Paul Kusuda’s column
Being bicultural but not biracial
Paul H. Kusuda
(except those who were learning Hebrew) were free to play and didn’t have classes after school and Saturday mornings.

My early age advantage was that in kindergarten, I was the teacher’s pet; I could speak both English and Japanese.  I
became translator for other youngsters, thus making the teacher’s life easier.  In the 1920s, there was no class in English
as a Second Language.  Students were totally immersed in English; they had to figure out what was going on and what
was expected of them whether they only spoke Spanish, Japanese, or any other non-English language.  They got by and
caught up quickly with their fellow students who had no language barrier.  Since my parents thought I could adjust in the
school situation, they enrolled me earlier than normal, and the Los Angeles school system did not insist on my meeting
any birthday/year requirement.  In fact, I started about a year sooner than necessary, so my kindergarten teacher had me
as a helper for an extra year.  In effect, I flunked kindergarten.

When I was about 13, my father insisted that I have Japanese education, at least high-school level.  He had
correspondence with friends in Japan able to assure job placement for me.  I wasn’t really interested, but I gave into his
insistence.  The first-year level was easy, the second, not so easy but manageable, and the third, more difficult.  What was
hard to take was height differential.  Usually, in elementary school, I was the shortest person in the class; in my second go-
around in the Japanese language school, because of age, I was at least six inches taller than classmates in the third-year
level.  Not only were classmates younger and shorter, they were more proficient in Japanese.  What a let-down!  I quit
again and refused to return.

Not having Japanese-language proficiency posed no problem.  My minimal ability to speak was sufficient for a get-by
basis, for example, when I visited a Japanese store in San Francisco during a vacation visit.  The horrible disadvantage
came when I was incarcerated in the Manzanar Relocation Center near Death Valley, California, with others who had been
forcibly removed from the three West Coast states during World War II just because they were of Japanese ancestry.  In
January 1943 (after I had been confined for about nine months) a U.S. Army recruiting team visited the Center.  The thought
was that among the 10,000 population of persons of Japanese ancestry, there had to be many who would be Japanese-
language proficient.  Timing was bad, not only unfortunate but next to disastrous.  Manzanar went through a major
disturbance just a month previously, and soldiers shot at unarmed civilians, one of whom was killed and more than ten
wounded.  Few signed up.  At the other nine Relocation Centers, recruitment was successful.

My disadvantage was that low proficiency resulted in my not being able to pass an elementary screening test.  I looked
Japanese, but language capability prevented me from volunteering for the Military Intelligence Service.  Many other Nisei
(Japanese Americans) served with distinction in the Far East as interrogators of Japanese prisoners, persuaders of
Japanese soldiers to surrender, and translators of Japanese documents and messages.  Because they looked like our
enemies, they had to have Caucasian buddies with them at all times.

A month later, another U.S. Army recruiting team visited Manzanar to seek volunteers for the to-be-formed 442nd
Regimental Army Combat Team, the First Battalion to be the 100th from the then-Territory of Hawaii.  Obvious to many of
us—bad timing!  Among the team was a former engineering student classmate from Los Angeles City College (which I
had to leave in a hurry with no choice before the end of the school year).  He was surprised to see me (as I to see him),
and we had a brief time to talk old times.  Not too many volunteered to serve, probably less than 40, I among them.  
Volunteer recruitment was open only for persons physically-and mentally-fit to go as soon as possible into front-line duty.  I
was disqualified because of eyesight.  I was told that my vision was such that a person would be able to see at 600 to 800
feet what I’d be able to see at 20.  My protest that I’d purchase multiple eyeglasses with steel frames to enable normal
vision was not accepted.  I was told that I was not even acceptable for behind-the-lines duties.  So, for the second time in a
month I was rejected by the U.S. Army.  Of course, the news got around the Center, and some disgruntled Center residents
put my name on a list—not an A list—because of the stance I had taken.  My parents feared for my safety because their
friends had warned them of possible violence.  So, we took some safety measures, and no one or group attacked me.  
Within six months, I was granted indefinite leave to relocate to Chicago.

I recounted all that to illustrate some positives and negatives to being bicultural. Mixed in were patriotism and love of
country.  My parents thoughtfully taught their children some old-country traditions, customs, values, ethics, altruism, etc.,
By Paul H. Kusuda

Part 1 of 2

Being bicultural has both advantages and disadvantages.  Unfortunately, for me advantage is
at a minimum because I’ve almost completely lost proficiency in my parents’ language, viz.,
Japanese.  At an early age, I was passably verbally fluent in both English and Japanese.  As
time passed with no reason to speak Japanese, my fluency declined rapidly.  During
childhood, my maternal grandmother (who spoke Japanese and very little English) lived with
our family, but she returned to Japan before I was 12 years old, and since my parents made
efforts to have their three children proficient in English (reading, writing, and speaking), when
my grandmother left, I had no need to speak Japanese.  However, because my parents thought
their children’s future would be enhanced if each had a working grasp of Japanese, we had to
attend Japanese-language school after regular classes.  Of course, our non-Japanese friends
got to play after school was out.  I hated having to trudge a few blocks to take language
lessons.  After completing the third grade in Japanese, I quit.  I just couldn’t see why
my friends
etc., etc.  Meshed together were
both Japanese and U.S.
traditions and values.  The
combination resulted in respect
for education, hard work,
consideration of others, and
avoidance of bringing
embarrassment or shame to
the family.  My father even
instructed me in the formal ritual
of seppuku, or hara-kiri, ritual
suicide.  So it went, and I
survived.  Next month, I’ll
continue this remembrance of
bicultural life, how I conformed
with some but not all aspects of
my parents hopes or
expectations.