Another country is another self, said the poet Alastair Reid. To grow roots on a foreign soil means to wager on possibility — the heady hope for a new lease on life, a magical stab at self-reinvention. For a little over a century, dreams of starting anew overseas have also beckoned the Japanese, inspiring sojourns and fortune-seeking to mixed ends and degrees of success.
Since the first generation of immigrants (issei), one dream destination has been the United States. As this Saturday marks the anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor — the day that provoked the Pacific War and the internment in camps of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast — how are modern-day Japanese immigrants experiencing life in America? What are their dreams, their struggles and rewards? And how do they handle the need to belong, the ceaseless negotiation between assimilation and roots?
I searched for answers in San Francisco, a colorful zoo for the young and adventurous, finding a new first generation of immigrants, the so-called shin issei. Defying the stereotype of the “insular Japanese,” their lives unfold as a multi-layered narrative — as complex, resourceful and daring as many others in the annals of world immigration.
“For me, San Francisco works,” says Takeshi Ebato on a sunny day in the Mission, a rare Asian presence in the vibrant Latino district. “I like Japanese culture, but I’m not going back anytime soon.”
Dressed in a hoodie and NOFX band shirt, the Tokyo native in his mid-30s has found the right place for his punk altruism. He arrived six years ago to study English and is now getting a master’s in psychology as part of preparations for a career as a communication counselor. Supporting himself through elderly care and cleaning services, Ebato credits the trials of immigrant life with giving focus to his ambitions.
“Living here, I feel that I am growing,” he says. “I’m excited about what is going to happen to me, and I am confident to make it happen. In Japan I had money, but I couldn’t see the future. Then when I came to America and didn’t have money, I had to be positive in order to survive.
“In Japan I could blame other people, but here I became independent, more responsible for myself.”
When I mention a certain kind of expat — the sad snarksters expounding in bars on how the host culture has been conniving to foil their lives — Ebato laughs.
“Of course, some Japanese here are blaming America,” he says. “They don’t like Japan, the social expectations, and they think here they can be free. But in a foreign country, you must take initiative. You need communication skills, which many Japanese lack. They don’t learn the language, they don’t want to learn anything from other people. They don’t understand that freedom means taking responsibility.”
Ebato has initiative galore, along with a curious mind. Besides practicing English listening for several hours a day, he has studied American history and wants to re-read some parts of the Bible, to view his adopted home from a native perspective. Ninety percent of his interactions are with Americans or people from other cultures, and while he admits to having developed two selves (“in a good way!”), Takeshi doesn’t fret about turning American.
“I’m not making efforts to stay Japanese. To me, just taking care of the people around me is a part of Japanese identity. Then again” — he looks up with his large, warm eyes, laughing again — “everybody should be kind to others. It’s not just a Japanese concept!”
For Dai Yoshida, a former business analyst now working as a lawyer with a global IT team, the move to America five years ago was effectively a matter of hedging his bets.
“Japan is sitting on a time bomb,” he tells me in confident, eloquent English as we meet in a cafe in Japantown. “Everybody in asset management knows the grotesque state of debt. If young people care about their future, they should look outside of Japan. It’ll actually be easier to learn a foreign language than to compete domestically.”
Working in Tokyo, Yoshida was sponsored through an intra-company visa, which was upgraded into a green card. The San Francisco assignment kicked off in 2008, just in time for the financial crisis.
“My whole team evaporated,” he recounts with a wry smile. “I almost got laid off — lots of drama!”
Despite a general sense of malaise across the U.S., many immigrants still extol chances unique to America. A fan of adult education, Yoshida went to night school to study law — a bootstrap effort that changed him.
“I actually work harder here than in Japan. If some kids tell me how tough law school is, I say, look, if an immigrant with a child and a full-time job can pass on the first try, don’t complain!”
Unlike most arrivals from Japan — so-called weak-tie immigrants who don’t seek help from their fellow countrymen — Yoshida reached out to the Japanese community, which has helped him to get established. His son attends the bilingual preschool Nihonmachi Little Friends, and besides being a board member there, Dai helps organize seminars on Japanese-American history.
As a lawyer and parent, he studied the rich yet ambivalent role San Francisco has played for Japanese-Americans, pointing out that the Little Friends school is in the same building where, just after Pearl Harbor, lines of anxious issei and their families had to report to be sent into camps. Still, as Yoshida explains, being honest about discrimination doesn’t eclipse the America he values.
“There’s still open racism, like a guy on the street calling me ‘f—-ing Chink,’ ” he says. “But I’m careful not to say ‘America is like this or that.’ The racist guy is an American experience, but then for example, Chief Judge [Alex] Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court — a friend of mine and an immigrant from Romania who speaks with an accent and has had an amazing career here — that, too, is an American experience. Myself, I focus on the latter.”
In the end, the immigrant’s dream is also a dream for the next generation. Yoshida has no plans to return to Japan, but he wants his son to know both cultures and languages. This gift of a mixed identity, he reminds, was foregone by Japanese-Americans following the war, when the need to assimilate outweighed the fostering of roots.
“I don’t think nationality determines character,” says Yoshida, “but we have to accept the fact that our children become Americanized. They are not Japanese, they are American-Japanese. What exactly that means depends on the individual, but this fact changed my attitude toward America. This is no longer a foreign country; it is the home country of my son.”
Some people wear their foreignness like a badge. Petite yet striking in appearance, Yukina Matsuo, 33, has spent seven years in America, though she still looks distinctly Japanese. With a thoughtful reserve in her demeanor, she projects an inner depth that feels exotic these days in San Francisco, a playground for techies and hipsters, where the talking is fast and opinions loud in a constant give-me-everything-now-or-I’ll-scream kind of way.
“I don’t really experience America,” says Matsuo, noting that most of her contacts are with Asians and other immigrants. “I don’t feel like this is Japan, but I don’t feel like this is America. It’s San Francisco, and I like it. It’s different from the rest of the country, just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn’t live in an environment that’s more American.”
Since the first “picture brides” joined their husbands in the 1900s, it has been a special kind of Japanese woman that braves the great ocean-crossing experiment. Footloose and resolute, Matsuo was working as a beautician in Kyoto when she decided to quit and explore other countries. A travel agent recommended San Francisco, and so she set out to “the city that knows how” without being especially interested in America.
Her student visa became a green card when Matsuo got married, allowing residence in America and a job at a hair salon. A dream come true for people worldwide — but then foreigners, it is said, are curable romantics.
Matsuo has started to miss Japan, and staying forever in an expat bubble, no matter how picturesque, appears rather a bittersweet vista. Still, going back to Kyoto is difficult: Not young enough anymore to get hired as a beautician, she would have to open up her own salon. In addition, she thinks her husband is more comfortable in America — the sacrifice impasse arrived at by many binational couples.
“I often blame culture for all kinds of trouble,” Matsuo allows with refreshing candor. “Sometimes I complain to my husband, ‘It’s because you are American!’ even if I don’t really think that.” She gives an indulgent laugh, but then her voice turns serious again. “Actually, Americans keep surprising me by how nice they are, and then I feel bad about having a negative image” of them.
Matsuo concedes that more effort at assimilation might make her new life more comfortable, yet she doesn’t want to be any less Japanese. As we are saying goodbye, some passersby turning heads to glimpse at the Asian woman, her thoughts return to Kyoto.
“I miss the rivers,” she says wistfully, “the color of the sky and the clouds. You know, in the summer, the humidity changes the color of the clouds!”
Perhaps such nostalgia, I muse, watching Matsuo disappear into the subway, circles back to what lies at the heart of all immigrant journeys: our unending desire to be someone else in another place, in another life.
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