Growing up Japanese American: Mixed Race in the Midwest

As I spend more time working with Japanese Americans from across the country, it always interests me to look at the regional cultural differences among us. For those who grew up in large Japanese American communities or alongside many other Asian American kids, their experience of being Japanese American is very different from others who were the only Asian in their class, the only Japanese American family in the neighborhood, or distant from communities that reflected their own identities. Having grown up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I count myself among the latter group. Given my regional provenance in the Midwest and my mixed race background, for me growing up AAPI meant a lot of navigating dualities, delineations, and identities that didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t until I found the JACL that I realized that being Japanese American can be a multitudinal, not monolithic, experience. 

When I was six years old, my family moved from Pasadena, California, to the northern suburbs of Milwaukee. Before then, I had never really had to think about how I looked or my name, both by virtue of age and environment– I was surrounded by extended family and a large Japanese American community. That all changed in Wisconsin. Once we moved, I suddenly found myself constantly aware of my differences, which were made apparent to me by classmates, neighbors, teachers, and friends in ways both subtle and overt. I was constantly confused with other Asian kids, occasionally regardless of gender. Frequent butchering of my name almost always led to questions- “Where are you from? Your English is good! Do you speak Japanese? Why not? You’re only half? What’s the other half? Is it weird for you, being half? Yeah, I can definitely tell you’re half. I can see it in the eyes!”

While occasionally there was more malicious teasing and slurs, the majority of the comments were innocuous. Nonetheless, I was regularly reminded that I was different and I craved a community in which I saw my identity reflected in others. There were a small number of Asian kids from whom I eventually constructed a circle of friends (and actively seeking them out wasn’t hard, as I’d accidentally been called by their names for years), and with them I found great relief: we could bond over being a small number in a large crowd, we talked about certain similarities we shared, and we it was nice just to be with one another. However, in this circle I was different too. Nearly all my Asian friends were first- and second-generation Korean American kids who grew up speaking Korean at home, practiced Korean cultural customs and holidays, flew back and forth to Korea, and had a moderately-sized Korean community a short drive away. Because I had and did none of these things and was not particularly connected to any “Japanese-ness,” per say, I was frequently told by friends and their parents that I was “too Americanized.” I got some of the same questions about why I didn’t speak Japanese, eat Japanese food, and had never been to Japan from this group of friends. Because my mother is white, that too counted as another strike against me on the “Authentically Asian” report card. “I’m glad I’m not like you,” one Korean American friend said to me on various occasions, “my parents would be so ashamed if I turned out as Americanized as you are, not even knowing your own culture.” 

So I wasn’t white, but I clearly wasn’t Asian enough either. I was embarrassed, sensitive, and very confused about my own racial identity. I didn’t have the real “Asian American Experience” like my friends did, so was I just Asian by virtue of a mere technicality? I was also interested in studying politics, social justice, and civil rights, but I was the only Asian person I knew who felt that way, aside from my dad. When attending meetings of my high school’s “Diversity Group,” I was occasionally asked “Why do you care about this? You’re Asian,” and told “you’re not really a person of color since you’re half white.” Did I even get to think of myself as Asian American, let alone Japanese American, if I was mixed? I wasn’t an immigrant, I wasn’t bilingual, I didn’t retain the cultural traditions of Japan, I wasn’t even fully Japanese… so what was I?  

I didn’t know anyone else like me with the same familial history that I wasn’t related to, so my assumption was that I was just an anomaly. Even when I began to do research and ask questions of my family about who we are, it was a bit hazy. Although I was vaguely familiar with the history of Japanese American incarceration and knew that my family had been involved, it was not until later in high school that I actually started doing research. I began because personal interest and a class project, but the more I read the more I realized that I could actually relate to the content of the books. I began to read every book I could get my hands on on the subject, everything from When the Emperor was Divine and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to Personal Justice Denied and Citizen 13660. Through historical literature, fiction and nonfiction, I began to construct an idea of the Japanese American identity. Things made more sense to me now: why we didn’t speak Japanese, our distance from Japanese culture, and so on. 

Still, though, I didn’t know anyone else who was a yonsei like me. To me, Japanese America existed in the 1940s, a culture and heritage frozen in time. Despite all my research, I still didn’t see myself as part of an existing community– or know that there were any young Japanese Americans.  

That all changed the summer of 2015. Practically through a fluke, the local chapter of the Wisconsin JACL (which my family was only peripherally part of) did not have any delegates for the National Convention, so on a whim my dad volunteered the two of us to go. I had just graduated high school and jumped at the chance to be involved in anything Japanese American, and so we decided to work the Convention into a trip to Manzanar and a family visit in California. When July rolled around, we flew out to 110-degree heat Las Vegas, found our hotel, and checked in.   

From the moment we arrived to register, I was floored. I had never seen so many Japanese Americans all in one place, and so many of them looked like they could be members of my family. What’s more, there were young people– young Japanese Americans around my age, some of whom even looked mixed! In our local chapter and my own family, I was used to my parents being some of the youngest people there. But here were people my own age, also yonsei and gosei, who came from all over the country and from all sorts of backgrounds. I was completely overwhelmed. 

My awe continued to increase as I sat down in my first Youth Orientation. Looking around, I had never felt more of a sense of innate, unspoken belonging. There were faces that looked like mine, people who were interested in the same issues I was, and so many different and diverse experiences of being Japanese American all in one group. As Convention went on, I found that the people I met were kind, friendly, and unquestioning of my belonging there. I made friends and learned a lot about Japanese American history and current issues, but it wasn’t until I sat in on a panel about being mixed race that it really clicked: this was the community I was looking for. 

In the years since my first Convention, I have gotten much more involved with the JACL and the NY/SC. I still have many of the friends I made at my first Convention, but I’ve made many new ones along the way too. With each new person I meet, my idea of what it means to be Asian American and Japanese American expands, as each person’s own history, family, and regional provenance are unique but ultimately just as Asian American as mine or anyone else’s. I am deeply grateful to my Japanese American community for showing me that there is no “authentic” Asian American experience, and that being different, being mixed, and being multitudinous, is a part of what it means to be AAPI. In the words of the infinitely wise Sarah E. Baker, who sat on the Mixed Race panel at my first Convention: “Excuse me, I am not only anything.”

  Growing up AAPI is so much more than a single experience, a single qualifier, or a single story. Over the years I’ve realized that what makes me feel most at home in the Japanese American community is not just based in the similarity of our experiences, but also in our differences. 

– Written by Mieko Kuramoto, National Youth Representative of the Japanese American Citizens League