Legacy of The Sansei – Perspective of a “Ni-Hansei”

Legacy of The Sansei – Perspective of a “Ni-Hansei”

Photo of Gil Asakawa

Gil Asakawa
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When I was a kid, I used to tell people who asked me what generation I was that I was “Ni-hansei,” or second-and-a-half. That’s because although my father was a Nisei who was born in Hawai‘i (a kibei, technically, because his family moved to Japan in 1940 and he was stuck there during the war . . . but that’s another essay), I was born in Japan.

My dad was in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and met my Issei mom in Hokkaidö when he was stationed there. My two brothers and I were all born in Tökyö — I’m a prime baby boomer, born in 1957. Our family moved to the states when I was 8 years old and my dad got a civilian job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C.

I was plopped down right in the middle of a white bread suburban childhood in northern Virginia. If you’re familiar with the TV sitcom, “Wonder Years,” that kid was me — a geeky, gawky kid with crushes on girls, but no social skills to act on them.

But I was different from most American suburban kids — white kids — because I’m Japanese American. And yet, I’m different from most Japanese Americans I know because my early years were spent in Japan.

The Japan I remember was still the country that manufactured cheap stuff: If something said “Made in Japan,” it meant it was not very expensive or very well made. We moved stateside before Japanese manufacturing became known for its high-tech, cutting edge quality. We came to the U.S. just before Japanese cameras and audio equipment became the world standard. Before Japanese cars took over American roads in the late 1970s (thanks to better gas mileage, mostly). Before anime, J-pop and other Japanese pop culture became hip with American youth. And long before sushi became available in every supermarket across America — even though it’s mostly pretty crappy sushi.

I arrived in Virginia in 1966 as a third grader, during the early days of the anti-war movement and in the middle years of the African American civil rights movement. On TV, I watched the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, coverage of Woodstock and the moon landing. I wanted to be a hippie, but had to argue with my mom for her to buy me my first pair of jeans. I became an all-American kid.

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Gil Asakawa is a journalist, author, blogger and social media expert who covers Japanese American and Asian American issues and culture. He is a nationally recognized speaker, panelist and expert on Asian American and Japanese American issues. He also authored “Being Japanese American,” which was published by Stone Bridge Press (revised edition 2015). Asakawa is a columnist on the Discover Nikkei website and for Nikkei Voice newspaper in Canada.

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