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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

Seeking It Out: A Hapa Shin-Nisei’s Grasp at Culture

My favorite large Japanese market is about 30 miles away, which feels pretty far away when there’s a nice family-owned JA market just down the street. But at times like this, it’s definitely worth the journey. This week they had their Hokkaido food fair. I love going to Mitsuwa’s various regional food fairs for one yummy reason—they almost always feature a variety of freshly made regional fishcakes, each type featuring a different set of special ingredients. I enjoy the pre-packaged variety too, but nothing compares to expertly prepared fresh fishcake. Regional ramen, bento, desserts, and other specialties make the trip even more worthwhile.

But I haven’t always been this lucky and I don’t ever take it for granted. A good friend back home (Hawaii) once told me that I do more “Japanese things” than she does. I’m not sure if that’s true. Maybe I just talk about it more. In Hawaii, Japanese/JA things are everywhere. They are woven into everyday life, just as are the fibers of various other Asian cultures.

Growing up in Hawaii, I never had to seek my culture out. For example, not a year went by without some student doing a report on the 100th battalion, the 442nd infantry, Daniel Inouye, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and WWII Japanese American concentration camps. We grew up with Shirokiya and Daiei supermarkets. Class parties almost always featured omusubi and shoyu chicken. We even learned a children’s song called Bento Bako (sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques,” a.k.a. “Brother John”).

Bento Bako, Bento Bako
Okazu, Okazu
Musubi and Ume, Musubi and Ume
Daikon too! Daikon too!

I had always assumed this was a Japanese song. But I later realized that “and” and “too” are not Japanese words. The lines between cultures were always somewhat blurred. And I never thought about whether or not kids on the mainland shared these experiences. It was simply part of our lives and we knew nothing different.

But I have spent a good part of my adult life on the mainland and I have learned not to take these precious pieces of our culture for granted. I have had no choice but to seek out my culture and now that I don’t have to, I relish it—everyday.

When I was a kid, even as a Hapa child, I knew I was lucky. While my many nth generation JA classmates either bought the school lunch or brought sandwiches to school, I often had a special bento lunch packed by my mom. It always included one handy wipe. She would say, “Tear it in half and use one half to wash your hands before you eat and the other half after you finish.” My Nihonjin mom was a clean freak and a very good cook. My math teacher, Mr. Akutagawa, used to tell me how envious he was. I told this to my mom and from then on my lunches became even fancier and I often had an extra one to bring to him (mom responds well to flattery). I call her my “Nihonjin mom” rather than “Issei mom” because, although she never plans to return home, she will never give up her Japanese citizenship. Future generations will consider her to be an Issei but, because I know her, I just can’t.

When I went away to Illinois for college, I was ill prepared. I had no winter coat, no sheets, no idea of what I was supposed to bring. But my mother made sure of one thing—I had a rice cooker. She made my father take us to Arakawa’s hardware store in Waipahu to get it. And I used that rice cooker faithfully for decades, finally retiring it last year.

To be honest, it didn’t feel like much of a culture shock when I went to college (freezing weather aside). It felt more like an adventure. And the other students from Hawaii, especially the graduate students, took good care of me, as if I were family. But I did miss one thing—Asian food, especially Japanese food. Although we could find a few key ingredients at a tiny Korean market nearby, there was barely one “restaurant” that served Japanese food. I put that in quotes because everything was served in Styrofoam containers, as if it were takeout food.

By the time I was in graduate school, I was pretty homesick. So I formed a Hawaii Club. What did we do? We ate, of course. We had potlucks—good food, good company. It felt like a family. We even drove up to Chicago (about 3 hours away) at least once to enjoy Japanese food at a restaurant that could actually afford to use real dishes.

Eventually, some of us moved up there. We would often go to what we considered to be “Japantown,” a mixed neighborhood where a lot of the Japanese restaurants and shops are located. Even though most of the restaurants had basically the same menus, it was so much more than what we were used to.

Eventually we started a Hawaii Club there too. That’s how I met my friend Lea. Although she was from Japan, her boyfriend was from Hawaii. They saw our “ad,” handwritten on an index card, at the only place we knew Hawaii folks would flock to—Star Market, a small family owned Japanese market in “Japantown.”

Although I consider myself culturally to be Japanese American, I don’t share the same ancestral history as most nth generation JAs. So my friendship with Lea has always been special to me. She was the first person to help me learn Japanese. I have fond memories of sitting in Starbucks with her and trying to memorize hiragana .

When I said that I missed eating korokke (we couldn’t find them at any restaurant in Chicago), she bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes (it was a bargain) and made a “batch.” Ten pounds of potatoes makes quite a bit of korokke and she used it all. She called her many Nihonjin friends (and me) and gave each a Ziploc bag full of fresh homemade korokke . I savored each one and the fond memories of my mother’s korokke that they evoked.

It was in Chicago that I first learned of the Japanese American National Museum. Some of my Nikkei Hawaii friends and I went to the main city library to see a visiting exhibit on the WWII camps. We were amazed. We couldn’t believe there was a museum just for us—for our people. The feeling was indescribable.

A decade later, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I now drive down to LA to visit the Japanese American National Museum several times a year. Although it is over six hours away, it is always worth the journey. Thanks to their inspiration, I now volunteer up here at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. I think of Lea every time I eat korokke and, although she no longer remembers that day, I will never forget it. I have, for the majority of my life, had to seek out my culture. And I am thankful for every opportunity I have had to enjoy it.

© 2012 Sandra Gauvreau

chicago clubs food hawaii identity Itadakimasu JAMsj janm japanese market korokke Nikkei Chronicles students

About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture