When you think of the first Japanese Americans you probably have a specific idea and it’s probably a far cry from the truth. Early immigrants from Japan had some of the first multi-ethnic families in the U.S. and because of that lineage, Japanese Americans are on the cusp of becoming majority mixed. What does this mean? We take a first hand look.
On Saturday we took a trip to an exhibit opening that closed out the HAPA Festival in Little Tokyo, a free festival celebrating mixed-race and mixed-roots Japanese people and culture. The exhibit was called “Visible & Invisible: A Hapa Japanese American History” and we learned a number of things and saw some incredible people. Through the exhibit we learned of some of the first Japanese immigrants to America and how many of them started multi-ethnic families. One example is the settling of the Wakamatsu Tea & Silk Farm Colony. The head was a German national, John Henry Schnell who had a Japanese wife Oyo. The two had two children. Another person from their colony married a woman by the name of Carrie Wilson that was the daughter of a Blackfoot Indian and former African-American slave.
Many of the Japanese immigrants made way into Hawaii and other parts of the U.S. where they were some of the first immigrants to really embrace multi-ethnic marriages as they looked to become a part of the societies they had moved into. For this these Japanese immigrants were seen as pioneers and their behavior would lead to Japanese Americans having such a mixed lineage. But that’s the past, what does this mean for the future.
Japanese people have a strong sense of nationality and tradition so some expect that becoming majority mixed could present a problem. Two things in Japanese American communities that may allude to that, basketball leagues and beauty pageants. Initially these leagues and pageants were started to give Japanese American kids opportunities that mainstream society wouldn’t allow them to have. The leagues and pageants have their own racial and ethnic eligibilities that have now lead to controversies and highlight challenges in promoting ideas of belonging. As Japanese Americans become more mixed how will this affect who is eligible in their own leagues/pageants?
Though the leagues and pageants in relation to mixed Japanese Americans may highlight the challenges one story showed us the promise of this shift for Japanese Americans. Recording artist Jero is an American who has become a pop sensation by singing “enka” or Japanese-blues. Jero was born Jerome Charles White Jr. in Pittsburgh to a half-Japanese mother and black father. His Japanese grandmother was a huge influence on him and she loved enka. After graduating from college Jero moved to Japan to pursue a music career. His debut album got him a best new artist award in 2008 and his single hit #4 on the charts, the highest ever for a first-time enka release. What was known as old-fashioned music found a way to connect with younger fans. One of the key selling points for Jero as well was his look of a hip-hop artist yet performing traditional Japanese music. A huge collage piece was a major topic at the exhibit as various images of Japanese people, families, etc made up the face of Jero. With stories like this, it’s evident that the “face” of Japanese Americans isn’t exactly what you may have been thinking originally.
We had a great time at the Hapa Festival and enjoyed the food, music and people. The stories we discovered were awesome and also we want to give a special thank you to Japangeles.