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.
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.
Paul Osaki, executive director of the San Francisco-based Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, admitted to being “really depressed” when he got an AARP card in the mail immediately after turning 50. “More than ever before, I feel the aging of our community.”
According to the UCLA report, 13 percent of Japanese Americans are 65 and older. “I think if we were able to do a comparison of the aging population of our community from just 10 years ago, that percentage of those 65 and older would probably be a lot higher,” said Osaki. “We notice the number of Nisei funerals that we have to go to. We see them pass away on a weekly basis … In one year I attended 40 funerals, almost once a week. The average age of the Nisei is well in their mid-80s …
“I go to funerals now and the silver-haired people in the pews are not Nisei, they’re Sansei. For years we’ve been saying the Sansei generation is getting older and the truth is we are old. We are becoming members of AARP at an increasing rate … This population (45 to 65) would be the largest in our community because it really represents the Baby Boom era, those born after World War II and the closing of the concentration camps.”
These statistics should come as no surprise, he continued. “What have we done in the last 10 years to strategically address these issues that we knew were coming? We’ve known for a long time that our community is aging.”
For the most part, Osaki said, the aging Sansei are “well educated, have had great job opportunities, and are often wealthier than their Nisei parents … Most are now empty-nesters and will soon be retiring. Their kids are married and have moved on.
“This group of Sansei, though, in many ways … are the lost generation. They’ve grown up in our community through our picnics, our churches, our sports leagues, the programs that our community has provided, but they have in large part disappeared from our community activities, events, boards of directors as a whole. We know this is not just a matter that they don’t have time. They do have time, but for some reason I think we have lost a large segment of that community. And I think it’s partly due to the geographic dispersal of our community.”
The statistics show that one-fourth to one-half of Japanese Americans live outside areas where community organizations are concentrated, such as California and Hawaii, Osaki said. “Most of our community services are not where our community lives today. They are not located in areas that they can participate in the events and the daily activities that have been in our community … So the question is how can we better serve them?”
The Nisei, described by Osaki as “the most philanthropic generation ever,” have been the biggest financial supporters of the churches, newspapers, kenjinkai, veterans’ organizations and other community institutions. “The big question that we need to ask ourselves is how are we going to continue to support these organizations over the next 10, 20, 30 or 50 years? … How can we keep some sense of our community wealth accumulated over the generations in our community? …
“The Jewish community accumulated wealth not just for themselves, but to leave a legacy for their community and to future generations … It is part of their culture. We need to take a look at that as well.”
Osaki also addressed the increasing diversity. “We still use language in our marketing, outreach and communication, words that systematically exclude much of our growing community. We use words like ‘Japanese’ and ‘Japanese American,’ refer to our community as Issei, Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei. To a growing population, they don’t necessarily relate to these words in the same way generations before them have.”
He recalled a Christmas card from a mixed-race family that featured a photo of three young children with bright red hair and blue eyes. “You would not recognize them as part of our community … It’s how we have viewed things for so many years. They are part of our cultural heritage, they are part of our community history. But more importantly, they are part of our future and of our legacy. For many of us in the community, our lenses which we see the community through are blurred and distorted by our own history and sense of community. We will need to change that if we are to embrace a new future.”
Japanese American institutions should also be “more inclusive, more embracing” toward the Japanese-speaking community, he said.
“Our time to develop a strategic plan to address the needs of our community has come … We discussed the same issues at the ‘Ties That Bind’ conference over 10 years ago here in Los Angeles and again at the ‘Nikkei 2000’ conference in San Francisco,” Osaki concluded. “I personally feel that the time for just talking about it is over. It’s time for action individually and collectively as a community.”
Second of three parts.