Nonfiction from Bradley B. Onishi

Photo: Kyle Johnson

Mapping My Adjective

Sometimes being Japanese American feels like an aspiration. If I work hard enough, maybe it’s something I’ll cross off my bucket list. Kind of like qualifying for the Boston Marathon or hiking the Grand Canyon. Perhaps my incessant reading about Internment and immigration and Hawaiian plantations since I left California four years ago comes down to this: an attempt to be JA via books and graphs, like a kid who’s never swam in the ocean learning to surf from a YouTube video. If I learn the history, visit the sites, acquire enough of the words—I too can be JA!

My father is a second-generation Japanese American born and raised on Maui. My mother is a blonde with blue eyes. Until I was ten or eleven, I was too. Though now I’m a brunette with hazel eyes (when learning of my identity strangers often say: “I thought you were something“), in my head I’m still the white one trying somehow to convince the world he’s something. My brothers and I are what family from Hawaii calls hapa (half) haole (white). In my case: more haole than anything else.


This task—privilege—weighs on me as I plan my three days in what Californians call the Bay (the bay surrounded by San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose) sitting at the desk in my Oakland hotel room, mapping out an itinerary of significant Japanese and other Asian American sites in Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco. California is my home state (I grew up near L.A.), but I’ve lived near Albany, New York for the last two years, with stops in D.C. and Memphis before that.

My father and his generation have never planned this kind of program. They may have made pilgrimages to internment camp sites like Manzanar or Poston, but they don’t need to wheel around the Bay or L.A. like a tourist on a food tour of Portland. They already know these places and memories are real. They experienced them through their parents’ bodies. They visited them through their elders’ collective trauma, passed down by a cruel form of osmosis—via hushed dinnertime conversations about Pearl Harbor and aunties telling stories of “Camp” as if it were a summer getaway so as not to upset the little ones. Like many from his generation, Dad spoke Japanese with his oba-chan at home. His first words were not in English. His first memories are in Japanese. Even beyond the shape of his eyes and the complexion of his skin, there’s no questioning his JA bona fides. Unlike him, my JA-ness is dangling from my identity, like I’m holding on to a person about to fall from a skyscraper—one hand on the building steadying myself, the other locked on the other’s, unwilling to let my sidekick fall to their demise.

It makes sense to me why Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others say we should drop the hyphen from Asian-American. When it’s constructed that way, it seems like they are two sides of a coin, as if the person is balancing a lived-experience of being Asian and one of being American. They are two nouns linked by a tenuous bridge. When it’s written without the hyphen—Asian American, or in my case, Japanese American—the first word describes the second. Japanese is an adjective describing me as an American. I am clearly not Japanese. I have never been to Japan. Other than a few words I picked from Dad, I don’t speak the language of our heritage. I don’t deserve a hyphen.

Some of my ancestors may have wanted their hyphen. To them, it could have been a link to the place where they were born and formed rather than a grammatical signifier of otherness. The hyphen wouldn’t have prevented them from being Japanese American. They could hold a hybrid national identity while describing themselves as a certain part of the American experiment. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear exactly when the hyphen became a derogatory symbol rather than a connector. What’s beyond doubt is the fact that whatever else they were, the ancestors I’m tracing now were Japanese Americans. Their histories are rooted in the memories of Camp, cat calls about slanted eyes, the ringing of “Jap” and “Nip” in their ears at school and work, and in fighting in a war for the country of their citizenship against the country of their heritage while their families were imprisoned. Most of them were people who belonged here and nowhere else in terms of birth and nationality, but were treated as if they did not. Their identities were bifurcated. At home they were Mitsuo, Hideo, and Sakai. At school, Michael, Stan, and Thelma. These were peculiarly American experiences. My three-day tour is an attempt to make a map of them, or at least some of them. To find them in places and stories that have been covered over or forgotten, by me and others.

Yet, as I sit at this laminate desk, seagulls from Jack London Square squawking through the open window, wafts of salty air making me feel at home, I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t what I have—what I am—what some of them may have wanted? My life is the result of the assimilation of the prefix “Japanese” into the root “American.” A man named “Onishi” with no hint of a hyphen. There’s a chance I’m chasing them into the past just as they chased me into the future.

I don’t know how to resolve the paradox of gaining an “American” life at the potential cost of what feels like my most important descriptor. The wins and losses that have resulted in my existence seem beyond my ability to measure or control. But I do know that after living away from my family and these communities it feels like the adjective Japanese is fading from my American noun. The loss of the descriptor is threatening the map of who they—we—I—are.

So here I am. Here I go.


July 2:

10:09 am: Walking through Oakland Chinatown, it’s refreshing to see Asian faces, even if they see a white one in return. Asian faces are a rarity in upstate New York. Watching them whiz past me on the sidewalk or congregate at outdoor fruit stands feels like soaking up the sun on the first real day of summer.


10:16 am: I’m scared to go to the office at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, a community with roots to the earliest Japanese migrants. The story of this place goes back to the 19th century. I don’t have an appointment. What if they don’t believe I’m JA? What if they are frightened by a random white man popping into the office unexpectedly? I walk away.


11:32 am: I’m eating a taco-truck lunch across the street from the site of the old Tanforan Race Track, where 8,000 Japanese Americans were herded and held after FDR signed Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942. EO 9066 gave the military permission to remove civilians from designated military zones. It was a thinly veiled means of sending the Japanese (regardless of whether or not they had a hyphen) to camps. While the camps were built, they slept in horse stalls and manure beds at Tanforan for months. I’m here to see the commemorative plaque in “honor” of these events. It might be hard to find since the track has been razed and a gargantuan mall put in its place.

The carne asada burrito I’m eating across the street from the mall feels as much part of my childhood as the ramen I plan to eat later. Growing up in southern California, many of my friends were children of Mexican migrants. My first girlfriends taught me the Spanish I hear most of the people around me speaking. Construction workers. Cooks. Retail employees from the mall. A few of us share a bench near the curb. Some guys stand nearby eating tacos off the back of their truck.

During the previous weeks the Trump administration has separated families at the southern border, ushering in a horrific new chapter into American white supremacy and echoing the cruelty of Executive Order 9066. Most Japanese Americans have forgotten that their ancestors’ American story most likely began in fields as itinerant seasonal workers up and down the West Coast or on a plantation in Hawaii owned by a white business titan. Most Americans have forgotten that the “non-threatening” east Asians across the street used to be considered “bad immigrants.” After Pearl Harbor, whether or not you had a hyphen didn’t matter. Every Japanese American was sent to Camp. All of that history has been razed in the cultural consciousness in order to erect the model minority myth.


12:05 pm: Watching Japan in the World Cup at a brewery at Tanforan Mall. Japanese Americans next to me at the bar. All of us rooting for the team representing the country of our heritage. When Japan loses in the last minute I share an eye roll and sigh, a moment of solidarity, with a woman next to me. Does she know I’m JA or is she just commiserating with the guy next to her?


12:18 pm: The Tanforan memorial plaque is right outside the BJs Brewery where I watched the match. It’s nearly anonymous. A speck of metal lost under the lights of the shops, plastic food court table tops, signs for happy hour specials. Maybe, I think, the wounds of the past have healed to the point where JAs can sit inside a brewery at Tanforan and cheer for Japan without them or anyone else considering the ironies of history. Or maybe history has been erased through the wiles of capitalism and white supremacy. Who needs it when we have craft beer and Dick’s Sporting Goods, $19.99 manicures, and iPhone Xs?


12:25 pm: A Japanese American (and Japanese-American?) man and a white man. Retirees. Sitting in Barnes and Noble talking about what happened 70 years ago. I can’t hear the details.


2:04 pm: I arrive at Japantown San Jose, thirty or so miles south of Tanforan. There are only three historical Japantowns left in the United States: L.A., San Francisco, and San Jose. This one’s quainter than the other two. Quiet streets populated by mom and pop shops. Like an “all American” small town but with streets lined with sushi restaurants, Japanese grocers, and signs for the summer obon festival. It feels like a living center more than a familial albatross. The other two sometimes have the aura of someone caring for the body and possessions of an aging parent—not wanting to let them go, but not knowing how long they can maintain them.

After walking by the San Jose Buddhist church, whose story traces nearly as far back as the one in Oakland, I imagine living here. Learning Japanese. Raising kids who go to Japanese school on Saturdays. Who dance at obon and speak as much Japanese as English at home. I imagine the time when it was a place of refuge. Where Japanese knew they would be served without frowns or jokes. Where they could find rice instead of potatoes, sake instead of beer, sashimi instead of hamburgers.

Later I’m reminded of a passage in The Tale of Osato, a novel by Shōson Nagahara about the migration and hardship of the Japanese picture-bride Osato from Japan to 1920s S.F. and L.A. In this passage, Osato enters San Francisco Japantown for the first time:

As Osato looked at each passerby, she felt a deep sense of nostalgia. Even in this far-off land, the happiness, the nostalgia of meeting one’s countrymen . . . It was the first time since she arrived America that she had experienced such feelings.

For some of my ancestors, Japantown was a bridge whence they came, a geographical hyphen. A place in the new world recalling the old one. A place they were both strangers and not. At home doubly and not at all. For me, it’s a trail to their experiences and bodies. To our story. To the place that formed the adjective I bear; the one meant to describe me; the one I feel like I can’t live up to. Just as Osato and countless other Japanese-Americans turned Japan into an idealized homeland, I imagine San Jose Japantown as an unscathed origin, a place that could envelope my half identity into a soothing embrace and make it whole. Their nostalgia was for Japan. Mine is for Japanese America.


2:16 pm: I walk into a store called Nikkei Creations and buy a shirt that says hapa on the front.


2:20 pm: At the Japanese grocer I linger, looking at snacks we ate as kids, things I’d forgotten: rice balls and Pocky sticks and nori crackers. I don’t feel at home. I feel like a white guy gawking at exotic foodstuffs. The workers giving me side-eye don’t know I’m reminiscing about when my oba-chan used to give me these snacks, that there’s a lump in my throat just from seeing them. In my mind they see a white dude creeping around the store.


5:07 pm: I arrive at my cousin’s in a different part of San Jose. His mother is Japanese American, my father’s cousin. His dad is a white American. We grew up visiting each other—he would make the trip south for a few days and then I’d come here to San Jose. We were never hapa cousins. Or JA cousins. We were always just cousins, three months apart in age, interested in typical things: sports, video games, eventually girls. He now has three kids. As soon as he, his parents, and his young family sit down, the memories from those summers return. We reminisce about baseball games and karate tournaments. I don’t feel half, part, not enough, or insufficient. I feel understood. Home. No need for qualifiers or explanations or hedging. We trade barbs about the Giants and the Dodgers. I yap about being hapa and Japantown and anything I can think of.


July 3:

11:02 am: I arrive at San Francisco Japantown. This nihonmachi has been largely sequestered into two adjacent buildings, the East and West malls (Is someone trolling us?), that form the “Japantown Center.” Inside are dozens of Japanese restaurants, grocers, and other vendors. It’s denoted by a looming pagoda tower, which I can never decide is emblematic or offensive.

The four blocks or so surrounding the Center maintain a Japanese aesthetic. The national headquarters of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Benkyodo diner, where mochi is still made by hand, are within a block of the pagoda tower. All in all, however, Japantown San Francisco is much smaller than its Los Angeles counterpart. I always assumed it was because, like in many places on the West Coast, it had been taken over by other groups while the JA community was interned. But the sign near Soko Hardware says it was largely due to redevelopment. The City needed the area for a new highway and other improvement projects. After the Japanese returned from Camp the City decided to take by eminent domain most of the one place they felt at home.


11:12 am: At a Hawaii-inspired store I buy a 12 oz. can of Hawaiian Sun juice and a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. More staples from childhood I haven’t consumed in years. I buy them intuitively. They are in a bag with receipt before I realize what I’m doing.


11:17 am: I stop into the Japanese American Historical Society. Board members from the SF chapter are welcoming visitors from L.A. They are conversing about pilgrimages to Tule Lake, one of the northern California internment camps. I linger at the edge leafing through pamphlets. They think I’m a random white dude. I want to ask about the Military Intelligence Service Museum that just opened at the Presidio. The MIS was an outfit of Japanese American translators and codebreakers who joined battalions in the Pacific theatre and other places during World War II. The MIS started out in a warehouse near the Golden Gate Bridge. In order to expand, and for the “safety” of everyone involved, the headquarters was moved to Minnesota. My grandfather trained there and was then stationed near D.C. I want to explain all of this and ask if there’s any way to see the museum on days like today when it’s closed to the public. Too nervous, I walk out.


12:20 pm: In the East Mall, I order an iced coffee at a Japanese-owned creperie and take a seat. I’m waiting for my table at Marufuku, a buzzing new ramen place my cousin recommended. An Italian family walks in. The father orders two crepes in broken English. They are an anomaly in a sea of east Asian faces.


12:24 pm: Still at the creperie. This already feels like a perfect day in Japantown, as if I’m on a spa retreat injecting minerals and vitamins into my skin, clearing my pores, leaving the dull alienation of the world behind for a few hours. Spaces I’d foreclosed and forgotten are opening inside of me.


1:28 pm: From Japantown, a mile-walk to the Asian Art Museum near the Civic Center. I tour the “Divine Bodies” exhibit. Though I’m a religion professor and familiar with some of the traditions represented, it does nothing for me. Next is the “Personal Tour through Hell” exhibit, which is a series of images related to a white dude’s experience after being proclaimed dead for a few minutes. They are eerily similar to the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come, a borderline embarrassing mélange of Dante’s Inferno and Buddhist notions of the transmigration of souls. I leave the museum after an hour.

Walking out, I wonder: “Why did I go to the Asian Art museum? Guilt? Aspiration?”

On the walk back to Japantown through the Civic Center buildings I see the Earl Warren building kitty corner from the museum.

I think: “Asshole.”

Earl Warren is a California icon. Governor of the state and then a Supreme Court Justice. Liberals often venerate him as the leader of a court that oversaw desegregation and the outlaw of prayer in schools. His name dots fairgrounds and government buildings from San Diego to Sacramento. He was also a major proponent of Japanese Internment, a leader who used his platform to create the hysteria and racism that led to mayors and newspapers throughout California to call for the removal of all persons with Japanese heritage. Why is his name attached to the building that stands just feet from the nation’s premiere Asian art museum? Who’s trolling us?


10:07 pm: I finish the night at a dive bar in Berkeley. Alone. Writing on my phone in a corner seat near the door. A charmingly grimy crowd swirls around me in a neon haze. Typical Berkeley: black, white, Asian, Latin. White college kids. Old black dudes. Flannel and mustache hipsters tending bar. $5 shots and PBR. An Asian American guy is carried out because he’s swinging at the bouncer. I’m reminded of all the times in grad school I felt small and powerless in bars like this. Back then I often wished I were really white: masculine, tall, angular cheekbones, a jutting jaw. Then I would be attractive. Virile. Could look down the bar and wink at a blonde woman.


July 4:

7:06 pm: I am spending the evening with friends. All white. We barbeque at one of their parent’s houses in the Oakland hills. No strangers ask me where I’m from. No one asks me where I’m really from. No one commits any of the other social transgressions Asian Americans and other people of color detest. Part of me wishes they would have. Maybe I would have earned a JA merit badge, or a story to tell the next time I commiserate with other Asian Americans.


11:04 pm: I read about Therese Patrice Okoumou. While we were watching the kids play, sipping cold beer, eating sausage from the barbeque, Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest the separation of migrant children from their families. During the four-hour standoff she refused to come down until all the children are returned. Okoumou is a Congolese immigrant, the news report says. Someone snapped an iconic photo of her, shared endlessly on Twitter, sitting at the foot of Lady Liberty, this country’s emblem of freedom—the harbinger of its grand, if always unfulfilled, promises of equality, justice, and democracy.

Looking at the picture, I think: She may consider herself African-American or Congolese-American. She may still want her hyphen—I don’t know. But there’s no doubt she’s African American, and this image may be the most American thing I’ve ever seen. I want to cry but I’m too tired.


July 6

10:49 pm: Albany, NY.

I am thinking of a rant I give in my religion and politics course. It seems I’m ready to understand it for myself. It goes something like this.

The 2016 election proved that reducing life to binaries and making people choose one side or the other is a way to power because it takes phenomena like ambiguity and uncertainty out of the equation. Reduction is a way to draw a straight line of who “we” are, and thus who is not “us”. It’s a map. But a false one. It tries to erase the sedimentation and crisscrossed stories and unspeakable violence that make up this country’s history and identity. It makes this country and everyone in it into something they’re not and have never been. It’s an attempt to erase the fact that the U.S.A. was founded in such a way that every American identity demands description.


July 7

12:04 am: Saratoga Springs, NY.

My tour didn’t make me JA like my elders. I’ll never have lived in Japantown or on Maui. Never danced at obon or gone to Japanese school. But I have a map in my memory. I’ve had a map on my body. It’s been hazed over by lazy categorizations, unclear phenotypes, distance from home. By my own self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It’s complex and layered. Painful and wondrous. A road to the adjective (one of them, anyways) that describes how I’m part of this place. American, all of it.



Bradley B. Onishi, PhD is Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College. His creative work has appeared at the American Book Review, HuffPost, and Religion Dispatches. He is author of The Sacrality of the Secular, published by Columbia University Press in 2018.

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