Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, April 2, 1999

The trauma of
being Japanese

I should be proud of my heritage. But, sometimes, it's not easy being Japanese-American, especially in a place located directly between Japan and the United States. Talk about an identity crisis of East-meets-West proportions.

One drawback for local Japanese in Hawaii is that we are often mistaken for yen-spending visitors -- until we say something. It's insulting to walk into stores or restaurants and have the saleswoman start chattering away at us in Nihongo until realizing, oops, we reside here, too.

"W-a-t," I'd say defiantly, in my best pidgin English accent. "I stay look like one touris'?"

I don't deny my Japanese ethnicity. Yet, if you made me choose, I'd proclaim myself American.

Like other U.S. citizens, I can gripe a mean streak about Clinton, Congress and taxes, especially around April 15. It hurts to see the burning of Old Glory, and there's no question whom I root for during the Olympics.

Still, appreciation of my ancestral home must be indelibly etched in my genes. The biggest thrill of my career was when I met, chatted up and had tea with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace before they launched their U.S. goodwill tour in 1994.

So am I Japanese, or am I American? The definitive answer came Tuesday, when Yuko Tojo Iwanami went to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Iwanami, 59, and her daughter, 20-year-old Nahoko, came to Honolulu to ceremoniously place an arrangement of roses and lilies before the wall on which the names of those who died aboard the Arizona in 1941 are inscribed.

The Japanese side of me said, "What a nice gesture." The American side said, "What colossal nerve."

Iwanami is not your typical Japanese tourist. She is the granddaughter of Hideki Tojo, the notorious general and prime minister of Japan who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tojo was executed by the Allies in 1948 for his role in starting World War II and for instigating most of Japan's wartime atrocities.

Iwanami is the author of "My Grandfather Hideki Tojo," a history book of the revisionist genre that was made into a movie in Japan. It portrays Tojo as a victim of the Allies rather than as the villain he was.

VICTIM? Want to know what the Emperor and Empress of Japan think of that laugher?

In 1994 it was hoped that, when their majesties traveled to the United States, they might visit Pearl Harbor while on Oahu. What a beautiful tribute that would have been on the part of these classy world leaders.

Unfortunately, that idea was nixed by the Japanese Diet (Congress) because, if the royals had paid their respects at the Arizona, there would also be pressure for them to visit Yasukuni, the controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo where Tojo is buried.

They wouldn't want to do that. So they didn't go to Pearl Harbor.

Therefore, on behalf of my Japanese-American heritage -- especially the brave Japanese-American soldiers who fought and died for the U.S. in World War II and in other battles -- may I impart a personal message to Yuko Tojo Iwanami?

Mrs. Iwanami, arigato, but no thanks. Your gesture rings hollow. In fact, it's insulting. I didn't think it was possible, but your visit made me embarrassed to be Japanese.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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