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the kansha project


I was recently selected to be a part of the Kansha Project, a venture through the Japanese American Citizens League that each year sends 10 Japanese American youth to spend a few days in Los Angeles visiting Little Tokyo and Manzanar, a former concentration camp, with the goal of educating the next generation of Japanese Americans about (the legacy of) World War II era incarceration and the impact it’s had on our community.

I am very excited for this opportunity, and ready to learn about a subject I am far too ignorant of.

Kansha, meaning gratitude or a sense of appreciation for what someone has done, seems an appropriate word for what we’re going to be learning about on the trip.  In short, without the sacrifices of the women and men who came before us (specifically the Nisei), we would not be anywhere close to where we are today.  My generation especially – looking back on our community’s corporate history in this country – has so much to be appreciative of.  I’m looking forward to reflecting on this more, and I’ll post additional updates as the program date approaches this June.

Until then, I thought I’d share what I wrote for my personal essay, to give a sense of what drove me to apply to attend this project:

“I identify as Japanese American because my blood compels me to recognize an undeniably important part of my own cultural heritage.

When I was young, I wasn’t able to readily understand things like racial and ethnic identity.  However, I was constantly reminded of my personal status as other even in early childhood by the friends I met at school, church, Judo class, and at the Y.

You’re so white, some of my Asian American friends would tell me, wielding the word like a weapon.  Their taunting and emphasis on our cultural differences confused me as a child.

Conversely, many of my Caucasian friends – apparently blinded to the white aspect of my own biracial heritage – saw only in my family’s racial identity an exciting, nebulous connection to Japan – that exotic land where sushi, Pokémon, Playstation, and other of their consumable cultural commodities come from.

Claiming my own identity as Japanese American, therefore, has meant many things to me for a number of years.  For one, holding this identity is not something I do lightly or passively; it necessarily means pushing back against those who seek to relegate me to the box of somehow not Asian enough.  Identifying as Japanese American also means asserting my experiences as an American with Japanese ancestry as equally valid to the experiences of other members of our community.

This journey of growth has continued from childhood into recent years.  Going to a school at a mostly white collegiate institution in central Illinois has led me to address my Japanese American identity in new and surprising ways.

“What are you?” I’m often asked there, as I was when I was young.  Even after all these years, I’m still unsure how to respond to that one. If I mention my Asian or multiracial heritage, I may receive a puzzled look, accompanied by a “really?” or a “do you even speak Japanese?”  If I’m traveling in a primarily Spanish speaking country at the time of this inquisition, people might expect a completely different response.  I’ve seen everything from confused folks addressing me in broken Spanish to complete strangers walking up to me and speaking Japanese.

The legacy of the Japanese American community in the United States is too expansive, too multifaceted to be described in one short essay.  I can, however, speak more appropriately of my own family’s experience, and in this way hope to shed a personal light on the legacy of the Japanese American community as a whole.  My family, originally from Japan, more recently hails from the big island of Hawai’i.  My grandparents’ parents migrated from one island to another with millions of other immigrants in order to work in agriculture, harvesting in the sugar cane fields and working on plantations on the northern side of the big island.

Though my grandparents were fortunate enough to escape internment due to the high amount of Japanese citizens living on the Hawaiian islands, my grandmother’s brother had quite a different experience.  After being briefly imprisoned in Tule Lake, an internment camp in Northern California, my great uncle volunteered to serve as an infantryman in the 442nd regimental combat team – an all-Japanese army battalion that would go on to become the most decorated unit in all of United States military history.

I think the most important parts of our cultural legacy – the bloodiest, most tragic, wonderful, remarkable, and heroic parts – they must be preserved by the telling and sharing of such authentic personal stories.  This is something I’ve tried to do in my life, both through my writing and through the relationships I seek to build.

As I said, I identify as Japanese-American because of my blood. I want to help make the stories and the histories of my ancestors, and of our community, increasingly present and relevant to my own future and to the future of my descendants. I am applying to join this venture, the Kansha Project, because I want to continue to learn how to become a more active participant in the continuation of this legacy. I believe my participation in this project would present me an astounding opportunity to do so.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. aaroncrowley11 #

    You were in Los Angeles? Ryan, whenever you’re in town, please let Gilbert, Matthew, or I know so we can say hi! 🙂
    Also, I really liked your reflection of the Japanese American internment. When I studied that for the first time, I was taken aback. It’s so recent in history, and it was at the same time as the holocaust. It was really humbling because I thought only Germany would be that crazy.

    May 20, 2014

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