Editor’s Note: The 2020-21 Katari program, which is usually held in early November at the Manzanar National Historic Site, had to be moved to an online format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the loss of the extremely important placed-based learning component of the program, by all accounts, it seems that we were able to deliver an effective and meaningful educational program for our students, who will be sharing their thoughts about their Katari experience in the following weeks.
Katari was another huge step in my personal development and in my understanding of Japanese American culture, history, and identity. The idea of Nikkei and a distinctly Japanese American culture was, and still is, very new to me. I was born in Japan, but mostly raised here in the United States. This is an experience that some might call the one-and-a-half generation phenomenon: not quite first generation, but also not quite second.
My primary experiences with Japanese culture came from my own household, a culture still very Japanese. It also came from the culture of my Saturday Japanese school, made up of first and second-generation Japanese Americans. My only knowledge of the word Nikkei came from business-related lingo like nikkei kigyou (Nikkei Company), or the Nikkei 225 stock index. My Japanese cultural experiences and my American cultural experiences were clearly divided. I only knew Japan from a purely Japanese point of view, and I only knew America from a purely American point of view. The first time I learned about it in a uniquely Japanese American culture context was at my college club, Nikkei Student Union.
My first big step in learning about Japanese Americans was during UCR NSU’s Day of Remembrance event. It was my first deep dive into the Japanese American culture in which I had still felt very lost. I listened to the first-hand experiences of guest speakers and learned about the impact the incarceration had on progressive Japanese American movements in the United States. It was a sizable jump from the small paragraph’s worth of knowledge I had gained from my American history books. As I continued to spend time with the club and its members, I learned more about Japanese American culture. I learned how they used words like Issei, Nisei, and Sansei to describe what generation they were. These were words that I knew, but I had never really used speaking with people at my Saturday Japanese school.
Experiencing this whole new world, I began to question my identity more as a “Japanese American.” I didn’t have the same history or awareness as some of my other club members, but at the same time, I wasn’t purely Japanese or purely American, either. Despite being dizzied by these new experiences, I ran for, and was elected to my club’s Culture Chair position using my knowledge of Japanese culture to back my candidacy.
With the privilege of being the club’s Culture Chair, I attended Katari alongside the UCR NSU President. As mentioned earlier, Katari was my next significant step in learning about both the Japanese American experience and my own personal identity. Over the two days of virtual Katari, the other attendees and I were granted the opportunity to listen to the stories of the incarcerated. We listened to over a dozen speakers, both live and through recorded oral histories. These included camp incident stories like the Manzanar Revolt, personal stories like the separation of families, and resistance stories like the Japanese American gardens.
The experience of listening to intimate and personal stories that displayed the true humanity of the incarcerated struck me the most. I started to realize that all 120,000 of these people incarcerated had their own dreams, aspirations, jobs, and lives. They had their own concerns, stresses, and maybe even their own late-night college assignments from which they were pulled away. They were 120,000 people with 120,000 stories that can be told about the incarceration. The single most significant moment for me was learning about the graffiti by Tommy Miyaoka on the reservoir basin at Manzanar. He wrote, I LOVE MYSELF as a Japanese American, a group of people who were the target of nation-wide antagonism. It was staggering to learn about his proclamation to the world, “I am here, and I am alive.” I learned about the Japanese American culture that I was given the privilege to enter, learning more fully to appreciate it. Just like Tommy Miyaoka, I hope to be proud of myself as a Japanese American, even in the face of overwhelming adversity.
I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to participate in Katari this year. Not only was it a major opportunity for personal growth, but it opened my eyes to a history to which a single paragraph could never do justice. Just like Katari did for me, I hope I’m able to pass down and teach even just a fragment of this knowledge to others, both as a way to raise awareness about injustices of freedom, but also as an inspiration.
Keita Ichi is a 20-year-old native of Osaka, Japan, who is studying Neuroscience at the University of California, Riverside. He currently serves as the Culture Chair of the UCR Nikkei Student Union. He also serves on the 2021 Manzanar At Dusk organizing committee. He writes from Irvine, California.
LEAD PHOTO: Keita Ichi. Photo courtesy Keita Ichi..
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