Editor’s Note: Over the last few months, college students who participated in our annual Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive program will share their thoughts here on our web site about their experiences in the two-day, intensive, immersive, place-based learning experience about the unjust incarceration of Japanese/Japanese Americans during World War II, a partnership with the National Park Service staff at the Manzanar National Historic Site..
“Don’t mind them,” my mother would whisper into my ear.
“They’re only looking because you’re adorable,” she would add.
Then she would nuzzle her nose into my head, or pinch my cheek, or squeeze my hand. This memory of mine is a common occurrence of my childhood. Born to a Japanese mother and American father, and growing up in Japan with more Anglo Saxon features than East Asian, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been looked at or talked about or otherwise treated as a foreigner in my own home country. But it never affected me. At least, not negatively.
I would be slightly surprised, not because I believe I look Japanese, but because I forget I don’t look Japanese. I am completely fluent in the language, and completely immersed in the culture, and all those close to me treat me no different. I owe this to my parents teaching me to take pride for having a mixed background, the miraculous coincidence of all of my neighborhood and childhood friends being mixed, and attending an international school since kindergarten where half my peers are of mixed descent like me. I would simply brush it off and either ignore the looks I get or respond in Japanese and surprise them back.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I became aware that this was not every mixed kid’s experience. I would be watching television and hear stories about the unnecessarily strict school rules that would punish those born without straight black hair. I would be scrolling through social media and see posts that talked about personal experiences with insults about their appearance being hurled at them, even though all they did was exist in society. I would hear my friends talk about how they wished they weren’t of mixed descent, how life would be so much easier if they were of a single race and culture. Although sympathetic to these experiences, because they were so drastically different from mine, I never quite understood why someone would arrive at that conclusion. What’s so shameful about not being “the norm”?
After growing up in Japan all my life, I started attending a university in the United States. Even though it was the first time I was living in an area where the majority of the population wasn’t Japanese, because my school is located in a heavily East Asian area and I was able to quickly find a community within Nikkei Student Union (NSU), I never once felt like an outsider.
During my second semester of my first year at university, I took a course on the Japanese American experience in California. Having never learned about Japanese American History growing up in Japan, I jumped at the opportunity to learn about it in an academic setting.
One of the topics covered was the internment camps, and although it was covered only briefly, it left a big impression on me. Why doesn’t anybody talk about this? Why is this part of United States History so overlooked?
My interest led me to apply for and become the Director of Cultural Affairs at my school’s NSU, responsible for teaching other organization members about Japanese American culture and history, and organizing Manzanar At Dusk with representatives from other NSU’s throughout Southern California.
To be honest, I was not expecting a lot from the Katari trip. Sure, I could see all the sites in person and meet those with personal connections to Manzanar, but after having learned it in class just half a year ago, would I really get that much out of it?
Being an “outsider” in the Japanese American community because of my background and upbringing, despite being Japanese American,m also made me doubtful. This opinion was further reinforced after the first day, where we toured the majority of the site and were taught about the major events and people at Manzanar, as I knew most of the information from my course.
The second day of Katari was when the trip clicked into place.
Indeed, watching the oral history videos of incarcerees and their children about their post-war life, I started to make personal connections with the site, the people, and their experiences.
All the stories I was told, of friends and of strangers, started to match up. All those instances in my life, had they been microaggressions and racism? Had I just been conditioned to be numb? The pain and shame that the first and second generation held for their identity, how they wanted to shield their children from the same emotions and experiences. The younger generations, in turn, not able to agree with this sentiment and wanting to restore pride in their community for their culture and background. Were the first and second generation Japanese Americans wrong to not teach the younger generations about their experiences? Were the younger generations insensitive for speaking up and fighting for acknowledgement about the experiences older Japanese American generations went through?
These questions and thoughts have not left my mind since the trip has ended, and the conclusion that I have come to is that there is no correct experience and emotion to feel. Had I not grown up with a tough skin towards these experiences, insecure in my identity, I may have alienated myself from the Japanese community and culture, unsure of my place in society. But ignoring these experiences and not acknowledging how damaging even the slightest off-handed comment can hurt others is not productive towards progressing as a society and accepting people with different backgrounds and identities.
After Katari, I finally feel like I have a place in the Japanese American community in California; to use my background and identity to bridge the gap between those in the Japanese American community and educate those outside of it about the history.
I am proud to hold the Director of Cultural Affairs position at my university’s NSU, and feel extremely privileged to have been able to join Katari and go to Manzanar, to be educated by some of the most knowledgeable people in the field currently. I look forward to furthering my understanding throughout the next few months until Manzanar At Dusk, and committing myself to keep expanding my knowledge and educating others for years after.
Marin Aiko-Powell, a native of Kanagawa, Japan, is in her second year at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, where she is studying Animal Science. The 20-year-old currently serves as Secretary and Culture Chair for the CPP Nikkei Student Union, and on the 2023 Manzanar At Dusk Planning Committee. She writes from Pomona, California.
LEAD PHOTO: Katari students are shown here during a presentation in the Block 14 demonstration barracks at the Manzanar National Historic Site by former Manzanar incarceree and Manzanar Committee member Pat Sakamoto, who told the story about how the infomous “loyalty questionnaire” tore her family apart. November 12, 2022. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
The 2022-23 Katari program was funded, in part, by the George and Sakaye Aratani CARE Award from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
Katari Program Needs Your Support
Katari, which means, to “tell stories” in Japanese, is a self-sustaining educational project that is working to bridge the generation gap that has made it much more difficult for young Japanese Americans to teach others about the unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, during World War II. Teaching others about this subject is absolutely critical given the current political climate.
We need your support to raise the funds necessary to defray the costs of lodging, meals, and transportation from the Los Angeles area to the Manzanar National Historic Site in California’s Eastern Sierra/Payahüünadü (Owens Valley). You can donate to our Katari program by sending a check to the Manzanar Committee, 1566 Curran Street, Los Angeles, California, 90026-2036. Please be sure to write “Katari” in the memo line on your check. Thank you!
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