community were, in order, “rarely” (top answer), “once a week or more,” “once a month,” “once or twice a year,” “never,” and “five or six times a year.”
“We asked respondents on a scale of 5 to 1, with 5 being very engaged and 1 being not engaged at all, to rank their current level of involvement in the Japanese American community in Southern California,” said Tomiyoshi. “Basically they said that they weren’t very engaged … But when we asked about their interest in volunteering in the community, the numbers all skewed that they’re very interested. This tells us that there’s a desire to want to volunteer, but again, they’re not doing it. So we’re missing an opportunity someplace.”
More than 90 percent of first-generation (immigrant) respondents were somewhat to very interested in participating in the community, while 37.5 percent of fifth-generation respondents were not interested at all.
“Traditionally, we look at the first-generation community as a separate community, they don’t want to have any part of what we’re doing amongst Japanese Americans,” Tomiyoshi observed, but the results indicate “that’s not the case. So that’s really an opportunity for us.”
Lack of Connection
The biggest barrier to community involvement was “not enough time” (chosen by nearly 400 respondents). The second and third most common responses were “lack of connection with the community or its issues” and “don’t know how to get started/do more.”
Noting that most fifth-generation respondents chose “lack of connection,” Tomiyoshi said, “Even though it’s a small sample size, I think it’s a safe assumption to say that the generations go on, they lose that sense of connection. I think based on what we heard in the video today, people say it’s important to acknowledge the contributions of their ancestors or their family and the sacrifices that they made, but beyond that there really is no connection.”
When asked which activities or issues are important to them, more than 300 respondents said they were very interested in Japanese food, Japanese American community history/preservation, and Japanese American cultural preservation, followed by Japanese culture, visiting/traveling to Japan, youth/young adult leadership development, civil rights/community advocacy, and Nikkei basketball/other organized sports.
Tomiyoshi found it interesting that sports and youth leadership skewed low in the “very interested” category and unexpectedly high in the “not interested at all” category. “They’re an important part of the community … but I think that from an engagement perspective, if we’re using these to bring people back into the community, it might not be the most effective sort of message. The message needs to be more on cultural preservation or historical preservation.”
The last question: “Do you feel there is adequate leadership and concern to ensure the future of the Japanese American community for future generations?” Tomiyoshi said, “What was surprising was the big number of people (nearly 300) that said they were unsure. So that means that there’s a lack of awareness of what’s happening in the community … When we break that down by younger generations, ‘no’ is almost 62.5 percent of the fifth-generation people.”
Respondents were asked to write three words that best describe the community. Tomiyoshi said, “A lot of the words were fairly negative in tone — ‘diminishing,’ ‘disappearing,’ ‘fading’ … ‘shrinking,’ ‘uncertain.’ ” Some positive words came up — “youth,” “culture,” “important,” “evolving” — “but I think in general it was more negative than positive,” he added.
Tomiyoshi concluded, “We need to develop opportunities for people to engage, and educate people why it’s important … How can we make it easier for people to get involved and volunteer, knowing that time is also an issue? …
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s a sense that the community is fading. But at the same time there is hope and desire that the community should remain intact.”
Amy Phillips, a member of the conference committee, stressed that generation doesn’t necessarily correspond with age. “I’m second generation, but when I use the term ‘Nisei,’ people associate it with a very specific group of people who were born during a certain time, who went to camp … When we look at Sansei or that third-generation category, you might be talking about very young and active people too. So I don’t want to get too focused on how the Gosei feel … We’re so diverse.”
Tomiyoshi agreed. “Age and generation are two very different things. Hopefully this is just more of a snapshot to get us started in the right direction. I’d like to see a survey like this done more often … Maybe we can break things out by age and get a little more detailed.”
Watanabe, who has been active in the community for decades, said he has been rethinking what “Japanese American” means. “It used to be very neat — Issei, Nisei, Sansei — and that’s really gone now. As Amy mentioned, her mother is from Japan and she’s a Hapa but she speaks fluent Japanese. So there’s really such a mix now of people who may identify with the community …
“People who go on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, they may be Caucasian, they may be black … When they come back, they are more Japanese than most second-, third-, fourth-generation folks who grew up here. They connect with the community and they’re quite comfortable with it. So I think they’re Japanese American. Of if you’re a Caucasian married to a Japanese American, I think you sort of pick that up too.
“I think it becomes a self-identifying label. We need to change our thoughts about it and I’m hoping that through the discussion we can get into that a little bit more.”
The daylong program included a panel discussion, small groups, and a plenary report.
To take part in the survey, go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/F8NQB3J.