SAN ANGELO, Texas --
I’m looking for an Italian to marry. That’s usually how I like to punctuate explanations of my half-German, half-Japanese heritage (rounding out the Axis powers, get it?). I’ve always felt equally German and Japanese. Once the U.S. team is knocked out of the World Cup, I throw my full support behind Germany. Got an early start on that this year. Meanwhile, I have to admit I like Japanese food better, and the ideas I have for my next tattoo center around Japanese culture. While my Japanese side has always attracted more attention, until recently, I didn’t feel one side more strongly than the other. Both sides of my family came to America around the early 1900s, and I am pretty Americanized. Try to talk to me about anime and manga and you will get a blank stare.
Then I signed up for the Air Force. I knew my Japanese grandfather served for a few years after high school, and he hoped one of his kids or grandkids might commission, but he didn’t make a big deal out of it. Nevertheless, when I said I intended to apply for Officer Training School, it was quickly apparent that grandpa would be hands-down the proudest person in the family. Despite being sent to an internment camp with his family at the age of 11 during World War II, he later enlisted in the Air Force and served in the Korean War.
He pulled out his decades-old uniform when I came to visit after commissioning. I presented him with my first salute coin, and that was the only time I remember seeing him tear up.
My grandfather passed away this January. We found his old duffel bag in the garage, his Veterans of Foreign Wars hat and membership card, and a Meal, Ready-to-Eat from god knows when. As so often happens, I learned things I never knew about my grandfather.
I had no idea that he was so involved in raising awareness of the internment, making sure people understood the injustices done and how they had happened, and was a founding member of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. Nearly three hundred people came to his memorial service.
One of those attendees was the daughter of a man I called Uncle Joe, although he was really the uncle of my grandfather’s second wife. Uncle Joe, or George T. Sakato, served with the all Japanese-American 442nd Regiment in World War II. After the service, his daughter, Leslie, presented me with two challenge coins: one for the 75th anniversary commemoration of World War II, and another for Uncle Joe’s Medal of Honor. In 1944, Uncle Joe was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during a rescue of Texas National Guard soldiers. It took 50 years for the Army to recognize that discrimination had prevented him and 19 other Japanese-Americans, a Filipino-American, and a Chinese-American, from receiving the Medal of Honor. Their DSCs were upgraded, all but seven posthumously, and in June of 2000 Uncle Joe went to Washington to receive his medal from President Bill Clinton.
He passed away two years ago, but Leslie told me that Uncle Joe would have wanted me to carry on the legacy. I understood that she did not mean his legacy – he was far too humble for that – but the honor and patriotism of Japanese-American service members. It felt as if I had been initiated into a fellowship that before I had only admired from the outside.
I have never felt particularly representative of the Japanese in America, even though I embraced the Japanese part of my identity. For one, I’m only half; few people immediately peg me as Japanese. More often, they speculate that I’m Central Asian, or maybe Native American. My name isn’t blindingly Japanese like Suzuki or Matsuzaka, nor do I speak the language. I strongly suspect that I still hold chopsticks wrong, but I’ve come to realize that that’s not the point of being Japanese in America. It was my family who were interned in Poston, Arizona. My (distant) uncle who was denied a Medal of Honor for 50 years. Grandpa and Uncle Joe loved their country, and in some ways, my split identity is as American as it gets. I am still a Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese-American. And I’ll be cheering on Germany come June.