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Defining A New Nikkei Paradigm with Junko Mifune

What does being Nikkei mean to you?

Do I have a greater claim on Nikkeiness because my grandparents immigrated to Canada before World War Two, were interned and dispossessed of their property? Does it matter that my father served in the Canadian army? Does it matter that you can speak better Japanese than me? Does it matter that your spouse is white and mine is from Japan? Does it matter that I was born here and you weren’t? Does being a descendant of the “first” Japanese immigrants group give you the right to dictate what should and should not be allowed to go into the complex mix of our every changing Canadian Nikkei identity? Does being from Japan give you the right to tell anyone that they aren’t “Japanese” enough?

I was discussing this matter recently with a Shin Ijushya (new immigrant from Japan) friend who immigrated here 20 years ago. He remarked that “We couldn’t have had this discussion back then when we were all expected to be hockey-loving ‘Canadians’ just like the Nisei and Sansei.”

Provoked by this spurious remark, I tried to locate a Shin Ijushya who would be courageous enough to speak publicly about Nikkei identity and community. Several refused before I located Junko Mifune.

As one of the founding members of the newly formed “J-Comm Committee” (formerly Ijushya Relations Committee) at the Toronto Japanese Cultural Community Center, Mifune understands firsthand the critical importance to bridge the cultural gap between post-World War Two immigrants who are still very much tied to Japan culturally and linguistically and Nikkei who are still largely defined by internment and Redress, don’t speak much Japanese and who with every passing generation are becoming more and more estranged from their Nikkei heritage.

The survival and future relevance of our lovely community centers and organizations will ultimately depend on how well we are able to negotiate and embrace a “New Nikkei” paradigm, one that respects and serves the needs and interests of those estranged Nikkei, new and old. They will want to join our community once they can see compelling reasons for doing so.

* * *

When I was child, I used to be teased for not looking Japanese, Mifune recalls.  “I was teased for looking ‘gaijin’ (like a foreigner), having big eyes and brown hair.  As I got older I learned that it wasn't bad thing to have big eyes or brown hair, but I was quite hurt and traumatized by the experience, and felt ostracized from others because how I looked. When I was little, I was thinking that I'll dye my hair black so that people wouldn't call me gaijin.  Maybe because of the experience, I feel somehow closer to some minorities in Japan. I still get ‘you don't look Japanese’ or ‘Are you mixed?’  from quite a few Japanese, but that doesn't bother me anymore.”

I think I have given up being ‘Japanese’ or even ‘Canadian’, she explains. “Even though I became Canadian, I don't think I feel fully so as I didn't grow up here. Also, when I go back to Japan, I'm happy and comfortable to be there, but I feel like a counterfeit Japanese who doesn't belong there anymore.  I feel a sense of relief when I come back to Canada. I feel sad about this, especially the fact that I need to create my own identity here which doesn't fully belong either to Canada or Japan.”

After finishing junior college in Iwate-ken and working for Tokyo Gas, Mifune immigrated to Michigan where her uncle was working in Battle Creek, where there was a large community of Chuzai-in families (workers who immigrate with their families) in the late eighties. At school, her contact with other Japanese was limited to a few friends who were married to Americans, some students and faculty. She first studied English then enrolled at the University of Michigan where she majored in Psychology and Women’s Studies and eventually earned a Masters of Social Work. She immigrated to Canada eight years ago and became a Canadian citizen two years ago.

Just as the descendants of the first wave of immigrants are becoming ever more distant from their Japanese heritage,  know much about Japan, usually not speaking the language and often of mixed heritage, the Ijushya are a very different as they still strongly identify themselves as “Japanese” regardless of citizenship.

Shin Ijushya need to understand what Nisei went through during and after the war, stresses Junko.

The particular wall between Shin Ijushya and pre-WW2  immigrants is rooted in their different experiences and needs, she points out.  Also, as Japanese women tend to marry non-Japanese Canadians, that also separates them apart.  “Shin Ijushya are usually trying to adjust themselves to their new environment and building families here.  JCs probably feel that Shin Ijushya don't understand what they went through during and after the war, so they don't identify themselves with them, at all.”

Mifune continues: “For me, ‘community’ means a group of people who share something in common such as the place where we live, an activity, certain values or interests, ethnic, political, socio economic, or any other identification that can provide some sort of connection with each other.  But I also want to focus on a ‘sense of community’ which can only develop when people work together toward common goals.   I think that's what we need.  I feel strongly that that needs to be fostered in the Ijushya community as well as in the larger JC community.”

Empathy is a first step to coming closer to another person, she emphasizes.  “Without being educated much about the internment in Canada and of the expulsion of Japanese Canadians to Japan, many Japanese miss the chance to learn about this historical fact which affected so many JCs not so long ago.  Many Ijushya too experience some kind of discrimination based on race or ethnicity when they become a minority in foreign countries.

Many of us have never thought of ourselves as a minority until we left Japan where the Zainishi, Chinese Japanese, Buraku people, Ainu, or other minorities face discrimination. I think that learning about the history of the place where we live helps us to connect more with the community and larger society.  I would also like to find out how older and younger generations of JCs feel about the Ijushya.”

* Norm always welcomes your comments at masaji777@gmail.com

** This article was originally published in Nikkei Voice (Toronto).

© 2009 Norm Ibuki

Canada identity