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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #24 (June 14, 2005), page 20.

Being Japanese American offers humorous and empathetic guide for Jas

Being Japanese American

By Gil Asakawa

Stone Bridge Press, 2004

Paperback, 146 pages, $14.95

By Pamela Ellgen

In Being Japanese American, Gil Asakawa compares himself to a banana — yellow on the outside and white on the inside. The comparison illustrates his upbringing in both Japan and the U.S., where he preferred English four-letter words to any Japanese he remembered. This internal struggle between Japanese and American cultures is the focus of his book.

It begins with stories of the first Asian immigrants to come to the United States: the Chinese to work on the railroad and the Japanese to work on plantations in Hawaii. Asakawa highlights the initial struggles immigrants faced from the U.S. government, newspapers, and white American citizens both before and after World War II, particularly during the internment.

"It’s impossible to overstate the effect that the internment camps had on the JA (Japanese American) community," Asakawa writes. He details not only the sordid conditions of camp life, but also the racism and economic disadvantages internees faced upon their release. Overall, Asakawa believes the internment left a lasting impression on not only children of internees, but also their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Many JAs can be paranoid, fearful of sticking out, and thrifty to the point of saving and reusing everything from shoeboxes and Tupperware to plastic bags and rubber bands," he writes. "Thriftiness can be a good thing, of course, but not the need to be invisible."

He questions the lack of Japanese Americans in politics and show business, suggesting that even this is an aftereffect of the internment.

Being Japanese American includes vignettes written by several generations of Japanese Americans sharing their diverse experiences. Postwar Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) Jill Nakawatase writes, "Prejudice hurt me the most through its effect on my self-image and confidence. I was subjected to occasional verbal assaults from strangers and jokes from friends. Also growing up, the media really shaped the way I judged beauty, power, and success."

Conversely, Nisei Jack Kunio Miyasaki writes, "As far as discrimination during the war in our area, it wasn’t too bad …We stayed pretty much within our own ethnic group."

One of the primary difficulties Asakawa found in writing the book was that Japanese Americans have so many different experiences.

"I’ve come to realize that there is a huge range in the amount of Japanese culture we incorporate into our lives," he writes. Many Nisei, who were only children during the internment, raised their children without any Japanese culture at home because they didn’t want the family to stick out. The resulting (third-generation) Sansei grew up feeling somewhat disconnected from their ethnic heritage and desired to bring it back by ensuring that their children were very much aware of Japanese customs and culture.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Japanese culture and customs, including music, spirituality, food, language, and arts. Within these areas, JAs have kept many Japanese customs. Little things, like taking one’s shoes off at the door, seem ubiquitous even in Sansei and Yonsei (fourth-generation) homes. And rice still accompanies most meals. But for some JAs, Japanese culture has all but disappeared from their lives.

Sansei Peggy Seo Oba writes, "When my parents were with other Nisei, they celebrated New Year’s and cooked chicken teriyaki. Once they moved away from other Nisei, they seldom spoke Japanese or cooked any Japanese food."

"By varying degrees, we have added on American culture and, in some ways, lost touch with our Japanese culture," Asakawa writes. "But there’s no denying that for many of us, Japanese traditions and values have served as guideposts for living our lives."

Being Japanese American offers a great opportunity for JAs to process their feelings and experiences in relationship to other JAs who, through their stories and photos, share empathy and understanding.

Asakawa is a Sansei who lives in Colorado and works in new media. He writes an online column at <>.

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