On being a banana: Japanese American students on the Farm, 1940 to the present

June 25, 2024, 10:38 p.m.

I’ve never been particularly fond of the mushy, soft texture of bananas, or the way I’ve been associated with them as an Asian American: looking “yellow” on the outside but being white-washed internally. 

Despite having a Japanese last name, I feel very far removed from Japanese culture as a fourth-generation Japanese American, or yonsei (you can also count me as fifth-generation, depending on which side of my family you are looking at). I have always been learning about my heritage through textbooks. So when I came to Stanford, I joined the Nikkei Student Union (NSU).

With Nikkei referring to the Japanese diaspora, NSU aims to “provide a space for students to explore Nikkei and Japanese identity and build community.” The union has undergone numerous transformations since its founding in 1902 as the Japanese Student Association (JSA), according to NSU member Zack Edwards ’24.

The group changed its name from Stanford University Nikkei to Japanese Student Union in 2013, Edwards said. This April, club members — myself included — voted to change the club’s name from Japanese Student Union (JSU) to Nikkei Student Union. We thought the term “nikkei,” a more inclusive one, better reflected the diversity of the diaspora, whom the organization should aim to serve.

JSA had a turbulent history. The organization discontinued during the 1940s when Japanese American students were incarcerated in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. A May 26, 1942 article titled “Farm Japanese To Leave Today” announced their departure from campus and JSA’s closure. The final wave of Japanese students to leave were “last quarter seniors who have managed to hold out until the last to get their diplomas.” Reading the article, I was heartbroken.

What was even more striking to me was an advertisement for U.S. war bonds that appeared on the same page. The ad took up almost a quarter of the newspaper page, while the article announcing Japanese students’ departure was merely allocated four paragraphs in the corner. 

As Japanese American students left campus, what was formerly Japanese Students’ House was leased to a co-op in 1942. I was surprised that the article describing the lease was extremely brief, consisting of only three paragraphs and incorporated only one student’s voice.

In fact, Japanese American students barely voiced themselves at all in The Daily during this period. One of the only instances was a letter that JSA addressed to Ray Wilbur, then-president of Stanford, published under a section titled “Campus Opinion.” The letter captured Japanese American students’ reactions to the events leading up to Executive Order 9066 and Japanese incarceration. In the letter, JSA “pledg[ed] our full support in the present emergency.”

“As American citizens of Japanese ancestry, we have been prepared to assume and discharge our duties and responsibilities which have been placed upon us,” the students wrote. “Yet little did we dream that we would be called upon to prove our loyalty under the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.” 

It was one thing to read about the period in history books; it was another to feel how Japanese American students feared and despaired on this very campus, torn between their homeland and that of their ancestors.

Today, Japanese students on campus no longer face the horrors of detainment. But many of us are still grappling with its effects. As such, spaces on campus like NSU and Okada House — the Asian American theme house — serve as places to connect with our identity and unpack our varied histories.  

Edwards has lived in Okada since his junior year and has been a member of JSU on and off since entering Stanford, yet he felt that Japanese Americans and Nikkei did not have many campus spaces for themselves. With programming such as culture presentations and movie nights, JSU seemed to be serving students who were interested in Japanese culture from an outside perspective.

Similarly, Kaelan James ’26, incoming NSU financial officer, “straight up did not feel welcome in the club” when they joined last year. Having both Japanese and Peruvian descent, James desired a space to learn about their Japanese heritage.

Edwards turned his thoughts into action when he organized an event on Feb. 19, also known as the Day of Remembrance. This was the very day Executive Order 9066, which legalized detainment, was signed into law in 1942. A panel of students spoke on the way that their families have been impacted by the incarceration. Those with loved ones who had been incarcerated were invited to place a candle by the names of internment camps. James, a member of Stanford Taiko, brought the group in for a performance.

Edwards’s event was one of the first to reach beyond NSU club members and engage students in a manner different from traditional club meetings. This paved the way for more events that allowed members to reflect on Japanese American history, like Golden Week and a trip to San Jose’s Japantown.

Eventually, Edwards also wants to create a space on campus for Indigenous Japanese students, like those of Okinawan heritage. Many view Japan as a monoethnic nation and “don’t understand the colonization of Okinawa and how very violent and terrible” it was, he said. 

Okinawans, originating from the island of Okinawa, are the largest ethnolinguistic minority group in Japan. During World War II, Okinawa became a U.S. territory and essentially a military outpost. Homes and villages were destroyed to “make space for military bases and hold weapons,” and the territories were only returned to Japan recently.

Edwards’s vision is far from being achieved, but NSU taking on the name of “nikkei” is a crucial first step to encouraging reflection on the diversity of Japanese communities. 

From the start, NSU has been a safe space for me to explore what it means to be Japanese American. Listening to guest speakers talking about what the Nikkei diaspora means and attending Japantown field trips, I gained new insights on my heritage beyond the brief summary I was presented with in high school history class. Moreover, club members created a welcoming environment in which even I, being half-Japanese and not at all proficient in the language, feel comfortable learning more about my culture and voicing my experiences.

I envision my relationship with my heritage will be changing like a banana, ripening with time into something new and exciting. There is no one way to be Japanese. Being Japanese American is a process of wrestling with our complex identity and coming to terms with dark episodes of Japanese American history. It’s also allowing ourselves to be open to new information and new possibilities.

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