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Back for the first time

Posted Jul 19 2007

A Japanese-American woman discusses visiting the land of her ancestors for the first time. The best interviews are those that turn into conversations and Donna and I talked several times over the course of a few weeks before finally sitting down for a formal interview. I eliminated most of my comments for the sake of brevity, but this conversation took me places that I definitely hadn’t considered. Currently, Donna is a teacher in southern California. Following the interview are some responses by students at Oakland Unity High School.

Can you describe your relationship with Japan and its impact, if any, on your life?

Both of my parents were born in the U.S. but raised in Japan until the atomic bombs were dropped. They returned to the U.S. because of their roots there. They returned after losing everything thing in Japan. My mother’s family had land in Redondo Beach.

My mother received her high school education in Japan and had a hard life. Her grandparents were killed by the bombs, her mother died of cholera when she was a young, and her father died within a year of the bomb drop from radiation poisoning. She had to raise three younger brothers from a
young age.

Did she come back to the States with her father?

I’m not sure. I should find out. But I know she came over on a boat. It was a real hard voyage. There were no stabilizers so they were always sea sick.

She had a hard time in school as an American-born Japanese. She’s one of the oldest surviving members of family, at the age of 78. Most of the others died in their 40s and 50s.

I was raised in a home with both parents who spoke Japanese. They wanted their kids to attend Japanese language class and they gave us the choice. But being a stupid kid who didn’t want more schooling, I didn’t take advantage of it. My parents met here in the U.S. Her brother was living in a boarding house, with my father. Her brother introduced them. My father was working as a house boy, making 50 cents a week, cleaning homes and doing laundry. The people he worked for gave him liver to eat. He still has an aversion to it. He used to ride bike for miles just to get a bowl of rice. On the ride home burned it off and by the time he got home he was hungry again. He became a gardener and made more money. Later, my maternal grandmother came over.

When my mother came she joined her aunts, who were interned at Manzanar (relocation camp). They had a support system in place.

We lived in L.A. in a tiny apartment in uptown L.A. near Dorsey High School. It was my parents, grandmother, plus two kids in a tiny apartment. The made me go to a Methodist church and I went to an elementary school there to keep me in line. My mother was a sweatshop worker. My parents saved money and moved the family to a suburb of Los Angeles.

Essentially, everyone in family spoke Japanese and ate Japanese food but they sent us to American schools and expected us to be American. As I get older, I find myself losing a lot of the language. I spoke more as a child.

What are your mother’s feelings towards the U.S. since she experienced the bombing?

My mother hates the current president, but her feeling is that most Japanese people had no control over their destiny back then. The government and military made decisions and people did what they were told to do. On the day the bomb dropped, she was supposed to make bullets but her class was canceled. All of her friends died. Also, her grandparents had recently moved to the other side of the river, a bit farther from the epicenter (in Hiroshima). She was very fortunate to have survived. You can see the burn marks on her back still.

My family, as poor farmers, the only thing they knew was that food and goods were cut off due to the U.S. They didn’t’ understand the politics. There was much resentment, but it’s lessening.

Japan is a highly egalitarian society, and there are some good things…the high literacy rate, people know how to live and work together, there’s less violence.

What are the main differences between the two countries?

In Japan they do what’s best for group. In the U.S., you do what’s best for yourself. In my mind, I struggle with both cultures

Honestly, one of the reasons I looked forward to coming to Japan was to address my negative feelings towards Japan due to the history between Japan and China, and Korea. I wasn’t raised like that, but just from what I know about the Nanjing Massacre watching movies like Bruce Lee’s "The Chinese Connection," when the Japanese were abusing the Chinese, from a young age I’ve had funny feelings about Japan. Coming here has helped me address some of those feelings.

The Japanese government has never formally apologized for atrocities. That’s the issue. It’s not even in the textbooks. I think if they acknowledged it, surrounding countries could help begin the healing process. My understanding of the culture is that it has a lot to do with shame. When ashamed, people are known to kill themselves. It’s not forgivable, but I understand some.

What were some of the challenges that you faced growing up?

The food at schools. People made fun of me, and I became friends with immigrants or those who were open to new things. I was one of the few minorities in my suburb. It was very white. People were often insensitive, like they would lump all Asians into one culture. We were distinct to me so it bothered me how they lumped us together. In high school, it was religion. My parents sent me to Buddhist temple, although they encouraged me to try out different churches, which I did. I chose Buddhism, although I don’t believe in all aspects. I don’t believe people need a church or temple to be spiritual. Organized religion is the number one evil in the world.

How have views of Japan been changed or reinforced?

I realized that certain behaviors are culturally based and basically in your DNA. For example, I’m very anal about cleanliness. I had to change after getting married. My husband is non-Japanese and he’s not really tidy. It makes me uncomfortable, but now it makes sense. I don’t always like it, that uncomfortableness, but I understand it better. The orderliness, the lack of tolerance for deviant behaviors here makes me understand myself better. I tend to be a control freak, but I’m working on it.

What’s been the most difficult or challenging thing about your visit?

My language skills are frustrating. I can’t get tenses right, I can’t recall words that I know I know. They pop in my head after the fact. Because of my last name (which is Japanese) little kids kept asking me about it and insisting that I’m Japanese. "No," I’d say, "I’m American." The kids would say "you speak Japanese." I’d respond "very little." They’d ask questions and I’d say "I don’t understand." They quickly realized the lack of depth of my conversation. I’m feeling really ashamed that I’m monolingual.

Some of the comments by other Americans on this trip been difficult and I’ve noticed that those of us of Asian descent or children of immigrants have had a different perspective. Have you run into that?

Of course, but people just don’t know better. You kind of take it with a grain of salt.

What were some of the highlights of the trip?

Seeing aunt for the last time. Seeing my cousin. We cried and cried. We have so much in common. I miss my family. They’re so far away. You know how you feel so close to people who are so far away, who I’m not going to see much in my life.

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