SENIOR MOMENTS: Kotonk/Kanaka: How Are They Different?

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By PHIL SHIGEKUNI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on April 28, 2011.)

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After my first column I got an email message from Charlie Hashibe, who wished me well. He surmised, from what I said in the column, that I was a “Kotonk.” I had not heard that term in a long time. It, of course, refers to mainland JAs as opposed to Hawaii JAs, who are called “Kanakas.” Charlie was, obviously, a Kanaka.

His use of the term caused me to think about my experience with Hawaiians. To me, Hawaiian JAs seem happier. They laugh more, and are more expressive. (Perhaps it was not a coincidence the first person I heard from was a Hawaiian.) When they are angry about something they tend not to hide their anger. The mainland people, by contrast, are more reserved. (Repressed?) So, what are the reasons for these differences?

The camp and wartime experience, of course, played a major role. I have made many presentations in school classrooms about my camp experience. I would tell the kids that while I had enough to eat, and nobody physically abused me, being surrounded by barbed wire, with guards watching me, affected the way I felt about myself as a child, and as an American. It was like being punished by your parent for something you did not do. I suspect these feelings linger to this day.

When we settled in Milwaukee during the war and went shopping, my mother told my sister and me to keep our voices down so as to not attract any attention. At the end of the war we returned to L.A. and lived in the Seinan area west of USC. It was in a largely black and Japanese area and I felt no discrimination while attending Foshay Junior High. However, for people whose families resettled in the San Fernando Valley, things were different. The JA boys banded together for protection from hostile white boys. My friend Chieko says her elementary school teacher referred to her as a “Jap.” Another friend, Yas, tells me when it came time for folk dancing, his teacher did not allow the JA boys to dance with the white girls. (The JA girls were allowed to dance with the white boys.)

When we moved into a house on 37th Place, which was on the racial borderline, I remember, vividly, this balding white man going to the white families in the neighborhood with a petition to force us to move. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court (thanks to Thurgood Marshall), ruled as unconstitutional restrictive covenants in the deeds of homes that prohibited the sale of homes to minorities. All these, and similar experiences, had to scar all of us.

In contrast, the JAs in Hawaii were in the majority. Another friend, Dickson Yagi, who grew up in Hilo during the war, tells me he took pride in being Japanese. I have never heard any mainland WWII-era JA of either gender express pride in being Japanese. My friend Linda from Honolulu married a mainland Sansei who grew up during the war. She said she was surprised that her husband did not want their sons to go to school back east for fear of facing discrimination.

Then I think about how the naming of children was affected by our feelings about our place in society. Of the older mainland women we know, there are a lot of common names. We know a lot of Marys, for instance. Of the Hawaii-born women we know, there’s a Clara, Geraldine, Harriet and Lorna. Alexander and Dickson are Hawaiian men we know. It would seem that feeling you belong in a society frees you to be more of an individual and allows you to give more distinctive names to your children.

Looking back, I have come to appreciate something about who we are as a people.

Kanakas and Kotonks have, by and large, met with success in this country. But for us Kotonks, it has come at a higher price.

Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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  1. Phil, My mom (born and raised in Honolulu) called ourselves “buddhaheads” too. She has never understood what the “kotonks” have gone through and thinks of them as unfriendly. After joining JACL, I got to know the stories of many internees and now have a better understanding of what they went through especially during the war years and post-war years. I’ve learned alot through their stories: example: Shig Yabu has written a children’s book about his magpie at Heart Mountain. I can now see part of his childhood through his book. Thank you for sharing your feelings on this subject. Anne Chilcott

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