Japanese joy

FINDING JOY — Screenshot of Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu (left to right) from the ‘The Story Circle of the Japanese Diaspora’ event.

Japanese joy. When offered these words separately, Japanese and Japanese Americans understand them, but presented together — as they were at the recent virtual event entitled “The Story Circle of the Japanese Diaspora” — the concept generates a question in the minds of many Nikkei: “What is that?”

“I thought it was strange to hear “Japanese” and “joy” together,” said Jeff Matsuoka, a Sansei participant from San Francisco. “The ordinary Nikkei person doesn’t express outward joy very easily in comparison to some non-Nikkei people.”

Why is this so? And why is “Japanese joy” important in today’s world?

“Joy gives us resilience,” said nationally recognized storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki of First Voice, who organized the event with her husband, award-winning musician Mark Izu.

“Joy gives you memories of our ancestors. And ancestors connect us to our roots,” said Wong Aoki.

And knowing your roots and where you come from, they believe, is key in pushing back and standing your ground against the racism the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are facing today.

Thus, Wong Aoki and Izu brought together 110 Japanese Americans, Japanese nationals and allies from across the country and around the world, to meet at this “re-convening of the tribe” held May 28-29.

Funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission, the event was billed as the “first gathering organized by Culture bearers and wisdom keepers” and it happened in three parts. Part one, “Why My Father Stopped Talking to Me,” allowed participants to identify the racism and trauma embedded in them, and how to heal from it. It featured a conversation with psychotherapist and activist Dr. Satsuki Ina; retired U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson; and Noelani Ahia, “a Kānaka Maoli (aboriginal Hawaiian) activist and healer”; and poetry and music by Viki Eagle, a contemporary Native American photographer who identifies as “Sicangu Lakota and half Japanese”; Nancy Ukai, “the director of 50 Objects, a digital history project … that examines the stories associated with artifacts from the” World War II Japanese American concentration camps; Izu; and poet and activist Janice Mirikitani.

Part two, “Japanese Joy,” looked at how joy can bring resilience, endurance and the ability to care for oneself better. Artists and spiritual leaders PJ Hirabayashi, a “taiko practitioner, teacher, collaborator, composer, and community organizer”; longtime San Francisco Human Services Commissioner George Yamasaki; taiko artist Kenny Endo; and “writer, performer, actor, theater artist, organizer, and educator” traci kato-kiriyama led the group in interactive exercises.

Part three focused on the multiracial future generations. “What do they need us to do now in order for them to thrive, and hold their heads up high?” asked Wong Aoki. This brought the focus back to “Japanese Joy.” Both Wong Aoki and Izu spoke of seeing old home movies shot by Issei and Nisei before the war. In these movies, they saw Issei and Nisei participating in mochitsuki, playing together at picnics and fishing.

“You could see the joy from mochitsuki,” said Wong Aoki. “You look at these fishermen and they’re so joyful in their work. It was beautiful to see,” she said.

But they don’t see the same joy in people — and the generations that have followed — after World War II and the Japanese American incarceration.

“Before camp, everyone looked so free and happy,” said Wong Aoki. “It’s so heartbreaking to see what we’ve become.”

She said joy allows people to continue, but Japanese Americans have become uncomfortable with that. “Instead, we’ve been taught about working hard, and ever since camp, we’ve carried that hard work ethic with us.”

Wong Aoki believes unresolved issues like inter-generational post-camp trauma and self-hate are preventing many Japanese Americans from speaking out against what’s happening today.

Embracing the arts and supporting our culture bearers and storytellers is one way to learn, said Mark Izu. And they both believe listening to our stories and finding “Japanese Joy” are good places to start.

Even the smallest things can bring the greatest Japanese joy, said Wong Aoki. “Look at what Hatsy and Moses Yasukochi (of Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop in San Francisco’s Japantown) did with their coffee crunch cake. But now that we’re under fire, we need to see that joy is resilience, and we need to find our joy.”

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