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Identity Crisis of the Sansei and the Concentration Camp
by Nobu Miyoshi, M.S.W.


A pilot project was launched after two Sansei sisters, Caroline and Theresa Nishi, addressed the Nisei audience at an Eastern District Council Meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League. They were pleading for assistance with what they called their "identity crisis." The Sansei's complaint was that their Nisei parents were not sharing their experiences, attitudes, and feelings especially as related to the concentration camps and their Japanese cultural backgrounds. They added that although some of the recent literature was illuminating, it did not help the Sansei gain a more personal understanding and connection with their roots which only their parents could provide.

The sisters' request for help was of particular interest to me because it resembled a relational model that family theorists and family therapists have pursued. The concerns of an individual could be better understood if they can be connected to whatever is going on among members of his or her family. (Ackerman, 1970; Boszormenyi-Nagy and Framo, 1965; Bowen, 1966; Jackson and Satir, 1961).

For the purpose of this study the conceptual framework of family dynamics pertaining to the identity aspects of the Sansei is the intergenerational or three-generational model advanced by Nagy. The fundamental premise is that even more important than the expressions that can be seen and heard, are the unseen motivations that profoundly influence the identity of family members down the generations. Nagy furthermore has organized a system of family therapy which includes the concept of "mutual accountability" and "merit balance." This means that family relationships involve transactions between givers and receivers; the giver earns merit from the receiver who then has the responsibility to acknowledge what was received. This is a part of the bookkeeeping maintained internally on both sides. (Nagy and Spark, 1973). This concept, by the way, was familiar to the Issei through their orientation to "On"--a Japanese type of obligation. A noteworthy analysis of "On" in the Japanese culture is presented by Lebra (1974).

The Nisei have passed down to the Sansei the ethnic values of the previous generation; among them is the highly developed concept of loyalty. This loyalty could be a special bonding characteristic within the culture. For example, a giver earns merit to receive a return which could be in the form of loyalty as found in certain aspects of Oya-koko (obligation owed to parents).

The identities of family members, according to family therapists, are influenced by the manner in which obligatory responsibilities are handled.

An important objective in this type of family work is to ease relationships by encouraging dialogues among family member to bring to the surface protected, hidden, and even unconscious loyalty obligations, myths, and legends. Something special happens when the whole family is present at these sessions. Therefore, I suggest multigenerational family sessions among the Japanese Americans. Valuable as it is for the Sansei to hold "rap" sessions among themselves about their identities, it can be even more rewarding to take the risks of venture and effort to openly exchange concerns with those people who have directly influenced their identities.

One of the most hauntingly pressing issues facing the Japanese Americans today is their concentration camp experience during World War II. Yet, the major group of survivors--the Nisei--generally do not confront the implications of it within themselves or with their own children. In many respects the Nisei have been permanently altered in their attitudes, both positively and negatively, in regard to their identification with the values of their bicultural heritage; or they remain confused or even injured by the traumatic experience.

Many issues surrounding the concentration camp experiences involving the Issei and the Nisei plague the Sansei as they reach adolescence and beyond. It coincides with the period in their lives when identity factors are explored. As with all youths, conscious and unconscious reliance on their familial endowments become a critical part of this. For the Sansei the lack of communication regarding their forebear's camp experience represents a symbol of an intergenerational ethnic and personal gap. I suggest that a significant area of the Sansei's identity needs can be fulfilled through open dialogue between themselves and their Nisei parents. The process by which such a goal is achieved in family therapy sessions requires mutual striving, giving, and trusting. It is not solely up to the Nisei parents "to explain" or "to describe" the implications of the experience as much as it is a joint venture wherein parents and their children assist each other to listen, to confidently ask difficult questions, and to gain the courage necessary to confront the pain, shame, as well as the poignant and pleasurable moments associated with incarceration.

An objective of this paper is to indicate some of the issues that could be circumventing the Nisei's ability to more openly deal with the camp experience with the Sansei. The "psychological knot" within the Nisei that is recognized by Kiefer (1974) has resulted, in part, from their commitments to both their American and Japanese heritages. Perhaps it is their inexpressible loyalty obligations to their Japanese heritage that is the source of their greatest conflict. The serious dedication of the Issei to culturally train their children is a significant part of the Issei-Nisei history. (Hosokawa, 1969; Keifer, 1974; Kitano, 1969).

Among the collection of materials written about the personality development of the Nisei, Sone (1953) gives a credible portrayal of the cultural diaspora created by her parent generation in the Pacific Northwest in which the Issei and Nisei lived. The author describes the cultural training that she and her contemporaries received within their homes and within the Japanese American communities through the guidance of people who seriously tried to be a credit to their own heritage.

Sone also articulates the occasional shock she experienced when she unexpectedly recognized personal differences between herself and her white contemporaries. In spite of her conscious desire to become Americanized, she realized that unconscious processes of cultural osmosis shaped her ethnic identity. This experience is shared by the Nisei whose paradoxical bi-cultural realities are phased in and out of their consciousness throughout their lives. It was found that "[t]he Nisei...regarded the United States as their home. Although they were basically Japanese in many of their underlying attitudes, they had many American tastes, skills, and habits that their parents lacked." (Kiefer, 1974, p. 97).

From the standpoint of parenting, satisfactory achievement was attained by the Issei in that they were able to give their children a sense of identity. In this close bond, the Nisei consciously and unconsciously perceived basic values associated with family and group identity much in the same way that their parents did. When Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan and the United States Government began to consider severe measures against their Japanese American population, the commitment of the Japanese Americans to their cultural values of obligation and loyalty was severely challenged.

This project is naturally not related to statistical implications but are [sic] expressions of members of four family units who engaged in explorations of life experiences relative to their Japanese heritage. I and my associate held ten multigenerational sessions with three families, and seven were held with the fourth. In the process of organizing the material, the subject of the concentration camp experience and its impact on the Sansei gained priority for this article. I then expanded discussions with numerous Nisei and Sansei and added the information gained from them to that which I accrued over the years as Nisei who experienced the evacuation from the West Coast. Suggested topics for further research are: Okaishi and the Sansei (accountability for benefits received by the Sansei), Mourning of the Issei, and Hereditary Legacies of the Sansei.

What follows in this article are areas of intergenerational stress between the Nisei and the Sansei related to the concentration camp experience and how this is bound to the Sansei's quest for a closer identification with their ethnic origins. Reference will be made to establish explanations for the culturally determined attitudes and behavior of the Issei and the Nisei. Also, I will suggest some interpretations heretofore not elaborated upon in the literature.


The dilemma and quiet desperation expressed by the Sansei in this study will be mentioned in the context of several Nisei-Sansei intergenerational conflict areas. This will be accompanied by references to possible dynamic and cultural forces that affect the position of the respective generations.

The following intergenerational areas of conflict associated with the camp experiences will be considered:







A. Sansei Perspective

The Sansei seem to feel they are caught in a dilemma between their "quiet" Nisei parents and their other identity model of "verbal" Americans. Perhaps this is a reason the Sansei see the seemingly passive attitudes of their parents concerning their camp experience as symbolic of an identification barrier between the generations--"...around that issue is a statement that they can't talk to each other." This is a thought expressed by Amy Nakagami, an Eastern Sansei in her 30's.

Speculation occurs among Sansei as to why the Nisei cannot speak of their personal experiences and reactions about camp. Do problems of communication rest only with the Nisei or do the Sansei have their biases and difficulties in understanding the comments made by Nisei? Marion Oda, an Eastern Sansei raised these concerns: "...we are our parents' children so there's reticence in us too, perhaps. So...the real desperation has not been communicated...I wonder if Sansei are structuring their questions in ways that don't allow their need to know or their desperation to show...Maybe it's the way the Sansei are saying or asking that are putting the Nisei off...." Another comment made by Sue Ito was "...Maybe you're getting answers but you don't like the answers you get...I asked my uncle; he gave me both...'conditions were terrible'--not in a self-righteous way, 'but it was also good for some of us' ...I suppose it was hard for me to hear that...I didn't want to. I wanted to hear what an abuse it was to human dignity...." When Grace Fujisawa heard that Bill Takenaka on the West Coast had not revealed his camp experiences to his children because it was a "Haji" (shame) to be "punished for no reason," her spontaneous reaction was "It's perplexing. It must be an ethnic thing. Why should he be the one to feel shame? It should be the perpetrators who should feel shame." Still another suggestion was offered by Harriet Schmitt, a Sansei of mixed parentage in the East Coast "...I get the feeling the camp experience softened them because of the shock they had to go through. It kind of gave them a caution...."

The quest and identification of the Sansei with their parents' camp experience have evolved into a sympathetic quiet interest. The Sansei of the 70's have been described by Don Hayashi, Japanese American citizens League Headquarters in San Francisco, California (1977) as "quiet observers and listeners" in contrast to the vocal, demanding Sansei of the 60's who learned that protests made directly to the Nisei or in their behalf only alienated their parent generation. The Sansei noticed that the Nisei on the West Coast are just beginning to talk more openly among themselves about the painful side of their camp experience. Hayashi furthermore observed that this openness is not shared with the Sansei.

What the Sansei have been hearing and still do most of the time from the Nisei is a casual response that leaves the Sansei puzzled, as reflected in a conversation Ellen Nose had with a friend on the West Coast--"I was talking to a Sansei...she said, 'It's funny they (Nisei) talk about it (camp) as though they had a good time, so they laugh about it.' It's something that's really perplexing to me. I don't understand how you can have a good time...maybe they had a good time, but it's never been explained...."

B. Nisei Perspective

Individual Nisei are generally not consciously aware why they fall into a verbally non-assertive group of Americans in spite of their often intense hope to become otherwise. Hosokawa's apt descriptive title of his history on the Japanese Americans, Nisei: the Quiet Americans, affirms the collective image that the Nisei themselves realize is theirs. There is no adequate way to refute it. In fact, the Nisei's bland reactions to what is unmistakably a major personal and historical tragedy endured during the evacuation and incarceration, highlights their deeply entrenched silence. For example, I had a conversation on the West Coast with a Nisei couple, Dr. and Mrs. Glen Imai, and their two daughters, Frances and Dolores. The subject of the internment of their mother was brought up by Frances. She suddenly asked her mother what it was like for her to be there. The response was "Oh, it wasn't that bad." With some stress in her voice, Frances urged her mother to review letters that she wrote to their father describing the hardships she experienced. Her mother's comment was, "Did I say that?" This is illustrative of the Nisei-Sansei exchanges that undoubtedly occur in any location in the United States. Some of the possible contributory factors related to the phenomenon of silence among the Nisei are of interest here.

(1) Apartheid Milieu

The Nisei's ethnic sensitivity and defensiveness have existed since their early years in primary education partly in response to the apartheid mentality that surrounded them along the Pacific Coast. The practice of severe anti-Oriental discrimination for decades is a part of an established chronicle of that region. (ten Brook, Barnhart, and Matson, 1970; Chuman, 1976). A method by which the Nisei dealt with this racial discrimination was to deny any knowledge of their Japanese cultural heritage. Such suppression of their ethnic connection also possibly served as an identity anchorage for them, similar to the manner in which Freud noticed that he was strengthened when he silently bore his loyalty to his own Jewish heritage in the midst of discrimination and hostility that swirled around him. "...many obscure emotional forces, which were the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words, as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity...." (Freud, Vol. XX, p. 274, 1959).

(2) Clashing of Legacies

I suggest that the Nisei, at times, are boxed into an untenable position that they find difficult to change without "losing face." Their admiring American constituents remind the Nisei of the valiant, uncomplaining way they "patriotically" cooperated with the United States Government's action to evacuate and intern them into concentration camps. Fred Stripp, then Director of Forensics, Lecturer in Rhetoric and Acting Chairman of the Rhetoric Department, University of California at Berkeley, California, delivered a sermon at a Young People's Christian Conference Reunion held on August 28, 1977 in Berkeley, California. At one point he reflected the hope and gratitude of the conscience-stricken Americans that the Nisei have "forgiven" what happened to them. The Nisei in turn feel appreciative for such acknowledgment of their sacrifices and often seem to go along with it.

(3) Nisei Defensiveness

It is difficult to know the Nisei's actual reactions to their children's plea to tell them about their personal attitudes and experiences in the concentration camps. Parents, who in many other respects, willingly devote themselves to the needs of their children appear not to hear what the Sansei are asking of them. Remarks that are frequently heard among the Nisei parents are: "We don't tell because they (Sansei) don't ask." "Past is past; why dig up forgotten memories? The future is important." "Why burden our children? Why instill doubts in our children?", etc. Among the possible contributing factors related to the defensive posture of the Nisei, two will be mentioned here.

The pervasive protective attitude of the Nisei parents toward their children applies, somewhat, to their desire to shield the Sansei from knowledge of their camp experiences. They want to see their children integrate into the major society with less prejudicial impact than they had. I have perceived that the Nisei parents generally regard their children's social adjustment with satisfaction.

The second contributing factor is the Nisei's possible concern that they will break down in the presence of their children. Nisei are aware of the deep emotion displayed by some of their colleagues when they forthrightly confronted their own attitudes about camp. Perhaps a tolerable way to cope with the whole episode of incarceration at the present time is to dwell on the lighter and even nostalgic remembrances associated with the sustaining and warm communal life shared among the internees while they faced a common ordeal.

(4) Non-Verbal Communication

Whereas the ethnic identity of the Nisei was solidly implanted into their lives by their Issei immigrant parents through effective culturally evolved non-verbal communication, the Sansei's experience with their parents has not been quite the same. For one thing, the Sansei's reliance on verbal communication is greater than their parents' was: "Nisei can sit around and nod to each other and still get a lot accomplished." This was uttered by a previously mentioned Sansei, Harriet Schmitt, who was mystified by the mind-reading capabilities of the Nisei. It appears rather similar to what is practiced in Japan. "Among fellow-members a single word would suffice for the whole sentence." (Nakane, 1970, p. 126). Perhaps the Nisei consciously and unconsciously assume their children are interpreting their messages with the same naturalness that they understood their own Issei parents. It is common to hear the Nisei that their parents didn't "talk" to them.

Actually the phenomenon of communication outside of the spoken language is not unknown in the West. Professionally we realized the potency of unconscious and/or unspoken communication that exists in family relationships that nurture cohesive elements of legacies and myths about its members. However, on the day-to-day level of communication, verbal restraint is viewed as a social handicap, if not an abnormality in the United States. Criticisms are directed toward those who lack "assertiveness" or whose behavior is "withdrawn." In Japanese society verbal restraint is viewed as a strength and a virtue.

The Nisei were recipients of a gift of strength from their parents who passed on to them a mode by which life situations could be mastered. Somehow the Issei set themselves up as models to be copied by their children just as they copied qualities, without use of words, from their own ancestors. From this experience the Nisei emerged with a respect for a kind of individuality based on privacy and an ability to contain rather than to share or to give way to emotionality. The subtleties of awareness picked up in this type of communication result in a wisdom and a resource for survival that are beyond gross verbal interpretations or descriptions.

The Issei and Nisei can relate to their daily existence and challenges with dignity without even talking about their camp experiences. This can be seen as some kind of enigmatic tower of strength within the Nisei resented by the Sansei because knowledge of achieving such mastery is not shared with them; or the elders are feared to be "weak" because "...we Sansei--without being aware of the cultural derivation of our parents' silence--judge them according to our own American standards. I as a Sansei have always perceived this issue exclusively by my American standards--even though in a strange way, we also share the same non-assertiveness as the Nisei. It seems we judge Nisei and ourselves by the part that is American in us." This was Luanne Narahama's reflection to the content of the previous paragraph. The culturally influenced communication gap between the Nisei and the Sansei is a painful one for both generations. The Nisei's compelling desire to pass on to their children their gift of strength is thwarted by the mismatch of the modes of communication in which each of the generations functions. Both are ensnared in a difficult trap out of which there appears to be, at best, a possibility for only a slight degree of modification.

(5) Inexpressible Legacies and Roots

In contrast to the foregoing, more or less, familiar reasons for the silent attitude of the Nisei about their camp experience, the elusive conflicts arising from their commitment to their cultural heritage could conceivably be the source of their greatest inhibition.

It was impossible for the Nisei as the time of evacuation, as it seems to be today, to articulate their identification with the cultural values that their Issei parents instilled in them. One such value is that [sic] "On"--return of benefits received. The Nisei were exhorted by their parents to be mindful of their need to cultivate within their deepest being an understanding of what is "Makoto"--truthfulness that has implications of a deep spirit of dedication. Many lessons in Japanese history learned by the Nisei at language schools demonstrated how sacrificial dedication built up the civilization of Japan; however, there was no way for the Nisei to manifest the kind of ethnic pride their parents had. It was safer to emphasize their Americanism and even deny their Japanese identification in the racist climate of their surroundings. Nonetheless, it is my opinion that the Nisei, willingly or not, were caught up in the silent bearing of an indebtedness owed to the cultural aspiration of their parents without which the Nisei would be diminished in their identity and sense of continuity.


A. Sansei Perspective

The image the Nisei portray to their children is a concern natural to all parent-child relationships. It is possible the majority of the Sansei are puzzled as to how to view their parents' easy "capitulation" to incarceration out of "loyalty" to a government which was oppressive to them at that time. With their background in American democratic process and perhaps a more acute political awareness growing out of events in recent American history, the Sansei cannot understand why their parents were "weak" in exercising their rights as "loyal American citizens." The Nisei did not insist upon the protection of their welfare and freedom from their own government. It presents a disturbing identity model for the Sansei that has not improved with time.

The Sansei appear to invest some hope in understanding their parents by using the camp experience as a reference point. To their mystification the Sansei are realizing that not even the supposedly devastating experience of detention in camps has altered the un[sic]penetrable sheath that insulates their parents. Were their parents strong? The Sansei would like to think so because part of them would be strong also. Did the Nisei rely on their ethnic cultural values to sustain them? If so, what were they?

The Sansei are interested in the ethnic resources within their parents during internment and now. Dianne Fujii, and Easter[n] Nisei, put forth the idea that "The Sansei need to know...Did their parents have pride in being Japanese? Because the most damaging interpretation of the Nisei is that it was all right with them. Not so much to be locked away but that there is no sense of damaged ethnic pride...through all that you're acting; you are saying, "We were loyal Americans.' It's like washing that ethnic thing away...I think the Sansei want to say to their parents, 'Did you even have an ethnic pride?' It's obvious to the Nisei that they did...but maybe not to the Sansei...."

B. Nisei Perspective

A helpful way to conceive of the Japanese American situation is to use the analogy of the family. The father in Farewell to Manzanar expresses his position of a child caught with dual parental loyalties at the time of World War II when he asks rhetorically, "When your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting? (Houston and Houston, 1973, p. 55).

The Japanese could represent one parent whose culture and ancestors are part of the investment within the Japanese Americans that contributed to his and her ethnic attributes. And the Americans could represent the other parent whose heritage holds the key to the Japanese American's growth and fulfillment of special life dreams. To both are owed much in the way of loyalties and obligations.

As previously mentioned to the Nisei--for obvious and obscure reasons--emphasized their fulfillment of legacies to the Americans since their internment 36 years ago. Were there ethnic values that the Nisei remained loyal to during the episode that seems to the Sansei as a time for being vocal about human rights? The following interpretations are suggested:

(1) Filial Piety

"Oya-koko" is a word that connotes caring about parents beyond that called for in an obligatory sense. It is a concept that was indelibly indoctrinated into the Nisei by their parents. At the outbreak of World War II the Issei, who were never eligible for American citizenship, accepted the fate that befalls enemy aliens in states of emergency. They were destined to be incarcerated. Some of the Nisei interviewed indicated that it would have been a painfully wrenching experience for them to have been separated from their vulnerable, non-English-speaking parents. Loyalty to their parents came before their human rights. A West Coast Nisei tells her inquisitive children, "All that mattered was that we could stay together with my parents."

(2) Split Loyalty--Legacy of Filial Loyalty

It is difficult to deal with indebtedness of major loyalty obligation belonging to one parent without at the same time having simultaneous concern for the other parent because fighting parents paralize [sic] a child's development. The Japanese Americans faced a historically unprecedented pressure between two strong commitments, as if to two parents, when their homeland of the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Loyalty payments became due to both sides. I suggest that "capitulation" of the Nisei to evacuation and internment and the continued apparent "acceptance" of the entire experience to this day are related, in part, to their unexpressed loyalty payments to their ethnic heritage. The "loyal" cooperation of the Japanese Americans in that tragic event has been expressed almost totally from the side of the United States. Mixed sentiments and identification are described by Weglyn (1976) when she mentions the guilt assumed by the Japanese Americans for the act of the Japanese--"...with profound remorse, I believed, as did numerous Japanese Americans, that somehow the stain of dishonor we collectively felt for the treachery of Pearl Harbor must be eradicated, however, great the sacrifice, however little we were responsible for...." The author adds that "atonement" was sought--"...In an inexplicable spirit of atonement and with great sadness, we went with our parents to concentration camps." (Weglyn, 1976, p. 21).

Perhaps the great weight of loyalty obligations assumed by the Nisei can come into somewhat clearer view when implication of their sacrifices to their cultural heritage are added on to what is already known about the loyalty sacrifices they made to their American heritage. Fulfillment of indebtedness to one's heritage has an aspect of survival of one's identity. Mention will now be made of some examples of split loyalty payments involved in the camp experience.

(a) Suffering

I see suffering of injuries sustained by the Nisei as loyalty payments and settlements to both heritages.

For whatever reasons the Japanese mounted the attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor, the security of their Issei citizens and their American-born children and grandchildren was severely threatened.

Among other things, they had to contend with the nightmarish consequences of mass hysteria in the society around them, the removal of men who were the leaders of their ethnic communities, the loss of income and investments, and the fear and sustained anxiety over what disposition would be made of them. (Bosworth, 1967; Thomas and Nishimoto, 1969). In spite of such a drastic assault on their lives, the Japanese Americans, like children who share the guilt for one parent's hysterical and outrageous behavior toward the other parent, "accepted" the punishment by entering camp without disruptive protest.

The double-binded Nisei owed balancing their devotion to their American parent whose intractable suspicion of the Nisei's devotion to the Japanese demanded loyalty payments from the Nisei. (Daniels, 1971). Absorbing the suffering of internment then served, for one thing, to assuage some of the guilt harbored by the Nisei for their devotion to the Japanese people symbolized by their parents, who at that time were of enemy alien status, their grandparents, and in some instances even siblings living in Japan. June Moriyama expressed the implication of this interpretation for a Sansei: "...so it relieved them (Nisei) of a certain amount of guilt...they're taking the fruits of this country and they don't feel they are paying for that because they are not totally loyal...This country puts them in camp. It's like paying up in one installment everything you ever owed this country...we are saying we are loyal to our own people so we have to take the punishment...what is interesting and integrating about that particular way of looking at it is that is comes right from a cultural value...." Suffering through the evacuation and camp experiences can also be seen as a "once and for all" kind of settlement Nisei made to their dual heritages.

In the merit accounting system of the Nisei, the Americans can never make them targets of abuse again because it is the Americans who are beholden to those they martyred. it is difficult, if ever possible, to adequately compensate the suffering of martyrs. In an atmosphere of heated controversies over the Nisei's seeking reparations from the U.S. Government, I heard Robert Suehiro say on the West Coast "...they can't pay me enough for the degradation and humiliation we were put through...." Ichiro Toyama, a resident of the East Coast, urged "...we don't want a settlement; let the government carry the sore...."

I suggest that it is difficult for the Nisei to alter the balance of the legacy of split loyalty finally achieved. It requires no discussion. In fact, there could be some apprehension that unwarranted manipulation of their situations could tilt the balance against them. The Nisei appear impassive and immobilized; however, they can erupt with high tension when their stance on legacy responsibilities relative to camp, hidden or obvious, are critically challenged.

(b) Sacrifice

The sacrificial spirit of the Japanese Americans was dramatically emblazoned, in the public's view, by the ultimate sacrifice of the celebrated all-Nisei "suicide" Battalion of the 442nd. There is hardly a reference on the Japanese Americans that does not carry the account of this unit. It is significant be cause it provided a turning point in the attitude of the American society. The Japanese Americans were an enigma and a threat even after they were secured behind barbed wire and watched by armed sentinels. The Nisei military outfit at long last "proved" their loyalty to the satisfaction of the country when the majority of them were decimated while they took disproportionate risks in combat. As a result of their sacrifice, the general attitude and treatment towards their own people at home was improved.

Discussion were held with a Nisei and a Sansei about the meaning of the 442nd experience for them. Goro Yoshida, a Nisei veteran of the 442nd, residing in the East Coast, indicated his strong position, "...I want to shut people up. No one can ever say anything to me again....Now I am helping the Asian American group...." The singular motivation of loyalty to the United States ascribed to the 442nd Battalion by both the Japanese Americans and by the wider American society over the years was frustrating to Katy Fujita, a native of the East Coast--"...it bothered me, like the 442nd, for example, if I felt they were doing it for this country, for America first and foremost as good loyal Americans and it was the main reason, that wouldn't sit well. That would bother me and it would always be there. But if I hear, maybe they're doing it for their own people, then it has a lot of meaning to me...."

One other aspect of sacrifice will mentioned here. It is possible that some Japanese Americans felt the need to negotiate a sacrificial offering with an angry parent who threatened banishment of its Nisei children. Off and on before and after the internment, the Nisei heard of steps the Government might take to send them "back" to Japan. Kikuchi records the threat to the Nisei's civil rights that existed at that time--"...we must fight the vicious forces seeking to disenfranchise and deport us...." (Kikuchi, 1973, p. 113). I suggest that compliance with the incredible order to evacuate might have been a sacrificial offering on the part of some Nisei. Katy Fujita mentioned above, empathized with her parent generation, "...that must have been a horrible prospect for the Nisei to be disrupted in their lives, to be sent to Japan, to a foreign country. Essentially that was probably far worse than going to camps in the United States."


The Nisei and their children are acutely challenged today to seek processes by which a connection to ethnic values can be fostered through the relationship between them. The Sansei are seeking to find ethnic values in their own identity--a search that is made even more pressing by the demands emanating from the advanced ages of the Nisei and Sansei, and the numerous implications of the concentration camps for the Sansei's future within their American society.

A. Nisei Perspective

At this time the Nisei are faced with making a choice between boldly reviewing the intrinsic and practical values inscribed in their "contracts" with their American and Japanese heritages and protecting the status quo as a permanent symbol of their earned rights. Because the Nisei's loyalty contracts were sealed in tears and blood the emotions from it over the years have enlarged myths and legends not necessarily beneficial, particularly to their children. More on this subject will be covered later under "Legacies of the Sansei."

If the Nisei's choice is to assess their split loyalty contracts to their dual heritages, it is suggested that involvement of the Sansei in that process could be as meaningful as the identification experiences the Nisei had with their Issei parents. When conditions for the intergenerational dialogues can be signaled to one another, the Sansei will most likely reward their parents' trust in them to reveal the conflicts and questions they have locked up within themselves about the camp experiences. The Nisei can give the Sansei validation of the Sansei's opinions about camp. The Nisei can also give the Sansei an ethnic sense of themselves by showing how decisions and attitudes pertaining to camp were influenced and derived. In this exchange the Sansei, in turn, can give the Nisei the courage to confront these issues.

It is my opinion that when that stage is reached the Nisei can effectively consider alternative ways of relating to their bicultural responsibilities. For example, perhaps there are unique ways that the concentration camp experience of the Japanese Americans can further the consciousness of Americans to deal with the human worth of its people. And to their Japanese heritage, perhaps the Nisei, as a child who held on to caring for both parents during a severe conflict, can offer special help in promoting friendship between the two countries.

B. Sansei Perspective

In their daily lives, the Sansei do not feel like they are assimilated Americans. They are reminded by their environment that "...There are certain things about us that are very American and certain things about us that are not. I mean we've got to be aware of it. People tell us that all the time...." (Sansei of mixed parentage). Aside from the effects of the external image makers, the Sansei themselves are struggling with their dual legacies. A Nisei mother, Faith Ito, noticed, "...the Sansei's are not quite sure. All along they think they are Americans. They've been in white society and they discover that they have something else, the Japanese part in them...."

Janice Kobayashi, an Eastern Sansei, stressed the need for "healing" the intergenerational communication rift for the sake of protecting the identity of the Sansei "...particularly if you are hungry for, if your own experience is that you are upset by the camp experience and your parents' and others' line is that it was nothing, you're hungry to have your own opinion validated in some way, otherwise you think you are crazy. So if you hear parents saying it was terrible or whatever, at least you feel you have some kind of support or validation of what your own personal feelings are, and that's comforting from one of your own...from parents."

An Eastern Sansei exchanged opinions in an intergenerational dialogue on possible ways ethnic values affected the Nisei's reactions to camp. Barbara Suyenaga saw how many of the family decisions made before, during, and since internment were laced with the cultural values of the Issei. She reflected on the impact of that experience in this way: "...a lot of things I didn't know were cultural values...so it was helpful to identify them as possible things that were culturally derived. Because it made me feel, 'Oh, that's me, that makes sense.' You like to feel that your ethnic identity is actually a contributing factor in your own personal identity...it's very rich to get it from something that you are, that you look like, that came from, than what everybody else can get. You get plenty from your environment. You get the same things that a white kid next to you gets. But to get something that is uniquely your own is really precious. And I think that is part of continuity also...It's extremely personal...can't dispute it because it is part of your identity....If you look at something from a white person's view...like they copied white values...I thought, 'Oh, they've become white.' You don't like to feel that way. But if you feel that it comes from your own cultural values, you feel completely different about it....It's not something they took...that they diluted themselves to become. It was there to begin with and lent itself to this particular thing....If you can identify those cultural things, it gives you some idea, some understanding of where your parents came from...and if you have a part of that in you, it's not something terrible. It's something that was passed down to you. It's hard to separate certain kinds of things. At this point in the Sansei's lives, there's been equal impact from each, the source of input from cultural values...and you also have input from the greater society--two or three generations worth of it so it's hard to say, in fact, which it is...."


The Issei and the Nisei know from their personal camp experience that the suffering endured by them can hardly be compared to the torture and actual extermination of six million Jewish internees in concentration camps. What is of interest here are specific issues related to the camps' effects on each of the minority groups. It seems the Jewish and Japanese American descendants are living with legacies, each in their own way.

A. Mutuality of Protection

It is frequently heard among the Nisei that they do not want to burden their children. The kind of protection that the Nisei experienced under the tactful care of their Issei parents abounds in the descriptions of family interactions by Sone (1953). Recently I visited the exhibition of Henry Sugimoto's art depicting his observations and experiences while he and his family were in camp. In response to my comment on the innocence reflected in the faces of the little Nisei children, Mr. Sugimoto, an Issei artist residing in New York City, recalled the reaction of their part-Sansei daughter, than age six when she said, "Let's go home now," after Madeline and her family finished what she thought was their picnic lunch at the induction center. The anxieties and suffering of the parents were not put on the child.

Do the Sansei, in turn, owe it to the Nisei to protect them by not speaking about the implications of camp for the Issei and the Nisei? Perhaps an ambivalence within the Sansei is developing over this question.

B. Carrier of Pain

Although the Nisei may have consciously avoided transmission of indebtedness to the camp, it is suggested here that to some extent it has, nonetheless, been passed down subtly or subconsciously to their children. Family therapists have learned the many ways parents are sustained and even consciously relieved of pain because their children are covertly "asked" to bear it. Such children, as children in general, want to be responsive to their parents' needs, partly out of fulfilling their own identity needs to do what is significant and expected. Inferences of indebtedness to parents borne by the Sansei in this project have been drawn from their reactions to camp.

I suggested that the pain suffered by the Issei and the Nisei has been passed down to the succeeding generation and through modes that were culturally influenced, that is, through non-verbal cues. The Nisei may not be acutely aware of their own pain as much as the Sansei who are bearing it for them. In sharp contrast to the value legacy of the Sansei, the Jewish youth are heir to a value reserve that prompts exposure and articulation as Wiesell's [sic] writings and many open discussions about the Nazi Holocaust demonstrate.

The following examples which came to my attention are undoubtedly familiar to many Nisei and Sansei:

A Sansei on the West Coast recently recalled a special research project that fascinated her beyond any other studies she undertook. It involved her exploring extensive published and unpublished material on the Japanese American evacuation and concentration camp. She found herself weeping through much of that experience.

An Eastern Sansei could not watch the television showing of "Farewell to Manzanar" a second time. Judith Hashimoto recalled, "...I couldn't watch that the second time...I started to and couldn't...sort of too painful...you watch it and it begins to work on you....It will be the same pain over again and then there is nothing I can do with it or it's a reexperiencing the same thing and that thing happened to be pain or sadness....Maybe that's how the Nisei feel. They don't want to run through that again the second time...."

A 16-year old Sansei in a family session in the project indicated his parents "paid a price" when they entered camp. It was making it possible for him and his siblings to have an "easier" life as the result of the price paid to society by their parents.

Another Sansei, a high school graduate, indicated in a family session in the project that since she learned in her earlier teens what happened to Japanese Americans during the evacuation and internment, she has been carrying a "smoldering anger" that does not become volatile but it is "there."

The Nisei father of a 9-year old of mixed parentage described his son's reaction to watching "Farewell to Manzanar" on TV. The child was deeply moved and he cried. His father was surprised because he never told his son about his own experience in camp.

C. "On" or Return of Benefits Received

What is owed by the Sansei to the Nisei and Issei? Unlike the Jewish youth who can gauge their indebtedness against explicit events that devastated their people, the Sansei have considerably less with which to relate to the overt needs of their parents. The Sansei seem to sense that a monumentally controversial episode occurred in the lives of their parents and grandparents but they are strangely out of phase with the impact that internment should have had on their forebears. This predicament is expressed by Lily Sakata, "...It's some sort of legacy we have to carry but we didn't live through it....We're handed something we don't understand. We don't know what happened to them. We don't know what it did to them...." I suggest that the Sansei are faced with a difficult task of trying to live up to their parents' legacy of superhuman capabilities of dealing with the camp experience. Is it possible for the Sansei to fulfill some of the implicit parental expectations in this regard by returning relevant benefits to the Nisei?

Among the Sansei-initiated projects that has had beneficial consequences is the pilgrimage to the camp site of Manzanar. This opened the way for subsequent pilgrimages, including other camp sites joined by the Nisei. I see that a significant process was fostered by which the Nisei were emboldened to look back to a difficult time in their lives and in the lives of the Issei.

The Sansei are currently observing the latest major challenge facing the Nisei over their camp experience. It is related to the Nisei's seeking reparation from the United States Government. Some of the Sansei are quietly hoping for an opportunity to assist the Nisei in coping with that challenge. They realize that they cannot enter into an advocacy position for the Nisei without the approval of the Nisei.

A policy was finally adopted by the Japanese American Citizens League at their National Convention in 1976 to pursue reparations from the United States Government after many years of resistance to it. The policy was passed mainly as the result of the persuasive eloquence of Mike Masaoka, president of an international public relations firm, Masaoka-Ishikawa and Associates in Washington, D.C. He hopes that the Nisei's request for reparation will mobilize national attention to a gross desecration of human rights supposedly espoused by our Government. Congressional action on reparations would then symbolize our Nation's desire to rectify the injustice of internment of its citizens without due process of law.

Now that procedural matters are under consideration by the Nisei on the "grass roots" level, much ambivalence about pressing for reparation is again emerging. Many of the same reasons given by the Nisei for their silence about internment are heard again--"Why rock the boat?," "The past is past, why dig up the past?," "Why offend people who helped us?," etc.

For some Jewish descendants of survivors of the camps, the responsibility has been too great and some of them have been seen in mental health clinics and mental hospitals. In fact a special mental health service for children of holocaust survivors is now set up in New York City. I became familiar with a psychotic youth whose one parent escaped the camp and the other parent was closely related to exterminated members. The profound guilt of the Survivors for finding themselves alive and their efforts to be exonerated from their guilt rested heavily upon the shoulders of their only child whose life was offered to God to "glorify His name." The daughter could not fulfill her parental expectations.

What ravages occurred in the form of emotional and mental disturbances and family disequilibrium among the Japanese American victims and their descendants are not known. In a recent conversation with a former Northwest Nisei resident, a question was raised over the large increase in the number of "nervous breakdowns" that have occurred among the Issei and unheard of psychiatric casualties among the Nisei since their internment in camps. He was not speaking out of reference to any official record in the Northwest region but purely from his acquaintance of individuals who required treatment. The validity of the number of incidents attributable to the camp experience awaits investigation; however, it is my opinion that some degree of correlation may exist. It could also be somewhat relevant to associate the puzzling drug addiction problem among the Sansei in Southern California to their way of dealing with their untenable camp legacies.

D. Resource Among the Sansei

With the increasing media coverage on the Japanese Americans' concentration camp experience, the responsibility of responding to queries from curious members of the majority group is growing. The comment made by a Nisei affiliated with an Eastern university is not atypical "...sooner or later the students come around to asking about the evacuation and camp...." Along with the Nisei, the Sansei are also put in the position of of [sic] resource individuals on the subject. It is assumed here that the Sansei are generally reluctant to discuss the camp situation because their parents have not given them sanction to speak freely about it. I noticed that in those exceptional situations when the Nisei parents themselves initiated the suggestion that their children present the camp story as a school project and the Sansei received first-hand reactions and accounts from their parents in the preparation of such project, the Sansei were released to expand on their own reactions as well as to reflect their parents' position. For example, a Sansei in an Eastern metropolitan high school captivated a large student body and their parents with his documented material reinforced by substantive aid from his parents. The audience responded emotionally to that presentation.

Much emphasis has been place[d] on the difficulty of the Nisei to [sic] face their internment experience due to the urgent implications it has for the Sansei. However, this is not meant to be a negative criticism of the Nisei for it is realized that the Nisei's reluctance to discuss it bears aspects of self preservation. There is something very frightening about it. The Jewish survivors are beginning to speak about their experience after 30 years of silence because they feel it is an obligation to the dead as well as to the living. They express fear of "madness" in looking at it. The American Jews and other Americans as well have heard about the holocaust because the relatives of the victims talked about it.


The evacuation and internment of Japanese American citizens was seen as a "threat to society and to all men" by such individual as Rostow (1945) and by others in subsequent years who were concerned about the harmful implications of that miscarriage of justice.

The Sansei as direct descendants of internees have special reasons to be fearful. Their parents' law abiding record did not entitle them to the protection of the law. In addition to their close association with a frightening and bewildering family experience, the Japanese American youth have lived through historic episodes of the tumultuous 60's, Vietnam and Watergate--"We were raised under investigative journalism," remarked Dorene Okada, while describing the sense of vulnerability harbored by the Sansei.

Several Sansei approached in this study, ranging in ages from 16 to 30 have alluded to their fears. Marilyn Tsujikawa recalled, "...When they started to draft kids and started to hear (about) massacre in Vietnam, everything was wrong...and it was as if our parents could let that happen to them. They almost made it worse...going in as a group and when they got there never said anything...here we were screaming our lungs out about everything...and our parents didn't say a word back...the Sansei feel fear for ourselves...."

Another Sansei indicated she experiences a discomfort and at times even a sense of danger when tension producing situations arise between the Americans and Japanese nationals.

Some of the Sansei in the study had thoughts about the way they might react to an evacuation order. A youth in his midteens stated he would not be bland about it "...if they do, if we were thrown in camps...because of the way they reacted...I would react violently...and retaliate." His father responded approvingly, "That's a real honest answer...."

Alyce Hironaka was not certain how she would react based on the model behavior of the Nisei and how "Japanesey" the Sansei would be expected to respond. "...I used to thing there was a good possibility it would happen...if we knew that it would be almost the same case...a lot of the Sansei would feel they couldn't leave their parents... a lot of the Sansei would opt to go if the Nisei were forced. If it were just the Sansei that would have to go, I don't know what we would do. I think that's where the problem is because...it's part of the Japanese personality. We think we're supposed to have a lot more self control than anybody else...."


The Sansei are in a quandary over their identification with their dual cultural heritage--the American and Japanese--thus creating a sense of estrangement, on some levels, in relation to both. The Sansei receive strong overt messages from their parents to become "white," i.e. to subscribe to the legacies of American society, almost exclusively. On the other hand, the Sansei themselves are not only told by their major social environment that they are not white, but they themselves have yearnings for validation of their attitudes and values that are unlike those encountered in their outside society. It is also suggested that the Sansei are subconsciously stirred by covert messages to identify with their ethnic culture by their Nisei parents who feel some ambivalence in not promoting a closer connection with the past of their Issei parents.

The oft-repeated comments by the Sansei that their parents do not discuss their personal attitudes and experiences in camp contain implications of uncertainty of the Nisei to resolve sharply contradictory expectations that would have required an almost superhuman creativity in the face of crushing discrimination.

The Nisei in their way are faced with psychological and moral obstacles in opening up to their children about their loyalty obligations to the Japanese legacy. Again it is much easier to make unending assertions about their loyalty expectations to Americans in this regard. This added to what could be a very personal history of endurance, the telling of which could somehow betray something sacred that they possess, could compound the issues.

I suggest that a systematic development of unutilized trust resources between the Sansei and their parents is possible. The process by which members of each generation can work with each other on the difficulties contributing to the identity crisis of the Sansei and of their parents has a precedence as a methodology of intergenerational approach in family work. This method is built on the premise that it is essential to regard and mutually appreciate the two conflicting sets of value and legacy expectations.

/s/ Nobu Miyoshi
This research was supported by NIMH grant number 1 R13 MH25655-01. This report was submitted on July 10, 1978. The award is gratefully acknowledged.





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