SENIOR MOMENTS: Japanese/American Values

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By PHIL SHIGEKUNI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 21, 2011.)

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Growing up Japanese in America, we all know, causes us to make certain adjustments as we adapt to American ways.

One example is enryo: When you go to one of your JA friend’s home, you may decline an offer of some refreshment, knowing the person will offer it at least one more time.  When this second or third offer happens, you reluctantly accept. More than once, I have heard of a Sansei, not knowing it to be a Japanese custom, will be a guest at a non-Japanese home and be very disappointed in not being given a second chance at an offer of some refreshment!

Another Japanese custom is to “talk down” one’s spouse or child.  My Sansei pastor tells me the term an Issei husband would use in referring to his wife literally means “my ugly wife.” Also, when an Issei parent would talk about his child to another Issei, very commonly it would be in disparaging terms. It would be expected that the listener would differ with the parent, saying, “No, your son is not lazy/stupid/uncoordinated, he is energetic/smart/or very athletic.”

A problem might arise when the son being discussed overhears this from his father, and not knowing the custom, takes a shot to his ego.

Also, the friends I know who had Issei parents tell me it was rare to receive a compliment or a word of encouragement from a parent. Doing well in school was expected. A typical exchange might go something like this: “So, you got all A’s except for one B. Perhaps if you work a little harder, you can bring that up, too.”

Which brings to mind my attempt to do something to counter this tendency in my family. A few years ago our grandson was at an age where he was having to be constantly scolded for his behavior. I suggested to my daughter that she try a different approach: Catch him doing something right, and compliment him for it.

A couple of weeks later my daughter called to tell me, “Daddy, what you suggested I try with Miles seems to have worked. But, listen to this. I went to pick him up from school the other day, and when I got there, he told me, ‘Mommy, I am so proud of you, you got here on time today!’ ”

Our survival in America came about through being able to live out the values of gaman and shikataganai. These values served us in good stead during the difficult years of World War II. However, the American value of asserting our rights as Americans came about only after a struggle within our community. It was gratifying to me to see the Sanseis, who were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by the Isseis and Niseis, provide much of the energy that eventually won our redress.

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

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