The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation

Portland JACL Newsletter: February 2014 Issue
Board Member Message by Verne Naito

Best wishes for the New Year. Last year was a sad one for the Nikkei community. We saw the passing of a number of leaders of the Nikkei community in 2013, including, but not limited to, George Azumano and Dr. George Hara, both of whom served as presidents of our Portland JACL in 1947 and 1965, respectively.

Portland JACL, Gresham Oregon Discrimination Meeting

During their times, exclusionary laws and overt racism towards Japanese Americans were very much alive and well. What would have raised cries of outrage spilling into this newsletter was business-as-usual back then. One can only imagine the forms of discrimination our chapter had to deal in those days, but I assure you that we are better off today for what they and their respective board members did then. Guess what Oregon city the Meeting for the notice to the right was? (click on it to find out)

Last December, I attended the memorial service for George Azumano. He was a great family man, a great businessman, a great community leader, and a great leader for the Nikkei community. As one of the eulogizers stated, George Azumano had a “quiet leadership style,” and was a “true role model” for all of us. Another eulogizer called George “a Nikkei hero.” But it was the reflective comment of George’s grandson, Tadashi Dozono, who is a Yonsei, which resonated in my mind. Tadashi said that his grandfather and other Nisei defined for his generation what it means to be a “Japanese American.”

Portland JACL Newsletter, The Greatest Generation

The Nisei are the last of the Japanese Americans to have one foot in Japanese culture while their lives are firmly planted in America. The last bit of foreign-ness in the Nisei is all but absent in the Sansei. Few of the Sansei that I know, myself included, can speak Japanese and most have only a passing knowledge of Japanese customs.

In many people’s minds, though, it is not a strong connection to Japan and things Japanese that defines what it means to be “Japanese American.” Rather, it is the WWII experience that uniquely distinguishes us from other Asian American people. The first-hand experiences, feelings, and thoughts of the Nisei in pre-war America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the incarceration camps, and the aftermath of WWII have shaped us as a people. It cannot be communicated by third parties or history books. The Nisei are the only ones with the first-hand knowledge. For a fortunate few Yonsei, their grandparents have passed on their experience of the experience. With the passing of the Nisei, what will become of our Japanese American heritage?

My personal opinion is that what it means to be Japanese American is changing and will continue to change with passing. Scholars have long considered us the among the most thoroughly assimilated immigrant populations. With an out-marriage rate of over 50%, we are becoming less physically recognizable as an ethnic minority. While the period during WWII and the years following are defining times for our people, how important those times are to being Japanese American going forward may become just one, albeit very important one, of many parts of our experience as a minority group.

The greatest loss in losing the Nisei generation may not be that their real-life experiences fade into history books and video interviews. No, from my perspective, the greatest loss in losing the Nisei—those like George Azumano, Dr. George Hara and countless others—is that we are losing people who not only define what it means to be Japanese American, but whose professional accomplishments, citizenship, family values, and personal character make us proud to be Japanese Americans.

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