In November, I attended Okaeri, a gathering of LGBTQ Nikkei people (people of Japanese descent), families and allies. As soon as I heard about the gathering, I knew I had to be there, even if it meant driving 400 miles and back. As a mixed-race Sansei (third generation in the U.S.) mother of a gay son, I was thrilled to have my first opportunity to gather with other Japanese-Americans to address LGBTQ issues. Here are four lessons I learned from Okaeri.
1. People need welcoming spaces where they can be free to be who they are, be seen, and be fully embraced in all of their identities.
“Okaeri is the first time I have felt my Nikkei and transgender identity truly being recognized in one place.” Aiden Aizumi
In the opening session, Marsha Aizumi and her son Aiden, who is transgender, welcomed us home. They spoke of how difficult it was not having safe, supportive spaces in the Nikkei community when their family was coming to terms with Aiden’s identity. Okaeri, for them, was a way to change this reality.
Eric Arimoto, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, reflected on his experience, “It is bittersweet realizing that I left the JA community over 30 years ago because it felt impossible to reconcile being gay and Japanese-American in 1983. Okeari showed what is possible – LGBTQ Japanese Americans need not remain cut off from their families and communities, forced to conform to marginalized roles or stereotypes within the LGBTQ community.”
For me, Okaeri was a welcome home I didn’t know I needed. I saw parts of myself reflected in many ways – in the other parents who were there in support of their LGBTQ children, in the people of multiple heritages, and in the audacity of people to speak and live their truths. As a result, I came away feeling prouder of my Japanese-American heritage and more connected to the community.
2. When people work together, they can transform communities.
“When people from all generations and segments of our communities work together, people will see a whole community of broad interests who feel that the rights of everyone are sacred.”
Harold Kameya, father of an LGBTQ individual
Okaeri made history by bringing together numerous segments of the community for one common goal. Attendance surpassed all expectations. Originally planned as a Los Angeles area gathering with about 75-100 participants, it attracted nearly 200 people from many parts of the U.S. and Canada. They ranged in age from 5 to 80, and included LGBTQ individuals, families, students, artists, religious leaders, community agency staffers, mental health practitioners, social justice activists, academics, business representatives, and more.
The event was co-sponsored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Japanese American National Museum and 48 additional sponsors. Around 20 organizations participated, including the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) National Office and seven JACL chapters.
Okaeri showed that love has the power to transform people and communities by touching hearts and opening minds. My own heart was deeply touched by the LGBTQ people who refuse to choose between their LGBTQ identities their Nikkei identity, the families who were willing to challenge deeply entrenched ways of thinking to support their LGBTQ loved ones, and the people who stood as allies. Every time a person spoke, the underlying message was strong and clear. We are all part of this community. We all belong.
I left Okaeri with the confidence that the Nikkei community will never be the same. I am hopeful that many of us left with renewed resolve, understanding and tools to be part of building more welcoming and supportive organizations, spiritual communities, schools, businesses, and families.
3. Culture is ever-changing and diversity makes it stronger.
“I have grown up to understand that my community is as diverse and unique as the number of people that are part of it. I’m a Black Asian who grew up in a Latin-American family; I am a queer man of color. In order to be able to be there for my community, I have to work to embrace who I am and speak to my history, my truth, and for my people.” Gian Luca-Matsuda
Okay, I’ll admit it. I myself have fallen prey to the stereotype of Japanese-Americans, and Japanese in general, as a conservative bunch of people who don’t like to rock the boat. I have often felt that my dad, who married outside his race and became an artist, was an anomaly. I was never certain how LGBTQ people, including my son, would be accepted in the community. Okaeri made me question my assumptions and reminded me that culture is not static.
Yes, there are conservatives in the community. Yes, there is still a struggle for LGBTQ acceptance. And, sadly, there are still LGBTQ people who are rejected by their families. But, culture is not set in stone. My view of the community began to shift the minute I walked through the door Friday evening and was surprised by a warm hug from Bill Watanabe. The former director of Little Tokyo Service Center, Bill is a pillar in the Nikkei community.
My perspective continued to shift as we viewed George Takei’s documentary, To be Takei, and saw the many parallels between the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, racial stereotyping in the entertainment industry, and marginalization of LGBTQ people. As I saw many LGBTQ people speak their truths, my perspective shifted even more.
Okaeri gave me a new vision of the Nikkei community – a vision of a diverse and ever-changing group of people, with courage to overcome obstacles and ability to embrace all of its members. Okaeri also taught me that our community is stronger when we embrace all of our diversity and leave no one behind.
4. Leadership from within communities of color is essential for building safe communities.
“Only Nikkei people know the Nikkei community best, and that includes knowing what the culture of shame, homophobia and transphobia looks like in our families and spaces. So it’s up to us to be the leaders who transform our current community to be more inclusive, more just and more liberating to be all of who we are.” traci ishigo, Okaeri Planning Committee Member
Okaeri came about because a group of people felt a need and had the vision, inspiration and commitment to act upon that need. The event was organized by an intergenerational team of 19 people, who reflected many sectors of the Nikkei community. Working together for 15 months to bring us Okaeri, theirs was truly a labor of love.
Without this leadership, it would not have been possible to engage the numerous participants and sponsors. Without this leadership, it would not have been possible to create a space that was so inclusive and so resonant for such a diverse and large gathering.
Okaeri’s organizing committee is a model that many of us can learn from. In their model, people with both shared and different identities came together to build bridges of understanding and power within the community. Okaeri demonstrates that such leadership is instrumental to change in communities of color. This is the type of leadership we must continue to value, nurture and support as we work towards a more loving and just world for all.