Making sense of JA millennials

Japanese American Millennials: Rethinking Generation, Community, and Diversity

Edited by Michael Omi, Dana Y. Nakano and Jeffrey T. Yamashita (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019, 301 pp., $39.99, paperback)

As we welcome the year 2020, it should be abundantly clear that a younger generation known as millennials (for the purposes of this particular book, the editors have defined millennials as individuals born between 1980 and 2000) are rapidly becoming the largest living generation in the U.S. For Japanese Americans, this invites complex questions about the future of the pre-existing Japanese American historical narrative, our perceptions of community, and the value of specific cultural traits (language and religion, to name a few).

Will there be a Japanese American community in the next decade? Why do Yonsei and Gosei continue to seek out community with other Japanese Americans? What cultural practices and traditions will be retained? The editors claim that while much has been written about Japanese Americans as a distinctive racial and ethnic group, the existing literature is almost entirely focused on a singular historic narrative (early immigration at the turn of the century, the World War II incarceration experience and the presumed rapid assimilation post-war). They state, “Our goal is to disrupt prevailing notions of fixed generational cohorts, stable social identities, and shared understandings of community by highlight the contemporary diversity of the Japanese American millennial population.”

Ultimately, “Japanese American Millennials” was a rich and satisfying read. I initially approached the title alone with a combination of curiosity and dread, perhaps because the term “millennials” has been so abused in the media. Plus, sweeping generalizations about generations so often miss the mark, due to an eagerness to capture data into a neat, palatable package. The beauty of an anthology of essays is that it allows for a variety of perspectives and opinions on a myriad of subjects. The articles, written by scholars both from the U.S. and Japan, explore experiences ranging from Yonsei basketball leagues and “TechnoBuddha” conferences, and wrestle with identity politics, such as queer culture in a Japanese American context and generational friction related to leadership succession.

The book also explores the personal experiences of Shin-Issei (new post-war Japanese immigrants) and Shin-Nisei, which is rarely part of the dialogue when Japanese American identity politics and history are being discussed; biculturalism, Japanese language retention, and mixed-race issues from the perspectives of JA millennials whose racial/ethnic background includes some Japanese heritage. In some essays, a combination of these demographics are covered.

That said, I found the collection to be uneven: some essays were filled with rich testimonies and empirical data that helped me to decipher millennial experiences in meaningful ways; other essays were so stilted in their form and language or lacking in thoughtful interpretation that as a non-academic reader, I struggled just to get through them and by the essay’s conclusion, still had no idea what the author’s intention was.

One article that stood out for me was Dana Nakano’s “To Be Yonsei in Southern California,” which used the concept of spacial assimilation (the assumption of residential integration and physical proximity as proxy measures for social distance. In other words, as Japanese Americans have integrated white neighborhoods, their social interactions should also increase) as a main starting point. Nakano argues that while Japanese Americans have become more assimilated with each generation, achieving socioeconomic mobility and moving into the suburbs, the subjects she interviewed seemed to uniformly seek out Japanese American community interaction as a place of comfort and refuge from racial microaggressions which labeled JA millennials as foreigners. The essay is filled with a combination of insights and interpretation that so resonated with me that I ended up peppering passages with sticky notes for future reference.

As a Yonsei (sadly, born before 1980, so I don’t fit the millennials label), this book spoke directly to some of the issues I’ve been exploring with other Yonsei and challenged many of my own labels and perceptions in unexpected ways.

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