The Ability To Be Fully American

The Ability To Be Fully American

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Sansei Legacy

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George Tanabe

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

We often think of legacies and traditions as needing to be revered and preserved. But if each generation only repeated what the previous generations

George Tarabe:”…[T]he Sansei legacy, our gift to our children, is the knowledge and ability to be fully American.”

George Tarabe:”…[T]he Sansei legacy, our gift to our children, is the knowledge and ability to be fully American.”

did, there would be no social progress. I loved my paternal grandfather and value his extraordinary work ethic, his Buddhist faith, his high regard for education and his love of Japanese poetry. But I do not accept his Meiji Period ethnocentricism, sexism, authoritarianism and patriarchal triumphalism. Each generation has to dissect received legacies into parts to be preserved and parts to be rejected.

The gift of the Issei was the culture and customs they brought from Japan. Their children, the Nisei, maintained many Japanese customs, but had to shed some of the old traditions (Japanese nationalism and colonialism, for example) as they assimilated into America. They received the education their parents worked so hard to provide for them and, although they largely kept their family ties within the Japanese community, the Nisei created their legacy by shifting away from Japanese traditions and moving toward American lifestyles, which they achieved by overcoming social discrimination, wartime incarceration and horrific battlefield experiences.

These legacies smoothed the way for Sansei to assimilate further into American life and it would seem that we have it easy by comparison to the Issei and Nisei. What we as Sansei achieved and are passing on to our children and grandchildren (Yonsei and Gosei!) is a comfortable finding of our places within the mainstream of American life. By any measure of comfort, be it political, economic, professional, social or educational, Sansei are solidly American in a way our predecessors were not. Our families now share the multicultural and multiethnic characteristics that increasingly define modern America. In a word, the Sansei legacy, our gift to our children, is the knowledge and ability to be fully American.

There is, however, a slight twist to this Americanism, and it consists of a wonderful awareness that we achieved it by maintaining, modifying and rejecting our inherited traditions as we created something of our own. This is to say that in so many ways we remember the past and have mixed parts of it into our plate of local culture. This cultural interest in things Japanese might only be sentimental and even superficial, but we have not forgotten. This, too, we must add to our definition of the Sansei legacy: recording and telling the stories of the past. Our legacy, then, is an Americanism flavored by the cultural memory of our Japanese past.

I wish I could say that I had figured this one out, but it was Arnold Hiura, the executive director of the Hawai‘i Japanese Center in Hilo, who characterized the Sansei as storytellers. Arnold himself is one of our great storytellers — there are too many other Sansei to list for their contributions to our preservation of memory: the people at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, the contributors to this newspaper, the ethnic studies and oral history folks at UH, the artists, the individual scholars and writers publishing so many fascinating stories about how we came to be who we are. We tell the stories of our grandparents and parents and weave them into our own story, forging a legacy that will endure.

George Tanabe is University of Hawai‘i professor emeritus of religion and president of BDK Hawaii.

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