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Voices of Chicago

My Life Between Two Cultures - Part 2

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4. The Inoue Family Meets Their American Relatives

In 1942, my relatives, like all the West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans, were shipped to a concentration camp. They were initially sent to Tanforan Race Track in California, and then, I believe, to Tule Lake. I know nothing about their lives in the camp because I do not recall my mother ever speaking about them.

In 1946, my younger uncle was drafted into the United States Army and was sent to Kobe, Japan for a two year stint. In the spring of 1947, he came to visit us in Takasaki, wearing an American uniform and looking very handsome. His first visit left me with an unforgettable memory. My parents took him and the children to a nearby hot spring. On our return trip, when we arrived at the station, the station master led us to a beautiful empty car set aside for the American occupation personnel. We were the only passengers in the car. The rest of the train was jammed with the Japanese travelers, many of whom were probably trying to return to Tokyo with the little food that they had acquired on the black market in the countryside. People were climbing through the windows to enter the cars. I experienced the privilege and power represented by a member of my own family who, ironically, had been incarcerated allegedly as untrustworthy when his parents’ homeland was in a war against U.S. As a twelve year old girl, I recall thinking that there was clearly something strange in our world!

I have one other important memory from those days. My American step-grandmother in Oakland sent us care packages containing used clothes, food, soap and various items. Those boxes had a special dry and pleasant “American” smell. My grandmother included a box of delicate brooches made of shells that she had made in the camp. She also sent me a beautiful red jacket and a cobalt blue skirt—I had never seen such a lovely outfit. I wore them proudly, but, of course, when the rest of the Japanese people were clothed in drab worn clothes, I no doubt stood out like a sore thumb!

Our family life was atypical because of how my mother raised us. Perhaps because of her experience in America, she had an unusual sense of equality of men and women. We children called each other by our first names with -chan, the diminutive polite ending; I and my next brother, Eiji, were never addressed as onee-san, “older sister,” or onii-san, “older brother,” which was the typical Japanese custom. Both girls and boys were equally expected to participate in household chores. My mother always walked side-by-side with her husband, never behind him. Also my mother never polished her husband’s shoes, as many housewives of her generation (and some even today) were expected to do. Although my father did not do many household chores he did participate quite actively in child rearing.

5. Travel to America

During the seventh grade, when Japanese children start studying English, my mother taught me how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet in American English. From that time on, I did well in English at school and English became my favorite subject. At some point in high school, I decided that I wanted to go to America to study. I begged my mother to ask her brothers if they would be willing to sponsor me with a financial guarantee for my education. Looking back on it, it was a daring request from a relative they hardly knew. In those days, the United States government required full financial support by an American citizen for all foreign students who desired to study in America.

In July 1956, having completed two years of education at a junior college, I set sail on a small Japanese freighter; my boat fare had been paid by an American women’s organization called the College Women’s Club of Tokyo. I enrolled at San Jose State College as a junior in the program in school librarianship that fall. College work was incredibly difficult. Although I spoke English without much of a Japanese accent, my reading and writing abilities were far from adequate. My vocabulary was so small that I could not improve my reading speed. As a result, studying occupied much of my time, and I remember nothing but studying and working.

My relatives were farmers and nursery men working very hard from early in the morning. I quickly realized that what I had asked my relatives to do for me was rather out of line. Feeling deeply indebted, I tried to earn as much money as I could to supplement my uncle’s support money. I also helped my aunt around the house and my uncles in the nursery as much as I could. For all foreign students, working outside the campus was illegal. Nonetheless, during the first year, I worked for a couple of families as a maid in exchange for room and board, and took a job cleaning venetian blinds at an office building—poorly paid and tedious work! No one seemed to care that hiring me was illegal.

6. Back in Japan—Still a Stranger!

I graduated from San Jose State on 1958. In September 1959, after a year of internship at the Children’s Library of Brooklyn Public Library, I returned to Japan, expecting never to return to America. During the next nine years, I taught English at a conversation school. Most of my colleagues were Americans, and teachers were required to speak English in classrooms. While living in Japan with my family, I spoke English five days a week. As time passed, my English improved to such an extent that I began to wonder who I was. How it was that language had such an important impact on one’s sense of identity?

7. Living Between Two Worlds

In 1968, I returned to the United States for graduate work in linguistics. After getting a Master’s degree in TESOL at the University of Hawaii, I spent five years at the University of Michigan. In 1975, having earned a Ph.D, I came to UIC as an assistant professor of theoretical linguistics. I also established a Japanese language program at UIC.

My life in America has been challenging and fascinating. In both my personal and academic life, I dealt with questions about the differences between American and Japanese societies because I had to function as a faculty member in the university community like everyone else, and I had to understand the values and perspectives of my students. To give one example, for a long time I did not know that silence in meetings meant tacit approval of proposed policies, even though I had expressed disapproval earlier. In Japan, it often means tacit disapproval. I had to train myself to express opposition at meetings without fear of isolation or reprisal. Through various experiences like this, I realized over time that I was having a life between two cultures. While trying to adjust to American academic life, I did not want to give up my Japanese identity.

I have visited Japan to do research and spend time with my family as often as I could—nearly every year during the past ten years. I continue to be interested in changes taking place in Japan. I love both Japan and the United States and I only wish I could live in both countries at the same time.

*This article was originally published in Voices of Chicago, online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2010 Kyoko Inoue

chicago educator identity Japan language occupation post-war post-WWII student World War II

About this series

The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

Visit the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society website >>