The isseis taught them “Shushin” - ethics, goodness, humanity.
As children of isseis, or first-generation Japanese, they learned their ancestors’ values:
“Study hard,” the isseis said.
“Respect your elders.”
Nearly all the isseis are dead now. Here in Spokane, it’s up to the nisseis - the second-generation - to continue the tradition.
“We learned a way of life,” said Aiko Warashina, 87, the daughter of a Hiroshima native. “We were close to the isseis. We miss them very much.”
This week, Spokane’s Japanese and Japanese American community will share their traditions with the rest of the community. The fifth annual Japan Week officially begins today with an 11 a.m. ceremony at the Spokane Transit Plaza.
Despite the absence of isseis in the area, the culture is still alive, said Warashina, as she sipped green tea from a tiny, porcelain cup.
Along with three other Japanese Americans, Warashina spent a recent afternoon at Hifumi En, a housing project started 23 years ago for elderly Japanese. As they ate yokan and daifuku mochi, two kinds of bean cake, they spoke of culture, their families and what it means to be Japanese American in Spokane.
“We’re more old-fashioned,” said Masu Akiyama, whose family moved to Spokane from Idaho in 1923. But that’s their role, he said. As the sanseis - the third generation - emerge as the new community leaders, the nisseis make sure the traditions are passed on.
Like Warashina’s and Akiyama’s parents, many Japanese families came to the United States at the turn of the century. They were the second or third sons, men who received no money or land from their fathers.
“There was no use staying in Japan to work for the first son,” said Miyo Akiyama, 80, whose family came from Nagano. “They came to America, the land of opportunity.”
Boats from Japan landed in Tacoma, where many immigrants stayed. Eventually, some Japanese moved to the Inland Northwest to work on the railroad or sugarbeet farms.
In Spokane, they operated hotels, restaurants and laundries.
Back then, the city had only 300 Japanese, said Masu Akiyama, whose family owned the Spokoma Hotel in the ‘30s.
Life wasn’t always easy for these Japanese pioneers. Like African Americans and other non-whites, Japanese in the area experienced their share of discrimination: Movie theaters wouldn’t allow them on the main floor. For decades, they could buy homes only near the downtown area.
It was especially hard during World War II. Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced into internment camps. But in Washington state, those who lived east of the Columbia River were spared.
Still, life was harsh for them.
Warashina was once at a local grocery store when two white women confronted her: “Are you a Jap or are you Chinese?” they asked. She looked them straight in the eye and said, “I’m Japanese American.”
But people like Warashina endured. Spokane became their home.
Now, more than 1,000 Japanese Americans live in Spokane, a county with the 90th-largest Asian population in the country.
“I feel lonesome at times,” said Masako Suzuki, a first-generation Japanese who moved to Spokane in 1968. Although she doesn’t speak English and is still unaccustomed to American culture, she has no plans of returning to her native country.
“But I like it here,” the 87-year-old said through an interpreter. “I’m happy.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Japan Week events