Author Gil Asakawa On Being Japanese American: ‘I Was A Banana’

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Photo: Gil Asakawa
Gil Asakawa at the CPR studios.

"I was a banana." Those are the first words in Colorado Author Gil Asakawa's latest book, “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa... & their Friends.” He says the expression meant he was "yellow on the outside, white on the inside" -- someone born in Japan but not knowing its history and culture. Now he thinks of himself as a "banana split," someone comfortable in both worlds. His book is an instruction manual of sorts for folks like him looking to connect with both sides of their culture.

Read An Excerpt:

Reprinted from Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa...& Their Friends"  by Gil Asakawa with permission of Stone Bridge Press. Copyright (c) Gil Asakawa 2004,2015.


I was a banana.

That’s what I’ve been told by people who know—Japanese Americans who’ve been involved in community activism all their lives. Even though I was born in Japan, I haven’t studied my roots in Japanese culture or even the history of Japanese Americans all my life. I didn’t know who Vincent Chin was, or about the No-No Boys. Because I didn’t know about the history, I was told I was a banana: Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
It’s true that I grew up among Caucasian friends—especially after my family moved to the States—and I wasn’t involved politically or socially with Asians or Asian causes. But I like to think of myself as more than just a fruit. I’m really a dessert. I’m a banana split, with both my “yellow” and “white” sides sharing equal attention.

I know more about Japan than some other Japanese Americans, for one thing. Since I lived there as a kid, I have vivid memories of Japan (albeit the Japan of thirty-five years ago, before the first McDonald’s or KFC stormed the Yamato shores), and feel at home—sort of—when I visit. I’ve also immersed myself in Japanese history and pop culture in recent years, and I feel I’m as much a Japanese as I am an American.

My Japanese-language skills are still pretty wretched, I’ll admit. But that’s not uncommon for Japanese Americans. My mother tried to teach my brother and me to read and write Japanese after our family moved to the States, but we refused. Instead, I learned every American obscenity I could and went around the summer of 1966 proudly enunciating some of the foulest language on Earth, even though my eight-year-old mind had no idea what any of those words meant. My idea of a cool four-letter word wasn’t “kana,” and my vocabulary didn’t include any Japanese alphabets.

Still, I can understand a fair amount of Nihongo, and if I say so myself, my accent on the few words I know is pretty authentic. I’d never “pass” for a Japanese in Japan, but I can surprise an employee in a Japanese restaurant by sounding first-generation, at least on a limited scale. When I’m not cursing loudly in English, anyway.

It’s my appearance that’s more American: rumpled jeans, baggy clothes, loud colors, the loping way I walk (as if I’m moving to the beat of rock music in my head) with my head up and making eye contact with others. And my tastes: brightly painted car, loud music, and colorful language.

Since I didn’t have Asian friends in grade school and high school, I eventually forgot that I was Asian. I thought of myself as white, and I hung around with my white friends and acted like any American kid, at least while I was away from home. I was only reminded of my different face and skin color (why do they call it “yellow” anyway? I’m not yellow...) when racism periodically raised its ugly head and confronted me.

Even while I was attending art school, it didn’t occur to me that I might be a banana—or any ethnic flavor, for that matter. My work followed the paths of centuries of white Eurocentric artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Andy Warhol. I learned about Japanese art, including the ukiyo‑e woodcut prints that influenced the French Impressionists I loved so well, yet I never felt the urge to make “Japanese-inspired” art.

All my life, though, I was Japanese in all sorts of very visible ways—not the least of which was my skin. The banana peel, I guess. I loved all kinds of Japanese food, I usually took off my shoes even in my friends’ homes, I was polite to seniors. I respected authority. Well, sort of.

And slowly, as I got older and began to feel the need to get involved in the community around me, I began to realize that the part of me that was the banana peel wanted to reach below the surface. I wanted to be around others who looked like me (whether or not they were also bananas didn’t matter). I became involved in the local Japanese and Asian Pacific Islander communities, joining non-profit organizations and participating in Asian Pacific American events. These outlets helped me connect my internal and external selves and make sense of my self-image. Ultimately, the interaction with others has helped me accept my split personality and feel comfortable in my own skin. 

Sure, there are millions of people who are more Japanese than me. Good for them. I’ve also met JAs who are even more banana-like than me: people who can’t speak any Japanese without fumbling over the syllables, who’ve never dined on Nihon meshi (Japanese food) and prefer hamburgers and fries, people who mangle their own name, saying it American-style, people who’ve never had Asian friends, and people who just have no clue that they have a wonderfully rich culture that’s deeply rooted in their DNA. It’s taken me a while, but I feel more aware of political issues and the pervasive racism that surrounds all people of color in our culture. I now know who Vincent Chin was, and why the No-No Boys deserve some respect.

In a way, I am a born-again Japanese American. I’m aware of both sides of my culture, the inside and the outside of the banana. I am a Nikkei—someone of Japanese descent living outside Japan.

To be specific, I am a Sansei, or third-generation JA, but I used to tell people I’m a Nihan-sei, or “second-and-a-half generation,” because I was born in Japan to a Nisei father from Hawaii and an Issei mother from Hokkaido.
I was eight years old when my family moved to the States and I became aware of being Japanese American. Until then, I was just a Japanese kid who went to American schools. I grew up in a bicultural world where I spoke English and attended American schools on U.S. military bases in Tokyo and Iwakuni, but my family always lived off-base so I played after school with Japanese pals. The language at home was a mish-mash of Japanese and English, and it all made sense to me.

Once we arrived in a Washington, D.C., suburb, I embraced the American side of my culture wholeheartedly. I ate my fist McDonald’s hamburger (I had lived in pre-fast food Japan), and I became enchanted with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the Beatles, and all of Western popular culture. I also forgot my Japanese.

I never learned to read or write despite my mom’s valiant efforts to get my older brother and me to study the grade school hiragana and katakana primers she’d brought across the Pacific. I was too busy learning those English cuss words, I guess.

But—and here’s the part I think is consistent with many, if not most, JAs—even though I stopped thinking in Japanese, I still lived with Japanese all around me. Japanese-ness permeated my life. It was in the décor of my parents’ house. It was in the rice that we ate with our meals virtually every day of our lives, along with the steak, hamburgers, fried chicken, and other all-American foods that mom served with it. It was in the smelly things my mother sometimes cooked, so stinky that I was embarrassed to bring my friends over. It was in the ritual of taking our shoes off at the front door.

It was the fact that my mother would speak to my brothers and me mostly in Japanese and we would reply mostly in English. Our brains had settled into a groove that allowed Japanese and American stuff to live side by side.
In college, I had a tiny rice cooker my mom had given me, and I learned some of my mom’s recipes for authentic Japanese cooking.

But I also cherished learning to cook authentic Italian food from my roommate and dined on every kind of ethnic food available in New York City, where I went to college. It never occurred to me that I was performing an internal balancing act. On the campus radio station, where I had a weekly show playing country-rock music for the mostly East Coast students, I gave myself a nickname that unwittingly reflected this duality: I would go on the air in my best “laidback FM disc jockey” impersonation, purring, “Hello everyone, I’m Gil Asakawa, the ‘Teriyaki Cosmic Cowboy.’ ” I wince when I think back on those days, because even without realizing it, I was searching for my identity.

Sometimes I felt like an imposter, like a phony Japanese. When my grandmother in Hokkaido called me in the middle of the night to wish me a happy birthday, I couldn’t reply in Japanese, although I understood enough to know that she was berating me for not speaking Nihongo back to her. After the phone call, I went back to bed feeling like a complete loser, and a bit irritated that I had to be reminded that I had become “too American” and was losing touch with my own past.

The fact is, I had been a banana for many years. It took the death of my father in the early 1990s to jolt me into being curious about my heritage. When he was diagnosed with cancer (he had smoked all his life), it finally occurred to me to ask what life was like for him and his family to live in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

“I don’t know,” he responded.

What? He was born and raised in Hawaii with his seven brothers and sisters. How could he not know? It turns out my grandfather had decided in 1940 to take his family back to Japan, where they lived in his hometown of Fukui on the west coast for the duration of the war. This revelation sparked a fascination with wartime and postwar Japan for me, as well as with the Japan of my early childhood.

And it also initiated my interest in how I’ve evolved, not as a Japanese, but as a Japanese American.
My Japanese isn’t much better today, but at least now I appreciate my duality more than when I was a punk kid. I’m involved in both Japanese and Japanese American organizations and events, and thanks to my Yonsei partner, Erin, there is more of a Japanese presence infusing all aspects of my life. Nowadays I cherish my Japanese heritage and value my American spirit. I am Japanese American. Still, I really wish I’d paid attention to those damn Nihongo primers–the “Dick and Jane” versions of Japanese language books. I would love to have a job that sends me to Japan once or twice a year, but there’s no chance without the ability to communicate in Japanese. That’s one of the basic facts I’ve learned to accept as a Japanese American—I’m simply not Japanese.

When I was approached to write this book, I figured it would be a piece of cake—mochi cake. Since I spend an awful lot of my time thinking about my heritage and have written a column about pop culture and politics from my JA perspective since 1998, I thought all the words for the book were already swimming around in my head. But when it came time to actually write it, I found that defining Japanese American culture is a lot more complicated than just looking Japanese and living in North America, or living in the West and celebrating the traditions of the East.

The problem is Japanese Americans don’t necessarily have a lot in common with each other, let alone with Japan.

I’ve come to realize that there is a huge range in the amount of Japanese culture we incorporate into our lives. The variety inherent in the JA community means that anything and everything counts, whether we speak lots of Japanese or can’t even pronounce our family name “correctly.” We may share roots across the Pacific, but our family experiences can be wildly divergent.

The one common theme that is in many accounts woven throughout the JA experience—the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II (along with the internment of Japanese Canadians and the expulsion and imprisonment in this country of Japanese Latin Americans)—can’t even be applied universally. My family wasn’t affected by internment. During World War II, my mom was growing up in fear of American bombers over her hometown; my dad’s family, who had just moved back to Japan from Hawaii, were being heckled as “American spies” by Japanese kids. Only the JA population along the western United States suffered the imprisonment that Congress in 1988 declared had been unconstitutional and based on nothing more than racial prejudice and war hysteria.

The fact of internment is a dividing line between JAs whose families date back to the prewar decades and those who’ve arrived in the States since World War II. The JAs—especially the younger ones—with internment in their family past often want to explore that time, lest the country forget the injustice. But any Japanese who came to America after the war is loathe to relive the era because Japan’s loss and brutal conduct brought such shame to the entire society (although the Japanese government is still coming to terms with its wartime military atrocities).
Still, the scars of internment have affected the JA community at large. Even if they themselves weren’t interned, many JAs know someone in their family, or another JA family, who was. I was spared because on both sides my parents’ families were in Japan during the war, and we moved to the States decades later. On the other hand, I’ve met lots of people who have internment in their family history, including my partner Erin, whose great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents were all interned.

Because of the enormous injustice of internment, a significant number of Japanese
Americans are often overlooked who arrived long after World War II. The Shin Issei (New Issei), who have immigrated recently to the United States for work or school, are also Japanese American. Some have become naturalized citizens and many have had children here who are American citizens by birth. These new Jas live with the same duality as those who have been in this country for generations—the duality of being Japanese to whatever extent in America. This book needs to include these newer JAs, too.

For the most part, though, Japanese Americans are Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, and now even Rokusei—third, fourth, fith, and even sixth generations descended from mothers, fathers, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to America to start a new life. The pioneering immigrants were the Issei, or fist generation. Their children were the Nisei, or second generation, the fist who could truly be called Japanese Americans because they were American citizens by birth, and because they were raised with very traditional values and Japanese culture at home, while absorbing the American culture around them.

One of the ironies of immigrant communities maintaining their heritage is that the culture that’s kept alive and handed down through the generations becomes preserved as if it were in a time capsule. For many JA families, the Japanese traditions they keep may be outdated and harken back to the Japan of the late 1800s or the early 1900s. Even the language has changed in a century; some of the words commonly used by JAs are hopelessly old-fashioned, like benjo for bathroom (Japanese today say otearai or toire). 

We’re both Japanese and American, but the amount of each side that enriches our lives is as varied and dynamic as the American landscape. Some of us look very Japanese and act very American, while others look less and less Asian, thanks to increasing numbers of JAs who marry non-Japanese. We can’t be pigeonholed as a group that shares the same cultural values and interest in our heritage. Some Japanese Americans can speak perfect Japanese while others speak only enough to get by at family gatherings. Many don’t speak a word. Some have Japanese food often, while others have never eaten sushi.

The purpose of this book is to explore those things that make us Japanese Americans: to celebrate the traditions that keep us connected as Japanese and also to note how we’re not Japanese. This isn’t a comprehensive manual by any means. Consider it a starting point for exploration of our (sometimes distant) collective Japanese roots, and how we’ve adapted them to our Western upbringing. The history of our community is rich and can’t be squeezed into a few chapters. So let the resources at the back of the book guide you to further discoveries. Many of them have inspired me in recent years.

As much as I can within these pages, I’ll take a loving look at our roots in Japan and at how Japanese culture still colors our day-today lives—from the pearls of wisdom of our grandmothers (obaachan), the words we grew up hearing (urusai for “noisy” and gambatte for “work hard”), and the constant presence of rice in our lives.
For many of us, these cultural echoes of Japan have started to fade, and it’s important to keep them vivid if we are to appreciate our heritage. For others who may have lost touch with our common culture or have grown up without Japanese accents in your lives, I hope this book will be a worthy introduction to your roots and a starting point for your own journey. Like the Nisei who first faced the dilemma of living within two cultures, we’re still doing a balancing act, even generations down the line.

Even if we think we’re not very Japanese, in America we aren’t always accepted as Americans. So why deny it? One of the great things about being JA is that we can be proud of both our American and Japanese sides. So we champion George Takei’s role as Sulu in Star Trek but we’re also proud as hell of the accomplishments of Ichiro Suzuki.

There’s still time to hold onto the best of what it means to be Japanese even as we strive to find our place as Americans.