What It Means To Be a Japanese American Woman – Part II

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Editor’s Note: Cherry Blossom Alumnae will be organizing a community forum on Saturday Oct. 10, 2009 to discuss, “What It Means To Be a Japanese American Woman.” Over the next 3 weeks, CBA members address that topic and share their personal experiences with AsianWeek readers. The CBA conference will be held on Saturday, October 10, 2009 from 10am – 3pm at the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown, 1625 Post Street in San Francisco. Contact Tina Hamada-Wong at tina@structive.com or (650) 619-0613 for tickets.This is part 2 of 3.

By Amy Schoemehl

amyhLast weekend I found myself flipping though every cable channel, half hopeful that something would catch my eye enough to end the mindless surfing. For the umpteenth time, I stopped at Jerry Maguire, this day at the part when Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is explaining the definition of a word he called kwan – it meant love, respect, and community.

It instantly reminded me of my trips traveling to visit sister cities who sponsored Cherry Blossom programs, where I met a man all the girls knew as Uncle Bobby. In his Pidgin accent he would often talk about the spirit of ohana (a Hawaiian term for friends and family, though not of necessarily blood relations, and community).

“What It Means To Be a Japanese American Woman,” to me, means to be a part of something bigger than myself or my kin, a legacy that binds women of Japanese descent.

Many of us have Issei (first generation Japanese American) great grandmothers who came to America as picture brides at the turn of the last century, often to meet men they had never even met. Most of us have Nisei (second generation Japanese American) grandmothers or family members who were interned in concentrations camps during World War II. Often times I can rely on my best friend to sympathize with things that are going on between me and my mom because we were raised by similarly minded Sansei (third generation Japanese American) mothers – in many ways, it’s as though our separate Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American) pasts were actually rather the same.

When I ran for the Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program in 2000, I met several women whose histories did not reflect my own – one was biracial and three had shin Issei (first generation Japanese Americans who immigrated to America post World War II) parents. And yet, we were brought together as Japanese American women and there was a collective identity we could not deny, so it taught me that our shared identity even transcended the stereotypical trends of the Japanese American experience.

This kwan, for us, illustrates the power of the Japanese woman, or perhaps burdens us with the onus of perpetuating our culture and being active and impactful members of this very special ohana. It tasks us with staying involved with the community in whatever capacity we are able, to share our experience with the community and other Japanese American women. It pushes us to form groups such as the Cherry Blossom Alumnae, which I am a charter board member of, that supports Japanese American women in the next chapters of their lives beyond their program years into social and professional networks they can leverage throughout their lives.

Being a Japanese woman and mother challenges me to raise my Gosei (fifth generation Japanese American) daughter to learn and appreciate not only the Japanese culture but also her Japanese American identity. Because her father is not of Japanese descent, I put pressure on myself to teach her the things that made me who I am, and to guide her through experiences that defined my life as a young Nikkei (an ethnically Japanese person, an important term because it separates ethnicity from citizenship as a means of self-identification). It makes me hope that my daughter will have friends and family whom she can identify with on a level, as I am able to do so with my best friend – a level that is near beyond words and can be assumed because of a shared acceptance into the ohana which is the Japanese American Woman.

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