It’s ironic how much discussion there currently is about the travesty of the Japanese Internment given Donald Trump’s recent statements that I would find myself an ocean away trying to delicately explain to a young Japanese boy about my grandfather’s experiences growing up Japanese during that time in America. This young man is interested in WWII, and had lots of questions for me about my grandfather and his role in the war. With the help of my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), I was able to paint a small window into my grandfather’s life and what it meant for him to be Japanese in America all those years ago.
One of the biggest if not the main reason I came to Japan was because of my grandparents and my family ancestry. Growing up, my grandparents often spoke Japanese, took me to Japantown, and cooked Japanese meals for dinner (as much as they could at least, given that I wasn’t a fan of seafood in my younger years). I had always been interested in Japan and Japanese culture, but sadly never took the time or energy to really increase my knowledge of the language. I was never into anime (except for Sailor Moon and Pokemon, of course), and though I took some Japanese focused courses in University, attempted a Japanese language class a year ago, and attended Japanese league basketball games and events (since my brothers played) growing up, I did little else to pursue further knowledge of my Japanese roots. Life got in the way you could say.
Shortly after my grandfather passed, I finished graduate school and moved back home, and into the house he and my grandmother had shared and that I’d spent a great deal of my life growing up in. The desire to feel connected to them, to keep some part of their lives alive in my own, pushed me to embark on this journey to live in Japan, to better understand them and better understand myself.
Being here has had many ups and downs and triumphs and struggles. Being half of two different cultures has been a lifelong battle of not feeling like you fully belong to either, and being here in some ways has exacerbated those feelings. Though I am half Japanese, though some people immediately ask if I have Japanese heritage, here I am of course not Japanese, I am American. Back at home, Americans seem to rarely identify themselves solely as such and more often by their family heritages, regardless of how long they’ve been in America. I’ve been told by friends that they consider me to “white” while other consider me to be “Asian”. I am not more one than the other. Nor am I less one than the other. Those who can only identify me as one or the other are doing more harm than they might realize. It’s hard to make sense of being both; just too little of either to fully identify as one of the other but just enough of both to feel like you should. Yet knowing that what makes you you is that you are in fact both, which is a confusing and wonderful thing.
Today,and whenever I get to share my family’s ties to Japan, I feel just a little bit more like I belong here. I feel a little more acceptance, a little more of the connection I’d hope to find. I feel a little closer to my grandparents and their stories. Every day here I find myself learning more about them- seeing where they got certain expressions, understanding more about their characters. Not to say Japanese people are all the same of course, but understanding the culture has really helped me understand them more, even if they were born in America. What becomes the hardest part is then the sadness in realizing that this is not an experience I get to share with them in any tangible way. As I get closer to coming home, the reality that they won’t be there to hear my stories and understand them in a way no one else can brings back the pain of their absence. There have been many moments here that I’ve wished I could call them, ask them a question about the language, compare my grandfather’s school experience to modern day Japan, find out more about where to go and where our family is from. I am so grateful to have this experience now, but oh how I wish I’d done this when they could share it with me.