Jason Chang is the young president of the local chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL). And, he tells me, he is the newly elected vice president of planning and development for the group’s national Board. Jason appears to be every inch the attractive, energetic professional you’d expect in such positions, but he also brings unmistakable sincerity and passion for the JACL mission, This, he explains, has been twofold: “First, we’ve wanted to preserve the history and culture of our parents and grandparents who came here in the 20th century and, second, we’ve wanted to demonstrate our commitment to this country, to being Americans.”
Typifying these goals, the local JACL has, on one hand, established a memorial where the Pinedale Internment Center was and, on the other, sponsors an annual 5K race, the Shinzen Run, which raises charitable funds for maintaining the Shinzen Garden at Woodward Park and for scholarships. (Jason reports that the JACL gives about $7,000 in scholarships yearly, with any current member—of Japanese ancestry or not—eligible.)
The history of the JACL, though, is a bit more complex than many comparable service organizations. It was born during the dark years of the WWII-era internment camps, mostly to provide young people with the social events and entertainment they were accustomed to (dances and such) while living in the bleak camps. It was part of the same impetus that produced the famous Japanese-American Regiment 442, which fought heroically against the Axis Powers and which Jason’s grandfather joined.
The drive by many internees to prove how American they were was, however, countered by a more subterranean response of anger and bitterness toward the unspeakable treatment at the hands of the U.S. government, an internal schism that has only recently begun to be aired and confronted. (It is well-depicted in the film American Pastime, an accessible drama available on DVD.)
But, Jason reflects, the pain and trauma of the JACL’s early years were not visible to him growing up. As with many others of the postwar generation, for him the humiliation and losses of internment were hidden by his elders’ stoicism: Their energy was devoted to rebuilding a viable family life and producing children who’d succeed in America—kids with no accent and no historical baggage. Thus, Jason grew up in Parlier and attended first Sanger High, where there were only three other Japanese-American kids, and then San Joaquin Memorial, where he was the only one. His family also left Buddhism behind, attending a Baptist church, and the household had few visible remembrances of their Asian heritage.
It wasn’t until he was college-age that Jason began to look more closely at the family history. “I was reading about the internment in a textbook and realized, “This is my mother and her parents here and I know nothing about it.” His maternal grandfather was gradually coaxed into breaking the silence and began to share stories. (By the way, if you are curious like I was, the “Chang” part of Jason’s name is Korean—often spelled Jang. Both Jason and his wife are half-Japanese, half-Korean.) His grandfather told him, for instance, of having been given one day to pack whatever they could in two suitcases, leaving everything else behind, as they were sent to internment.
Eventually, his grandfather became eager to share this history, taking Jason to Imperial Valley to see where he’d grown up and to Davis where he’d gone to college. (He was just two months from graduation at the time of internment. Recently, he was granted an honorary degree to recognize the injustice.) Learning of such stories, Jason says, “I almost wanted to cry. I thought of my grandmother—so small and sweet-natured, you couldn’t even imagine her raising her voice. How could she be considered an alien threat?”
Jason was moved from personal interest to activism by his father’s good friend Floyd Mori, who was director of the national JACL. “Floyd came to lunch one time and challenged me to find out about the issues and get involved with our people’s rights.”
Early on, the JACL focused on airing the history of the internments and on winning compensation. (In 1984, Congress did issue an apology and awarded each person interned $24,000.) They have also worked with the Nissei Foundation to help elders whose work lives were interrupted by internment such that they had insufficient retirement funds and, in establishing Vintage Gardens, a retirement facility that provides cultural and dietary familiarity.
More recently, the JACL has realized the necessity of expanding its vision beyond purely Japanese-American issues. At the national level, they have partnered with the Organization of Chinese-Americans to help voice the concerns of Hmong and Vietnamese refugees. They also stepped out as a prominent supporter of the Muslim-American community after 9/11.
Environmental issues have also entered the agenda. A lot of Asian fishermen had settled in the Louisiana Gulf area after Katrina, and they’ve been hard hit by the recent oil spill. The JACL has helped represent their interests. Locally, a large group of Asian farmers was involved in the Kettleman City cleft-palate syndrome investigations, and the JACL has been there assisting. It has also taken vociferous stands against the Arizona immigration laws, California’s Prop 8 and the controversy over the rewriting of history books in Texas.
Local issues on Jason’s mind are the paucity of Asian studies at Fresno State and the difficulty of involving sansei and yonsei (third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans, following the issei and the nissei). “One problem is the success of our assimilation, at the expense of our traditions and history. The JACL tries to attract young people with social events like saki tasting and a golf tournament, but these don’t really forward our mission.”
I also asked about Hiroshima Day, and Jason made a wry face. “That’s tricky for us. People with closer ties to Japanese nationals, especially those who were directly affected, feel differently from those who identify more closely as American.”
And again that disjunction between “being American” and standing up for human rights—which most of us have to confront in some form—arises in this uniquely Japanese-American aspect. I was touched that Jason doesn’t evade, but sits sadly amid the paradox. Meanwhile, there is work that can be done to try prevent future tragedies due to ignorance and prejudice, and Jason is there to do his share.
Name: Jason Chang
Birthplace: Raised in Parlier
Ethnic Identity: Japanese- and Korean-American
Religion: Presbyterian but interested in Buddhism
Political identity: Conservative
Frequented places: Sakanaya Restaurant (“I met my wife there”), Visalia (where he now lives)
Inspirations: Maternal grandfather John Kashiki and father Rodney Chang
Motto: (for the moment) “Life’s greatest change agent is death,” Steve Jobs
Other involvements: American College of Healthcare Executives
Unlikely pleasures: “Fatherhood. We have a five-month old daughter, the first girl in the extended family, and I’m ecstatic. No more 14-hour workdays for me.”