For Japanese Americans, Generation Gap Is Like Spam Musubi Snack

For Japanese Americans, Generation Gap Is Like Spam Musubi Snack

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Add generational cultural divide to the mainstream idea of the "Sandwich Generation," and you get the Hawaiian-Japanese snack Spam musubi--with family caregivers stuck between needs of elders and their old kids.

Part 2. Read Part 1 here

LOS ANGELES--Taking care of an aging parent consumes a great deal of time and energy, especially if you yourself are aging—and still have older children to worry about. The paradox, in part, can be explained by decades of non-communication between Sansei (third generation Japanese American) caregivers and their elderly Nisei parents, say experts.

Nowhere is the parent-child conundrum more evident than in area of eldercare, as more and more Sansei become caregivers to their Nisei parents. Often, the Sansei must simultaneously juggle caregiving responsibilities with the needs of their college-age children and demands of a full-time job.

Generational “Spam Musubi” Divide

The Nisei-Sansei chasm can be likened to the popular Hawaii snack, Spam musubi, where meat is pressed between two layers of rice and wrapped in seaweed. The metaphor represents a barrier created when one generation finds certain subjects difficult to discuss with another generation.

For example, the reluctance of Nisei to openly discuss feelings about the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans (JAs) may have deprived Sansei of coping tools later in life, according to Nobu Miyoshi, MSW, a pioneer in the field of family therapy. Miyoshi first suggested the theory in 1998, during the Sansei Legacy Project’s national conference in San Francisco.

Miyoshi theorized, “From the standpoint of parenting, satisfactory achievement was attained by the Issei in that they were able to give their children a sense of identity. In this close bond, the Nisei consciously and unconsciously perceived basic values associated with family and group identity much in the same way that their parents did.”

She continued, “When Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan and the United States Government began to consider severe measures against their Japanese American population, the commitment of the Japanese Americans to their cultural values of obligation and loyalty was severely challenged.”

Miyoshi asserted in her paper, “The pain suffered by the Issei and the Nisei has been passed down to the succeeding generation through modes that were culturally influenced, that is, through non-verbal cues. The Nisei may not be acutely aware of their own pain as much as the Sansei, who are bearing it for them.”

Today, one in five JAs (21 percent) is age 65-plus -- compared with about 14 percent of the general U.S. population -- and constitute the fastest-growing, longest-living demographic group in America.

Japanese were among six groups of Asian American elders—Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Indian—surveyed in 2005 about their attitudes toward family members. On the topic of elder care, the consensus among Nisei surveyed was that:

*Their children were obliged to obey and respect parents;
* Elder care should be a shared family responsibility;
*The family should not let the government take care of elders.


Westernized But Still Traditional

Sansei, generally considered “westernized” in most aspects of daily life, often find themselves conflicted between the traditional practice of keeping the elders at home and present-day acceptance of institutional caregiving.

“As in many immigrant families, the third generation (often) does not speak the native language of their grandparents and are culturally quite westernized. However, traditional values may still influence their decisions,” stated Marianne K.G. Tanabe of the University of Hawaii’s Department of Geriatric Medicine.

Past research found that Sansei are far less likely to opt for nursing homes for elders in the United States than non-JAs. A study of Seattle-area JAs in the mid-1990s found that although half of those interviewed said they would enter a nursing home if they developed dementia, that proportion dropped to about 20 percent when researchers asked whether those surveyed would still go if culturally sensitive facilities did not exist for those of Japanese ancestry.

Today, eldercare ranging from independent-living apartments to assisted living to nursing homes with predominantly JA populations operate successfully in Los Angeles, Torrance, San Fernando Valley, San Jose, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.

Researchers Tazuko Shibusawa of New York University and Ada C. Mui of Columbia University have noted, “Elders may not be used to asserting their needs. Furthermore, when elders feel they may not be able to reciprocate for the help they receive, they may be more reluctant to become dependent on their family members.”

Shibusawa and Mui, co-authors of Asian American Elders in the 21st Century: Key Indicators of Psychosocial Well-Being (Columbia University Press, 2008) have examined the role Issei values and acculturation play in addressing late-life care issues. Among their research collaborators were the Japan Lutheran College, Department of Social Work, and the Little Tokyo Service Center, in Los Angeles.

One of their findings was that elders who considered themselves “more Japanese” preferred helpers of the same cultural and linguistic background and of the same sex. The elders expressed concerns about the interpersonal aspects of the helping relationships and did not feel comfortable depending on family members for support.

Social workers, Shibusawa, emphasized, must be sensitive not only to cultural issues, but also socioeconomic factors when assisting elders.

Culturally Centered Eldercare Questioned

Nancy Matsumoto, in a 2010 article for Discover Nikkei, projected that the need for facilities established with JA elders in mind could diminish over time as JAs move away and the younger generation’s ethnic ties begin to blur.

Although it is possible Matsumoto’s forecast could materialize, America’s increasing population among those of Japanese descent may bode well for the future of culturally centered eldercare. According to Census 2010, the Japanese American population increased by 37 per cent between 2000 and 2010 to 1.3 million.

In a recent article for Asian Nation, Dean S. Toji points out, “The Japanese American population has nearly doubled since 1970, and is more than triple the 1950 count. Although the rate of increase is mild compared with other Asian Pacific American groups, the number of JAs has been slowly but steadily growing for decades. Over two-thirds of all JAs were born in the United States -- the highest proportion among all [Asian Pacific Americans].”

Meanwhile, Sansei can take comfort in the fact that baby boomers everywhere are facing challenges. Bonny Wolf, a family caregiver and author of Talking with My Mouth Full, wrote in a recent AARP article:

“I am neither a saint nor a martyr. I did not suffer in silence, and I did suffer. For all the difficulties of caregiving, it had enriched my life and made me a more patient, less selfish person. It had allowed me to set an example for my son. I left nothing on the table with parents with whom I had not always had an easy relationship. I would make the same choices all over again.”

Ellen Endo wrote this series for Rafu Shimpo on Japanese American caregivers through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.