Nikkei Reflect on ‘What it Means to be a Japanese American Woman’

NIKKEI WOMEN AT WORK — Panelists at the CBA’s conference discuss challenges that minority women face in the workplace. photo by Kelly Shintani

When community members at this year’s Mountain View Obon Bazaar and Festival were asked to explain what it means to be Japanese American, the responses were as diverse as the community itself. To some, their Nikkei experience and identity is formed by the injustices of wartime incarceration that tens of thousands of persons of Japanese descent endured. Others emphasized the richness of their culture: the commitment to family, community and social justice.

Videos of the interviews filmed this summer, were shown at the nonprofit Cherry Blossom Alumnae’s (CBA) second annual “What It Means to Be a Japanese American Woman” conference.

However, when asked the same question, young Nikkei, many in their teens, most often responded with “I don’t know.”

CBA President and Founder Gail Tanaka called the younger generation’s inability to articulate its heritage’s meaning “scary.”

The conference was held on Oct. 10 at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown, and attended by more than 30 participants.

The event included speeches by prominent members of the Japanese American community, a panel of Nikkei businesswomen, and discussions — both frank and lighthearted — on the day’s events.

The conference brought together a diverse group of Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei from Northern California communities near and far: San Francisco, Albany, Sacramento, Oakland, Orinda and Palo Alto.

Defined by Community Building

Janice Mirikitani, a Sansei, and founding president of the Glide Foundation, was one of the conference’s featured speakers. Mirikitani, along with her husband, the Rev. Cecil Williams, has committed more than four decades to serving San Francisco’s poor, homeless and hungry.

Of her work, Mirikitani said, “Building community is at the base of what keeps us grounded… what helps us define ourselves.”

The Nikkei said that in addition to raising funds for her nonprofit, she also works with women in a recovery group, who are overcoming a “system of self-hate,” and dealing with self-esteem and self-retrieval issues.

Mirikitani called the women her mentors and said they have inspired her work. Appointed in 2000 as San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, Mirikitani is an acclaimed author of four books of poetry, “Awake in the River,” “Shedding Silence,” “We, the Dangerous” and “Love Words.”

Mirikitani, herself, has struggled to reconcile “feeling ugly as an Asian American woman.”

After her family was released from the Rohwer, Ark., concentration camp, Mirikitani’s family moved to Chicago. Her father then divorced her mother, before leaving his family for another woman, she said.

Mirikitani mentioned her involvement in the Japanese American Redress Movement, as well as spoke about being raised poor, experiencing racism, overcoming sexual and physical abuse, and working “toward erasing my own self-hatred” and “internalized self oppression.”

Fighting ‘Isms’ in the Workplace

Mirikitani’s speech was followed by a panel of Japanese American businesswomen: Ellen Kiyomizu of Scorch media advertising consulting company; Sarah Sasaki, chief of staff at PG&E Corporation; and Amy Schoemehl, manager of Google’s DFA trafficking and global vendor relations. Sasaki and Schoemehl are former Northern California Cherry Blossom Queens.

The panel was moderated by Tanaka.

Kiyomizu, who has worked in the advertising world for more than 20 years and serves on the board of the Pacific Asian American Women Bay Area Coalition, stressed that public speaking is an important skill to cultivate. She also encouraged women to take credit for the work they do.

Schoemehl has found that Asian American women must continue “to fight a lot of isms,” including ageism and sexism.

Sasaki said that while she has faced ageism in professional settings, she “feels empowered by being a woman.” Sasaki emphasized that there is “no set path for personal success or fulfillment.”

Lunch was followed by a speech by Sandy Mori, development director and founding member of Kimochi, Inc.

Nikkei Must Rise above Being Victims

Mori, the immediate past executive secretary to the San Francisco Health Commission, and one of San Francisco Japantown’s community leaders, said that “while we went through a lot of struggles,” the Japanese American community “can’t continue to be victims.”

Instead, Mori hopes to see greater collaboration among San Francisco’s Japanese and Japanese-speaking groups, to decrease the duplication of efforts. Mori said that including churches and various Kenjinkai, there are 35 such groups in San Francisco alone.

However, she added that San Francisco’s Japanese-speaking and Japanese American community are “not always in sync,” and “until we are more unified as a community” certain issues cannot be addressed.

One such pressing issue is the need for Nikkei to unite in preserving San Francisco’s Japantown, Mori said.

She encouraged women to speak up in meetings, despite feeling intimidated, and encouraged them to reach out to women outside of the Japanese American community.

Following Mori’s speech, the attendees divided into smaller groups, to further discuss the meaning of being a Japanese American woman and how the day’s events might impact participants’ future perspectives.

One group described Japanese American women as self-sacrificing, respectful, resilient and family-oriented. The group agreed upon the need for Nikkei women to reach out to people outside of the Japanese American community, keep informed of community events and seize upon leadership opportunities.

Clarice Hirata, a Sansei originally from Hawai‘i, said that the conference had inspired her to look for a community organization with which to volunteer and support.

Kerrilyn Kitano, a Sansei from Albany, praised the “thought-provoking conference,” and deemed Mirikitani’s address as one of the highlights of the event.

Compared to last year’s conference, which addressed the theme of “giving back to the Japanese American community,” this year’s was greater in scale. The organization expects next year’s event to be even larger Tanaka said via e-mail.

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