Growing up as a Japanese American in Los Angeles in the ’70s, I felt comfortable and safe, with not much, if any, experience of prejudice or racism. We lived in Monterey Park, had regular family get-togethers, trips to Central California, Hawaii, and occasionally Japan. I attended a public school and I thought of myself as any other “American kid” having a “normal life in the U.S.A.” I would spend summers in Visalia, California, where my uncles had a farm. There was a large group of Japanese Americans there, mostly farmers growing vegetables, and they all seemed to attend the local Buddhist church. This is where my Mom grew up, with her three brothers and two sisters… she had her own real life “Brady Bunch” (always thought that was funny). On my Dad’s side, the family was spread out between Maui and Oahu. He, at one point, had 13 brothers and sisters. Needless to say, I had many places to visit when I was in Hawaii.
We would also visit my aunt and uncle in Japan. My uncle was a colonel in the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Zama near Sagamihara, Japan. My parents would let me and the other “Army kids” ride bikes all over the city. We barely knew our way around, spoke almost no Japanese, and had American passports. We spoke English to all the locals saying we were from California, and felt quite safe and happy being in Japan. I took this freedom of being an American for granted. In elementary school I thought all kids ate mac and cheese, chicken pot pie, tacos, and pot roast. In fact, the only “Japanese” thing we would eat occasionally would be what my mom called “Okazu.” I still don’t know what Okazu is exactly, but it was just a bunch of small dishes with meat and rice. It was nothing that I could order at the local Japanese restaurants. I did not care for it very much as many of the items had a pickled taste.
My parents never spoke Japanese to each other, and the only time I would hear my Mom speak Japanese was to Grandma. In general, my Mom was pretty reserved, never really wanted to make any “fuss” about anything. All she wanted was for me to go to school. However, in 5th grade, I remember when we were doing a project on Japan the teacher said we should abbreviate Japanese to “Jap.” So I did. Many, many times. When I proudly showed my paper to my Mom, she seemed irritated and immediately got on the phone calling her friends. She was angrily speaking to another parent. I had never seen her that upset. Did I not get a double gold star? Or a smiley face? I did not think I did that badly. I remember she called the school and asked for that teacher to not teach that class again. I was embarrassed for the teacher and for my mother to make such a big deal to the school, the parents, and my friends.
I asked my Mom, “Why are you so upset? What’s wrong with ‘Jap’?” She said “Jap” is a very, very bad word and you are never to use it. Nor should it be taught. “But why?” I asked. “‘Japanese’ is too long to spell.” “That’s what they used to call us when they took us to camp,” she replied. “Why is ‘Jap’ bad, Mom? It’s just an abbreviation!” Like most kids, the barrage kept coming. “Why Mom? Why is it bad? Why can’t I abbreviate it? Why can’t I say ‘Jap’? Jap! Jap! Jap!” Finally boiling upset, my Mom said, “It’s just bad! They took us away to camp!!” My thoughts changed and my eyes widened. “Camp?? What kind of camp? How come I haven’t been to camp??? How long did you get to go for??” She said four years. “Wow!!!! Four years…that’s great!!! When can I go to camp??!!”
Today, I understand why my parents never forced me to go to Japanese school (even though they wanted me to go). Why she was so angry at the word “Jap.” Why she never made Japanese food for me. Why my uncle always said, “Be a doctor or a lawyer…they can never take that away from you!!” Why we never really did or speak of many Japanese things…only being American