When my parents and I found ourselves in San Jose last May looking for things to do together, our first priority was to explore the city’s Japantown. We made a point of starting at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, where we were guided by a chatty Japanese American history buff who we ended up tuning out for most of the tour.
My parents and I read the descriptions underneath the photographs and documents in silence, each of them bringing the history of the Japanese internment to life. We walked through a re-creation of the barracks that one family lived in. We stopped in front of the exhibit that detailed each internment camp that people of Japanese ancestry were sent to, without due process, during World War II. And once I recognized the name of one camp in particular — Minidoka War Relocation Center — I read its description line by line.
If there was a moment when my Japanese American ancestry felt the most real to me, it was in that museum — standing side by side with my mom, hearing this animated tour guide talking about the history of camp Minidoka.
I had done research on the Japanese internment for school projects in the past and learned about the long history of Japanese exclusion on the West Coast. I had read through old newspaper articles announcing the restrictions imposed on the Japanese in America and the growing racist sentiment leading up to the internment and continuing long after. I had dug through books and journals about the internment — I even found a yearbook of camp Minidoka that pictured of all 9,397 of its members, including my grandparents. Most notably, I had heard this story from my extended family members who lived through it and who retell it despite the bitterness it brings back.
But when I was walking through the re-creation of the camp living quarters with my mom, the history of the internment wasn’t just a Google search or an impersonal account gathered for a research project anymore — it was the personal story of my mom’s mother and father. It was their independent experiences in the Minidoka internment camp and their lives together after the war was over. The story continued in the Midwest where they resettled, and then later in Los Angeles, where they raised six Japanese American children in a predominantly Black and white American society.
As we stood there, I thought about my grandparents, who went to high school while living in barracks on the other side of a barbed wire fence. They lived among family members who built and supported the camp with their own labor and among peers who enlisted in the U.S. Army to prove their loyalty. I wondered how they had felt when they experienced it. Did they feel outraged? Indifferent? Betrayed, but aware that resentment was futile?
When they were released from incarceration by the U.S. government, they went to restart their lives from scratch without the homes, possessions or money their families had accumulated in the years before their internment. And they did it while enduring a renewed racist sentiment from fellow Americans.
Against the odds of assimilation and internment, my family remained 100 percent ethnically Japanese and maintained its Japanese culture for generations after immigration. However, over time, the language and ties to Japan faded.
I don’t exactly know what chipped away at it. Maybe it was the racism and the two years of internment. Maybe it was inevitable dispersion of Japanese American communities after the war. Maybe it was the passing of generations and gradual cultural dilution.
Everyone in my extended family loves to dig for answers about their heritage to prevent it from fading. They’re driven to uncover their history in spite of this disconnected multigenerational experience. Whenever they feel uncertainty in their identities, they try to strengthen it. But for once, in that brief moment with my parents in the museum, I didn’t feel the need to prove my heritage to anyone. It reminded me that we are all living artifacts of this history.
We are not obligated to maintain the story and ties this far down the line, but we put in the effort because we want to understand. And somehow, that defines the Japanese American experience that I’m so proud of. The Japanese Americans in my family cook the dishes their parents taught them. They highlight Japanese craft through their tea sets and watercolor paintings on their walls. They keep Japanese history books and pass on the few words their grandparents taught them. Their hearts are with Japan on the news and in the World Cup. They are dedicated to piecing together the stories of their ancestors’ emigration, and they never stop pointing to the injustices of the Japanese internment.
In the generation that my cousins and I are part of, the gap is wider. Many of us are mixed, and not all of us know our history. But despite the time that has separated us from our origins in Japan, there will always be something about being Japanese that motivates our practices and tendencies so they align with those of the generations before us. And each of us holds a piece of our Japanese ancestry, so that collectively, it feels whole.
And if nothing else, we all share the echoes of the respect, resilience and bravery that our grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts showed the rest of the United States when it refused to show them the same.
Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.