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From a Different Shore: The Japanese American Experience

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Some of the images are compelling: a sea of Japanese American faces pledging allegiance to the American flag; a small child sitting patiently on a pile of his family’s belongings; a grocery store whose owner, going out of business, has posted a large sign in the window proclaiming “I AM AN AMERICAN.”

Asian Americans in America are Americans, not Asians. That’s one point of From a Different Shore: The Japanese American Experience, a video in the series on An American Identity from Films for the Humanities. The other point is that this particular group of Americans had a particularly unjust experience during World War II, at least on the Western seaboard.

Poignantly, against archival photographs and current images of the stark American West, Japanese Americans tell the story of their current achievements while their parents tell the story of their internment at Manzanar and other camps during World War II. Home movies of an earlier generation show American children with Japanese faces celebrating birthdays, eating ice cream cones, wearing Boy Scout uniforms. Videotape of a recent Japanese festival parade in Los Angeles, on the other hand, shows Japanese American children in traditional Japanese dress reenacting a culture they are trying to reclaim.

In these episodes from The Japanese American Experience, this video—made for The Open University of the British Broadcasting Company and directed by Jeremy Cooper—tells us little about Asia, little about Japan, but quite a lot about America. It tells us about the desire of the poor to make a good life in a new environment, of the urge to assimilate and be accepted, of the inescapable barrier of ethnic appearances, of white Americans’ perhaps unconscious tendency to think of nonCaucasian, non-African Americans as foreign.

Through the generations represented, we see pride in Japanese American family achievement and assimilation contrasted with the very different experiences of contemporary Japanese business people in the same area, Los Angeles. One group is American, speaks English as a primary language, prefers American food; the other is Japanese, speaks and reads Japanese, prefers Japanese food. Racial origin and culture are not the same, though typical American students may have more trouble seeing the distinction when the faces are Asian.