LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Southern California may be a melting pot, but not everyone lives in a diverse neighborhood. For Justin Kawaguchi, a fifth-generation Japanese-American, the lack of diversity where he grew up had a profound impact on his identity.
He grew up in Thousand Oaks, where he was the only Asian-American kid in his class.
“I did feel like there was something different about me,” he said.
It wasn’t until he started attending summer school at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles that he realized he didn’t look like his friends.
“I would go back to school in elementary school and talk about my summer and I realized my friends in elementary school were really different than my friends throughout the entire summer,” Kawaguchi said.
He says it is an isolating experience surrounded by a lack of diversity.
“I never really saw myself having a community with the same history, especially looking at what happened during World War II,” he said.
Many of Kawaguchi’s family members were placed in internment camps. It wasn’t until he went to college at USC that he truly embraced being Asian-American.
“It was being involved in the Asian-American community here at USC,” he said. “It was finding friends who shared those values. I think all these different separate events together formed my pride in being Asian-American.”
That also meant spending time educating others about the rich history of Japanese Americans, which he does as a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum. He has also found himself confronting anti-Black racist comments within the Asian-American community.
“Many times, older generations – grandparents or aunts and uncles – can say offhand comments, like, oh, Black people do this or Black people do ‘xyz’. For them, that’s just what they grew up with, the rhetoric,” he said.
He believes it’s up to young people to dismantle anti-Blackness within their own families.
“Coming from a place of compassion and empathy, saying, ‘I know you think this way and I understand that’ and then addressing the topic with respect to change their mind gradually is what has to be done,” said Kawaguchi.
Advocating for social change and informing youth is part of his work as a National Youth Student Council Youth Representative for the Japanese American Citizens League, a national civil rights organization.
“I think that having that experience of knowing what it feels like to be different has allowed me to be more empathetic and connect with other communities and support them,” said Kawaguchi. “Because, if I didn’t have that experience growing up, I wouldn’t be the advocate that I am today.”
Kawaguchi says he would not change a thing and he is proud to be Asian-American.