May is the month when many of us from Asian American backgrounds celebrate our heritage and the contribution of our lives, our cuisine, and our voices to the choir of American culture. Here I am not speaking as an AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) or BIPOC spokesperson. Rather, I am proud to speak as a sansei (third generation) Japanese American (JA) person, singing with my particular voice within the Asian American section. It is with that voice that I now sing.

This piece also reflects my spiritual formation experience in the staff-board circle of Wisdom & Money as we live out our Wisdom, relational (Be Present Empowerment Model) and money practices with one another. I am especially grateful to both our Trailblazing Institute and the CAC Living School for their encouragement and support of me in exploring, embracing and living more fully in harmony with my JA roots.

I am also delighted that my family and I are able to embody my connection with our ancestors! This month I will be taking my wife, our two daughters and granddaughter on a pilgrimage with other JA to Amache in Granada, Colorado. Amache is the site of one of the ten concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII. Even ten years after Mom’s passing, I wonder how she and her family dealt with being incarcerated solely because of their physical traits and their country of ancestral origin. 

Family pic: myself with my wife, two daughters, and grandaughter.

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’d like to share how the biblical story of Zacchaeus the tax collector resonates so strongly with my experience as a Japanese American. This story is helping to reshape my own, from one of not being seen to being seen, from denying my wealth to accepting it, and from the constrictions of a JA-specific trope to seeing how I might serve both ancestors and descendants. May my story help call you forth more fully into your own journey as well!

A Story that Resonates

In recent weeks, Luke’s story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, has been speaking to me (Luke 19:1-10).  Of him, Luke says “he was a chief tax collector and wealthy.” Being an Enneagram Type 3, I notice someone who’s influential and powerful. Zacchaeus fits the bill! He’s a chief tax collector. He’s also wealthy. The wealth of this region of Palestine was derived in part from the aromatic balsam tree grown near his hometown of Jericho. Balsam produces the highly prized and fragrant opobalsam oil, also known in the Bible as “the balm of Gilead”, both a literal and a metaphorical source of holistic healing

How did Zacchaeus attain this status of chief tax collector? He did so by shrewdly siding with the Roman colonizers of Palestine and extracting money from his own people, thereby becoming someone with more than enough. But there was a price tag on this wealth. He became a persona non grata and a man without a country. Zaccheus was a “traitor” to “his people.” He was a non-Jew to them. And also a non-Roman to the Romans.

I was touched by the compassion of Jesus toward this man. Luke notes that Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree: like other New Testament authors, Luke mentions this tree is a signal to the listener of an upcoming transformation and regeneration. Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus are a response to his action of climbing into a sycamore tree: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus invited himself as an honored guest and thereby restored Zacchaeus’ standing in their Jewish community. 

And I appreciate the flow of virtue continuing in this story, this time from Zacchaeus. He declares his actions of restitution and reparations: ”‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”’ (Luke 19:8). Then Jesus announces Zaccheus’ true identity, that “he too is a son of Abraham.” Just as the Jews said this oprobalsam oil will flow for the righteous in the world to come, Zaccheus’ wealth began to flow back to his own people at that time

I experience a profound identification with the Zacchaeus I met in this story. I too am a man caught between two cultures, White American and Japanese American, and one who learned how to acquire more than enough, but at a price. And like Zaccheus, I also experience Jesus’ transformative compassion, and this sense of being seen for who I really am. Below I will share why these are such deep points of resonance for me.

The Price of Success

Zacchaeus was a man whose material success came at a cost. I too feel that the way I learned to navigate achieving financial success (in America) came at a great price to me. The price I paid has to do with my unconscious internalization of the “Model Minority Myth.” 

What is the Model Minority Myth? It is a little-known trope that has been applied to Asian Americans and Japanese Americans in particular. It is the voice of racism that seeks to divide and conquer, endorsing one minority subgroup above others. It highlights and holds up our JA story as an example for other BIPOC folks to emulate. It says to them, “If you were more like [the Japanese Americans]—quiet, submissive, educated, hard-working, loyal and patriotic—you, too, could ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ and succeed as they have.” I unwittingly grew up internalizing the Model Minority Myth. I felt I had to excel, to look good doing so, to coalesce and lead others toward what they sought even as I unwittingly kept my own heart and longings hidden from myself. 

As I reflect on my family history, I see how I have experienced the message of this myth as a double-edged sword, one that has both paved a path for financial success but also suppressed a major aspect of my identity.

 

My family and the Model Minority Myth

It is true that my parents overcame much adversity and were in many ways exemplars of the Model Minority Myth. In 1920s Hawaii, my father’s father had immigrated from Okinawa and rose to become a sugar cane plantation foreman of fellow Okinawans on the Big Island of Hawaii. My father created for his brothers the template for escaping plantation life: flee the plantation to get a university education! Dad moved to Oahu, enrolled in the University of Hawaii (UH) and worked as a “houseboy” for a family near the Manoa campus. After WWII interrupted his studies at the UH, he moved to Los Angeles and earned his BS, MS, and PhD from UCLA. He later returned to Honolulu to help establish the University of Hawaii John A. Burns Medical School and died a tenured Emeritus Professor of Pathology.

My mother’s story shows a similar resilience. In 1942,  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order was a fearful response to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.The US military forcibly removed my mother and her older sister, full citizens of the United States, together with their parents, from their homes, their businesses and possessions absconded. They were incarcerated in the Manzanar camp in the Mohave Desert. Later in the war, they were allowed to move to work in the Bird’s Eye frozen food plant in Bridgeton, NJ. After the war, her family returned to West LA to reestablish their lives there–their previous lives forever lost. Mom went on to earn her BA and MA from UCLA, where she met my Dad. She worked as a teacher, then a church organist and wedding pianist, and raised my sister and myself.

After the war, despite the ongoing racist atmosphere in California, JA veterans did benefit from programs offered to their white counterparts: the GI Bill for education and VA loans for housing. Because of the extraordinary efforts of WWII 442nd hero Senator Dan Inouye and other congressional leaders, the Korematsu vs. United States Supreme Court case overturned the validity of the so-called internment and laid the legal foundations for the Civil Rights Act of 1988. This act formally apologized for wrongly imprisoning JA during WWII and offered token reparations (cents on the dollar) to every living survivor of the concentration camp.

My parents!

I can see how my family created for my sister and I a bubble of privilege where we were inculcated into the Model Minority Myth. I am grateful for the ways I experienced sheltering from the storms of much racism throughout my growing up years. In West LA, I was in the bubble of the JA community: on Saturday mornings I was at a Japanese language/culture school, on Sundays I was with my parents, auntie/uncle/cousins and grandparents or at our JA United Methodist church. During the week I was at school with several JA kids and lots of Jews. A few years after my sister was born when I was in the 5th grade, Dad moved our family to Honolulu, Hawaii. At that time, we JA comprised about one-third of Hawaii’s population, and I found myself in the JA/AAPI majority at an Episcopal college prep school. 

In what way did I experience this Model Minority Myth as a double-edged sword? Because of dad’s decision to move back to Hawaii, I grew up as part of a majority in Hawaii. My parents gave me a privileged life with access to a superb college prep education at Iolani School. In high school, I got to be a big fish in the small pond of Honolulu high school life as a scholar, cellist, and church leader.. I was accepted to Harvard, Yale and UCLA. I earned my BA from UCLA and then two graduate degrees in Colorado. Often perceived as white or close enough, I found a place in large corporations. Then I was able to start my own business. I have lived in solidarity with a white world and learned to navigate it successfully.

My wife Susie and I at Kaena Point in Hawaii, and a 17-year-old me performing a solo on the cello.

My outer life looks wonderful–and it is! Yet, like Zacchaeus, I ended up sacrificing something. I have not brought my full JA self into my adult life. For most of the 40+ years since I left my JA bubble in West LA in college, my JA roots have receded into the background. I am so aware of my struggle to reconnect to my roots since then.  In this chapter of life, I am deeply motivated by a strong heart-desire to secure my JA legacy to pass on to my children and grandchildren. Like Zachaeus,the price of success has been an unconscious separation from my people. Like Zacheus, paying that price did not guarantee me full access to white majority culture.

 

Zacchaeus and I: Brothers in Transformation 

I am being delivered from my dilemma of being caught between two worlds—the internalized values of a white world, and my ambivalence toward a JA family story of suffering and an American dream “triumph.” Like Zacchaeus, my encounter with the compassion of Jesus is taking me to a place of transformation and equanimity about my family history and my own. I feel myself reexperiencing the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. What is my evolving experience as I find myself in this story? What does this transformation look like for me? 

Seeing and Being Seen

Zacchaeus was one who sought Jesus, he ran in front of the crowds to climb a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. He saw a deeper, truer wealth in Jesus. That faith so elevated him in the eyes of Jesus that Zacchaeus would be invited to dine with him.

As I reflect on this part of Zacchaeus’ story, I hear the words of Jesus in the book of Revelation 3:20 (NSRVUE):

Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.

Jesus was unashamed of Zacchaeus, unafraid of being associated with this wealthy traitor to the Jews. Zaccheus’s encounter with Jesus welled up into his spontaneous offer of restitution and reparations for his own people. And, in turn, Jesus restored Zacchaeus to his True Self identity as a son of Abraham. 

I see myself as one who, since my youth, has sought Jesus. And Jesus sees and welcomes me to dine with him. Instead of seeing me through the lens of the Model Minority Myth, Jesus sees all of me, including that which is a sansei Japanese American man. He knows about my ancestors’ loss, imprisonment, and shame. But he doesn’t stop there. He is walking along with me and helping me to reach back to hold the open hands of my ancestors and receive their support. 

My Experience of Wealth

Zaccheus was “wealthy”. Similarly, my net worth puts me in the top 1% of the world’s population and the top 10% of the US population. How did that happen only one generation removed from JA incarceration during WWII? My frugal and generous ancestors have given so much to me so that I could become my best self, who also happens to be a person of wealth and privilege. My feelings still run the gamut from shame and guilt to pride and gratitude. Like Zaccheus, I strain to catch a glimpse of Jesus, to hear a word from him.

So I find myself reminded of Jesus’ words: 

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Luke 12:48 NSRVUE

I hear compassionate exhortation in these words of Jesus. I have been given much to bring forth what the Jews call tikkun olam, the healing of the world, the ushering in of God’s shalom. As my ancestors are holding hands with me in this wealth I steward, I join hands with our descendants so that together we can be good stewards of these resources.

 

Social Justice Awakening

Like Zaccheus deciding to return his tax skimmings to his people, I am focusing this chapter of my life on becoming a more generative person beginning with myself and my family. I am one who is coming to love and accept himself and the messiness of his Japanese-American heritage. I want to put those experiences in service to others. 

The early seeds of this generativity awareness were planted when I moved to Los Angeles during the 1970s, a few short years after the South-Central LA race riots. In LA, I was exposed to the racial tensions that spawned the Black Power, Brown Power and Asian Power movements. While those issues faded into the background for much of my adult life, the political and social issues around George Floyd’s murder in 2020 reawakened my JA awareness, my sense of responsibility to support my BIPOC brethren, and my decision to rejoin the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization.

Like Zaccheus, I feel myself being called by Jesus, feeling his compassion and love toward me, pivoting with me on this journey away from constricted self-denial toward generosity and generativity. I am called to join hands with my ancestors, join hands with my descendants and be the living embodiment of Jesus’ compassion. 

I feel what Howard Thurman calls “the voice of the genuine” within me, the voice of Jesus, speaking gently and yet with greater and greater firmness, volume, and conviction. Jesus sees me, Jesus trusts my stewardship, and Jesus invites me into his work of healing the world. Jesus’ compassion is moving me to trust and welcome this inner Japanese American voice into my choir! 

Questions for reflection – please comment below! 

As you reflect on your own ancestors, what do you know, feel and experience?

How do you experience this story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus?

What do you imagine Jesus’ response to you, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your level of wealth?

 

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