THROUGH THE FIRE: Honoring the Nisei


(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Sept. 29, 2011.)


I’ve heard it said by a wise old person that “old age is always 15 years older than I am,” but that boast seems to have lost its glow lately. For some reason being Sansei, I’ve always thought of myself as a young whippersnapper, but since many of my generation are now grandparents it’s pretty hard to make that claim anymore.

Plus, we’ve always had plenty of Nisei around to make us feel younger than we are, and that, too, unfortunately is slowly changing. As the Issei have almost completely disappeared, and the Nisei have taken their place on the endangered list, I’ve been doing some re-thinking about where I stand on the old-age ladder and what I’ve learned (and have yet to learn) from those who came before us.

Fortunately, I’ve been given the opportunity to examine our JA roots through working with the amazing Seattle-based organization called Densho, so named because it means “to pass on to the next generation.” Dedicated to preserving our stories through first-hand accounts of those Japanese Americans who lived through World War II, Densho has been conducting interviews in Southern California, and I have been lucky enough to be the person asking the questions.

In doing so, not only have I learned a lot about our fascinating Nisei and their family histories, I have also figured out a thing or two about myself. Without generalizing too much, it can’t be denied that there are certain character traits borne by both Issei and Nisei that have had positive (and negative) ramifications. And to hear similar stories told by entirely different individuals, I am more convinced than ever that we can learn so much from our family members that it’s imperative to keep asking questions and delving for answers while they’re still around to give them.

I want to think there are cultural reasons why we have never been particularly open to dialogue between generations. One reason could have to do with that old character trait called gaman. There’s no doubt that this trait of bearing the seemingly unbearable with dignity helped our Issei get through the humiliation of camp. It’s also an attribute that had something to do with those men who wanted to bring honor to their families through their heroism in the military. And it took a lot of gaman for the Issei after the war when they had lost everything and had to rebuild.

However, even though gaman got us through those unbelievably difficult times, it also might have something to do with how many of us choose to keep quiet about ourselves and therefore suffer bravely and silently. Due to this silence, many of those I interviewed knew next to nothing about the histories of their Issei parents. Even though it was not legislated by the Japanese, it could be said that the words “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could have originated with them, and not in the U.S. military, having little to do with being gay.

Perhaps many of our struggling Issei ancestors were too busy forging a life to talk to their children about how they made it here. Or maybe it had something to do with the discomfort of calling attention to themselves. But as a result, many family histories are being lost as our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles pass on, and we are left with silent stories that will never, ever be recovered.

In my family, for example, our entire Nisei generation is gone — including my grandparents, parents, four uncles and five aunties. Fortunately, before my last aunt died, we managed to tape-record her vibrant account of how her parents, my grandparents, came to this country. Even though she told as much as she could remember, many details had already been lost.

Now, my aunt was a retired civil service worker with two children, born in Hawaii, and sent to camp. She was not a famous public figure, a prominent activist, or even a public speaker, but that didn’t stop her from regaling us with colorful stories about her so-called “ordinary” life. Soon after she told us her stories, she contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition that paralyzed her vocal chords, and in time, she could no longer speak. Not only did I feel the terrible loss of our favorite auntie, I also felt robbed of what remained of our family history.

Not only is Densho helping us restore our all-too-quickly fading family histories, I believe it is restoring our belief in the importance of each and every JA story. No matter how notable, how successful, or how seemingly ordinary our lives are, as survivors of one of this country’s gravest civil injustices, the Nisei and Sansei all have stories to tell. The most important thing is to share them.

When given the assignment of finding JAs to interview, I was asked to locate those whose stories had not been told. Consider this an invitation to share them — if not with Densho, then with your family members. There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone will benefit from it.

I also encourage everyone to attend the “Legacy of Japanese American Activism” on Nov. 5 at the Japanese American National Museum. There’s a wonderful intergenerational component to this event. A gathering of “Nisei (now in their 70s to 90s), Sansei (now in their 50s and 60s), mid-range activists (late 20s to 40s), and young activists (college students and those in their early 20s),” according to organizer Iku Kiriyama, will certainly generate lively dialogue and help us learn a thing or two about one another. For more information about this conference, go to


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached by email.Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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