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J-TOWN BEAT: Where We Came From

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By GWEN MURANAKA

Go back to where you came from: an ignorant, bigoted statement that many readers of this publication have no doubt experienced in one form or another.

It’s the cold hatred in the eyes of the woman proudly pointing at the sign that says, “Japs Keep Moving — This Is a White Man’s Neighborhood.”

It’s Vincent Chin beaten to death by out-of-work autoworkers in a Detroit suburb in 1982.

It’s playground taunting and kids saying “Ching, Chong Chinaman.”

It’s being asked “No, where are you really from?”

Here in the summer of 2019, we’re experiencing racial animus at a heightened level, driven by the president. How each of us responds to it says something about ourselves.

As a minority, the thing that really hurts is the idea that you’re not a “real” American and there is nothing you can do about it. You’ll never be good enough or American enough. It’s something we internalize, a kernel of self-doubt, self-hatred and self-loathing that attaches to your identity.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”

Dr. Satsuki Ina has so eloquently written and spoken about the psychological trauma experienced by children of the Japanese American incarceration. The experiences of the children of concentration camps, who in turn became our parents and grandparents, is the fuel that has driven an unprecedented level of activism in the Japanese American community.

When the folks who went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma stood before hundreds at a rally in Little Tokyo, one thing struck me that Leslie Ishii said. She noted that many who went to Oklahoma did not consider themselves activists until this moment in history, which has spurred them to action.

The camp experience has left its mark and the burden Japanese Americans face is to share those ugly scars for all of America to see.

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Take Off Your Shoes: Kay Numata carries a protest sign at a rally to preserve Little Tokyo in April 2008. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

Part of where I came from is the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where my grandparents Asayo and Roy Taniguchi were born more than 100 years ago.

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece with the provocative headline: “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii.” Writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff notes that nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s population is of mixed heritage and the article is accompanied by beautiful portraits of Hawaiians, with their ethnicity listed in the captions. It’s a long, complex read and well worth it.

The photos are a familiar mix for those of us who have family in Hawaii, or even as Mainland Japanese Americans who have outmarried more and are the most ethnically mixed of any Asian Pacific Islander group.

As examples, Kawika Okamoto is Irish/German/Okinawan/Hawaiian, while Tia Marie Masaniai-Estrera is Hawaiian/Samoan/Filipino/Chinese/Spanish/German/Caucasian. My nephews are similar, counting Japanese, Scottish, Native Hawaiian and Filipino as their heritage.

Dr. Kristin Pauker, a researcher at the University of Hawai’i at Monoa, followed 143 white college students from the Mainland and found that over time they began to see their racial identity as more fluid and less determined by biology. The article seems to imply that a balm for our country’s raging ethno-nationalism would be a trip to the Islands.

Velasquez-Manoff writes rather than a racial identity, the Hawaiian identity is exemplified by the “aloha spirit — a concept roughly defined as an emphasis on mutual respect, getting along and taking care of one another, and in Hawaiian pidgin, the language people from many different backgrounds working on the plantation created to communicate.”

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that being Hawaiian is to be less racist, but of course it isn’t that simple. In Velasquez-Manoff’s first article, he notes prejudice experienced by African Americans and Micronesians. In a follow-up, readers point out that Native Hawaiians, Tongans and Samoans continue to experience higher rates of poverty and there is also anti-white sentiment.

Phil from Las Vegas says, “I grew up in Hawaii and look like many of your photos. If you’re haole there, it can be pretty rough.”

Still, I think the idea of trying to having the “aloha spirit” is a good one, and Little Tokyo has its own version of this.

“In our house, take your shoes off,” said Alan Nishio during a rally to preserve Little Tokyo in April 2008. “Take off your shoes” has become a phrase that embodies the idea of showing respect and understanding of the Japanese cultural values that are the underpinning of historic Japantowns like Little Tokyo.

The other night I was at a Kizuna event and it was heartening to hear counselor Alyssa Suzukawa speak those same words to high school students. Kizuna is doing the hard work of instilling cultural values in the younger generations. They’ll be here even as Little Tokyo continues to change and evolve and the elders who once walked these streets are long gone.

Like Hawaii, Little Tokyo is far from perfect and many problems won’t go away with simple words and catch phrases. But there is grace in the effort of trying to live and fulfill the highest of our ideals, to ignore social media and focus on being good neighbors and true friends. To speak up when necessary and get involved.

Live with an aloha spirit and remember to take off your shoes.

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Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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