Unmasking the Yonsei: 4th Generation Japanese Americans and Our Relationship/s to Racism & White Supremacy, Part 1


Part 1: Identifying the Mask

James Baldwin once wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” When it comes to issues of love and sustainability, from the 442nd and Patsy Mink, to Yuri Kochiyama and Richard Aoki, Americans of Nikkei heritage have shown undeniable brilliance and resilience in the face of catastrophic circumstances. At the same time, our Asian and Japanese American community/ies as a whole, have in many ways been manipulated, divided, and exploited throughout our nation’s relatively short history. Understood (or misunderstood, rather) by an overwhelming majority of the nation as, at worst, invisible and at best “model minorities,” today’s young adult Nikkei brothers and sisters are confronted with much ambiguity in identifying our own  position in American society.

As our Baachans and Jiichans faced being viewed as perpetually foreign and culturally dysfunctional in American concentration camps, many of us today (myself included) benefit from their reparations money, the status Japan holds in the eyes of a globalized economy, and a shifting racialization of Yonsei babies, many of whom are mixed race (myself included). We’ve donned a plethora of different masks, searching for acceptance within, as well as outside of our Nikkei communities, and I claim that this search is understandable, but not justifiable. If what James Baldwin wrote in his monumental work, “The Fire Next Time” is true, I would argue that today’s coming of age Japanese American is still working to remove our mask/s and humanize ourselves.

In the United States of America, we are subjected to a myriad of false binaries from the time we are very young. Battles between “American vs. Foreign,” “Man vs. Woman,” “Black vs. White,” “Haves vs. Have-nots,” etc. dominate the imaginations of ourselves and most of our fellow citizens (and non-citizens). In a nation built on systems of rule that leave tremendous opportunity gaps with regards to education for those in underfunded and under-resourced public schools; while others are tracked directly into private institutions of higher learning, a process of deification and demonization is necessary to rationalize the irrational.

In WWII, Japanese Americans undoubtedly took the short end of the stick as we were homogenized, otherized, and demonized. However, as Cornel West reminds us, “we must never allow our own suffering to blind us to the suffering of others.” Black, Latin@, Indigenous, etc.  Americans, then as well as today, face daunting hardships and discrimination due to internalized and externalized racism (i.e. police brutality, little and/or negative media representation, etc.), and even in the “age of Obama” Black Americans are deemed by “common sense” understandings as “authentically American,” but “culturally dysfunctional.” In the wake of Oscar Grant’s murder by BART Police in Oakland, California, the value of Black life continues to dwindle as the Officer accused will serve a shorter sentence than Michael Vick did for dog-fighting. The causes and effects of these happenings have and continue to push the young people I work with and educate/learn from into varying forms of nihilism and hopelessness.

As I sat around before a showcase featuring Nikkei artists of all ages during the last “Pilgrimage” to the Tule Lake Internment Camp, I overheard a group of my male elders (most of who were camp internees) discussing our current President and his “love for watermelon and fried chicken.” And while their jovial laughter felt heartbreaking to me, I felt a sense of gratitude for currently possessing a glimpse of what I perceive to my own attempts at humanizing, rather than deifying or demonzing them and their experiences. As Nisei and Sansei men in the camps, they undoubtedly faced certain degrees of emasculation due to the ways white hysteria targeted and disempowered them at the time. If these wounds, covered with the masks of a “model minority” status, translated into their feeling “culturally functional” yet “perpetually foreign,” in the nation of their birth, it is no wonder that such animosity and disconnection can and does exist at times between Black and Japanese Americans.

As a Yonsei man born and raised in Richmond, California, whose Sansei father loved and served the West Contra Costa County Unified School District for more than 20 years; whose mother is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker; and whose friends and family contain a wide array of colors and cultures, this disconnect is particularly heartbreaking and infuriating to me. However, I am more than well-aware that hurt people, hurt people. Despite our best intentions, it is my firm belief that we as Japanese Americans still have much healing to do.

To be continued… in Part 2: Removing the Mask

8 responses to “Unmasking the Yonsei: 4th Generation Japanese Americans and Our Relationship/s to Racism & White Supremacy, Part 1”

  1. […] first post, Unmasking the Yonsei: 4th Generation Japanese Americans and our Relationship/s to Racism & White… just went up! […]

  2. g*m*tcH Avatar

    dopeness. shout out to gnarls barkley!!

  3. paulmats Avatar


    Thank you so much for writing this. I wholeheartedly agree that the JA psyche and community/ies are rampant with dehumanizing, demonizing, and mixed messages that tear at our humanity and sense of self. And it also deeply saddens me that these ‘masks’ and wounds create all sorts of divisions, hostilities, distances, and fears between communities that once had such solidarity with each other.

    Your challenge for Japanese Americans to remove our masks and humanize ourselves is something I feel we all need to struggle through. Regaining our humanity in the face of a history full of injustice, bitterness, hyper-Americanization/rejection of cultural heritage, and internalized racism/self hatred will be a daunting task.

    I’m processing this in two ways: 1) what does my unmasked face look like and, 2) will I (and others) accept that face in its full nakedness? (I hesitate from individualizing this ‘mask’, but I’m trying to speak from my own context). In other words, what does it mean for a Japanese American to be truly humanized and reconciled to others despite the deep scars that US history has inflicted? Although I am unsure of the practical steps to get there, I agree with you that one necessary step is the path towards healing: learning to accept self; removing our internalized second-class status and inferiority; stopping our judgments of others (in our own and other communities) who still cling to and unconsciously act out of their ‘masks’; and most importantly, to stop labeling the oppressors as ‘demonic’ and to begin the process of forgiveness.

    I look forward to your coming article and your take on how to remove the mask and regain our humanity.

  4. Aaron Shiosaki Avatar

    Awesome. Let’s break down our barriers.
    Your fellow 4th Gen.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. Hawai'i Yonsei Avatar

    Thank you for writing this. I just recently found your piece after deciding to start a blog of my own (oddly enough my first post was today) from outright frustration of societal “norms” on the mainland.

    It seems that the mainland Yonsei experience may be similar in many ways and yet dissimilar from the Hawai’i Yonsei experience.

    The transition here has caused me to do a lot more historical reading and there is a book that I cannot wait to get my hands on “Samurai Among Panthers” by Diane C. Fujino that just came out (no I’m not affiliated nor her publisher) 🙂 It is a biography on Richard Aoki, a field marshall in the original Black Panther Party.

    In Hawai’i, minorities make up the majority so it is much more difficult to be marginalized in the same manner as it is on the mainland.

    Your piece was very insightful to the mainland Yonsei experience, I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you again for writing it.

    1. Nichi Bei Weekly Staff Avatar
      Nichi Bei Weekly Staff

      Thanks for your comment, and for the kind words about our post!

      Yes, Japanese Americans from the mainland and Hawai‘i share some similarities, and also a number of differences.

      We’re looking forward to reading Diane Fujino’s book on Richard Aoki.

      Hope you continue blogging.

  6. redstick Avatar

    Paulmats, do you really feel like we as Yonsei are oppressed, or feel some sort of self-hatred? I don’t. That was our parents and grandparents. Today, the Japanese are almost fetishized. I think the thing I’m suffering from is the realization that there’s only a marginal amount of passed-down culture that separates me from any ole white person walking down the street. I want to associate with something, and there’s an emptiness. I want to say I’m Japanese, but I’m actually something entirely different, and it’s a thing that I want to label and define, but find an inability to. I feel like I should apologize for the fact that I’m not fluent in the language and don’t know all the customs. I feel like I have to advertise or defend my Japanese-ness, because there’s little to speak for. On the other hand, how can I call myself just “American”? I’m not one of those white people who’s a muddled smorgasbord of European countries. Nor do I want to be that. I want, want, want to identify with something! I’m sure my grandkids’ grandkids will have it all figured out, but right now I’m fucking confused. Anyone else know what I’m talking about?

    1. Senbei Avatar

      Peace everyone,

      Firstly I want to say how much I appreciate yall reading and responding to my piece. To the good sisters and brothers at Nichibei I am truly sorry for being on hiatus for so long. My job working with young people, although technically 9-5, doesn’t really end when the whistle blows, thus taking the vast majority of my time and energy – particularly in these last 2 years. In any case, I’m truly happy to see that folks have responded with such articulate and thoughtful responses. Thank you for being my teachers.

      Re: Redstick’s comment:
      I agree with both you and Paulmats in different ways. If you read on to “Part 2” of this piece, while the first recognizes our oppression as Japanese/Asian Americans, the second attempts to identify and deconstruct the ways we operate as sub-oppressors in American society, many times benefitting at the expense of other peoples of color, due to our “model minority” sterotypes and “success” often being equated with being quiet, conformist and going with the grain, so to speak, in America.

      It seems to me – correct me if I’m way off – that you have a very concretized definition of what “oppression” means. I agree that the oppression my Baachan and Jiichan experienced during WWII was much more blatant and harsh in mnay ways, than that of what you or I are confronted with today. However, if we are to ignore the ways that oppression is passed down through the generations and allow historical amnesia to blind us to the ways the same feelings of disconnection from a culture to identify with (that you speak to) is a DIRECT result of WWII-time hysteria/racism, we end up cutting the weeds off as they sprout, rather than pulling them up by their roots.

      Additionally, it also seems that you have created a binary (that I would argue to be a false one) between the terms “Japanese” and “American.” Do you equate being “Japanese” and/or “American” with language, custom, religion, gender roles, etc.? If so, I personally hear you loud and clear, as I have and continue to struggle with that myself. What I have discovered to give me some peace of mind however, is that when I am able to remember that cultural “purity” is in actuality a myth and that definitions in/of ANY culture are always fluid, changing and subjective. In reality (at least in my eyes) you and I are both 100% Japanese and 100% American and naive or fuggin corny as it may sound, I’d argue it behooves us to remember that when we allow others to police our identities and tell us otherwise, it is the direct result of our internalized oppression and racism in the United States.

      Just some thoughts as to my (biased/subjective) opinion on the matter. If you read this, I’d love to know your (and anyone else’s) thoughts on the matter, brother.

      In Gassho,

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