A FEW YEARS AGO, a couple of church friends and I visited Manzanar National Historic Site on the way to a fishing trip in Mammoth, California. It wasn't your typical detour — visiting an incarceration camp that imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. But it afforded me the opportunity to give my friends an impromptu historical tour.
After walking them through the broad historical strokes, I shared that I believe this history is not static. Yes, the incarceration was over 70 years ago, but this history must be remembered to both prevent similar racial injustices from happening today, and because the trauma our ancestors underwent may continue to affect our community, identities, and lifestyles as Japanese American evangelicals.
This history must be remembered to both prevent similar racial injustices from happening today
As I searched their faces for responses, most gave courteous nods but offered no follow-up questions or comments, which I interpreted as polite pandering of my opinionated statement.
One friend, however, spoke up. "My family was in Hawai'i during World War II and was not put into the camps," he said rather sternly. I glanced over at him, and his general demeanor — his tone, his frown, and his abruptness — signaled his disagreement. Taken aback and thinking of the best way to avoid an argument, I muttered, "Okay, that's fine." And the conversation awkwardly died out.
Since this experience, I reflected at length about at how it felt to be shut down by my close friend. We both were aware of the differences in our theological and political perspectives. For instance, his emphasis on personal evangelism and discipleship relegates other issues, such as social justice, down the ladder of importance. I respect his beliefs and where he's coming from, but this is not what bothered me. Rather, it was his unwillingness to engage in conversation.
It seemed as if somewhere in his life he came to believe that the incarceration camp experiences — and by extension, other social and racial issues — no longer matter because they don't directly impact him, are a thing of the past, and therefore, are irrelevant to his life and faith. In effect, it seemed as if his refusal to talk about these issues implied that this history has no significance to the contemporary Japanese American evangelical church and should not be a topic of conversation within those spaces.
While I believe my friend's reluctance to discuss the incarceration camps is emblematic of a larger issue of silence within the church, this silence is not new, but rooted in culture and history. The generation of Japanese Americans who lived through the camps also did not disclose their experiences, and they trained future generations to do the same. I recently talked to Shigeko and George Yas Hirano about their memories of camp and involvement with the Japanese American church, and they largely corroborated the church's silence.
The generation of Japanese Americans who lived through the camps also did not disclose their experiences, and they trained future generations to do the same.
When I asked the Hiranos how the camps impacted their church, Shigeko stated, "No one in the congregation, including clergy, ever talked about the camps other than to ask, 'What camp were you in?'"
Not once within the church walls did they hear of people's fears witnessing the FBI raid their homes and imprison Issei (first generation) men without cause as they were suspected of being enemy spies of Japan. No one ever talked about the pain of having to witness their parents close up family businesses and sell all their possessions for mere pennies. And church members certainly did not speak of the injustice of entire communities being forcibly removed to camps in barren deserts, having to live in communal barracks with little to no privacy, and getting asked to fight in a war for the same country that had stripped them of their rights as citizens.
Rather than talk about camp, people coped with the hardships through a cultural value called gaman. Gaman, in the words of writer Jeri Okamoto Tanaka, "means you never complain or show pain or any emotion — you problem solve, you look forward, you walk it off, and you endure." Your family is given one week to meet at the train station with only what they can carry to be taken away to an incarceration camp — comply. Get released from the camps with only $25, a train ticket, and the clothes on your back — figure it out. You're forced to resettle in an unfamiliar town and rebuild your life from nothing, while still facing discrimination for being Japanese — don't complain, just do it.
Rather than talk about camp, people coped with the hardships through a cultural value called gaman
While this gaman mentality has been a great source of internal strength for many generations, I believe it is one of the main reasons for the culture of silence in Japanese American churches. Those who lived during WWII never talked about the camps, and so their children learned to be silent, who modeled this for the next generation, and so on. And yes, some former internees slowly began to divulge their stories during the Redress and Reparations Movement of the 1980s, which forced the American government to apologize and pay reparations to the camp survivors. However, many people did not and still refuse to speak up about their experiences as the pain remains too real.
I'm not blaming the older generations, such as the Hiranos, for not speaking about the trauma of camp within the church. I can't even begin to imagine the dehumanization and pain caused through the overt racism, forced removal, and loss of life and property. I'm sure it was difficult enough to adjust back to civilian life without brooding over the pain of these experiences. Yet, despite how acute the pain was or still is, the church must not continue this trend, as the culture of silence has deep and wide-lasting ripples.
The church must not continue this trend, as the culture of silence has deep and wide-lasting ripples.
One of the lingering ripples was portrayed in that cut-off conversation with my friend: Japanese American Christians continue to stay silent over incarceration specifically, and social injustices more generally. The silence of yesterday was rooted in shame and trauma, so people gaman'd, worked harder, pretended like the injustice didn't exist, and therefore, did little to challenge said injustice. However, the silence today seems to stem from the idea that history doesn't matter, or doesn't personally affect us, and so the church can live with privileged disregard for the racial and social injustices in contemporary society.
For most of my adult life, I've broached conversations about race, identity politics, and the evangelical response with various church groups, and I've mostly faced resistance. Gaining new perspectives on faith and society while in college, I returned to my home church urging people to "wake up" and see how Jesus' gospel was one of liberation and justice. I was a young firebrand who saw problems with the ways my traditional Japanese American church operated and how we ignored issues of social and racial injustice, mental health, and other contentious subjects.
But whether due to my insensitive approach, my unfamiliarity with the decision-making processes and general culture of the congregation, or my ignorance of the fundamentalist roots of evangelicalism, I was met with subtle rejection, silence, or staunch denial that it was the church's responsibility to address these issues.
I was met with subtle rejection, silence, or staunch denial that it was the church's responsibility to address these issues.
In retrospect, my approach could have been less judgmental and more constructive, yet these rejections caused me to take a step back from church involvement and the evangelical world. I dropped out of seminary, stepped down from my pastoral internship, and almost lost my faith entirely.
These trying experiences created a new form of silence for me: apathy, disengagement, and withdrawal. While the aforementioned issues are still important to me, I've largely stopped trying to convince others that the church needs to take action and be more vocal about social justice. I've stepped back from the progressive, Asian American, Christian groups I was involved with. And I barely even try to talk about these subjects with church friends anymore. It seems too tiring, too daunting, and sometimes fruitless.
While I am currently withdrawn, this has not all been for naught. I've grown and matured since my earlier activist days.
Despite my disagreements, I still have deep respect for my Japanese American evangelical roots and traditions. The Nikkei church is my home, where I have history, find community, and experience God. I see that the solution to addressing these issues is not to break away and form a new church. "Hiving" off only creates deeper factions and damage to Christian unity. Nor is the solution to make churches more progressive. I still have hopes that the Japanese American church will grow, but I have come to accept that change is slow, and it is ultimately not only me that will bring about the change.
Change is slow, and it is ultimately not only me that will bring about the change.
Perhaps a good starting point for addressing the silence and allowing the church to grow into God's image is to simply ask oneself: What silences do I face within the church? What areas have I been avoiding or neglecting because I believe they're not the church's responsibility to address? How am I personally silent? And how do we allow the voice of God to rise above the silence and speak words of healing, hope, and change in the face of the pain and shame?