. . . and the Way We Are – You Are Japanese (North) American If You . . .
Akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu to all our readers, and may we all have a fruitful 2014.
Let’s begin the new year by examining the “way we are,” i.e. we Japanese Canadians, Japanese Americans and long-time resident Japanese. What are we really like? How have we changed over the generations? Leaving academic research to the experts, let’s just take a look at our daily lives and “things we sort of believe in.” One handy source is those “You’re Japanese American if you…” websites. Having lived in Vancouver for 16 years and also in San Francisco for five years back in the 70s, my impression is that we Nikkeijin (and longtime ijusha) share a lot in common whether we live in L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver or Hawaii. The subtle differences between Nikkei Canadians and Nikkei Americans would be the same as those between Canadians and Americans in general. As for Hawaii’s unique island culture, my knowledge is somewhat limited.
To see if there are also “You’re Japanese Canadian if you…” websites, I ran a quick check and found none. Does that mean Japanese Americans are more game, fun-loving about their-self-identity than Japanese Canadians? Are the latter more serious-minded than their American “cousins” I wonder, but this is mere conjecture on my part.
I particularly enjoyed Ways to Tell if you’re Japanese American (JA) by Tony Osumi and Jenni Kuida of Rafu Shimpo (LA), the bilingual Japanese American newspaper with the largest circulation (45,000 on the average) in the US. Many of the 179 items listed concern food and our eating habits. To begin with, customs for ending the old year and ushering in the new are still the same as in Japan after all these years. So “You eat soba on New Year’s Eve” and “You start off the New Year with a bowl of ozoni soup for good luck and the mochi sticks to the roof of your mouth.” “You have a 12-pack mochi in your freezer that you will refuse to throw away in July.”
I wonder how many people in Japan nowadays sincerely wish for good luck when they eat their ozoni. It is not only in the case of the Nikkei North Americans that old values and customs survive longer among emigrants than in the original home country. “Along with salt and pepper, you have a shoyu dispenser at your table, and “You know that summer means it’s time for somen (cold noodles) and shaved ice with azuki (red) beans Also ”When you’re sick, you eat okayu (rice porridge).”
Rice has been and will always be our staple. “You grew up on rice: bacon fried rice, chili rice, curry rice or red rice (osekihan).” My household can add to that turkey fried rice (after Thanksgiving) and ad hoc egg fried rice or salmon fried rice…the list is endless. And when we go out to eat, there is always Chinese fried rice and Indian curries and pilafs. And how do we usually eat gohan? “You like to eat rice in a chawan, not on a plate.”
As we grow up most of us, male or female, learn to cook at various levels of expertise, but when it comes to chopping up stick-shaped ingredients, “You cut all your carrots and hot dogs at an angle.” I recently saw my son, home from Singapore for a Christmas and new year visit, cut deep slices in a baguette to make garlic bread and the slices were, of course, diagonal. By slicing ingredients diagonally, you can change the surface area of the slices at will. Is this the wisdom of Japanese cuisine that uses the same ingredients in many different shapes and sizes, I wondered for an instant. But that’s probably cultural conceit of the oft-heard “such-and-such-is-unique-to-Japan” kind.
Perhaps it’s the idealization of the old mother country’s culture, but the sentiment going back to the Meiji Era that Japan is No. 1 in Asia is apparently not easy to shake off. “You cling on to the illusion that you are superior to other Asian races,” was one item.
In our taste in automobiles, one can see a generational change in the Nikkei folks’ self-identity within American society at large “Your parents/grandparents drove a big American car.”
But in this day and age “Someone you know drives an Acura Integra, Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.” The Nikkei people in the old days still felt like a repressed minority so they wouldn’t be caught dead driving a Japanese car. Today when the excellent quality of Japanese cars is recognized worldwide, the younger generations presumably go by their taste to pick Japanese models in some cases.
Of course, our attachment toward our forefathers’ language runs pretty deep, regardless of how well we speak it. “You end each meal with a quick ‘gochisoo sama’ before you get up to leave the table.” ”You talk to JA friends and the word ‘anou…(well…)’ slips out.” “Growing up, you heard the words abunai, takai, urusai, gaman and shikata ga nai.” “You know to stop yelling when you hear the word yakamashii.” ”Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you know what baka and benjo mean.” And as we all know, “You answer sukoshi when someone asks you if you speak Japanese.”
We also share with our “LA cousins” somewhat delicate sentiments. “You compliment a person from Japan on how well he/she speaks English, and he/she compliments you on how well you speak Japanese, and you both know you’re kind of stretching things.” Also,”You make eye contact and give a little nod to other JAs even if you don’t know them.” Some Japanese values and beliefs are still very much intact. “You’re not superstitious, but you do believe in bachi (retribution)” And “You never take the last piece of food on a plate, but will cut it into smaller pieces.” Because “As much as you want it, never ever take the last anything, Enryo (reservation), enryo, enryo.”
The practice of gathering together once every summer – which harks back to the Buddhist Obon festival, a coming-home time for remembering your ancestors – is very much a part of the Nikkei experience to this day. “The smell of slightly burnt teriyaki sauce immediately makes you think of carnivals.” “Wherever you live now, you always come home to the Obon festival (as they call it in LA) in your old neighborhood.” For many of us in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland and even beyond, the “old neighborhood” must be the area around Oppenheimer Park, location of the original “Japantown” known as “Paueru-gai,” where we gather every summer for the Powell Street Festival. And “The Japanese American National Museum has asked you for money.” We also have various community facilities including a museum, to which we have all contributed however much the amount. What’s in our heart is more important than the amount.
One item touched my heart: “Your grandma made the best sushi in town.” I would guess it was chirashi zushi of some kind, but this matter of “grandma’s cooking (obaasan no aji)” seems akin to “mom’s cooking (okaasan no aji)” that we used to make a big deal of in Japan until perhaps a generation ago. In the case of the Nikkei folks, “mom” is already a North American. In Japan, meanwhile, a majority of “moms” have stopped preparing dinner every day for the whole family a long time ago.
Having written this far, a lightbulb suddenly lit up in my head. Hey, these Nikkei folks are more Japanese-like than the Japanese of today!
The dynamics of the Nikkei male-female relationship have also undergone changes over the generations. In the case of Issei women, ”You’re expected to anticipate and serve JA men’s needs even before they themselves know what they want. You know you’re Nisei when you can do it but start resenting it; Sansei, when you can’t do it and you don’t really care; Yonsei, and you expect males to serve you.”
It was perhaps five or six years ago that the trend of young men becoming “herbivores” became a big issue in Japan. Nowadays, it is reported somewhere around 30% of young men AND women are not interested in getting married at all, and even in konkatsu – largely commercially-driven activities helping singles find partners – the women seem to be taking the lead.
It is not just the Japanese or Nikkei guys who must treat the girls they’re dating extra nice. I have seen a similar trend among young men from Hong Kong, China and Singapore.
“What’s this world coming to?” I can hear men (old men? who cares?) of my generation (born in 1945 in my case) muttering. It’s really shikataganai. Like many Japanese and Nikkei old men who’re baseball fans, I’ll just have to be content with watching Masahiro Tanaka, a.k.a.”Maa-kun” – one of the best pitchers ever to come out of Japan (24-0 last season with the Rakuten Eagles), his Major League Baseball club still to be decided as of this writing – mow down the most powerful sluggers in the baseball world. “Go get’em!” we’ll exhort “Maa-kun,” as we raise our glasses (beer, shochu, sake?) toward the flat-screen, to one of Japan’s few, remaining, real “carnivore men.”
Are you Japanese Canadian? How do you know?
“You know you’re Japanese Canadian if . . .
Some of your non-JC friends speak better Japanese than you do.”
Identifying as Japanese Canadian is no longer the stigma it once was. Heck, some might even say we’re finally cool. After all, our roots go all the way back to the land of Hello Kitty, anime and sushi.
What makes YOU Japanese Canadian? The Bulletin is compiling a list of the unique charactaristics that make us who we are. Nisei, sansei, yonsei, gosei or hapa, we want to hear from YOU about what makes you Japanese Canadian. Is it the food you eat, the words you know, your relatives and family traditions or something more intangible?
Send us your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will compile them over the next few months and print them in a future issue of The Bulletin. There will be a prize, to be determined, drawn at random from all entries.