How Can You Tell a Nisei?
Issei, Nisei, I Say, You Say
The Bulletin is pleased to introduce a new column by Nanaimo-based historian, researcher and author Chuck Tasaka. Having grown up in Greenwood, Chuck has a special interest in the area, as well as a general interest in nisei history and culture. If you have any questions or suggestions for future columns, please email Chuck at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the issei (first generation) immigrants came to Canada in the early 1900s to seek ‘fortune’ and go back home wealthy. Of course, we know that didn’t happen to majority of them. They worked long hours for lower pay and it took many years to save enough money to return home. At first, the issei were sojourners or dekasegi, however, with the ‘picture bride’ scheme, they started to raise families in many towns and cities of British Columbia. Men had unique names like Bumpei, Ichinosuke, Buntaro, Jirohachi, Hachizaemon and Munegoro. The women had shorter names like Hatsu, Kiku, Ai, Sayo, Den and Toki.
The nisei (second generation) babies were generally born in the 1920s and 1930s. They were educated in the Canadian school system as well as attending Japanese Language School. They took the brunt of the wartime incarceration starting in 1942. These young Japanese Canadians were denied further education and professional employment.
After the war, the nisei young folks grew up to be parents and they raised their families diligently. They tried their best to become more Canadian-ized, and yet retained many of their parents’ traits. Men who had names like Tadashi, Takeshi, Hiroshi, Masanobu and Akira changed their names to Tad, Tak, Hiro, Mas and Aki. Furthermore, they wanted more Anglo names like Roy (Ryoichi), Ken (Kensuke), George (Joji), and sometimes Henry. The ladies had names like Sumiko, Fumiko, Kumiko and Chieko. Therefore, their names became Sumi, Fumi, Kumi, Chic and Kay. Nisei women went for Anglo names like Mary, Ruby, Rose and Irene.
Both Japanese Canadian men and women were caught between two cultures so they were able to mix the two together to become uniquely nisei. Therefore, watch for signs of how you can tell a nisei:
1. Nisei adults still play gaji with friends on weekends. This variation of hanafuda (flower cards) is played completely different from the Japanese version.
2. They love listening to enka music (Japanese folk songs). Their stars were Misora Hibari and Hashi Yukio.
3. They have nicknames like Oats, Fudge, Bonsan, Miso, or Transmission. It was rare for ladies to have nicknames. However, this one lady’s name was Kinuyo and her nickname became ‘Kinki.’
4. Most nisei can dance the Tanko Bushi at Nikkei festivals.
5. They generally make teriyaki weiners, egg omelette, and seaweed-wrapped onigiri on picnic days. You can throw in chow mein as well.
6. Nisei will say a-ge sushi instead of inari sushi.
7. They know what yaito means! When the children become mischievious, parents would threaten them with yaito. This is a beige powder that is used on the backs of elderly persons to cure aching backs and shoulders (kata kori). Usually, a spouse takes the incense and lights it. The tiny mound of this powder burns slowly on the person’s back. The children will witness their parents wincing in pain! It’s a scary experience for young children, so once they hear “yaito,” they behave. In this day and age, parents wouldn’t be able to get away with this disciplinary method. Can you imagine hearing this today? A mother will go, “I will burn you!”
8. Most nisei save store strings, coupons, wax paper, Mandarin orange wrappers, and grocery bags. Orange wrappers and newspapers were substituted for toilet paper during the internment!
9. Nisei knows words like daikon ashi (horse radish legs), hi-kalla (fancy, trendy), meki-bedo (make the bed), baka pay (impossible odds in gambling), katsudo sashin (movies), bottera (pancakes), da-n-buro (basement), and omu-stobu (warm stove).
Most yonsei (4th generation Nikkei) and gosei (5th) more than likely are living comfortably in a large home with their parents. There may be a Lexus, Acura or an Infiniti in the driveway. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Well for sure, a Toyota, Honda or Nissan then. The household will have a TV in nearly every room and the children will have an iPhone in their hands, listening to an iPod or viewing YouTube on the iPad. I’m sure the nisei grandparents are sighing, “I can’t, I won’t and I don’t care!”
The younger Nikkei children are hapas and like the nisei generation, they will be experiencing several cultures, but basically they will live the typical Canadian way of life. Where are they heading? Will they retain many of their grandparents’ traits? Will they follow the traits of the issei and nisei? Will words like mottainai (don’t be wasteful), shima-tsu (be frugal), gaman (persevere), giri (obligation) and oya-koko (family bonding) come into their lives? What will the future hold for them?