Is the Japanese-American community on the verge of ethnic extinction? Are Japanese-Americans marrying non-Japanese so rapidly that they are disappearing into the fabled melting pot?
This is one of the knotty questions being addressed this week as hundreds of Japanese-Americans from around the country gather in Los Angeles to mark the 50th anniversary of the World World II internment.
The four-day National Japanese American Conference includes two days of discussions on critical issues facing the Japanese-American community, a $150-a-plate fund-raiser for the Japanese American National Museum, an art exhibit and a golf tournament.
A second conference, titled "The Future of the Nikkei Community," features more than a dozen workshops covering a range of topics such as political empowerment, the gender gap, media images, homosexuality, values and ethics, and the effect of U.S.-Japan relations on the Japanese-American community.
Don Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian-American Studies Center, set the tone Thursday at the opening session of the National Japanese American Conference by reminding the audience of the demographic changes in the Japanese-American community, which now numbers 850,000 nationally, according to the 1990 census.
Twenty years ago, Japanese-Americans were the largest Asian-American group in the United States, but today there are nearly twice as many Chinese- and Filipino-Americans as Japanese-Americans, he said.
"By the year 2000, it is projected that Japanese-Americans--unless there is an absolutely unprecedented rise in their immigration or their sexual activities--will fall further down the ethnic ladder and will be outnumbered by practically all other Asian-Pacific-American groups (Filipinos, Chinese, Asian Indians, Vietnamese and Koreans)."
In interviews with The Times before the conferences, Nakanishi and other community leaders and scholars said the Japanese-American community is at a crossroads, grappling with its changing identity.
"If we weren't on the decline culturally, we wouldn't (feel the need to) have cultural centers and museums," said the Rev. Grant Hagiya, of the North Gardena United Methodist Church. Hagiya will be a speaker at the second conference, which begins Saturday at the Biltmore Hotel. That the Japanese-Americans, alone among the Asian groups, built a museum is in itself an "indication that we want to recover what we're losing."
Hagiya, who is sansei (a third-generation Japanese-American), said with Japanese-Americans marrying members of other ethnic groups at the rate of 50% in cities and 70% in rural areas, it will take efforts such as the museum to maintain the community and cultural heritage. Otherwise, Japanese-Americans could soon become a people without a memory.
He got a glimpse of this recently in his own family. To his yonsei (fourth-generation) daughter, the deeply rooted Japanese concept of enryo, a polite "no" or holding back, that is central in Japanese personal relations, does not exist.
"I was struck the other day when our daughter went to a friend's house. They offered her dinner so she stayed and ate the meal. She should've held back and said no."
Assimilation transforms ethnicity, said Prof. Stephen Fugita, of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University. "People pick and choose what they like from both the Japanese and mainstream cultures. It isn't always 50-50. So, ethnicity becomes an active, evolving sort of thing."
Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, who grew up in East Los Angeles, says Asians develop an Asian-American culture after several generations in the United States.
"I may have a Japanese face but I have more in common with most American-born Asians than (with) people from Japan," he said. "Much of that is based on what my experience has been in the United States."
Fugita, who has done extensive surveys of Japanese-American attitudes, said the Japanese culture still holds attraction for Japanese-Americans.
For example, many people, like him, who live and work in the mainstream, enjoy involvement in Japanese-American organizations because of their distinctly Japanese interpersonal style.
"When you go to a Japanese-American organization and watch how people come to a decision, you very seldom see them voting," he said. "They offer their opinions in a low-key way. Toward the end of a discussion, an expert or a respected member of the group sums up the group's opinion and asks, 'Does everybody agree with it?' "
This kind of approach can come as a respite after the competitiveness of one's daily job in the American mainstream, he said.
Japanese-Americans are also concerned about the relationship between the United States and Japan and how that affects them. Because of Japan's powerful economic position in the world, ups and downs in the two nations' relations can backfire on Japanese-Americans.
Rising resentment against Japan over the trade deficit, the recent "Buy American" campaigns and increased incidents of "Japan bashing" have led to a rise in hate crimes against not only Japanese-Americans but all Asian-Americans, since distinctions among the diverse Asian groups are unclear to most non-Asians.
And when culturally insensitive but prominent Japanese leaders in Japan make disparaging comments about American workers or non-Asian minorities in the United States, Japanese-Americans find themselves caught in the cross-fire.
The relationship between Japanese-Americans and Japan has been ambivalent. But there is now growing appreciation both here and in Japan of the role that Japanese-Americans can play as bridge builders.
And because of the unique position of Japanese-Americans as this country's most assimilated Asian group, Japanese-American leaders are also reaching out to newer immigrant communities.
On Thursday, the Japanese-American Citizens League invited Korean-American community leaders to its Los Angeles office to help the Koreans fight a new law that would bar business owners from using Small Business Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to relocate their businesses.
"The future of the Nikkei community lies in building genuine working relations with other Pacific-Asian communities," said Dennis Hayashi, executive director of the citizens league. "The Japanese-American community is coming around to understanding and accepting this reality."
What the museum, cultural and community centers and other institutions provide are links to Japanese heritage, said Chris Komai, a spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum.
"I think we can still do each other a lot of good," said Komai. "What many Americans lack is that feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves. A lot of people out there don't belong to anything. My contention is that the Japanese-American community can be that something that you can belong to."