Hundreds of Nikkei gather in S.F. for biennial international conference

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More than 250 Nikkei from around the world gathered in San Francisco Sept. 20-22 for COPANI XX San Francisco, an international conference focusing on people of Japanese descent living in the Americas. Nikkei from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and other countries joined Japanese Americans for the two-day program to listen to each other’s experiences as Nikkei in their respective countries and discuss future venues of cooperation.

MULTI-NATIONAL COLLABORATION — Part of a group who converged upon San Francisco for the COPANI XX conference Sept. 20-22.

Roji Oyama, president of the 20th biennial international gathering, said this year’s conference was special for its emphasis on the next generation of leaders under the theme “Our future is here.” Oyama said the presence of younger attendees and the unveiling of a “Nikkei App” project meant to help people of Japanese descent find culturally relevant places through their cell phones in the future.

“Our organizing committee set out to make this COPANI one that will make Nikkei re-examine their place, not only in their community, but in the world. As good citizens, we must be aware of the injustices that have marginalized certain sectors of our society,” Oyama said on the first day of the conference. “As Nikkei we are no longer defined as those with 100 percent Japanese blood. We have evolved into a rainbow of unique individuals and genders and those who have different opinions or lifestyles, and deserves the same rights and dignity to be members of our community.”

The conference’s first day convened at the West Bay Conference Center in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, several blocks south of the city’s Japantown, with Jiten Daiko opening the conference. Ryan Takemiya, writer and actor, emceed the first day, which featured greetings from Fernando Suenaga Pinillos, president of the Pan American Nikkei Association; Tomochika Uyama, consul general of Japan in San Francisco; and Satoru Sato, ambassador and special envoy for collaboration with communities of Nikkei in Latin America and the Caribbean from Japan. Speakers included a keynote address by former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and presentations on the Canadian, Hawai‘i and Latin American experiences, as well as a lecture on the history of COPANI by Sachie Asaka of Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan and a panel discussion led by Stanford University Professor Gary Mukai.

Collective Advocacy and Engagement
“In the United States, people think of it like a melting pot, and I don’t buy that approach at all, because in a melting pot situation, you put all the ingredients into the crucible, stir it up, and everything loses its identity,” Mineta said. “I want to think of it as tapestry, because each yarn … when they are woven together, it makes for a stronger whole.”

Mineta also noted that, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans could not get elected officials to listen to them to prevent the wartime incarceration. He encouraged attendees to not only pursue professional success, but a role in civic service as well. Though only a small portion of Nikkei pursue elected office, the former congressman noted people should offer to serve elected officials however they can, even without running for office themselves.

“In this way, people can serve in public service without having to run for political office. This is true regardless of which country you may be from,” he said. “Then we can get people to sit at the table where those decisions are being made previously by people who knew nothing about us.”

Emi Kasamatsu from Paraguay, however, asked Mineta whether civic engagement was truly an option for all Nikkei. Kasamatsu noted political corruption in her country makes many Nikkei in there think twice before affiliating themselves with politics, she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. She asked the former secretary how people from countries such as hers could see positive change.

Mineta admitted a lack of access to a free and democratic government makes it difficult to express opinions, but stressed collective grassroots efforts “can make a dent.” He admitted the United States itself is increasingly becoming difficult to work with as well.

Nikkei Experiences Abroad
Arthur Miki, a past president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians; Carole Hayashino, former president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i; and Juan Alberto Matsumoto, a Nisei Japanese Argentinian lecturer based in Japan spoke after Mineta.

Miki spoke about the immigration of Japanese to Canada starting with the first immigrants in 1877 and their difficulties in gaining the right to vote. He outlined the harsh conditions Japanese Canadians faced during World War II when British Columbian politicians conspired to oust Nikkei from their province by using World War II as an excuse. He also summarized the postwar experience and the loss of culture and identity of Japanese Canadians because of their incarceration experience.

Hayashino, too, spoke on the Nikkei experience in Hawai‘i before, during and after the war, discussing the diversity and strength of her community as well as the broader support Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i enjoyed to eventually recognize the Honouliuli Internment Camp as a National Historic Site. She also presented on the Gannenmono, the first Japanese immigrants to arrive on Hawai‘i 151 years ago.

Matsumoto discussed the Japanese Latin American community and the challenges they faced in maintaining their authentic culture and community. Speaking in Spanish, he noted Argentina is home to some 25,000 Nikkei and that Japanese cultural products such as its food, festivals, and arts have become marketable, but said it was difficult to maintain authenticity. He also said it was challenging to get younger generations invested in their culture and history.

International and Intergenerational Workshop
The second day of the conference took place at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco and the Japanese Community Youth Council headquarters down the street. Conference attendees participated in two workshop sessions focusing on youth, business, historical preservation and activism. The final session of the day’s programming focused on how future generations of Nikkei can learn from each other to become leaders of their own and work together in the future.

Tom Ikeda, founding executive director of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, led a workshop on how stories can be preserved. Continuing after lunch, Naomi Tokumatsu, a Mexican Japanese scholar, gave four examples of storytelling. Matsumoto spoke about his experience of writing for the Japanese American National Museums’ Discover Nikkei Website to share stories in Spanish and Japanese, while Shinji Hirai of Mexico described a training workshop he developed to help Japanese Mexicans do their own genealogical research in the northeastern regions of his country. Masato Ninomiya, a lawyer and lecturer based in Sao Paulo, spoke about his own decision as a Shin-Issei immigrant who arrived in Brazil at age five, to record his parents’ history after their passing for future generations of his family. Diane Emiko Tsuchida of Los Angeles shared Tessaku, her storytelling project focusing on the Japanese American wartime experience.

David Inoue, executive director of the National Japanese American Citizens League, led a session on civil rights and activism with the National Association of Japanese Canadians through a panel discussion with Maryka Omatsu of the NAJC, Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and Grace Shimizu of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project. The session highlighted the historical injustices the people of Japanese descent faced in Canada, America and Latin America before and during the war. In the afternoon session, other activists spoke about present-day Nikkei activism.

Shimizu said the experience of Japanese Latin Americans, who were virtually kidnapped and sent to the U.S. to be used in hostage exchanges with Japan, was likely not well known even in Peru or other Latin American countries where they were originally from. “It just shows the extent to how the governments have been able to suppress that history, because they kinda knew it was not really something to be proud of or to be held accountable for,” she later told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Omatsu noted that Japanese Canadians are now working on a new project for redress after the Province of British Columbia issued an apology to Japanese Canadians for ousting them from their homes and jobs during the war in 2012. The NAJC, through its research in preparation to submit a report to the British Columbian government, found that the provincial government had extensively lobbied the Canadian federal government to bar Japanese Canadians from the West Coast and dispossess them of their property.

Miki noted the province’s 2012 apology was made without any consultation to the NAJC and Japanese Canadians had criticized it for having no monetary compensation behind it like the federal redress issued in 1988. The Canadian government negotiated with the NAJC in 1988 to pay $21,000 to individual survivors along with a $12 million to a Japanese community fund and $24 million to establish the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

“The apology that they gave didn’t admit to any wrongdoing on their part, but now, when we look at the research, they were more instrumental than the Canadian government,” Miki told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And so we felt that we strongly push this and strongly urge the government to reconsider that apology.”

Satsuki Ina, representing Tsuru for Solidarity, said COPANI made her realize she should expand on the vision of what solidarity is. “For our national pilgrimage to close the (American immigrant detention) camps that’s going to happen in June 5 to the 7th in 2020, we’re just starting the plans for that, but I see through the COPANI vision, it will be important to reach out to these other communities outside of our immediate community to strengthen our own solidarity and hoping to get others involved.”

Emphasis on Youth
The final session of the conference, moderated by Kota Mizutani of the Japanese American Citizens League, asked a panel of four young attendees how they became involved in the Nikkei community and how they worked as leaders within their respective nations. Each panelist shared a myriad of experiences all unified with an interest in maintaining the Nikkei community in their home countries.

Oyama told the Nichi Bei Weekly the conference decided to hold its first ever “all-young adult panel discussion” to lay foundations for how the international Nikkei community could work to come together in the future.

“With the new current generation, I asked them to step forward because I wanted them to represent their future of COPANI,” Oyama said. “We’re going through a generational transition for the organization. It is time I told the leadership and the elders that we ask the young people, the current generation, to step into the position of decision-making along with us to chart the course of the future, that is the most significant aspect of this COPANI.”

The next COPANI conference will take place in 2021 in Paraguay.

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