Queer Nikkei Stories and Intergenerational Conversations: PSW Youth Rep Justin Kawaguchi interviews George Takei on growing up LGBT and Japanese American

Justin Kawaguchi, 23 June 2020

On Thursday, June 18, 2020 I had the incredible opportunity to engage in conversation with George Takei at “Queer Nikkei Stories: Intergenerational Conversations”, hosted by Okaeri, the Japanese American National Museum, and Visual Communications. The virtual event tackled complex questions about the intersectionality of experiences being Japanese-American and queer including “What was it like to be gay and Japanese American decades ago? What is it like now?”

As a rising senior at USC, I was joined in conversation by actor and activist George Takei and bicultural advocate and organizer Aya Tasaki spoke with founder of Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays June Lagmay. George shared his journey in the incarceration camps of World War II and how his experience being “different” for his facial features were further paralleled by the difference he felt as a gay man in a society that had yet to fully accept same-sex couples. 

Some advice that I gained from this event and its conversations include: 

  • The importance of finding shared spaces to build solidarity 
  • Seeking out the stories of our families’ pasts, specifically related to the WWII incarceration camps, can be a powerful parallel to understanding the experience of being queer and insecure 
  • Everybody has their own process of coming to terms with their identity and sharing that realization with those around them

Okaeri was founded in 2014 and is a group of LGBTQ Nikkei, parents of LGBTQ Japanese Americans, and allies of LGBTQ people. Translated from Japanese as “Welcome Home”, Okaeri is the first-ever conference focused on LGBTQ Japanese Americans. Okaeri 2014 was a great success. More than 200 people from across the U.S. and Canada attended. Okaeri inspired Nikkei in Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and the San Francisco Bay Area to organize similar gatherings. Okaeri 2020 was postponed due to the global pandemic and virtual programs have been activated while plans to host a Gathering in 2021 are already in the works. 

Okaeri continues to serve as a resource to connect with LGBTQ Japanese Americans and allies, find support, resources and information, and learn how Nikkei have embraced their LGBTQ family members. To find more information, follow Okaeri on Facebook and Instagram or on their website at https://www.okaeri-losangeles.org/

The recording of this event will be posted by JANM in the coming weeks on their website. 

Tsuru For Solidarity Fold In Workshop

Hosting a Fold-in Workshop

Introducing TFS

The movement: Tsuru for Solidarity is a direct action, nonviolent project of activists and allied organizations within the Japanese American community. We work to end U.S. concentration camps and support immigrant and refugee populations targeted by inhumane and racist immigration policies, grounding ourselves in our collective history and moral authority as survivors and descendants of the WWII prison camps. As a formerly targeted community and as allies to those currently under attack, we demand that this country stop repeating history.

As a movement, our mission is three-pronged. We strive to: 

  1. Educate, advocate, and protest to close all U.S. concentration camps;
  2. Build solidarity with other communities that have experienced forced removal, detention, deportation, and separation of families; and 
  3. Coordinate intergenerational, cross-community healing addressing the trauma of our shared histories 


The importance of a fold-in: “Tsuru” is the Japanese word for “crane,” and has long been a symbol of hope, strength, and resilience in Japanese and Japanese American culture.

As part of our protest, we are folding 125,000 cranes to be brought to Washington D.C. during the National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps in June of 2020 (see below). These cranes will be hung on the White House fence to demand that the government close the U.S. concentration camps immediately and remember the damage that was done during WWII. 

We are accepting cranes from all over the country and all over the world up until May 1st! See below for the addresses to which cranes should be sent. 

National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps: We plan to bring 125,000 paper cranes, or tsuru, to the White House as expressions of solidarity with immigrant and refugee communities that are under attack today. The 125,000 cranes represent the members of our community who were rounded up and incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during World War II, including both Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans. 

Caravans: Additionally, in the days preceding the D.C. program, a caravan of buses will leave from Los Angeles and other locations. These buses will carry a smaller group of activists to World War II concentration camp sites and present-day immigrant detention sites, where they will join in solidarity with local activists who are leading efforts to shut down these sites. The caravan will then join the larger group in Washington, D.C. We are also working to schedule meetings with members of Congress while the caravan is en route. 


Structure may vary depending on the audience for the fold-in, the size, the formality, etc. If you are working with a larger group, you may want to present some basics of the movement at the beginning. A rough outline for an hour-long fold-in might look like this:

  1. 10 min: Introduction to movement
    1. Fort Sill protest video (June 2019)
    2. Protest at Yuba County ICE detention facility (January 2020)
  1. Folding lesson 
  2. Free fold
  3. Activity/discussion 

More resources are available at https://tsuruforsolidarity.org/ . Videos and other information can be found there. 


At Tsuru for Solidarity, we use the Marshall Ganz framework to tie our own experiences to what’s going on today. 

The Marshall Ganz framework is an especially powerful way to tie your personal/family story to our calls to action. Like the Values/Problems/Solution/Action framework, it begins and ends with shared values and a call to action, but the middle is more personal. According to Marshall Ganz, a public story includes three elements: 

A story of self: Why you were called to what you have been called to. 

A story of us: What your constituency, community, organization has been called to; its shared purposes, goals, vision. 

A story of now: The challenge this community now faces, the choices it must make, and the hope to which “we” can aspire. 

We encourage the use of this structure to build bridges both with Japanese American/AAPI participants, but also with individuals from other communities. 

Note: Fold-ins do not always have to involve this intensity or level of discussion! These events can also be informal and conversations may happen naturally.

How to fold a crane

More information is available at https://tsuruforsolidarity.org/tsuru-resources/ on how to fold and string cranes. 

If you’ve got cranes to send, they can be mailed to one of these locations:

JACL Chicago  
5415 N. Clark St, 
Chicago, IL 60640

National Japanese American Historical Society
1684 Post St.
San Francisco, CA 94115 

Duncan Ryuken Williams, ℅ Ito Center
825 Bloom Walk, ACB 130D 
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1481 

EDC Summit: Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival

This year, the Eastern District Council’s NY/SC summit was hosted as a part of the  Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival programming and focused on issues surrounding coalition building between different immigrant communities in the United States. We hosted a panel discussion featuring several community members from Tsuru For Solidarity (a Japanese-American grassroots organization protesting migrant detention), the Council for American-Islamic Relations – Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, and Shut Down Berks Coalition. We held a conversation about the ways in which we as immigrant communities can support each other and collaborate on the common goal of achieving equal rights and justice for marginalized communities in the United States that face issues such as mass detention, incarceration, and the perils of race based discrimination and violence. We followed up our panel with a lunchtime discussion with Tsuru For Solidarity leaders Mike Ishii and Lauren Sumida about intergenerational trauma and activism in youth populations. 

Central Valley Nikkei Summit (CCDC)

On January 26th of 2019, NY/SC Youth representatives Kelly and Jenna Aoki worked with the CCDC District Council, Yonsei Memory Project, Central California Nikkei Foundation, and Chinatown Fresno Foundation to host the inaugural Central Valley Nikkei Summit. This summit aimed to create cohesion within the Japanese American youth community and foster intergenerational dialogue, while keeping questions of changing demographics and the engagement of diverse communities in mind. Over the course of the day, presentations by various sponsoring AAPI organizations were interspersed with the opportunity for participants to talk about Japanese American identity, youth engagement, service, and inter-community communication. The NY/SC is very proud of the community partnerships formed during the planning and run of the summit.

Japanese American Youths (JAYS) Kickoff

The summit kicked off on-campus with an in-depth introduction to the JACL and Japanese American history from local leader JACL leader Rick Okabe. This introduction was crucial for the summit as many attendees, some still in high school, had not previously been engaged with their racial identities before. Following the talk and discussion, participants moved to Olympus Hills Bowling Alley for dinner, bowling, and other activities.

A complete recap from summit-organizer and IDC Youth Representative Eric Tokita is forthcoming (he needs to get through finals first). As suggested by its title, this summit is the first in a series of social and educational events in IDC that Eric Tokita plans to organize in hopes of establishing a more robust district-level IDC youth group.


A New Musical Inspired By a True Story

From PSW Youth Representative Juli Yoshinaga’s summit recap report: 

Each and every time JACL events are held, participants leave with a broader understanding of the Nikkei community, and the California Summit was no exception. On March 10-11, 2018, National Youth/Student Council District Representatives – Juli Yoshinaga from Pacific Southwest (PSW), Kelly Aoki from Central California (CCDC), Michelle Huey from Northern California Western Nevada Pacific (NCWNP), along with JACL Associate Director Stephanie Nitahara – joined efforts in hosting an educational summit taking place at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.

Co-hosted with the JACCC, the two-day summit brought together 50 participants from all corners of the State of California to watch a live performance of Allegiance starring George Takei, Elena Wang, and Greg Watanabe at the Aratani Theatre. The JACCC and East West Playerses production of Allegiance provided an emotional connection and energy that only grew throughout the weekend.

Following the play, former Executive Director John Tateishi participated in a “fireside chat” with Nitahara detailing his experiences as Redress Director as well as his time serving as Executive Director during 9/11. Tateishi also gave valuable insight and offered a unique perspective regarding Mike Masaoka, the only non-fiction character in Allegiance.  Thank you to JACL National President, Gary Mayeda, for joining the program introducing Tateishi.
The next day, summit participants gathered to participate in Breaking the Silence on Sexual Violence in the API Community led by Huey, who works for My Sister’s House, an organization that serves the Asian and Pacific Islander and other underserved women and children impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. In addition to the workshop, youth representatives facilitated further discussion regarding the future of Japanese American youth in California. Youth participants identified the need for a space for youth to gather within the JACL. The summit concluded with the passionate and energized participants visiting the Go for Broke Museum.

Incarceration by Executive Order: Japanese American Internment and Immigration Detention Centers Today (EDC)

On December 1st of 2018, the campus of Smith College welcomed back its second NY/SC youth summit with the event “Incarceration by Executive Order: Japanese American Internment and Immigration Detention Centers Today.” Jointly organized by NY/SC Youth Representative Mieko Kuramoto, NY/SC At-Large member Aiko Dzikowski, and Smith College campus organizations Pan Asians in Action, the Latin American Student Organization, and Organizing for Undocumented Students’ Rights, the event focused on historic and modern parallels between the Japanese American incarceration and current Immigration detention practices. Keynote speakers Dr. Franklin Odo (Amherst College) and Dr. David Hernández (Mount Holyoke College) addressed racialized immigration policy, incarceration, and lesser citizenship in the United States, and the following student-led discussion allowed attendees to have an open conversation about cross-cultural coalition building and joint activism between the Asian American, Latin American, and undocumented communities.

An Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ Gathering

SEATTLE—Everyone is invited to the free all-day conference Family 2.0: An API LGBTQ Gathering geared toward  LGBTQIA+ Asian Pacific Islanders and  their families and allies, on May20th, 2017 at North Seattle College (9600 College Way N.). The event is sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League, North Seattle College, as well as local community organizations such as PFLAG, NQAPIA, Noor, Sneaky Deep Collective, Interplay, and more.

Marsha Aizumi, author of “Two Spirits One Heart” on the first Family conference: “Attending an API LGBTQ event like Family with my son and daughter-in-law, we were able to see people like us, so we didn’t feel so all alone and shared our stories of moving through fear, sadness and shame to unconditional love and acceptance which continued to bring healing to our lives. The Family event also gave me, a mother, hope that more families will support their children and more allies will become visible voices for my son and the LGBTQ community.”

The event is free, but requires registration either online at apifamilyevent.com or on the day of the event beginning at 9:00 a.m. at North Seattle College. Workshops offered for both LGBTQ youth/adults, as well as allies, will include (but not limited to): Immigrant Voices, Queer Muslim Perspectives, LGBTQ History in the US, Trans API History, and Family Acceptance.

Keynote speakers will include local drag queen and activist, Aleksa Manila (aleksamanila.com): “Drug counselor by day, drag diva by night. Aleksa Manila is a celebrated and respected drag personality. Originally from Manila, Philippines, Aleksa now calls Seattle, Washington home. Aleksa is a favorite emcee/host, speaker/panelist, performer/model at many events in the region because of her smart and sassy presence onstage and her ease of engaging her audience.”

Also featured will be speaker and educator, Lydia Brown (autisticchoya.com): “I’m a writer, dreamer, activist/organizer, and speaker/educator. Some of the many marginal identities/experiences I hold are that I’m autistic and multiply otherwise neurodivergent and disabled, queer, asexual-spectrum, genderqueer/non-binary and sometimes read as feminine, and transracially and transnationally adopted east asian person of color from China (into a white adoptive family).”

The Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League which is leading the effort behind Family 2.0 ultimately hopes to build an Asian Pacific Islander support group within the greater Seattle area and to bring together other community groups to form a coalition.

Family is made possible by generous support from North Seattle College, a National JACL Legacy Fund Grant, the JACL National Youth/Student Council, NQAPIA, and private donors.Bill Tashima, Seattle JACL Past President: “Although I am now a very happy, openly gay married man, I rarely talked about my struggles growing up in the closet.  I have come to understand why the Nisei were so reluctant to talk about their experiences during the WWII incarceration, and have realized that it is important to share my experiences growing up.  Coming out may seem easier now, but admitting to the world that you are different is never easy. I want our LGBTQ community to know, you are not alone.”

Asian American Feminism: Not Your Asian Sidekick

The 2017 Japanese American Citizen’s League Eastern District Council’s National Youth/Student Council summit “Asian American Feminism: Not Your Asian Sidekick” will be presented at Smith College by the student organization Pan-Asians In Action.

Focusing on issues surrounding Asian/American/Pacific-Islander feminism and activism, we hope to create a space where Asian women and allies can learn more about the intersection between Asian/American/Pacific-Islander identity and feminism, and where this intersection fits into the modern day social, political, and academic climate.

The summit will open with keynote speakers Professor Miliann Kang from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Miriam Yeung, activist and former director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. Through their discussion, a workshop and plenary session we strive to create a dialogue on the ways in which we can advance Asian/American/Pacific-Islander activism through a better understanding of our own identities and history.

A few topics we hope to cover include:

  • Breaking down stereotypes and out of molds for Asian women (exotification, sexualization, dutiful daughter, etc.)
    • Mental health and taking up space
  • Representation of AAPI women in culture and politics
  • Representation of AAPI women in history books
  • Physical health- sexual health and safety

Remodeling the Model Minority: Japanese Americans & Black Liberation

The National Youth/Student Council of the Japanese American Citizens League will be holding a youth summit in conjunction with the Midwest District Council district meeting from on October 15th at the Livonia Detroit Marriott.  This event requires pre-registration but is offered for free, and we have limited housing available for out of town attendees.

Given the long history of Japanese Americans in the United States and our new, national conversation on race and racism, we will be exploring the role of Japanese Americans in these dialogues. We will begin our day discussing the history of the Japanese American participation in model minority mythologies. We will hear about the local history of AAPI and Black communities in Detroit and critically examine this social landscape and host a multi-generational conversation with youth and community elders. Finally, we will discuss legacies of Japanese American anti-blackness and what we can learn from past examples of Nikkei allyship.

While this conference is hosted by the Japanese American Citizens League, this conference is open to all interested young persons. We recognize the diversity of the JA community, and of this conversation, and invite anyone interested in joining our conversation.