Editor's Note: As a continuing tribute to our beloved late columnist, Paul Kusuda, who passed November 2017, we are
re-posting his past columns, which are timeless, informative, and very educational. We will always miss Paul, our number one
supporter and adviser. Through his columns, we know that our readers would learn plenty about contemporary issues, as well
part of American history relating to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and his personal story.
Column of December 2009
Well, in the United States, there are millions of people who’d like to become U.S. citizens. But they can’t. And it hurts. A lot. I know personally
how much my parents wanted to be U.S. citizens. They couldn’t because they were Japanese. They were not undocumented immigrants since
they emigrated and entered San Francisco’s port of entry within the immigration quota policy that did not look kindly, or with special favor, on
Asians. Both of my parents emigrated in the early 1900s. Both were born in the same prefecture and same city in Japan. Their marriage was
arranged, as was the custom, after each eventually wound up in Los Angeles, California. Love was not a consideration. Other factors were. In
fact, my mother was in her early fifties when she told me she finally decided she loved my father. Until then, she was being dutiful and following
what had to be done because it was tradition.
My father did not stay in San Francisco. Instead, he headed east and found work with a railroad company that hired Asians; first Chinese,
later Japanese. He was a high-school graduate before leaving Japan and knew English well enough to communicate. Because of his limited
English proficiency, instead of laying tracks and pounding spikes, he was an interpreter of instructions, despite no previous railroad knowledge
or experience. He later moved to Denver, Colorado, where he found a job setting up bowling pins by hand. (In the late 1940s, I had a similar job
in Chicago before automatic pin-setting machines became popular. I didn’t have that job too long because it was too dangerous.) After awhile,
my father moved to L.A.
My mother left San Francisco to go to L.A. to live with her stepmother who owned and operated a small grocery store on First Street, in
downtown L.A., not too far from City Hall. The area became known as Little Tokyo, or Lil Tokyo to some. Since she was 13 years old, she had to
go to school. She went to Aemilia Street Elementary School. Learning English was not easy. (In those days, it was total immersion, not English
as a Second Language. She was glad to complete grade-school requirements and did not go on to high school. No one encouraged her to
continue her education. Instead she worked in the grocery store. Later, as an adult, she understood and wanted both the rights and
responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
Both of my parents were proud to be Japanese, but since they lived in America and had no desire to return to “the old country,” they wanted
their children to be Americans. So, they gave each of their three children American first names and Japanese middle names. My older brother
was named Bill, not William. I was named Paul, and I’ve always used my middle initial. My younger sister was named Helen. We were
expected to consider ourselves Americans without forgetting we were also Japanese. Both of my parents spoke Japanese to each other and
used as many English words as possible in speaking with us children.
Since my parents were Japanese, they were not eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians were,
because of ancestry, not eligible to enter the naturalization process. They didn’t like it; it was obviously unfair, but they accepted the law of the
land. My mother used the name Elaine while my father was known as Jim, George, or Frank. He preferred George, but he considered himself
by his given name, Masao.
My parents were legal and permanent residents for over a half-century before being allowed to go through the naturalization process.
Congress passed and the President signed into law the Walter-McCarran Act that gave aliens of Japanese ancestry the right to apply for U.S.
citizenship. That was in 1952. (Chinese were granted the privilege previously through the intervention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.) My
parents were Chicago residents at the time. They immediately began their paperwork and took special classes after they finished work, my
father in a book bindery and my mother in a shirt factory. With their history of interacting with English-speaking friends and others, they breezed
through their classes. Finally came their proud day when they took their oath of citizenship and received written proof that they were now U.S.
citizens. To celebrate, we went out for a Chinese dinner at an elegant restaurant on Chicago’s Wentworth Avenue.
1952 was the year to elect the President. I voted for Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson. My parents both decided to vote for Dwight D.
Eisenhower. But politics didn’t divide our household because citizenship meant independent thinking and was highly prized. My parents
earned their citizenship. It was not a gift for them as it was for me. All I had to do was to be born in California. Nonetheless, I prize citizenship as
highly as my parents did. I accept my rights and the responsibilities that go with that right. Citizenship is a precious gift that is denied to many
aliens prevented from earning U.S. citizenship. How can we be so cruel?
For many, Christians and others, December is often thought of as the time for giving and receiving gifts.
Sometimes, a jolly, portly, white-whiskered and red-nosed man is part of the season. Not receiving a gift
might be unthinkable to many. Most of us don’t have to think twice about receiving or giving. But how must it
seem to someone who has no opportunity to receive or work for a unique gift but sees others who have it and
take it for granted?
Citizenship is a unique gift. Enabling naturalized U.S. citizenship provokes thought. Should U.S. citizenship be
considered a gift, a right, or something to be earned? Most Americans take citizenship for granted. Because
we were born in the United States, of course, we’re U.S. citizens. So, what’s the problem? Why think about it?
Who cares about people whom we don’t know who think being a citizen is so great?