The question of Shin-Nisei and Japanese American identity: Exploring Nikkei history at the Nikkei Youth Conference and creating models of Nikkei activism


On Nov. 16, I had the great pleasure to attend the Nikkei Youth Conference at the Berkeley Methodist United Church. I first heard about plans for the conference at the JACL’s most recent National Convention this July in Washington, D.C. from the JACL Berkeley chapter’s co-president.

He mentioned that the conference would be centered on Nikkei youth identity and he was particularly interested in having a space to discuss the experiences of Shin-Nisei folks without the presence and dictates of Japanese American elders. Excited to participate in a space that would be inclusive of my experiences as a Shin-Nisei, I offered to do a workshop on Shin-Nisei.

A few weeks before the Nikkei Youth conference, I attended an anti-nuke educational conference at San Francisco State University, which was organized by people who are involved with denuclearization movements in Japan and the U.S. in the aftermath of the 3/11 Fukushima disasters. There I reconnected with a friend, Laura, who I met during my undergrad years at UC Davis. We decided that teaming up to do a workshop together for the Nikkei Youth Conference would be a great opportunity to share our work in regards to Nikkei activism and have a discussion going among the workshop attendees on ways we can work towards social justice in the context of being Nikkei.

With that said, Laura and I wanted to share how our understandings of Nikkei history inform our so-called Nikkei activism. Speaking for myself, I was curious how Japanese Americans (whose families mostly, immigrated before World War Two) and Shin-Nisei (“new second generation” folks whose families came after the war and commonly during the ‘80s and ‘90s) can work together to challenge injustices in the context of 150-plus years of U.S.-Japan history. And importantly, I wanted to create this solidarity between Japanese Americans and the Shin-Nisei not on the ethnocentric assumption that we are somehow more apt to come together because “we’re all Japanese,” but rather on the nuanced understanding of how the intersections of modern industrialization and imperialism “displaced” both groups from Japan and the ways in which the U.S. assimilates both Japanese Americans and Shin-Nisei to advance the political and economic interests of the U.S. towards Japan (and even vice versa by Japan towards the U.S.). Such critique of the latter dynamics are what I argue can serve as the basis of the “coming together” of Japanese Americans and Shin-Nisei groups, despite having different languages, citizenships, and traditions, which are often considered the requirements of sharing an ethnic identity.

The existence of Japanese Americans and Shin-Nisei, as I mentioned, are reflective of Japan-U.S. history and uniquely lies on the crossroads of U.S. and Japanese relations that stretches over 150 years. For instance, Japanese Americans typically hail from the Southwestern regions of Japan, which are the Japanese regions most traumatically impacted by the economic upheavals and gentrifications caused by the late-Meiji restoration and Japan’s ambition to become a colonial power, and left to places with high demand for cheap labor like the West Coast of North America and Hawai‘i. Despite coming from poor communities from rebellious provinces and leaving at a time when the feudal fiefdoms were just nationalizing to form what is now modern “Japan,” Japanese Americans throughout the pre-war years were still used as ethnic emissaries by the U.S. for the U.S. to establish economic and political ties to the newly formed Japanese state at a time when the U.S. and Japan wanted to respect each other’s imperial projects in Asia Pacific (Japan to Korea, and U.S. to the Philippines). However, when the U.S. and Japan could no longer negotiate the other’s presence in Asia Pacific and the consequent culmination of World War Two, Nisei soldiers, some of whom were used to serve as translators of the U.S. occupation in Japan, came back to the United States to become staunch pro-U.S. leaders of Japanese American communities and disavowed any previous connection to Japan given the risk of appearing un-American. In the following decades, Japan’s growth as a new economic power generated by the U.S. occupation’s investment in Japanese corporations and Japan’s participation in the U.S.’s Cold Wars resulted in a new group of immigrants. These Shin-Issei might have come to the U.S. as students, wives of U.S. military and business workers, or Japanese corporate expats at an age when the Japan’s economy was once again experiencing high growth and overseas business and political expansion became necessary and possible. These two groups came to the U.S. at different periods in Japan-U.S. history, but a similar pattern emerges when one looks at these groups in terms of Japan’s periods of expansion and the U.S.’s willingness to incorporate these new immigrants during those periods. Like the Japanese Americans of the earlier decades, Shin-Nisei were lauded by U.S. and Japanese business and state as bicultural emissaries working on behalf of their interests and as successful products of a post-war reformed and subservient “good” Japan. Even despite the dominant narrative within Japanese American communities that seeks to prove how they are loyal Americans and have no special connection to Japan, there still seems to be a convergence of new-Japanese big business and consulate investment in traditional Japanese American communities of San Francisco Japantown, Los Angeles Little Tokyo, and parts of Hawai‘i.

The notion that Shin-Nisei and Japanese Americans can only come together to advance big business and state interest in these areas begs us to ask about the ways Shin-Nisei and Japanese Americans can come together beyond these interests and align our interactions with a transnational vision of social justice: How can we create a Nikkei identity — inclusive of Shin-Nisei and Japanese American experience — that does not rely on business, conservative community elder vanguards, or government interests that dictate how we should identify as Nikkei folks, but a social justice model that critically engages the history of U.S. and Japanese colonization and imperialism? During our workshop, Laura and I shared some models of Nikkei activism that can address this question: Laura shared a documentary that talks about how the U.S. occupation sold nuclear power to the Japanese public as part of the occupation’s anti-communist PR during the height of the Cold War. The Fukushima Disaster, therefore, was not merely a “natural” disaster, but created from the complacent relationship between the Japanese nuclear industry and state regulators backed by the U.S. occupation. According to many in the anti-nuke movements, the Japanese government since the 3/11 disasters has ramped up surveillance towards these movements and began to clamp down on speech freedoms on some folks supposedly on the basis of inciting instability.

My so-called Nikkei activism took the form in my involvement with Japan Multicultural Relief Fund. In the wake of 3/11 and the subsequent rise of nationalism, surveillance, and militarism in Japan, “marginalized” communities such as Zainichi Koreans and immigrant labor have been particularly vulnerable. My involvement in JMRF is motivated by my desire to raise awareness on the intersection of nuclear history in Japan, the Japanese Imperialism, and marginalized communities in Japan to people in the U.S. I hope to challenge typical nationalistic project of sending aid the “homeland” via state-approved means, and instead involve myself in an aid-giving program that bridges social justice-minded communities in the U.S. with communities in Japan.

In sum, the history of Japanese Americans are intertwined with the colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire that replaced Southwestern Japanese Nikkei as Japan’s new source of cheap labor for Japan’s wartime economy of the 1930s and 1940s. Therefore, Japanese Americans (in light of their community legacy of social justice and Asian American activism) can work in solidarity with ‘marginalized’ colonized communities in Japan, such as Zainichi Koreans, by understanding that Nikkei economic displacement from Japan and Japanese Imperialism are interconnected. As a Shin-Nisei Zainichi Korean, I hope that Shin-Nisei and Japanese Americans would do exactly that and challenge big business, the established JA community vanguard, and government assumptions that Nikkei ethnic identity must be based on the notion of being the “bridge” between these powerful states and businesses. Rather, I imagine a Nikkei identity based on the interconnected struggles between U.S.-Japan and beyond throughout the Asia Pacific.

Desun Oka is a recent graduate from UC Davis as an Asian American studies major and education minor. He is a youth member at the JACL Florin chapter and a member of Eclipse Rising, a group of Zainichi Koreans in the U.S. who came together to recognize and celebrate the rich and unique history of Koreans in Japan, promote Zainichi community development, peace and reunification, and work for social justice for all minorities in Japan. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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