The Berkeley Remix Season 8, Episode 3: “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging”

In this episode, we explore identity and belonging in the Japanese American community. 

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For many Japanese Americans, identity is not only personal, it’s a reclamation of a community that was damaged during World War II. The scars of the past have left many descendants of incarceration feeling like they don’t wholly belong in one world. Descendants have navigated identity and belonging by participating in Japanese American community events and supporting community spaces, traveling to Japan to connect with their heritage, as well as cooking and sharing Japanese food. However, embracing Japanese and Japanese American culture can highlight for descendants their mixed identities, leaving them feeling even more like they have a foot in multiple worlds. 

In season 8 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we are highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of two World War II-era sites of incarceration: Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. This four-part series includes clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. Using healing as a throughline, these life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

This season features interview clips from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. This episode includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Hans Goto, Jean Hibino, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Steven Shigeto Sindlinger, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Narration by Devin Katayama. Original theme music by Paul Burnett. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Album artwork by Emily Ehlen. A special thanks to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.




PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging”

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Ruth Sasaki: In some respects, I guess my whole life I felt sort of a duality, like I have one foot in two different worlds: Japan and America. I didn’t know who I was, and it felt like I couldn’t speak up for myself. When I understood that my values that I had been raised with were majority culture values in Japan and were valued, it just changes the whole way you feel about yourself. 

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Devin Katayama: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center was founded in 1953, and records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. You’re listening to our eighth season, “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration.” I’m your host, Devin Katayama. 

This season on The Berkeley Remix, we’re highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of World War II-era sites of incarceration at Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. In this four-part series, you’ll hear clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. These life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

As a heads up, generational names for Japanese Americans are going to be important in this series. Issei refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Nisei are the second generation, Sansei the third, Yonsei the fourth, and Gosei the fifth. Just think about counting to five in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go.

This is episode 3, “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging.” 

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Katayama: What does it feel like to have a foot in multiple worlds? How does this affect the search for personal identity? For many Japanese Americans, identity is not just personal, it’s a reclamation of a community that was damaged during World War II. The scars of the past have left many descendants of incarceration feeling like they don’t wholly belong in one world. 

Miko Charbonneau: I think that I’ve always felt like stuck between worlds and never really belonging to any place entirely. 

Katayama: That was Miko Charbonneau, a Yonsei. Here’s Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, a Gosei, talking about the role that incarceration plays in her search for identity. Both women’s families were incarcerated at Manzanar, and they have multiple ethnic heritages. 

Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong: The biggest thing that I feel is the loss of identity. Because it’s like I’m still trying to find my identity, [laughs] um, and it’s because I feel like you couldn’t be proud of your heritage during camp, and afterwards it was basically like Americanization. 

Katayama: Here’s Susan Kitazawa, a Sansei and descendant of Manzanar.

Susan Kitazawa: And then also when I was in later elementary school, we were the only family in our town who wasn’t a white family. Church, Girl Scouts, unless it was a multi-age thing and my sister happened to be in the group with me, I was always the only person of color. 

Katayama: Many other Japanese Americans can relate to Susan’s experience. Steven Shigeto Sindlinger is a Yonsei whose birth mother was incarcerated at Topaz. He grew up in Michigan with his adoptive mother, who was from Japan, and his white, American father.  

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Steven Shigeto Sindlinger: There just weren’t any other individuals of Asian descent. There were only a couple, and none that we knew. So it was a little, I don’t want to say disappointing, that there weren’t more Japanese or Asian representation in the school system.

Katayama: Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, a Sansei whose mother’s family was incarcerated at Topaz, had a similar experience as Susan and Steven. Additionally, her father was Jewish and his family survived the Holocaust. 

Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder: My parents integrated the town’s country club single-handedly. First mixed couple, first Asian, first Jewish. I had no awareness of that, except one time when I was probably eight or nine years old, this very blonde woman passing by me said, “You’re so dark you could be a little Black child.” And there were no African Americans in this club. At the time it was like very, very white. Um, and it stuck with me. At the time I thought it was like a great compliment, I was like, Yeah! But over the years, I was like, That was not meant to be a compliment. [laughs]

Katayama: Feeling like an outsider can take many forms. For some, it manifests in something as intrinsic as a name. Names are not just words, they carry a lot of meaning. 

Michael Yoshii: My name is Michael Arthur Yoshii. A lot of my friends had Japanese middle names. Uh, my parents kind of didn’t give us Japanese middle names on purpose, and I think that was to not make us stand out and not draw attention to being Japanese, per se. I think that kind of was the explanation. 

Katayama: Rev. Michael Yoshii is a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. Another way Japanese Americans can feel like outsiders is through language—or not learning to speak Japanese at all. 

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Katayama: After World War II, many survivors of incarceration didn’t teach their children how to speak Japanese. Here’s Lori Matsumura, a Sansei descendant of Manzanar. 

Lori Matsumura: I know that the Issei—my grandmother’s generation, Issei—did she not want the Nisei, which is my dad’s generation, to speak Japanese because of being sent to Manzanar and having to show that you are an American? Is that why they didn’t speak Japanese at home? I’ve always wondered that, but I never did find out the reason why. 

M. Takahashi: We only spoke English at home. I’m sorry I don’t speak Japanese. I’ve learned that a language is not just a dictionary, it’s a way of thinking, it’s a cultural reality.

Katayama: That was Masako Takahashi, a Sansei and a child survivor of Topaz. Here’s Hanako again. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: I remember my dad used to joke, saying he knows enough Japanese to read a menu, you know, and that’s about it.

Katayama: Nancy Ukai, a Sansei descendant of Topaz, wasn’t able to speak to her grandparents when she was a child. 

Nancy Ukai: When I was in elementary school, because I didn’t speak Japanese, and they didn’t really speak English, we didn’t communicate, and there would always be these [laughs] older people sitting on the sofa, or, you know, as a kid you just couldn’t joke with them, talk with them. 

Katayama: When you can’t speak with your elders, it’s hard for them to pass down stories from generation to generation. Family stories can help you understand who you are or where you come from. When you lose this ability to communicate, it’s hard to recover. You might feel like you have a foot in multiple worlds. 

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Katayama: As a result of World War II incarceration, Japanese Americans had their lives uprooted and saw their community centers dissolved. Ruth Sasaki is a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. Her family lived in San Francisco’s Japantown prior to forced removal. There were about 5,000 Japanese Americans living in the area, which was about 6 city blocks, with around 200 Japanese- and Japanese American-owned businesses. When Ruth’s family returned to San Francisco, they saw that Japantown had disintegrated. 

Ruth Sasaki: The others remember Japantown and they remember living in a situation where they were surrounded by the Japanese community. Because we moved out of Japantown to the Richmond District when I was so little, I’ve always felt sort of like I missed out on something, you know?

Katayama: After this fracturing of community, having a place to gather became sacred for survivors and their families. Many wanted to reclaim a space for themselves. They made an effort to form new cultural centers where they could come together as a Japanese American community. Not only were these centers meaningful places to convene, but they also became places where younger generations could learn about their heritage.

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Matsumura: Nikkei Kai was a Japanese community center. And it started postwar in my grandmother’s house, because they wanted a meeting place where they can get together and talk about things and learn from each other, like a support community for themselves, for the Japanese and Japanese Americans. 

Katayama: That was Lori Matsumura. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii again.

Yoshii: A big portion of time was spent in that Japanese American community, an invisible community, is the way I would call it.

Katayama: These community spaces weren’t just informal and invisible—they were physical places, too. One of the places where people came together was at church. Here’s Hans Goto, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at both Manzanar and Topaz, talking about growing up in Watsonville, California, where he had ties to two different churches.

Hans Goto: The Japanese American community was actually split into two groups based on religion. 

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Goto: And my mother, because her mother, uh, was either a Methodist or Presbyterian, went with the Christian church. We were associated with them, even though a lot of my friends were Buddhist. And so we crossed the lines a lot, you know, we got together a lot. But that was the social as well as religious thing. There was a lot of interchange between the two. And that was where the culture was. 

Katayama: But this split between churches wasn’t always as seamless as Hans’s experience. It also sometimes reflected larger religious and cultural divides within the Japanese American community. Carolyn Iyoya Irving is a Sansei descendant of Topaz. 

Carolyn Iyoya Irving: One thing that always stuck out in my head as a kid is remembering the differentiation between the Christian Japanese Americans and the Buddhists. So for instance, we were sort of told we couldn’t dance in the Obon Festival, which is the big Buddhist festival in August. And I just remember my dad saying, “Yeah, it just really doesn’t look good if the daughters of the, you know, Presbyterian minister are off dancing in Obon.”

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Irving: And so there was this kind of artificial division, in a way, between the Christian churches and the Buddhist churches. Not that we couldn’t be friends or go to the Obon Festivals, but there were two distinct communities, I think, of Japanese Americans.

Katayama: Japanese American children didn’t just go to church to worship. Church also served as a community space where they could attend Japanese language school. Roy Hirabayashi, a Nisei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, attended language school at his local church, upon the urging of his mother. 

Roy Hirabayashi: She felt it was important for us to learn Japanese, so she required that we go to language school on Saturdays. It ended up also where we were going to this one Japanese community center; after the language school, they would have church services. 

Katayama: In addition to language school, some churches hosted special events. These events provided space for the community to gather and celebrate their Japanese American heritage. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii talking about his church’s spring bazaar.

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Yoshii: We had something called the Spring Festival Bazaar. It’s like a festival event where the whole community comes together to work on a particular thing together. It was a coming together of community after the war. They started it in the late fifties. 

Katayama: Japanese American churchgoers had a tradition of going to each other’s bazaars. 

Yoshii: They were supporting each other economically and financially by having that kind of network of, of support with one another, as well as the larger community that would come to particular events. I think there was this other element of it where we were revisiting our Japanese American history, our identity. 

Katayama: Another celebration that brings the community together is Nisei Week. This is an annual festival in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. Kimi Maru, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, enjoys participating in this event. 

Kimi Maru: It’s a tradition that’s been going on like every summer in early August, and it’s two weekends in a row. There’s a Nisei Week parade, where all these different community groups, as well as different schools, dance schools, they do this parade through Little Tokyo.

Katayama: Even though there are many opportunities to connect with the Japanese American community, not everyone has always felt welcome. Here’s Susan Kitazawa again.

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Kitazawa: My initial experience of my attempts to enter the Japanese American community in San Francisco were horribly painful and disappointing.

Katayama: Susan had a hard time finding community when she was in her mid-twenties. 

Kitazawa: I had heard about this organization and I had heard that they wanted volunteers. And so when I first moved to San Francisco, I went over there one day, called ahead and made an appointment. And at the entrance I remember there were two women and a man, and they were sort of about my age. I said, “Oh, I’m here to talk with you about volunteering.” And he said, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you at any community events.” And I said, “Well, no, because I just moved out here. I grew up on the East Coast.” He said, “Oh, you grew up with white people then on the East Coast? Oh, you’re a banana. We don’t need people like you.” And I was just crushed. And I said, “So I can’t volunteer here?” And he goes, “We don’t need people like you.” I left and I was walking down the street crying.

Katayama: So Susan found belonging elsewhere.

Kitazawa: And so I tended that my allies were from a broad range of other people—you know, Latinos, Blacks, poor white people, Filipinos—and I wasn’t that connected with the Japanese American community.

Kitazawa: Kimi Maru had disheartening experiences in her youth, too—only these were outside of the Japanese American community. This led her to connect with her heritage in a different way. 

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Maru: And the reason I started taking aikido, actually, was because of an incident that happened to me when I was going to high school.

Katayama: Aikido is a traditional Japanese martial art with a focus on defense and sparing attackers from injury. 

Maru: One of my classmates, this white guy who was much larger than me, grabbed me on the wrist and wouldn’t let go. He was, you know, insulting me, saying I don’t even remember what, but it was just a really humiliating experience. And the fact that I couldn’t break free from him, after that I decided I wanted to take self-defense, because I didn’t want anything like that to happen to me again. 

Katayama: Aikido wasn’t the only sport that allowed descendants to carve out a space for themselves. 

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Katayama: Some turned to activities like baseball or basketball to connect with other Japanese American kids. Kimi’s children played in these basketball leagues competitively.  

Maru: When they were young, like five or six, they both got involved in the Japanese American basketball organizations down here. JA basketball is a really big thing down here. I mean, it’s a huge thing. That was a way that they were able to meet a lot of Japanese American friends, because their teammates were primarily Japanese. I think that helped them learn more about not just JA basketball, but just being part of a community of people. 

Katayama: Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii again, who also found community through church sports leagues. 

Yoshii: We had a team at our church, and then we played against teams from other churches and Buddhist temples in the East Bay Area. So then I was starting to meet kids from other places in the East Bay and other churches, and then experiencing this whole dynamic of the whole community of Japanese Americans.

Katayama: It was actually through basketball that Alan Miyatake, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, was able to create an identity separate from his famous family. This fame stemmed from Miyatake Studios, a photography studio founded by Alan’s grandfather, Toyo, prior to World War II. 

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Katayama: Toyo was beloved in the Japanese American community in the Los Angeles area, and eventually became the official Manzanar photographer while he was incarcerated there. Toyo reestablished his studio after Manzanar closed, and kept it running for years. Alan now runs things, and the studio has become a multigenerational legacy business. But before Alan took it over, he worked to find his own place. 

Alan Miyatake: During my teen years, being around Little Tokyo, I would always hear, “Oh, you’re Archie’s son,” or, “You’re Toyo’s grandson.” And after a while, it was a little irritating. But it hit me enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m Alan, I have my own identity.” I started around the third grade in some of these Japanese American leagues. I realized that I felt very confident playing basketball. All of a sudden, my goal was to have my own identity. And I think that’s the role basketball played, was that I want to be known as Alan, a good basketball player. I was able to accomplish that after a few years…

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Miyatake: …like hearing people, “Oh yeah, that’s Alan, he’s a basketball nut.” Once I heard that, I thought, Okay, good. Now, now I feel good. 

Katayama: The meaning of community space varies across generations. And a few years ago it came full circle for Carolyn Iyoya Irving. At the time, her son was attending the East Bay School for Boys, which resides in part of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Irving: He went there for sixth to eighth grade, and it wasn’t until he was in eighth grade that I learned from my cousin that there’s sort of an outside courtyard where the boys would skateboard.

Katayama: Carolyn found out that there was also historical significance to this place. During World War II, when the US government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from the West Coast, that church served as an assembly point for those local families before being sent to the prison camps. 

Irving: And that was evidently where all of the Japanese Americans in Berkeley had to assemble to get on the buses to, to Tanforan. And I didn’t learn that until my son was in eighth grade. And so I remember being like, “Ben, [laughs] you have to talk to your history teacher about this incredible, you know, confluence where you’re here and this is where your own grandmother was, you know, kind of herded into buses and sent off to camps.” And eventually, he actually did incorporate it into what they called their Hero Project, where he had to give a presentation. Which was very touching to me, actually, the fact that, you know, this all happened on the same place.

Katayama: This location, which represented a splintering of the Japanese American community during World War II, has now become a place where Carolyn’s family has been able to make new memories and connections. In effect, her family has been able to reclaim the meaning of this space. 

For many descendents, the desire to connect with their Japanese heritage is part of their ongoing search for belonging. And so travel to Japan can be an important rite of passage. It’s also a way of understanding who their parents and ancestors were, as well as where they came from. 

Ukai: When I went to Santa Cruz and started studying Japanese, I just found, Oh, this brings in the art, and it makes me understand more things about my grandparents and my parents and myself. 

Katayama: Nancy Ukai began to form a deep and lasting relationship with Japan while she was in college at UC Santa Cruz. It felt right for her to explore her heritage through travel.

Ukai: And I ended up going to Japan as an undergraduate. 

Katayama: Nancy also ended up returning to Japan after she graduated from college. She stayed for fourteen years. Here’s Kimi Maru talking about her experience traveling to Japan.

Maru: We had a great time. I mean, it was just like so different being in Japan, being in a country where you feel like you’re the majority, right? Yeah, it was just a completely different type of feeling, like going on the trains and buses and bullet train and things. Just being in a situation where everyone around you is Asian [laughs] or Japanese was just a big culture shock.

Katayama: Kimi wasn’t the only person to experience some form of culture shock. 

Charbonneau: Being an American girl, you know, I talk a lot. And I was an only child, and so I did have a lot of like energy, and that’s not really how the girls I met were. They had a very like calm energy.

Katayama: That’s Miko Charbonneau. 

Charbonneau: It also was the first time I realized that no Japanese person was ever going to think I was Japanese, which is totally different from my experience in America, where essentially no one would think I am Caucasian. [laughs] I was often asked, “Where are you from?” And like, “Are you from Alaska?” And in Japan, you know, we would go somewhere and very politely in English someone would say, “Do you have an ancestor that is maybe Japanese?” And I didn’t know how to explain the whole hierarchy, so I would just say, “My grandmother is Japanese.” And they would say, “Ah, because you look like you are a little bit, like you could be from Japan.” And I was just like, “Mm-hmm.” I did—definitely did not know how to explain like what it meant to be Yonsei and what it meant to be hapa [laughs] and everything.

Katayama: Lori Matsumura first visited Japan when she was thirteen years old. She also felt like she stood out. 

Matsumura: When we went to visit some of the shrines in Kyoto, school was in session, and when the kids from Japan would see me, I’m sure they had an idea I was Japanese, but I wasn’t Japanese from Japan. I know some of them would point and laugh, because I realized I had nail polish. Things like that aren’t done with the kids at school, they’re not allowed to have that or have their hair done a certain way or wear certain things. I think someone came up to me and started speaking Japanese. I don’t know Japanese, so I just stood there. The way they looked at me was so shameful, I thought, Oh gosh, this is just not good. [laughs]

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Katayama: People like Carolyn Iyoya Irving found that in Japan, there was still a disconnect between being Japanese and being Japanese American.

Irving: When I went back to teach English there after college, almost like having a feeling of disappointment among these little elementary school kids, because they were getting this American teacher, and I think they really expected somebody white. And so it was almost like I was the budget version [laughs] or something or the discount, you know, because like, Wait, where is our American? Eventually they all warmed to me. So that was a double education for them that, you know, there are these people in America that actually look like you, but who are American. But it’s hard for people to get their brains around. 

Katayama: When Ruth Sasaki lived in Japan, she felt like she had a foot in two worlds.  

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Sasaki: I always kind of kid that when I’m in America I feel more Japanese than American, and when I’m in Japan I feel more American than Japanese.

Katayama: Nancy Ukai reflects on the reason for this disconnection.

Ukai: Well, I think all foreigners in Japan are outsiders. That’s why they’re called gaijin: “gai” is outside and “jin” is person. You’re an outside person. In Japan, you racially belong even though culturally you don’t. 

Charbonneau: I think it just further made me feel like there’s not really going to be anyone I can meet or any one place where I’m like completely belonging. 

Katayama: That was Miko Charbonneau again. Despite these cultural differences—or maybe even because of them—it remains important for many descendants to share this experience in an ancestral homeland with younger generations. Here’s Peggy Takahashi, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, talking about moving to Japan when her daughter was young.

Peggy Takahashi: Sami was nine at the time. Nine and ten is a crucial age for language acquisition. I grew up, my first language was Japanese, so I can speak Japanese without an accent. She still has a slight accent, but her Japanese is pretty darn good, and that’s a big reason why I decided I wanted to go then.

Katayama: Indeed, Kimi Maru remembers how much her teenage son enjoyed traveling to Japan.

Maru: He actually picked up quite a bit of Japanese. When we were traveling around, he was much more able to ask questions, order food…

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Maru: …speak and converse with people much more comfortably than myself or my daughter. For him, it was really a good experience.

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Vox pop:

M. Takahashi: Food plays a very central role in my life.

Maru: My grandmother used to make a lot of tempura at New Year’s, tempura and sushi. 

Matsumura: On New Year’s Day, my grandmother would prepare a very nice Japanese meal.

Miyatake: I will always remember eating hot noodles at my grandmother’s house.

Sasaki: We would drink ozoni, the New Year’s soup, with mochi.

Mukai: My mother made makizushi, a type of sushi where the seasoned rice contains little pieces of vegetables and egg, a Japanese gourd.

Matsumura: She’d make me drink sake for luck, and we’d have the long noodles.

Maru: There are specific foods, like these black beans, and daikon and carrot salad called namasu. 

Miyatake: It was always kind of a mixture of American and Japanese dishes.

Wakatsuki-Chong: I didn’t grow up eating any Japanese food. 

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Katayama: Food isn’t just about food. It’s also about identity, belonging, and heritage. For Japanese Americans still working to rebuild community spaces and organizations in the aftermath of World War II incarceration, food—particularly during the holidays—remained an important way to pass on traditions to younger generations. New Year’s is a holiday that is especially important for many Japanese Americans. Here’s Roy Hirabayashi talking about cooking with his mother in preparation for the day.

Hirabayashi: The New Year’s, naturally, was a big event for family gathering. There were different foods that were made during that time. You know, she would spend days laboring over making them. Those were all traditions that she really valued and felt was really important for us all to do.

Katayama: Preparing this food was a way for Roy’s mother to connect with her own family. 

Hirabayashi: Between my mom and my aunt, they would be making all the different foods for the dinner. And it was all the more traditional things, the sushi and whatever, but there was also the different specialty Japanese foods that’s really more for good luck and longevity and wealth and whatever else. 

Katayama: While Roy once watched his mom and aunt cook during the holidays, he and his sisters later learned to make traditional foods themselves once the older generation slowed down. 

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Hirabayashi: My sisters and I actually started to try to learn some of that as best as possible. And when my mother and my auntie were getting older, they were saying, well, it’s just really hard for them to kind of do that. It was decided that within the cousins that we would rotate every year to host the New Year’s dinner, basically, so my aunt and my mom wouldn’t have to do that. And in that rotation every year, we would be responsible for one special Japanese dish that we had to prepare, so we would learn how to do that and be part of it. That was for us to really try to keep the, uh, sense of family and tradition going.

Maru: Well, New Year’s was always the big one, my favorite, because of all the food. [laughs] 

Katayama: That was Kimi Maru. She learned to cook Japanese food from her elders, because her mother didn’t cook those dishes.

Maru: My grandmothers on both sides of the family were really good cooks. My grandmother on my dad’s side used to do a huge New Year’s spread, and so I used to go over to help her prepare the food like a couple days in advance, help her cook. And actually, she’s the one that taught me a lot of Japanese cooking, I learned from her. But I’m glad that I learned from my grandmother, because otherwise I wouldn’t have learned it from my mom. [laughs] She taught me how to do a lot of other things, like baking and cooking, but not so much Japanese food.

Katayama: Peggy Takahashi grew up eating traditional Japanese food. Her mom went to culinary school in Japan, and used those techniques all her life. 

M. Takahashi: My mom made dashi the old-fashioned way, you know, big hunk of dried bonito. Relatives from Japan would send her dried kelp, the kombu, and she would make dashi.

Katayama: Jean Hibino, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, reflects on how her mother made a cultural connection to Japan through food when she lived there for a few years as a child. 

Jean Hibino: That helped her more ground herself in who she was as a Japanese and an American. She was very conscious about Japanese foods and telling us what they were, what you were eating. 

Katayama: Hans Goto learned to make a traditional dish when he lived in a rural Japanese village while studying aikido. Hans’s aikido teacher taught him and the other students to make a regionally-specific recipe that Hans still makes today. 

Goto: The one dish I feel relatively comfortable doing is gyoza. So Japanese gyoza is like pot stickers. And so my teacher and his family had a very specific way of making it. There’s a lot more garlic, a lot more white pepper in it, a lot of garlic chives in it. You know, we’d make hundreds, hundreds at a time. And then all the students would come in, which would be like, Where did everybody come from? And so we’d make this stuff, and my teacher would put it on an open fire. So he had this big, large, steel plate, and then we’d pour oil on it and then put the gyoza on it. And everybody, when it’s done, picked it up and eat it. It’s a treat. 

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Katayama: But sharing food doesn’t have to be about one thing. It can blend flavors, traditions, and ethnic backgrounds. That mix can reveal multiple cultural identities. For Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, holiday meals were about celebrating these identities.

Neuwalder: Christmas was the best, because we’d have this big party. We’d have like all the Jews and the couple of Japanese people we knew and just agnostics. My parents had an Italian American housekeeper who worked for them. Christmas we’d have a big antipasto, we’d have a fabulous lasagna, turkey and ham and a big plate of sushi. And [laughs] we’d have Mozartkugeln, which are these chocolates from Vienna. Meals in my family, we might have Wienerschnitzel one night, a very Italian green bean salad with olive oil and vinegar, and minestrone soup, and then the next night we might have chicken teriyaki with, you know, rice. Various members of my family went through periods of only using chopsticks. 

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Katayama: Like Jennifer, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong explores her multiple ethnic identities through food.   

Wakatsuki-Chong: I didn’t grow up eating any Japanese food. My dad wanted more Mexican food. A lot of the food my grandmother made when I was younger was either like Mexican food, I guess I’ll just call it generic white American food, was like, you know, eggs and stuff like that. I feel more culturally Korean. Like when I’m sick, I want Korean food. When I think about home cooked meals, it’s Korean food. And it was only recently, in the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been exploring my Japanese American identity.

Katayama: Though Peggy Takahashi did grow up eating traditional Japanese meals, her mother also prepared dishes from different cultures.  

M. Takahashi: When I was growing up, she cooked Japanese food. My dad liked more Western food, so she cooked that. She learned how to cook Mexican food from a lady nearby, carne asada.

Katayama: Ruth Sasaki’s family meals also weren’t limited to Japanese food. Over the years, her parents adopted more contemporary American fare.

Sasaki: I think in the old days there were more traditional Japanese dishes, things like the black beans. Over the years we would incorporate things like Chinese chicken salad and tabouli and lemon meringue pie, chicken nuggets, you know, [laughs] whatever.

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Katayama: Though eating dishes from a variety of cultures is common for many Americans—not just descendants—it meant something different for Hanako. For her, it’s reminiscent of the aftermath of World War II incarceration and signifies a disconnection from her Japanese American heritage. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: I think that loss of identity and culture, like on the food aspects and the language aspects and then just in the general self-identity, is part of the generational trauma that I experience.

Katayama: But for others, like Nancy Ukai, sharing Japanese American traditions through food was a source of pride. 

Ukai: I remember once going to a church picnic, which was traditional for that time in the sixties, when it mimicked a Japanese tradition of having an athletic day. And families would all come, bring a blanket, and bring out this amazing spread of Japanese American food. And I remember bringing my fourth grade friend, and her saying, “This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life.” And I was so proud.

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Katayama: Thanks for listening to “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” and The Berkeley Remix

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Katayama: Join us next time for more on creative expression, healing, and memorialization of Japanese American incarceration.

This episode features interviews from the Oral History Center’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, and includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Hans Goto, Jean Hibino, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Steven Shigeto Sindlinger, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Thank you to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Devin Katayama. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time!

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