|Tokyo--Being Japanese-American in Japan has advantages and
disadvantages. At least that's the opinion of several Japanese-Americans
serving in the armed forces and stationed in Japan.
"It's easy to make friends, because they feel sorry for me. I
look Japanese but can't speak the language," Master Sergeant Gary
Hirata says. Hirata, of Bridgeton, New Jersey has been in the Air Force
for the past 19 years. Now stationed at Yokota Air Base, this is his
second tour in Japan.
He makes friends easily now, but that wasn't always the case. During
his first tour, "the first couple of years were kind of
rough," he said. "Look at me. I look Japanese, but when I
opened my mouth, people gave me funny looks."
Chief of Protocol for U.S. Forces in Japan, Lt. Colonel Michael
Yaguchi, can relate. "My Japanese is terrible," he said. Upon
arriving in Japan, one of his first assignments was to meet an important
Japanese delegation. He was accompanied by an aide who speaks fluent
Japanese. He's from Seattle, she's from Tokyo. He looks Japanese, she
doesn't. They addressed him only in Japanese, her only in English. The
delegation ignored his responses in English and hers in Japanese.
"They couldn't get over how I looked," Yaguchi said. "I
was accused of not wanting to speak Japanese because I speak very good
Recently, a NAP reporter visited Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. The
reporter asked some of the Japanese American servicemen, what it's like
to be a Nikkei in Japan, and what they have found. Yokota is one of
three U.S. Air Force bases in Japan. It is also headquarters for U.S.
Forces Japan which is made up of 45,000 members of the Air Force, Navy,
Army and Marines.
"Japan," says Yaguchi, "isn't the old country my
grandparents told me about." Like many newcomers to Japan, Yaguchi
was surprised to find so many "blondes" as well as the
ubiquitous t-shirts bearing "English phrases, they probably don't
understand." Japanese try to be more western while
Japanese-Americans try to be more Japanese, he said.
Third generation Japanese-Americans, Hirata and Yaguchi grew up in
homes they describe as "traditional," but in which Japanese
was seldom spoken and therefore not passed on to the next generation.
Perhaps, Yaguchi speculates, that's because following internment during
the Second World War, many families wanted to become "more
American." Hirata agrees. But, he says, the Japanese he meets still
"say I'm more traditional than they are."
Marine Corps Major Vince Yasaki, from Orange County, grew up speaking
Japanese and often visited Japan as a youngster. So for him, being
stationed in Japan didn't bring with it cultural shock.
Yasaki's mother is Japanese. She met his Japanese-American father in
the states. "She always spoke Japanese at home and I studied on
weekends," he said. "After school all my friends were playing
baseball and my mom was driving me to Nihongo gakko." So, he didn't
like the Japanese language. That is, until he went to college. There, he
was asked to interpret for some Japanese visitors. "I found out
then, I had something most others didn't have," he said.
Over the years, Yasaki had ample opportunity to view the changes in
Japan, most of them cultural and most of them gradual, he said.
For Army Sgt. Kenji Thuloweit, the changes may have seemed more
dramatic. Thuloweit's mother is Japanese. She moved to the U.S. while in
her 20's, where she met his father. "She told me a lot about the
Japanese culture, but we didn't speak much Japanese at home," he
"I was pretty excited about coming here, not just because I'm
half Japanese, but because I thought Japan was an interesting country to
come to," Thuloweit said. "The first thing that pops into my
mind about Japan is tradition. They have a lot of tradition."
Did he find the tradition he expected? "No, they're all
westernized. Which is kind of disappointing, but that's the way it's
been everywhere I've been in the world. Even in the middle-east. It's
just like being in L.A., except here everyone speaks Japanese. And
everyone's nicer," he added.
Like Yasaki, Capt. Zensaku Munn grew up speaking Japanese. "It's
my first language," he said. Munn grew up in a military family. He
graduated from the Air Force Academy and is now a pilot.
"My mother is Japanese, my Dad, he's from Jersey City, actually.
They met during his first tour in Japan. On his second tour, I got to
accompany him here," he said. Munn was three at the time and he
stayed until he was ten, returning again as a teenager.
"I played with kids when off base, that's how I picked up on
Japanese. On top of that, my mother spoke it at home," Munn said.
"I pretty much spoke Japanese until I left Japan when I was
Has he seen any changes in Japan? "I've definitely seen changes.
Technology, of course, but mostly dialect and slang, that changes by the
minute. My mother can't even speak Japanese anymore.".
Master Sgt. Gary Hirata--Bridgeton, NJ
Lt. Col. Michael Yaguchi
Maj. Vince Yasaki
Sgt. Kenji Thuloweit
San Diego, CA
Capt. Zensaku Munn
Jersey City, NJ