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Embracing Japanese American as a New Identity: Austi Kaji's Story

A fourth generation Japanese American took her grandfather's advice to heart and traced her roots, gaining self-confidence and pride in her own identity.

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"I came to think that I have a unique and special identity as a Japanese American that Americans and Japanese don't have," Kaji explained. In Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 9, 2023. (© Sankei by Yukako Ueki)

June 20 marked the 155th anniversary of the first Japanese immigration to Hawaii. In the beginning, the islands were not yet part of the United States. After World War II, even though Japan-US relations deepened, the Japanese American descendants of these pioneers continued to search for their own identities. Many had the feeling that they were neither fully Japanese nor American. 

Austi Kaji (26), a fourth-generation Japanese American, is one of them. In May 2023, triggered by her grandfather's will, she set out on a journey to find out about her roots.

Her grandfather, Bruce Teruo Kaji, died in 2017 at the age of 91. He was at home in Los Angeles, surrounded by his family. Near the end, he told his family in a hoarse voice, "The most important thing is to know your roots as Nikkei. I want everyone in my family to know."

This will of her grandfather, a second generation Japanese American who was born and raised in the United States, touched Austi's heart. Originally from Los Angeles, she moved to Tokyo in 2022. But she continued to worry about her identity, who she was, and what country she loved.

Growing Up in the United States

When Austi was in elementary school, she was asked in class to draw a national flag related to her roots. She was born and raised in the United States, so naturally, she drew the Stars and Stripes. But her teacher chastised her. "You didn't draw the Japanese flag," the teacher said. 

Austi thought she was an American, so why would the teacher point a finger at her? She remembered objecting.

At the same time, she didn't feel accepted by Japanese people. "It's not fun to invite Nikkei who can't speak Japanese and can only speak English," she was sometimes told. Even when she became friends with the children of Japanese expatriates in Los Angeles, she was not invited to events such as birthday parties.

Studying in Japan

It was the same when she went to study at a Japanese university. Her goal was to overcome her language barrier. However, she was deeply hurt when classmates criticized Nikkei who couldn't speak their language. Even though Nikkei had the same skin as Japanese people, they were called "stupid Japanese" because they lacked language skills.

Austi's worries didn't disappear even when she was busy with daily work in Japan. However, her grandfather's words were stuck in the back of her mind. Encouraged by them, in May 2023 she decided to trace her roots as a Japanese American.

A photograph of Manzanar Internment Camp located in California by the War Relocation Authority, Wednesday, June 24, 1942. (US National Archives)

Learning Her Grandfather's Life

According to Austi, her American-born Nisei grandfather was imprisoned in the Manzanar Internment Camp, which was set up in a wasteland in eastern California during World War II. In order prove his allegiance to the United States, he enlisted in the US Army. But the war ended just before he went to war. 

After the country was placed under Allied occupation, he was posted to Japan, his father's homeland.

He served as a Japanese language interpreter in the US military intelligence department. As such, his mission was to interrogate suspected war criminals in the Japanese military. "The person interrogated might have been a relative living in Japan," he said.

He also talked about the scenes of Japanese people swarming over food thrown away by the occupation forces. "It's a sight I'll never forget for the rest of my life," he added. 

Austi's grandfather, Bruce T Kaji, poses for a commemorative photo in front of a bronze statue of Masashige Kusunoki, a military commander of the Nanboku era. The photo, taken in Tokyo, dates to about 1945. (Provided by Austi Kaji).

Stepping Back in Time

With the words left behind by her grandfather in her heart, Austi visited the site of the Marunouchi Yusen Building in Tokyo. Requisitioned by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ), it was her grandfather's workplace when he was a Japanese interpreter for the US Military Intelligence Service.

There was a photograph of her grandfather from that time. He was standing in front of the bronze statue of Masashige Kusunoki (1294-1336), an imperial commander of the Nanboku era. It stands near the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace. Her grandfather was wearing his US military uniform and sunglasses in the photo. 

Austi stood in the same place as her grandfather had nearly 80 years earlier. She explained, "The complicated feelings my grandfather had at the time welled up, and I felt like my chest was tightening."

Bruce T Kaji stands for a photo taken around 1945 near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (provided by Austi Kaji)

A Museum for the Japanese American Experience

Bruce Teruo Kaji's complicated feelings are among those consolidated into the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. He was the founding president of the museum when it opened in 1992. 

After the war, as a Japanese American, Kaji was torn between the United States and Japan. But he told his family he wanted to pass on to future generations the history of pledging allegiance to the United States and the harsh life he lived in internment camps. "I could easily imagine my grandfather's strong feelings," Austi said.

Austi also traveled back to her great-grandfather's homeland. This ancestor was the origin of the Japanese side of her Nikkei family. 

The Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. (Image by Justefrain via Wikimedia Commons)

Her Great-Grandfather's Story

She visited Kumamoto Prefecture, where her great-grandfather's family home was located. According to her relatives, her great-grandfather emigrated to the United States in 1922. It was right after he graduated from the Nagasaki University School of Medicine in Western Japan.  

He was in search of a new land, the relatives said. He left his homeland because he witnessed medical students being recruited as military doctors during World War I (1914-1918).

However, when he got to California, land ownership by Japanese immigrants was restricted due to the "Alien Land Law" of 1913. This was the state's first anti-Japanese land law. 

At the time, hospitals would not treat Americans of Japanese heritage and skin color. So her great-grandfather took it to court and won a lawsuit demanding the opening of a hospital. As a result, The Japanese Hospital in Los Angeles, is believed to be the first hospital by and for Japanese Americans in the United States. 

Through her research, Austi learned for the first time about the history of her great-grandfather, who contributed to the Japanese American community as a doctor. 

Finding Her Place Between Two Worlds

Austi's travels helped her understand the harsh history of her forefathers and their strong spirit that overcame adversity.

"I was able to come up with my own answer," she realized. Through her search, she said, "I have come to believe that I have a unique and special identity as a Japanese American that neither Americans nor Japanese have. I feel like I have finally found my place."

Adding, "I want to take a step or half a step forward," she went ont to declare, "I want to be as proud [of my roots] as my grandfather and great-grandfather who gave me the courage to be Japanese American."

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(Read the story in Japanese.)

Author: Yukako Ueki