CONNECTING OVER COFFEE: Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei discuss cultural nuances

TALKING CULTURE — (Above, from left to right:) Justin Howard, Arisa Hiroi and Atsushi Miyamoto. photo by Erica Reder/Nichi Bei Weekly

Most people have never heard the phrase “Shin-Nisei,” including those to whom it applies. “I didn’t even know there was a term for someone like me whose parents are Japanese,” said Atsushi Miyamoto. His comment elicited sympathetic nods.

More than 30 people had gathered for the first “Shin Nisei/Issei Coffee Date” organized by nihonmachiROOTS, a group of young leaders in San Francisco’s Japantown.

A flyer for the event promised an afternoon of sharing experiences, and the scene on Feb. 27 delivered. Groups of four to seven participants — along with such nihonmachiROOTS facilitators as Miyamoto, who led ice breakers and discussion topics — sat at tables in the basement of New People Café in San Francisco’s Japantown.

“It started out with fun points, then more serious points, and then ended with how we can build a community,” said Aya Ino, describing the loose outline that every group followed. She helped organize the event, hoping to bring together an often overlooked subset of the Japanese American population. “It’s the first time that anyone in the community has done anything for Shin-Nisei,” she said.

GENERATIONS CONNECT — A few dozen people gathered Feb. 27 at a cafe in San Francisco's Japantown to discuss their experiences as Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei. photo by Aya Ino

The term “Shin-Nisei,” like its commonly heard counterpart “Nisei,” refers to an American-born child of Japanese immigrants. The adjective “shin,” however, meaning new, denotes a specific timeframe; the parents of Shin-Nisei left Japan after World War II. Similarly, the term “Shin-Issei” refers to Japanese immigrants themselves, but only those who moved after the War.

The terms exist to recognize that Japanese who immigrated to America in the second half of the 20th century have a different experience from those who came before them. Shin-Nisei and Shin-Issei may feel more immediately involved with Japan than their Sansei (third generation) and Yonsei (fourth generation) counterparts.

“It’s different for me,” explained one Shin-Nisei participant. “I feel connected to Japan; I go back there, and speak Japanese.”

The afternoon’s opening activity examined these differences. Everyone received a list of “You Know You’re Shin Nisei/Issei When…” bullet points that detailed experiences common to relatively recent immigrants or their children. Examples ranged from culinary habits, “mom made you sandwiches with the crust cut off,” to language patterns, “you know how to say some words in Japanese, but not in English.”

Certain points provoked widespread agreement, “when all your friends were playing Little League on Saturday, you were stuck inside at Japanese school,” for example. But others generated blank stares, such as “you know to throw soy beans on February 7th.”

Different responses reflected the event’s diverse attendance. One group alone encompassed Shin-Issei, Shin-Nisei, Sansei and multiracial participants. But variations emerged even among the assembled Shin-Nisei. Some had only a first and last name, in keeping with Japanese tradition, whereas others had middle names as well. Some mentioned their parents’ fluency in English, and some said their parents still struggled with language.

Miyamoto emphasized this diversity within the Shin-Nisei/ShinIssei umbrella. “It’s a label,” he said, “but it’s a very general label.”

A nihonmachiROOTS handout distributed to all participants mentioned that the Shin-Nisei/ShinIssei populations encompass multiple age groups, and that was evident at the event. Adults who immigrated as professionals attended, but so did children of that generation.

Overall, attendees clustered at the younger end of the spectrum. In one group, all six participants were under 28 years of age.

That a number of participants were younger makes sense given nihonmachiROOTS’ background. Ino founded the organization with a few friends in October 2009, specifically targeting a younger audience. “We came together with the Better Neighborhood Plan,” she said, referring to a process and plan that outlines the 20-year future of San Francisco’s Japantown. “We wanted to get young people out and fighting for our space.”

Connecting the Shin-Nisei/ShinIssei community may help nihonmachiROOTS fulfill this mission. Facilitators elicited input about Japantown from event participants. “What does J-Town stand for?” asked Miyamoto. “Retail stores, better food… it’s up to us what we’d like to see.”

Although attendees had plenty to say about Japantown, many also expressed interest in making Shin-Nisei/ShinIssei connections.

“I’ve actually never heard of an event that tries to bring this community together,” said Arisa Hiroi, a student at UC Davis and the current Northern California Cherry Blossom queen. She favored a second gathering. “I think it starts off with those ties,” she said, “so maybe a casual event.”

That may well take place in the future. “It sounds like there’s a lot of interest,” said Miyamoto.

For more information about nihonmachiROOTS, visit www.japantownnow.com.

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