Get 'Em While They're Young!

March 27, 2020
Monica Matsushima

One of my hopes for Marty, our two-year-old son, is that he has a positive sense of his Japanese American ethnic identity.

The author with husband and Marty!

I believe that multiple aspects of a person contribute to their identity, so I do not mean to say that I believe ethnic identity is the most important aspect of personal identity. I do, however, believe it is an important issue that I want to address as I equip my son to be a resilient, kind, and useful individual.

Marty will grow up in a country where the vast majority of people do not share his skin color, his country of origin, and his facial features. I believe he may face various challenges because of these differences. I want him to never doubt his worth or value, and the worth and value of his family, because he is different from the majority. And if anyone ever questions these aspects of him, I want him to be able to calmly and kindly share the ever-changing beauty of his heritage and community (humbly acknowledging that they are not perfect), and be curious and appreciative of other communities.

So then, I must devote a certain amount of energy and resources sharing our heritage and community with him, and giving him the vocabulary to discuss these issues.


I have romanticized visions of sharing family memories while Marty and I cook old recipes together, creating an osechi spread together every Oshogatsu, and flying kites together in jinbei every summer. I envision him cultivating Japanese veggies in the garden, eagerly learning the importance of being chanto, enjoying gift giving and omiyage, always showing kansha, supporting loved ones with koden, and understanding the joy of working side by side in community. I want him to learn a martial art or two, enjoy our family gatherings, volunteer, take part in community events, and be eager to hear about the experiences of his grandparents, aunties, and uncles. I want him to value the networks that have been cultivated for generations, to utilize the resources available to him, and to maintain the relationships that enrich our lives and strengthen our community.

Marty showing off his jinbei!

But for all I know, he’ll just want to hang out with his friends, play video games and complain that I make such a big deal about family and community junk.

So get ‘em while they’re young, right?

Right now, my cultural enrichment activities are less organized and more organic. I  call certain things by the names my family calls them (I honestly don’t always know if I’m telling him a word in Pidgin, Japanese, or Kumomoto-ben…maybe I should Google them one day). I dress him in jinbei and take him to matsuri in the summer, I feed him rice, nori, and furikake, encourage him to use hashi, he helps me grow shiso and kiuri in our backyard, and I make sure he knows that bringing something to share is part of visiting a friend (at least most of the time).


Maybe he’ll be really into it. Maybe he won’t. I just want him to have the opportunity to know the history of his family and some of the good things that we’ve held onto through the years. I believe it will make him stronger, more resilient, and more open minded and loving toward his neighbors.

Monica Matsushima