Japanese, American or both?

by KEITH R. ARANEO-YOWELL

The Web site for the Utah Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL) is bad, and Salt Lake chapter’s co-president, Paul Fisk, recognizes this.

For an organization representing an entire group of Utahns, the Web site looks disorganized and messy at best. There isn’t a unified theme. The Salt Lake City chapter’s most current electronic newsletter is more than a year old. There are spelling and punctuation errors everywhere. The events calendar for 2010 is almost completely empty. Hollow text boxes dot the pages like tiny picture frames shouting to the world, “Hey! There’s nothing here!”

During a group interview with University of Utah students, Fisk, 27, explained the state of the Web site in these terms.

“One of the problems recently has been that because of declining membership rates, [the JACL] has cut back on some programs,” Fisk said. “It’s probably the same for maintaining the Web site.”

Floyd Mori, the JACL’s national executive director, said membership is on the decline for myriad reasons.

“The Nisei generation [second-generation Japanese Americans] is passing on rapidly with an average age near 90,” Mori said in an e-mail interview. “Also, young people do not see the direct issue of civil rights on an every day basis as before.”

Indeed, the FBI’s 2008 Hate Crime Statistics Table reported only 137 incidents of hate crimes against the broadly defined group of Asian/Pacific Islanders across the entire country.

“The JACL’s primary goal,” Fisk said, “is defending the civil rights of all Americans, particularly Japanese Americans.”

The most pressing civil rights issue currently on the Salt Lake chapter’s list is an offensive poster at a Winger’s Grill & Bar in Murray. The chain’s advertisement depicts a chicken with a Fu Manchu mustache and a Japanese flag headband with the caption, “We use only the finest oriental chickens in our oriental chicken salad.”

Decoration at a Winger's chain in Murray, Utah, advertising its Oriental chicken salad. The sign was subsequently removed. Photo courtesy of PAUL FISK

The JACL’s role doesn’t end at civil rights, though.

“It works to promote cultural, educational and social values of Japanese Americans, and preserve the heritage and legacy of the Japanese-American community,” Fisk explained. But as the lines separating Japanese from American begin to blur, the “Japanese-American” community will be ever more difficult to define.

Floyd Mori attributed this to the high cross-cultural marriage rate among Asian-Americans.

Noriko Okada is a Japanese citizen living in Salt Lake City who runs an English-Japanese translation service. She said it’s easier to classify herself as either American or Japanese and not necessarily Japanese-American. In an interview, Okada, 37, explained these definitions can change depending on the context of her experience.

“When I’m actually stating my opinions and doing what I want to do, I feel American, on the other hand when someone reminds me that I’m an immigrant, at that moment I become Japanese.”

Mori agreed there is no clear-cut definition of what makes a person of Japanese descent living in America a Japanese American. Nor does he know at what point that person ceases to be Japanese.

This nebulous definition of identity presents a problem. How does an organization preserve the Japanese-American experience, when there is seemingly no agreed-upon definition of Japanese American?

“The Japanese-American population’s high rate of cross-cultural marriage leads to the propensity for less association with the Japanese culture,” Mori said. “At the same time, there is a resurgence of younger people wanting to discover ‘who am I?’ The younger generations seem to be moving more towards identifying as an Asian-American rather than simply a Japanese-American.”

While the JACL does have difficulty defining the group for whom they advocate, they do see this as an opportunity for growth in a new direction on a national scale, Mori said. “The JACL must appeal to a broader base beyond the Japanese-American community.”

Looking ahead, Mori plans to change the structure of the JACL to rely more heavily on the skills of business and marketing professionals. “In the past and present, we have been governed by a board interested mostly in advocacy and community action. There will have to be a mix of community action and professional skills,” Mori said.

Mori said if the Utah chapters of the JACL want to mitigate declining numbers, they have some work to do.

“Membership takes aggressive recruitment. The local members have to be active in actually asking others to join,” Mori said. “If they ask, they will join because the JACL has a great tradition and has a lot to offer in terms of cultural activities as well as advocacy opportunities.”

Mori agreed that reassessing the Web site might be a good start.