"I am a Sansei"

David Mura

Apr 13, 2015


            “I am a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American.” 

            This is a line in the first chapter of Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which centers on my year long stay in Japan.  At my readings, I generally repeat this line to provide the audience with some context for understanding who I am.  At the same time I know how each member of the audience understands this sentence will differ, depending upon their knowledge of Japanese Americans and their history as well as the particular listener’s own identity.

            So what does this sentence mean to me?  It means that my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, around 1903-5 for my grandfathers and a bit later for my grandmothers.  It means that they were part of a wave of cheap Asian labor who could be exploited economically in part because of their race and in part because, as a result of their race, they could not become citizens.  It means they arrived in an era when the newspapers spoke of the “yellow peril” and expressed an anti-immigrant rhetoric which echoes and seeds the anti-immigrant rhetoric of today.  It means that my grandparents were Issei, first generation, and the immigration from Japan was stopped in 1924 by the racially motivated Asian Exclusion Act which, except for certain exceptions, excluded immigrants from Asia and specifically from Japan.  This did not change until the passing of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which opened up immigration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

            All this is part of our largely forgotten or buried history of immigration laws and race.  What my being a Sansei also means is that both my grandparents, the Issei, and my parents, the Nisei or second generation, were taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II in concentration camps in desolate regions in the Western interior and in the swamps of Arkansas.  My grandparents on both sides lost thriving businesses they had spent decades building up, lost their homes and property at a tenth of their value.  They were imprisoned without the writ of habeas corpus, without a trial.  My parents were 15 and 11 at the time. 

            When I was growing up, no one in my family talked about the internment camps.  Sometimes a name would come up at a family gathering and someone would ask, “Nihonjin or hakujin?”  Japanese or white person?  And if they were Nihonjin, someone would ask, “What camp were they in?”  And then the conversation went on.* 

            No one ever sat any of us kids down and said, You know, during World War II all the Japanese Americans on the West Coast, some 120,000, were placed in prison because we were suspected of being disloyal to the nation.  No one pointed out that no Japanese American was ever convicted of espionage.  No one said, Our constitutional rights were taken away.  No one said, Our parents were forbidden by race to become citizens.  No one said, We don’t like to talk about this experience.  It makes us feel ashamed, stigmatized.  We didn’t do anything wrong—and most of us were kids—but still.  We were placed behind barbed wire, with armed guards and guards in rifle towers.  Just like in a prison.  No one said, Well, David, in a way this made us feel ashamed of being Japanese.  We learned we should try to be like the hakujin, we should try to make the hakujin accept us, we should try to be 200% American, to prove to the hakujin that they were mistaken about us.

            So to say “I’m a Sansei” is to say, like many Sansei, I grew up knowing very little about the history of my family or community.  Certainly I was provided no context to understand how I might place myself racially within American history and society, no context to understand how I might constitute or contextualize my own racial and ethnic identity. 

            When it came to matters of race, the anchors I was given were few.  As I grew up I understood vaguely that there were conflicts between white and black Americans, that there was this thing called segregation, that there was this Civil Rights movement led by a man named Martin Luther King, Jr.  I read Malcolm X’s autobiography in high school but didn’t understand much of it, other than he seemed very scary.  But my father didn’t necessarily like King either.  To my father, King was being too pushy.  At any rate, none of this had much to do with us.  We weren’t white or black, though in the end we identified with whites.  I understood that it was the right thing for me to accept “Negroes,” though I knew none. 

            Of more concern to me was how I was regarded by my peers.  I fervently wanted to be accepted as white.  This became even more true when I was 9 and we moved from the city and an apartment complex of other Japanese American families (we went to a Japanese American Congregationalist church and I was a member of the Nisei Drum and Bugle Corp which practiced in the Japanese American Buddhist church).   We moved to a near north suburb of Chicago, in an area with homes built by the only builder in the area who would build homes for “Orientals.”  Our suburb, Morton Grove, was right next door to Skokie, which at the time had the highest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel.  My high school was about 80 per cent Jewish, and in high school, when a friend said to me, “I think of you David like a white person,” I felt, “Yes, that’s what I want, that’s how I want to be thought of.”  In high school I read books about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps, books by Eli Wiesel and Philip Roth.  I tried to date the Jewish girls but invariably their parents found out I wasn’t Jewish and though some Jewish girls would pretend that their goyim boyfriends were Jewish, they could hardly do that with me.

            In many ways, then, back in high school and on into my early twenties, I was what used to be called a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  When in college I met the girl who was to become my wife, I told her, “Don’t call me Japanese.  I’m not Asian.  I’m just an American.” 

            I didn’t add—“And when I say American, I mean, white, middle-class white.  I’m no different than you.” 

            When the black students in my college locked themselves in the library and demanded the institution of a Black Studies program, I had no idea really what such a program might teach, but I did support them.  A white female friend and I mimeographed a statement in support of the Black Students.  But in the end I felt as if I was being the noble one in supporting them.  I thought about how I accepted them, not whether they accepted me.  I didn’t see myself as connected to them by the fact that I too was not white.  And I certainly did even think of joining them in the library—not that they would necessarily have accepted me, if I’d asked to join them. 

            In other words, I thought back then like a typical white liberal.  I wasn’t a Sansei back then.  I wasn’t a person of color.  I was a white wanna be.


            Today, I could teach a course in a Black Studies program, particularly in literature.  I could certainly teach a course in an Asian American studies program.  I do teach a course in the Stonecoast MFA program, “How to Write About Race.”  I’ve been writing on race and on my Sansei and Asian American identity for over thirty years, and my two memoirs, my novel, my four books of poetry, my book of criticism, most of my over a hundred essays, eight plays and performance pieces all deal with the issues of race.  I’ve started an Asian American community arts organization and served as its artistic director.  I’ve sat on boards of Asian American arts organizations.  I’ve taught for twelve years at VONA, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, which annually conducts a summer conference for writers of color taught by writers of color; I’m also on the board of that organization.  My colleagues on the VONA faculty have been writers like Junot Diaz, Christina Garcia, Chris Abani, ZZ Packer, Suheir Hammad, Staceyann Chin, Nikki Finney, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Chitra Divakaruni, Cherrie Moraga, Martin Espada, Willie Perdomo, Quincy Troupe.  In the past fifteen years I’ve had black, Latino, Native American and Asian American students, students who are Hmong, Nigerian, Kenyan, Trinidadian, South Asian Indian, South Asian Indian by way of Tanzania, Liberian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Iranian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Korean adoptee, Ghanain, Columbian, Mexican, Filipino.  When the local Broadway theater in St. Paul presented Miss Saigon—a musical notorious in the history of Asian American protests and social activism—for a third time, I was part of those protests and helped organize the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition.  I recently spoke to a crowd of 600 at the Black Lives Matter/Million Artists Movement demonstration at the City Hall of Minneapolis.  I’m known as an arts activist, a writer of color, a speaker on race, and, as my friend the Sansei writer Garrett Hongo has joked, “David became more Asian American than thou.” 

            I want you to know there’s a part of me I call Kenji, the good Japanese American boy, and the Kenji in me feels very uncomfortable with the litany I’ve just made, not because of what it says about where I am in terms of my racial identity and politics, but because by listing my credentials, I feel like I’m bragging, and that’s a complete No-No[1] within the culture of Japanese Americans.

            But I made this catalogue of where I am now not to brag but to make a point: I’m a very different person today in 2014 than was when I was growing up in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, so different that I often wonder, How in the hell did I become who I am today?  How did I make that journey?  And does my idiosyncratic individual journey have anything to say about where we are in America today and where we are going? 

            I don’t have the space here to answer all these questions I’ve just posed in any detail.  What I will say is this: My journey as an artist and a person has coincided with a journey our culture and our society has embarked up—to envision and create an America where all of us can be who we are, can bring ourselves to the table and be valued and respected, are part of a new vision of America that is truly democratic where all are equal, where we do not have to shout Black Lives Matter because in fact all lives actually do matter.


            My friend, the poet Marilyn Chin, has talked to me about her time at the famed MFA program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.  Marilyn talked about how she, and Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo, two other writers of color, never felt part of the program, how their work was seldom workshopped, and how she, Marilyn drifted to the program in translation where there were writers from other countries in order to find an environment which wouldn’t be unbearably alienating.  Sandra has talked about how she and Joy would keep waiting for their poems to be workshopped but they always ended up at the bottom of the pile.

            I’m of the same generation as Marilyn Chin, Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo, and as a young poet in my late twenties and early thirties I dreamed of my poems being in the anthologies of the future.  Now the white male poets of my generation also had the same dream.  And yet their dream was different.  When the white male poets looked at the anthologies of the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s those anthologies were overwhelmingly white male, and so the white male poets of my generation saw themselves in anthologies of the future where the faces and photos were white males, just like the anthologies they grew up with.  But when, as young poets, Marilyn Chin, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo and myself envisioned the anthologies of the future, we did not envision anthologies made up almost solely of white males.  We had to imagine anthologies that contained writers of color and women.  In this way, as Cornell West might say, we were prophetic; we knew we were writing for a future that would differ from the present or the past, and our visions have proven true.  The white male writers of our generation looked at the past and thought the future would mirror that past and themselves.  They were wrong.

            Jeff Chang is the Asian American cultural critic who wrote the hugely influential Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.  His new book is Who We Be: The Colorization of America, and it examines the issues of race over the last fifty years within the context of culture and cultural changes; it goes over the moments like Black Arts Movement or the advent of multiculturalism and its subsequent backlash from the right and the so-called culture wars, the use of the term post-black within the context of the art world; the election of Obama and the proclamation, and quick disavowal, of a post-racial America; the shifts in demographics and immigration politics and the battles over textbooks and ethnic studies.  This book is a must read for anyone involved with either the issues of race or of culture.  In the book’s introduction, he writes:


Here is where artists and those who work and play in the culture enter.  They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold.  They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable.  Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination.  Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

            So those interested in transforming society might assert: cultural change always precedes political change.  Put another way, political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred. 


As everyone now knows, sometime around 2040 or sooner, we will not longer be a white majority country.  No racial group will constitute the majority.  Artists of color, who are both recreating the past and creating our future, know what it means to be a racial minority in America.  This knowledge is embedded within our imaginations and identities, and we speak from that knowledge.  That knowledge is out there for white artists to share, but whether they want to avail themselves of that knowledge is another question, one they will have to answer if they are going to prepare themselves for the America that is surely coming.


            How does one give up or change one’s identity?

            As a third generation Japanese American, who grew up in denial of my history and my identity, who wanted not just to see myself as white but to be white, my knowledge of whiteness and its blind spots and ignorance, is also part of who I am.  As I’ve said above, at best, my identity when I was younger was in many ways no different than most white liberals.  And then I became someone I had not imagined I would become.

            I did not make this transition over night, though I can pinpoint the moment when my first turning point began.  In my late twenties, after I left my English Ph.D. graduate school program, a program where I read virtually no writers of color for five years, I happened upon Frantz Fanon’s study of the psychology of racism, Black Skin White Masks.  Fanon was a psychiatrist from Martinique, participated in the Algerian revolution and wrote the book, The Wretched of the Earth, about the global movement of decolonization and revolt.  But in Black Skin White Masks, Fanon was working more as psychologists than a political writer.  In one passage, he talks about the black school child, in the French West Indies colonial education system, reads about “our ancestors the Gauls,” and how the great white explorers went into Africa to civilize the black savages.  Fanon then asks, What is that school child learning?  And his answer is: Self-hatred, self alienation and an identification with his colonial oppressor: 


"In the Antilles....in the magazines, the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary 'who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes'....The black school boy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about "our ancestors, the Gauls," identifies himself with the explorer, the bringer of civilization, the white man who carries truth to savages--an all-white truth.  There is identification--that is, the young Negro subjectively adopts a white man's attitude.  He invests the hero, who is white, with all his own aggression--at that age closely linked to sacrificial dedication, a sacrificial dedication permeated with sadism."


After years of wanting to be white, of trying to get others to see myself as white, I read this passage and thought, “Oh shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.” 

            And my world changed.



            There’s a passage in James Baldwin’s book length essay, The Devil Finds Work, which I use often in my teaching.  In this passage, Baldwin sees the transforming of one’s identity as not simply a psychological task but a spiritual tasks, and he yokes that transformation to a call to you as an individual to recognize and acknowledge a new reality, a shift in the society around you or an encounter with a person who challenges the ways you view yourself and your place in the world:


The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic--a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.  This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day--it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exit among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor.  An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger's presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.  Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes, discerned.  This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.


Baldwin pictures here a stranger entering your village.  But the process is similar if the roles are reversed, if you walk into a strange village, as Baldwin does in his famous essay, “Stranger in the Village,” where he an American black living in Europe, travels to a Swiss town. 

            What is the cause of the crisis of identity?  The world is not what you thought it is.  You are not who you thought you were.  Others see you differently than you see yourself.  You are forced to see yourself through the eyes of a stranger, of an Other.  Baldwin’s picture of strangers encountering strangers can be see as what has always happened in America, and continues to occur with even greater frequency with each passing day.  You encounter a stranger who does not share your identity, who does not see the world or you the way you see the world and yourself.  And it is only through the encounter that you can acquire this knowledge. 

            In America today, in many ways, we are becoming an increasingly diverse, but also an increasingly segregated society.  And just as whites on the whole have less encounters with diversity than people of color, the further up the economic ladder you are, the less diversity you encounter.  In so many ways, those who are white, those who are wealthy, do not want to encounter the stranger.  Yes, we as humans tend to fear what we don’t know, tend to assume that the stranger brings with a potential for danger.  But though there is the fear of physical danger—as in the fear for instance of young black men--what Baldwin implies here is that the greater fear is psychological and spiritual.  To acquire the kind of knowledge which requires a change in your identity is threatening to something far more intrinsic; such an encounter with a stranger induces “a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall,” a struggle with your soul.

            When white America sees and encounters the strangers of the other America—people of color—there is ever increasingly a two fold terror:  For it is not just the terror of encountering the stranger that confronts white America, though the forms of that terror and the multiplicity of those strangers is ever increasing; no, what white America encounters is a confrontation with the white American’s position as a member of the mighty, or rather, as a member of the mighty who are beginning to fall.  This fall is indicated by the shifts in our demographics (though as apartheid South Africa demonstrated, being a white minority need not mean the white minority will give up its power to dominate the majority).  But this fall is also a loss of splendor, of self-regard; it is a fall, Baldwin implies, from hubris, from excessive pride.  Does white America know that it sees itself not just as powerful but as splendid?  Yes.  No.  In a democracy, one is not supposed to stand above others; that too is one of our myths.  But the loss of power, the loss of splendor?  The sense that they, the mighty, are beginning to fall?  That is there throughout our culture; it is embedded within the ways most whites see themselves, into the ways they constitute their identities.  And any indication that the wretched are beginning to rise?  The strangers are entering the gates?  That increases the terror.

            Baldwin was a child preacher, a child of the Bible.  Its cadences are part of the textures of his sentences, the beauty of this passage above.  And he understood how the spiritual could not be separated from the psychological or the political, how the whole human being is always involved in any human interaction, in any human communication, in any significant human change.  Trust in one’s nakedness--not in one’s identity, for one’s identity is only a garment.  We are, as Shakespeare reminded us, “poor bare forked animals”.  We are not gods, though sometimes we like to believe we are.  Cast off the garment and beginning building a new one.  And if that means you have to stand there a while naked before the world, Baldwin implies, well so be it.  Stand there naked, since all of us, beneath our garments, our identities, are naked, are mere flesh.

            This passage from Baldwin obviously also has relevance to people of color, and is a warning against any sort of essentialism, any sense of a closed or true ethnic or racial identity.  For we as people of color are increasing encountering strangers walking into our villages, and we too are the stranger walking into other villages.  With each new encounter, we must take off our old robes and weave or find some new ones.  We too must be willing to stand naked in that process.  Before these strangers.  Before our village.  Before ourselves.

            I have made many such changes of robes in my life.  Sometimes they have been extremely painful or humiliating; sometimes they have been comical; a few have been filled with grief and rage.  But many others have also be joyful and wondrous, have revealed to me new aspects of myself as I opened myself to new aspects of the world, to making friends with stranger after stranger, to walking into villages where no one or few like me have entered. 

            What has sustained me in this journey or these journeys, what has informed me, has been the work of my fellow artists, the creations of their imagination and from their experiences and from their histories; has been my encounter with difference so that I might know my own difference more fully, so that I might see my own nakedness more clearly.  As a Japanese American boy who did not want to be a Japanese American boy but instead a white boy growing up in a Jewish suburb, cut off from my family’s history and the history of my community, I could never have imagined the journey my life has taken.  I could not have imagined that my best friend would be a black novelist who grew up in North Philly or that I would have friends who immigrated from the Dominican Republic or Nigeria or Vietnam or India or whose parents immigrated from Palestine, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, or that at one point two of my children would be going out with Ethiopian Americans, or that I would coach a basketball team with American blacks, Somali Americans, a Tibetan American and my own half Japanese three eighth WASP and one eighth Austria Hungarian Jewish son.  Do I know enough about any of these countries where my friends, where my children’s friends come from?  Absolutely not.  I have to keep learning.  I have to keep seeing myself differently.  I have to keep seeing how provincial I am, how much I don’t know, how much I have to learn.  I have to keep seeing how limited are the ways I’ve looked at the world and at myself.  I have to keep humbling myself, keep seeing myself as the stranger I am.  I have to see that while I may so often think of myself as an outsider, as someone who does not belong, as someone who, if not wretched, is descended from the wretched, I also have to keep reminding myself of the many ways I myself am part of the splendid and mighty and I too will in some way have to experience a fall from various graces I think myself worthy of, graces which are not graces but only what the accidents of history have somehow bequeathed me, and which, if I am lucky, I will let go, like the splendid garment which no longer fits, which is too gaudy and rich and inappropriate.  I must embrace my nakedness as I must embrace, at my age, my coming death, and I have to welcome both as part of the journey I am on, and which through both hard work and luck, I still get to write about and imagine, as I have done here, a little, on this page.

[1] During World War II, while imprisoned in the internment camps, Japanese Americans were given a loyalty oath. Question #27 asked:?Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered??Question #28 asked:?Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?  The vast majority of interned Japanese Americans answered Yes-Yes, including those young men who went on to serve in the 442nd, one of the most decoarated regiments in the war in Europe. The small minority who answered these two questions with a negative were called No-No Boys.  A portion of these answered No-No as a form of civil protest against the internment camps.  After the war, they were regarded as pariahs in the Japanese American community.  My novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, tells the story of a family of a No-No Boy after the war.