The Sansei Legacy: The Not-so-quiet Americans

The Sansei Legacy: The Not-so-quiet Americans

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Brian Niiya

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: On this date 74 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order, which, in today’s climate of anti-Muslim hysteria and political hot air, is often pointed to as an example of what America must never repeat. Executive Order 9066 led to the mass uprooting and imprisonment of over 110,000 West Coast Japanese Americans — including some 1,500 from Hawai‘i — in desolate inland concentration camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

In last month’s New Year’s edition (Jan. 1, 2016), The Hawai‘i Herald launched its yearlong “Legacy of the Sansei” essay series. The subject was the idea of Herald subscriber and contributing writer Gail Honda, who graciously volunteered to coordinate the invitation to submit with the various contributors. One of the people Gail and I agreed should be approached was researcher/writer Brian Niiya, whose submission, “The Not-So-Quiet Americans,” was especially timely as we remember the lessons of Executive Order 9066.

If there is a common Sansei experience, it is that their parents did not tell them about the bad parts of their family history. In particular, many Nisei did not tell their children about the mass forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast (and the selective internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i and elsewhere). It is an almost routine part of Sansei life stories that Sansei children of the 1950s and 1960s learned the real story of “the camps” — which many imagined as summer camps of some sort — in college or elsewhere and not at home. The most significant legacy of the Sansei is what they did when they found out: Through their questioning and their activism, they changed the way the Japanese American community has come to view its history and its place in American society and paved the way for the landmark redress and reparations movement whose impacts are still being felt today.

Much of this began on college campuses in the late 1960s. Inspired in part by the civil rights and women’s movements, Asian American students — which, at the time, consisted almost entirely of Sansei, along with Chinese and Filipino American baby boomers — pushed for classes that would reflect their experiences and those of their immigrant ancestors. They successfully fought for the establishment of ethnic studies/Asian American Studies at various colleges and universities on the West Coast and here in Hawai‘i. They organized the first pilgrimages back to places like Manzanar and insisted that those places be called the “concentration camps” that they were. They fought to preserve historic Japanese American communities endangered by urban renewal in the 1970s. They defined their communities as “Third World,” finding common ground not only with other Asian Americans (the term “Asian American” itself stems from this time) but with African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and other “people of color,” something many Nisei

Sansei artists and activists at the Manzanar Monument in Owens Valley, Calif., in the early 2000s. Behind them is the Sierra Nevada mountains. From left: Bill Sorro, Pete Yamamoto,Tadashi Nakamura, Shirley Ancheta, Eric Tandoc, Al Robles and Bob Nakamura. (Photo by Karen L. Ishizuka)

Sansei artists and activists at the Manzanar Monument in Owens Valley, Calif., in the early 2000s. Behind them is the Sierra Nevada mountains. From left: Bill Sorro, Pete Yamamoto,Tadashi Nakamura, Shirley Ancheta, Eric Tandoc, Al Robles and Bob Nakamura. (Photo by Karen L. Ishizuka)

leaders, some of whom embraced the prevailing “model minority” label, were reluctant to do.

They also wrote — and filmed and acted and spoke — about all this. In April of 1969, a group of mostly Sansei students at UCLA began a remarkable newspaper titled Gidra, in whose pages you can trace the budding and evolving thread of the Asian American movement. Denshö, the organization I work for, has put the entire five-year run of Gidra online in its digital archive so you can see for yourself its influence. In addition to influencing Sansei in other parts of the country to start similar publications, it also influenced older mainstream Japanese American newspapers to change the way it covered the communities and to challenge accepted interpretations of history. The Hawai‘i Herald itself, formed in 1980 by the mainstream Hawaii Hochi, is but one example of this.

Sansei writers like Janice Mirikitani, Lawson Fusao Inada and Garrett Hongo emerged as the voices of the movement and also helped to rediscover such Nisei voices as John Okada, Milton Murayama and Hisaye Yamamoto. Sansei filmmakers such as Robert Nakamura, Steven Okazaki, Janice Tanaka (both of them) and many others, as well as playwrights like Philip Kan Gotanda and Edward Sakamoto explored the Japanese American experience — including, and especially, the travails of the World War II period — warts and all.

Perhaps most importantly, the pilgrimages, the Days of Remembrances (also a largely Sansei invention) and the insistent questioning of their parents’ generation led to the remarkable movement for redress and reparations in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, a lot of the leaders of that movement were inevitably Nisei, who held more positions of power and had more resources. But I maintain that many of those Nisei were driven into action — sometimes, reluctantly — by Sansei working behind the scenes to change grassroots community attitudes towards our history.

Running parallel to that movement was an equally remarkable legal effort to overturn the wartime convictions of three men who challenged aspects of the curfew and exclusion of Japanese Americans; nearly all of the lawyers who provided pro bono work on those cases were Sansei. Here in Hawai‘i, it was another group of largely Sansei lawyers who secured reparations for the couple of thousand Japanese American families forcibly excluded, but not incarcerated, a story covered extensively by the Herald in the 1990s.

Thanks to state and federal civil liberties programs and, later, a grant program administered by the National Park Service — all of which I believe stemmed from the success of redress — we have seen an explosion of material on the Japanese American incarceration/internment story. We take a lot of this for granted now, which is, in some ways, a good thing.

We’ve also seen Japanese Americans reflexively rise up when the civil liberties of other unpopular groups have been threatened in ways that remind of us of the World War II incarceration and to do so with virtually no dissenting voices. We understand now, having gone through what we did, that we have both a duty to speak out and that our voices are more likely to be heard. Our community did not have the ability to speak out similarly 50 years ago. (Perusing Japanese American community newspapers during the civil rights movement makes this sadly and abundantly clear.) The core of the Sansei legacy are the changes that have taken place in our community over those decades that allow us — indeed, compel us — to take such a stand now. It is what makes me proud to be a Sansei.

Brian Niiya is content director for Denshö: The Japanese American Legacy Project (www.densho.org).

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