Let’s Talk: About ‘Stigma’


It’s a strange word, “stigma.” In preparing to write this column for the Day of Remembrance issue, this word came up on several occasions. On further research, I learned that the archaic meaning of “stigma” was “a mark made by a branding iron on the skin of a criminal or slave.” It’s a term that has medical, religious, social and psychological references. From the social/psychological perspective, “stigma” refers to “a mark of disgrace or infamy: a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.”

To “stigmatize” involves both a victim and a perpetrator. Oftentimes the perpetrator carries the power and weight of representing the dominant culture in a particular setting whether in schools, community or nations. The victim generally represents a minority perspective in numbers, appearance, orientation, philosophy, etc. and is often rendered less powerful and oppressed. Viewed in the larger context as less-than, somehow flawed, or wrongly different, they are branded with negative and dehumanizing names and insinuations that, over time, can burn through the skin and to a person’s very sense of being.

Today we stand sadly as witness to the suffering caused by unremitting social stigma in the tragic suicide of 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu, whose young life was solemnized and celebrated recently in Folsom, Calif. There are no words to truly console such a painful loss. And yet his parents have courageously given meaning to this tragedy by stepping forward and voicing their concern for other children who may suffer from being bullied.

“Bullying” is a form of social stigma. Most people often think of “bullies” as some overgrown, evil kid who uses fear to intimidate, but it is a much more complex social process of stigmatizing someone who is different and garnering increased support so that others begin to perceive the victim as less human and thus justifies the victim’s mistreatment. Often, if the victim protests, without intervention from those with authority, the stigmatizing intensifies and bullying behavior spreads.

Acts of racism, discrimination, harassment and prejudice all use stigma as a means to justify inhumane treatment of the “other.” As in the earlier definition, being a victim of branding or labeling can carry life-long psychological and emotional wounding. And, as is the practice in Daruma Psychology, it is important that we examine not just the soto or outside, but the naka or inside as well, of our own thoughts, our own families and our own community.

As the Day of Remembrance approaches, we are mindful of how Japanese Americans of three generations were stigmatized as “treacherous Japs” who could not be trusted, whether citizen or not, and thus, “justifiably imprisoned” during World War II. The president of our country did not intervene on our behalf and disregarded our constitutional rights. The fire of “Yellow Peril” was lit and it spread throughout the nation and thousands of innocent victims were unjustly punished.

And deeper self-exploration can lead us to examine ways in which we ourselves may have perpetrated “stigma” about choices people made from within these concentration camps. Regretfully, even today, the “yes-no” dialectic that our government threw us into has continued to divide our community, branding those who answered “no-no” as cowards, draft dodgers, and disloyal. Just as school bullies most commonly learned their hateful beliefs from interactions with their parents, family, and peer group, this intergenerational transmission process also applies to our community.

Still today, many Nikkei, young and old, hold on to the stigmatizing belief that anyone who answered the so-called “Loyalty Questionnaire” in the negative was in fact “disloyal” to America or were troublemakers blamed for prolonging the incarceration. Such generalizations have caused irreparable harm to many individuals and families who not only lost their faith in their country, but unjustly lost the respect of their fellow Japanese Americans. It was a time of trauma and upheaval. There were no simple answers, but rather complex situations and circumstances that led to the decisions people made.

As this year’s Day of Remembrance events in San Francisco highlights and explores the previously unpopular theme of dissidence, we are moving towards repairing the rift and holding hope that the next generation of Nikkei will see that stigma is not the answer, but rather, it is understanding that will bring us healing across the generations.

The schools that 12-year-old Ronin attended must now work tirelessly to create a community that will respect and value differences, have zero tolerance for stigmatizing. Our Nikkei community must be inspired to do the same. Seven times down, eight times up.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist with specialization in intergenerational trauma. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” — www.children-of-the-camps.org  and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story” — www.fromasilkcocoon.com). The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.


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