Young Japanese-Americans Honor Ethnic Roots
By MIREYA NAVARRO
OS ANGELES - In her rhinestone crown, Nicole Miyako Cherry had an air of royalty as she grabbed a heavy mallet and took a swing at a wooden barrel full of sake during the opening ceremonies of the Nisei Week Japanese festival in mid-July.
Not too long ago, the traditional ''breaking of the sake barrel'' to celebrate a notable event would not have been on Ms. Cherry's to-do list. As a Southern California teenager growing up in the suburban comfort of South Pasadena, Ms. Cherry was into skating on the beach, playing intramural soccer and Boyz II Men.
The daughter of a Japanese-American mother and a white American father, Ms. Cherry, 24, said her integrated lifestyle allowed for few conspicuous ethnic markers other than perhaps wearing a kimono for Halloween or attending an obon festival.
But last year, she competed for, and won, the title queen of Nisei Week, the oldest Japanese-American cultural event in the region.
"If people in my generation don't get involved, who's going to take over?'' she asked.
Ms. Cherry's transformation from typical American teenager to ethnic ambassador is a statement about how young Japanese-Americans have struggled to hold onto an identity of their own. Shrinking population numbers, high intermarriage rates and the legacy of the rush to assimilate after the World War II internment experience created an uncertain cultural path for the sansei (third generation) yonsei (fourth) and gosei (fifth).
Ms. Cherry is among a minority awakening to an unsettling realization - it is up to them to fight the forces of cultural extinction, even if most of them may not speak Japanese, or have visited Japan or, increasingly, even look Japanese.
Gil Asakawa, author of "Being Japanese American," said a reason some young Japanese-Americans are asserting their ethnic identity might be that it has become cool to be Japanese.
"Japanese culture is hip in American mainstream, so the door has been opened for these Japanese-Americans to embrace the culture more,'' said Mr. Asakawa, who said he was jolted into consciousness about his heritage by the death of his father in the early 1990's.
But even as Japan's exports like anime and karaoke, not to mention its influences in food, technology and design, have become popular globally, many among the younger generations of Japanese-Americans say they are also looking in another direction, at what it means to be Japanese-American, not just of Japanese descent. Central to Japanese-American pride is surviving and thriving after the indignities of World War II.
"The culture and the traditional aspects go back to Japan, but I tend to look at the Japanese-American experience - my grandfather being in an internment camp,'' Ms. Cherry said. "That's huge.''
Many other groups also struggle to nourish their ethnic roots, but Japanese-Americans are going about it with a sense of urgency.
The number of Americans who identify themselves as Japanese declined to 796,700 in the 2000 census, from 847,562 in 1990, partly because of low immigration and birth rates. The wave of new immigrants from other parts of Asia, including China, South Korea and the Philippines, now dwarfs Japanese-Americans, who once made up the largest Asian group in the United States.
The trends have left some Japanese-Americans feeling as if they are disappearing.
Although Buddhist temples, sports leagues and families sustain the ethnicity, many longtime Japanese-American organizations and institutions are losing members or eroding. Only three Japantowns are left in California, where there had once been dozens.
And "outmarriage,'' mostly to whites and other Asians, is diluting the ethnicity to the point that Larry Hajime Shinagawa, director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York, said most Japanese-Americans face only two directions - assimilating into "whiteness'' or adopting a "pan-Asian'' identity.
But that kind of obliteration is not yet evident in people like Ms. Cherry, who just spent a year immersed in all things Japanese (tea ceremony, kimono etiquette, a visit to Japan) or at places like the University of California, Los Angeles, where taiko drumming is suddenly the rage.
With an undergraduate student body that is about 41 percent Asian-American, there is a dynamic pan-Asian youth culture on campus, said Don T. Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center, but half of more than 60 Asian-American student groups are still "ethnic specific.''
Among these is the Nikkei Student Union, formed when Japanese-American students predominated among Asians enrolled at U.C.L.A. and now open to "anyone interested in Japanese culture,'' said Tracy Ohara, 22, a past president.
One member, Jason Osajima, 19, said his parents sent him to Japanese-American "cultural summer camps'' and basketball leagues as a child, but that he grew up mostly with Caucasian friends and not particularly connected to his Japanese side. But last fall, when he enrolled as a freshman, he said, "I realized I really wanted to get involved with the Japanese community.''
"Before college, I didn't realize how important that was, but in college you have so many cultural resources,'' he said.
Mr. Osajima now spends some of his time planning Japanese cultural events and commemorative pilgrimages to the sites of World War II internment camps and, on a recent Thursday night, could be found at U.C.L.A.'s athletic center barefoot, with legs spread and sticks wielded like swords, pounding a fat drum used in the ancient art of taiko drumming.
He was in a practice session of Kyodo Taiko, U.C.L.A.'s drumming ensemble and a group so popular that it holds auditions and has led to a second, nonperforming group and recreational classes.
The group includes members with names like Lee, Fuller and Avila, and its Japanese-American version of taiko includes swing, hip-hop and other American genres.
Mr. Osajima said some friends of an aunt visiting from Japan were "shocked'' when they saw one of the group's nontraditional performances, but for him, he said, "You just feel you're preserving a part of your Japanese ancestry.''
Older Japanese-Americans said that time has given the latest generations distancing from the traumatizing effects of the internment and a clean slate. Ms. Cherry said her maternal grandfather, who was an intelligence officer for the United States during World War II, once brushed aside her questions about her family crest. He did not want to get into it, she said, as if trying to erase any memory of Japan.
"They had to prove they were American'' after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, she said, "and that pushed more for assimilation. Our generation is kind of reclaiming that. I'm lucky to have my grandparents around, so I'm trying to get all this information now.''
Bill H. Seki, a 43-year-old Los Angeles lawyer, said both his parents were interned in camps before they met (his father left his by volunteering to serve in the American military). After they married, no Japanese was ever spoken in their home as a way of proving, Mr. Seki said, "that they were Americans first, not enemy aliens.''
That experience was so searing, Mr. Seki said, that after Sept. 11, the Japanese-American Bar Association, which he presided over last year, offered legal assistance and moral support to Arab-Americans and Muslims who felt singled out by new antiterrorism laws.
Mr. Seki said his awakening to the culture came in his late 30's as he realized that the nisei, the generation that was interned during the war, were dying off. Last year, for the first time, he went to Japan as part of delegation put together by Japanese American National Museum, which sponsors programs intended to create interest in Japan among Japanese-Americans.
"Others don't feel like we have a separate identity, but our story is so compelling,'' he said. "People just take Japanese-Americans for granted. One comment you commonly get is, 'You're just like another white guy.' No, that's completely wrong.''
In their movement to maintain their ethnicity, Japanese-Americans have become more accepting of those with partial Japanese ancestry, known as hapas, or part Asian.
Eric Tate, a 34-year-old lawyer in San Jose whose mother is Japanese and father African-American, said he co-founded one of the first hapa student groups in the early 1990's as a student at the University of California, Berkeley in response to feeling unwelcome by Japanese-American groups and sports leagues.
Mr. Tate said the tide had turned. Along with those who identified themselves as Japanese in the 2000 census were more than 350,000 who cited Japanese and other backgrounds, the highest rate of multi-ethnic identification of any Asian group.
"There's been a shift in paradigms from 'Oh, outmarriage is a problem' to 'Aw, shucks, we have to make these people embrace the culture because there won't be anybody left to embrace it,' '' Mr. Tate said.
Phenotype and experiences like today's shared Asian culture may be part of an evolving ethnic identity, but Japanese-Americans from various generations said there was plenty to hand down.
Mr. Asakawa, 46, executive producer of the Web site of The Denver Post, said he wrote his book to explore the things "that keep us connected as Japanese'' - values like honor, endurance and loyalty to family, and, of course, food.
"There will always be rice in your life,'' he said.
John Tateishi, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization, said: "We have a really rich history in this country and we have a history of real pride, and we want to pass that on to our kids. It's like giving religion to your kids. You hope they go away with the moral teachings if not the religion.''
Ms. Cherry, whose boyfriend is Mexican-American, clings to her biracial identity. "I won't take sides,'' she said.
But Ms. Cherry, who will soon become a social work therapist, said she would like her own children to learn Japanese, go to Japanese festivals, play in Japanese sports leagues and have a Japanese first name.
"Even if they're a quarter, I want them to know that that's still part of who they are,'' she said.
For now, she will be passing on her crown to the next Nisei Week queen during this year's festival Aug. 7 to 15. Of all she learned during her reign as goodwill ambassador for Japanese-Americans, she said, visiting Japan last year was an eye-opener.
"All the girls dye their hair brown and they're obsessed with expensive jeans,'' she said. "Even in Japan, they're becoming very American."