The State of Japanese America, Part 1: ‘Smaller Doesn’t Mean Less Relevant’

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

How should Japanese American organizations respond to changing demographics within the community? A panel of community leaders shared their suggestions at the opening session of “The State of Japanese America,” a conference held July 9 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

The conference was jointly presented by the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and the National JACL, which was holding its annual convention at the hotel.

Alan Nishio of CJACLC said the goal of the daylong conference was to come up with “strategies to build a roadmap that directs our community into the next decade.” He stressed that the conference was “not just a lecture, it’s really gathering your input and hopefully coming up with a collective vision for our community.”

JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori commented, “If we were to have a similar gathering 15-20 years ago, all these middle-aged, graying people would be in the audience. It’s good to see that we have participation from the young segment of our community.”

Noting that three of his five children now have non-Japanese surnames, he said, “I think this is very typical of my generation, the kids that we have, grandkids, great-grandkids. So in this context you have an opportunity today to try to figure out where we are going, where should we be … I hope that this is not just another one of these meetings that we come to and show our face and represent our organization and then go back home and forget about what we learned … Let’s make this a milestone, let’s make this significant.”

Following remarks by representatives of the sponsors, David Kim of AARP and George Tanaka of Union Bank, Melany De La Cruz of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center gave a presentation on U.S. Census data showing that Japanese Americans as a whole are aging, are more multiracial, and are more dispersed geographically compared to 10 years ago, and that people from Japan make up a significant portion of that population. Three panelists responded.

Karen Narasaki

Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) in Washington, D.C., noted that her organization worked to ensure that Asian Americans were accurately counted in the 2010 census “so that Melany could have the data that she used today. It shows the relevance of why we do the work we do. I know the census doesn’t sound very exciting … but you can see why at the end of the day it really matters because it does shape policy not only here in California but nationally in Washington as well.”

Karen NarasakiRegarding the increasingly multiethnic/multiracial community, Narasaki noted that her aunt married a non-Nikkei almost 50 years ago. “So it’s something that has been long happening in our community.” She added that her sister’s daughter is Hapa and her brother’s daughter is not, “yet it’s my sister’s daughter who speaks Japanese better than my sister and my Nisei mom.”

The community as a whole “would have actually lost population in the last decade” without the multiracial element, she said, calling for “a broader, more inclusive look at where we’re going nationally … We can think of ourselves as actually leading a vanguard of change because this demographic shift is not just happening within the Japanese American community, it’s happening in all communities. It’s just happening faster.”

Although Japanese Americans are no longer one of the largest Asian American ethnic groups, “smaller doesn’t mean less relevant,” Narasaki emphasized. “While we are losing the Japanese Americans who directly experienced the internment and it is becoming more of a distant history to the Yonsei and Gosei generations … like the Jewish community’s responsibility to remind the world of the Holocaust, the Japanese American community has a real obligation to keep reminding America and the rest of the world of what can happen in times of wartime hysteria …

“Sadly, the experience is no less relevant today and in the foreseeable future … One might feel that the history of the internment is well known and well accepted, but the battle last year in Texas over the way it should be discussed in our textbooks for K-12 show us that we cannot take that for granted.” (The Texas school board wanted to teach that the internment was not racially motivated, as Germans and Italians were also confined. But the entire Japanese American population of the West Coast was interned, while only a small percentage of German and Italian Americans were affected.)

The generations that helped to win redress for those who were interned “also have an important lesson to share with other small communities,” Narasaki said. “In a democracy, if you organize and build coalitions, you can get to justice.”

Regarding the more diverse Japanese American community, Narasaki added, “More integrated doesn’t necessarily mean less need to engage.” Noting that Japanese Americans are increasingly marrying Latinos, African Americans and other Asian Americans, she said, “The mixed-race population of our community is becoming less white. The causes of these communities, whether we like it or not, are our causes, and not just philosophically.”

Laws directed at immigrants do not just impact Latinos and other Asian groups, Narasaki pointed out. “While significantly smaller than the numbers coming from other Asian countries, surprisingly Japanese are still immigrating … One in four of us is still foreign-born. So laws based on your immigration status, whether you were born here or not, still disproportionately affect our community.”

AAJC is opposing efforts to institute E-Verify, a system that allows employers to electronically verify an employee’s work authorization. “If you’re not born here, the error rate is 20 times higher than if you are born here,” Narasaki explained.

Language access issues, such as translated documents provided by government agencies, “are still surprisingly relevant,” Narasaki said. “Over a third of Japanese Americans … still speak Japanese at home. Small in comparison to other Asian groups, where it’s 60 to 90 percent, but that’s still a large group in our community. Almost 20 percent … even more surprisingly don’t speak English well. Still less than other Asian groups, but a significant need.”

“While unemployment is largely not an issue for us, the glass ceiling still exists” from federal judicial appointments to major corporations that “have yet to have an Asian American on their board or in their most senior-level ranks,” she said.

Given the aging of the community, the need to be involved in federal budget issues is greater than ever, Narasaki continued. “Will there be sufficient funding for community health centers, senior day care centers, assisted living and home health care? … Do threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as we know it mean that my generation never gets to retire? And what about the next generation?”

Citing the stands that JACL has taken as a “voice for justice” — such as marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, supporting marriage equality and opposing anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11 — Narasaki said, “Our community still matters … whatever the size of our population or the mixes of our ethnicity.”

First of three parts.

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