Sarah: Can you describe your family and how your family’s history has shaped your childhood?
Kento: My family has my mom, who is from Japan, and my dad, who is a third-generation Japanese American from Hawai'i. And then, me—and I grew up mostly in Hawai'i—and my older brother, who grew up partially in Japan and partially in Hawai'i. He’s twenty-six now.
S: You spent most of your time in Hawai'i. Where else was that time spent?
K: I was born in Japan, and then I stayed there for about eight or nine months before my family moved to Hawai'i for the first time. We stayed there [Hawai'i] for about two years and then we moved to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for a few years. By that time, I was around five, and then we moved back to Hawai'i. Yeah, and then I stayed there from age five until now, I lived in Hawai'i. The reason we moved around was because my dad was in the military.
S: Your dad is a third-generation Japanese American … but your mom and he met in Japan. How did they meet?
K: So, my mom worked on the military base in Japan close to where she grew up. The Air Force base was about thirty minutes away from her childhood home, and she was an office worker on the base. And then my dad was stationed there [as an engineer]. So they met…. And got married about a year before I was born.
S: I’m intrigued by your parents and your grandparents. If you do know, can you describe your family lineages on both your family’s sides?
K: I’ve had to do interviews with my grandpa before … asking about their lineage and I think that was a common project we had to do because mostly everyone had immigrant stories back in Hawai'i. So that was pretty cool.
So I’ll start with that [paternal] side… I might not be remembering everything exactly correctly. So the way that Japanese Americans count their generation numbers is through your father and your father’s father and that kind of thing, so my dad is considered third-generation Japanese American because my great grandfather moved from Japan to Hawai'i. So basically, all of my dad’s ancestors are from southern Japan and my mom is from northern Japan. I think it's pretty common for most Japanese Americans, for their ancestors to be from southern Japan rather than from northern Japan and I’m not too sure why.
I think the interesting thing about my great grandfather is that his parents moved to Hawai'i before he did … I know he was raised by his grandparents in Japan and then he moved to Hawai'i. And I think he didn't know that they were his grandparents and I think he found out later in life that his parents had already gone to Hawai'i; so my great great grandparents had gone to Hawai'i, and then he [my great grandfather] moved later. Actually, they had brought some of his siblings along, which is weird. So some of his siblings were born or grew up in Hawai'i, and then he grew up in Japan, and then moved. He was a fisherman, and they lived on the island of Kauaʻi, which is to the west of Oʻahu, which is where I grew up.
His wife also had a surprisingly similar story; I think she was born in Hawai'i and then her parents—so my great great grandparents on that side—moved to Hawai'i, had her, and then sent her back to Japan to be raised. She also didn't find out until later that she was born in Hawai'i. So I think sometime when she was getting pretty old, she was attending night-time English classes and trying to apply for citizenship, and later in the process, she found out that she already had citizenship. Both of them, they kind of had weird roots in Hawai'i before they moved, I guess.
Moving onto my father’s father, he’s still alive and still relatively healthy which is why I’ve been able to ask him a lot of things. I don’t know as much about my father’s mother because she died of Alzheimer’s ten years ago, but my grandfather knew enough about her family background to give me the overview.
My grandmother’s grandparents are very close to my high school. That area … is full of Japanese American people. They [great, great grandparents] had American names like William, so I think they may have been born in Hawai'i as well or they moved really early... I don’t think they spoke much Japanese. If I’m not mistaken… they had English first names and Japanese middle names, which is more common if you’re second or third generation. So, if I’m not mistaken, on that side my great grandmother was second generation already, so if you change the counting system, then I’d be the fifth generation counting from there.
My great grandpa, he was a fisherman. I think his wife worked in schools being a school secretary and helping in the cafeteria, that kind of thing. And I think my grandmother’s parents or grandparents were always on Oʻahu, which is the island I’m in, and … one of my grandparents or great grandparents were digging cesspools or doing carpentry stuff. I’m not too sure about the others.
S: Wow, that was really interesting. There was a lot in there. It’s really rare to see someone that knows the generation beyond grandparents, but you mentioned that classroom exercises that ask about family history were common [in Hawai’i]. So, can you describe what it was like to grow up in Hawai'i, and what images of that experience stand out to you?
K: [laughs] I think I didn’t really think about where I grew up until I came to college, because I had basically never been outside of that environment. So, a lot of things that I kind of knew on the surface weren’t typical for America, I just knew as a fact, but I didn’t really understand what that meant.
So, I grew up very much surrounded by other Asian people. It varied from having moved from Japan as a child all the way to having had four or five generations in Hawai'i. So, it was definitely a wide variety of experiences, but not like the typical wide variety of experiences.
I think a lot of the time, I felt in some senses like an outsider to Hawai'i culture growing up because I was born in Japan and my mom was Japanese, right, so I wasn’t like “Asian” in the normal … in the typical sense in Hawai'i. I was always more “Asian” than other people. I would speak Japanese to my mom when other people were just speaking English. So in that sense, I felt a little like an outsider.
Also, there’s local culture in Hawai'i, which is separate from native Hawaiian culture. Local culture is, like, culture from modern Hawai'i that resulted from all these people immigrating from outside places. And at least where I grew up, local culture is very dominated by Asian Americans and Japanese Americans specifically, but they’re multigenerational typically. And so, those people would speak more pidgin than me and that kind of thing, whereas I grew up speaking English that was closer to standard or mainland American English. So that made me kind of feel like: “Oh, I’m not really local.”
Um… but I think I wasn’t really uncomfortable with it because I still had people that were coming from similar backgrounds to me. I think there was definitely a large range in terms of… I was always perceptive to how people use language, I think. There was always a large range of people from pretty standard—like if they went to the mainland, they wouldn't be able to tell: “Oh, you’re from Hawai'i,”— versus people who spoke with heavy pidgin accents that would sound very different from something you would hear on the mainland.
S: Your education in Japanese—speaking it, writing it, reading it—where did you learn all of that?
K: I attended Japanese school every Saturday from 8:30 AM to 2:40 PM [laughs] basically as soon as I moved back to Hawai'i the second time. So I went through the equivalent of kindergarten until ninth grade in that Japanese school every Saturday.
And my brother actually [laughs] my brother actually attended Japanese school. When we lived in Missouri, there was a Japanese school in St. Louis, which is about two and a half or three hours away from where we lived in Missouri. Every Saturday, we’d get up super early and drive to St. Louis and have my brother attend Japanese school there. When we moved back to Hawai'i, he also attended Japanese school in Hawai'i. So he also went through [Japanese school] graduation.
And so growing up, I only had one day every weekend basically [laughs] which was really sad, but it’s okay. I think I really didn’t like Japanese school until around like sixth grade in Japanese school, so seventh grade American school. I think the reason I stayed is one, because my brother ended up graduating, so I couldn’t lose to my brother, and because everytime I wanted to quit, my mom would be like: “Oh no, you’re not going to be able to speak to your grandparents anymore,” so she kind of pressured me to keep going… But by sixth grade on the Japanese calendar, I found a friend group that I looked forward to seeing every week, and that really motivated me the last three or four years. But I was really grateful for it to be done when I graduated [laughs].
S: You mentioned you found communities at Japanese school. Were the parents of the kids who attended that Japanese school also friends? How was the community in the generation above you, and did that shape your community?
K: [laughs] That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure how familiar you are with that culture, but in Japan, definitely, there’s a big culture of … all the moms of the kids know each other. It’s very patriarchal, but all the moms of the kids know each other.
There’s this phrase in Japanese called “mamatomo”. Mama means mom and tomo is like friend. So it’s basically like these “mommy friends”. When you say “mamatomo”, that’s usually being like: “Look at these these social cliques that the moms make with each other,” and there’s this concept that basically once people get married and have kids, the life of the mother, usually in traditional Japanese culture, revolves around raising the child.
Japanese bentos are like lunch bentos—how do I translate bento?—like a portable box for kids. Bentos have to be like really cute and elaborate for their children. So bringing it back to my experiences, basically starting in sixth grade, I would always bring home-lunch to American school, and so usually it’d be leftovers from the night before—so some kind of meat and rice and a bottle of water, and like snacks, which is fine. I had no complaints. [laughs] It was better than the cafeteria food, so I was happy with that.
But [laughs] I really looked forward to lunch on Saturday, cause that’s when my mom … So like American Monday through Friday, it was just like Tupperware with rice and meat in it, but on Saturday, she brought out like the Japanese bento box.
It was like.. [laughs] compartmentalized and she put rice in, she put sesame on top of it so it’d taste good, and sometimes, umeboshi, the pickled plums… very typical. Or she would make karaage, Japanese fried chicken, and cut it into cute, small bite-sized pieces, and stick it in. She would make tamagoyaki, which is like fried eggs in like a roll, and then cut that nicely. And then, like [laugh] the other typical thing is to slice apples in a really cute way so that they look like rabbits. So she did all of that on Saturday, and then like Monday through Friday, it was like rice and meat.
So, I think it’s interesting how she did that. I’m not sure if it’s cause she wanted to make herself look like she was being a, you know, a proper Japanese parent for this one day, or whether she wanted me to experience a more typically Japanese thing. It might have been both, but yeah.
But she definitely knew all the other moms of the kids in my year. There was like a PTA kind of thing for the Japanese school, so every once in a while, she’d have to go and man the library for an afternoon or that kind of thing. Definitely, she took care of a lot of the logistical things for Japanese school. And so she knew all the other moms, and she had her friends within the mom group. Generally, there was low-drama, so it was fine. It’s still pretty interesting to hear her talk about her mom friends because I knew their kids, and often, she kind of critiques how they’re like raising her kids. She’s generally low drama, but it’s the everyday gossip, apparently… [laughs]
S: What about the men? What about the dads? Were they close?
K: I think that kind of mom-dominated culture was really exacerbated in Japanese school, because I feel like ninety or more percent of the kids at Japanese school—well, there were a decent number of kids where both of their parents were from Japan, so Japanese would be the sole language they spoke at home for those kids. A lot of their parents had a job in Hawai'i temporarily; they would stay for a handful of years and they move back to Japan. But then a lot of us were like me, where we basically grew up entirely in Hawai'i or almost entirely in Hawai'i. Usually for those kids, only one of the parents was Japanese.
Ninety or more percent of the time, it was the mom who was Japanese and the dad would be American [United States-born, regardless of race or ethnicity]… so they wouldn't be like too involved in Japanese school stuff, mainly because they didn’t know the language, so they couldn’t really take care of the things. So like the mom would be in charge and socialize [laugh]. So actually, I met very few of my classmates’ dads throughout my time there, but I know most of their moms’ faces.
S: Now that we’re on the subject of languages. [laughs] Wow … language is just such a vast category.
K: I feel like I’ve brought it up in like every answer so far. [laughs]
S: Right... it was imbedded in a lot of places. Wow, where should we begin? Also, you’re a linguistics major, is that correct?
K: I haven’t declared yet, but that’s the plan.
S: So let’s talk about your potential major and what languages you currently speak.
K: Okay, so…. I learned Japanese from my mom slash from going to Japanese school. Then, I learned English from my dad, so my dad… so we can go through my family [laughs] so my dad grew up in Hawai'i, grew up speaking English. At least his siblings had to attend Japanese school—kind of like me, but less rigorous; I think a couple hours a week instead of a full day. That was like very common for that generation, for second or third generation kids. So basically, they all speak English as their first language and have a passing knowledge of Japanese. You know, if an old person on the street were only to speak Japanese, they would like understand… but basically, my dad speaks English.
My mom speaks Japanese, but she worked on the [American] military base. She surprisingly had study abroad experience and yeah, I don’t even know the timeline of all this stuff. She went to Florida in a year in high school, and she had been to Taiwan for a little bit during high school. And even before she met my dad, she was in America briefly for something or another.
S: Was she studying something in particular that made traveling useful?
K: I don’t think so… I think it was her personality.
S: What was her personality like? [laughs]
K: Just based on when I hear her experiences and partly on her thoughts on her home… She grew up in a very rural part of Japan, and I forgot to mention this when I was going through all my family tree stuff, but basically her family has been in the same town for like as long as they know on both sides. My mom’s dad and mom’s mom were both one of seven or eight children in their families, and if I go back to where my mom’s home is in Japan, then you walk up the street and you find the house of the person my cousin married and like you walk a little farther up the street, and you see my cousin’s house, and then the wife of my grandfather’s older brother, and right next door to her house, is my grandmother’s younger sister’s house and that kind of thing.
They’ve all been there… a long time basically. It’s very like, you know, I guess, very traditional and all that. And she talks about … I think her views about a lot of things are more liberal or more open than like her family’s views, so I think I can imagine her just wanting to get out based on what she’s told me.
So basically, the point of that was, my mom’s English is fine, so she and my dad speak English to each other.
S: Do they ever speak together in Japanese?
K: Um, my dad never speaks Japanese. But he has to know enough Japanese to like keep up when me and my mom talk, right?
S: Have you ever tried to engage conversation with your dad in Japanese?
K: Hm… no, that’s too weird. So the weird thing is… there was one summer after seventh grade where I went back to Japan, back to where my mom is from for two months with my mom, and my dad stayed in Hawai'i. So, basically during those two months or so, I didn’t speak any English. Up until that point, if my mom spoke to me in Japanese, I would sometimes respond in Japanese and sometimes in English. But after that trip, I stopped speaking to my mom in English because it just felt like weird after two months.
So since then, I’ve only spoken in Japanese to my mom and only spoke in English to my dad. It feels weird to speak in anything else. And I don’t know what language to speak to my brother in. I remember every year when I have to text him “Happy birthday!”, I don’t know like what language to use.
S: You definitely associate different languages with different family members. But does that extend into other categorizations? For example, the social with English, the academic with another language?
K: Yeah, I think, I’ve always been uncomfortable speaking Japanese to … you know, I didn’t really associate with a Japanese social environment. For example, I do Japanese Americans Students Union (JASU) here, and yeah I’m always thinking about: “Oh, what language do I use in this context?”. I remember even in high school, I had a lot of classmates in my regular high school who were Japanese or their parents were Japanese. For example, they could have attended Japanese in a younger year or an older year, or some of them were Japanese but didn’t attend Japanese school. But for those people, because I associated them with my English school, I was really really uncomfortable speaking Japanese to them.
S: Uncomfortable, in what way?
K: Basically, I couldn't bring myself to speak Japanese. So I think if I were to try, it would have sounded… it was a very self-conscious thing. If I had spoken Japanese to them, it would have sounded weird. You know what I mean? I definitely still have that issue at Yale. Also my English is much stronger than my Japanese. At Yale, I will tend to shift toward using English rather than Japanese.
S: What other languages do you speak?
K: I started taking Mandarin Chinese in seventh grade, because that’s when my school started offering foreign languages. I took it up until senior year and then I continued here. I think, initially, my school offered five foreign languages, which were French, Spanish, Latin, Japanese, and Chinese, and basically I wasn’t too interested in the other languages. My mom tried to get me to take Japanese because she thought I could focus on other schoolwork, but the school strongly recommended against that and I didn’t want to be lazy. The other factor that made me choose Chinese was that throughout Japanese school, I was really interested in written characters, like kanji, and learning kanji and all that stuff. Chinese is written in a very similar system, so I was like: “Oh, this is cool, I could learn the language where all the characters originated from.” So I decided to take Chinese. And I really liked it, so I continued.
S: You’re a prospective linguistics major. Why? What about the study of language appeals to you?
K: So, it’s always a combination of factors. I think the biggest factor that comes to mind is that my mom speaks a dialect of Japanese that’s very divergent from standard Japanese. So if someone who’s only been exposed to standard Japanese hears that dialect, then they won’t understand it at all basically.
S: What’s the name of the dialect?
K: Nambu-ben. Ben is like dialect. Nambu is the region within the prefecture that my mom is from, so it’s like a regional thing in northern Japan. I remember when I was very small, I would copy what my grandma said, cause there’s this specific exclamation that people from my region make when they’re surprised. It’s like: “jai-ya-ya” and standard Japanese doesn’t have a surprised exclamation. Um, and yeah [laughs] that stood out to me as a child, and my brother and I’d copy her when she said that.
I kind of started to be aware that there’s these two types of Japanese that my mom uses, right? And how she split up her use. With all these parents in Japanese school in Hawai'i, she would speak standard Japanese because that’s what gets across. And only with her family would she use this dialect. And so, if my mom was calling someone on the phone, then I knew who she was talking to, because the language was different.
So definitely, by like, middle-school time, I started recording my relatives speaking [laughs] and just listening. Trying to learn what different words were, and trying to understand. 'Cause I think, I can understand with no problem my mom and all her siblings speaking, but I can’t really understand what my grandpa says sometimes, and like people of his generation. And it might be just because they’re old, so you know they sound different, [laughs] but also because I don’t really understand the dialect. So, I think yeah, it started with interest in my mom’s dialect, specially.
Also, at the same time, maybe around seventh grade, I had another friend in regular school who was also interested in linguistics, actually. So the two of us would be able to talk about things. That was me learning that: “Hey, that’s an academic field for this.”
Basically throughout middle and high school, we’d read Wikipedia articles and on Wikipedia, there are links so that you can learn more and more. Reading a few books, and being like: “Oh, this is interesting.”
S: Does the dialect that your mom’s side of the family uses have certain sociopolitical affiliations?
K: Like I said, my mom is from northern Japan, so a large part of the country north of Tokyo, which is kind of in the center-ish. Basically, once you get a couple hours north of that [Tokyo], that whole region is kind of grouped into one group of dialects, kind of like the [American] South, and that’s like the most agricultural area and least densely populated area of Japan, and also the poorest area. So, it kind of has these similar stigmas as having a Southern accent. It’s kind of seen as like a lazy, laid-back, country bumpkin kind of dialect. Also, because it’s in the North, it's really cold, and it sounds really fuzzy and blurry because in the winter you don’t want to open your mouth too much. So there’s that kind of stigma associated with it.
S: [laughs] The winter analogy, I just didn’t expect that.
S: Beyond Japanese and your mom’s dialect, were there any specific languages or histories of languages, whether you spoke them or not, that you really found to be interesting? What are some images from that time of discovery that still stand out to you?
K: I think there was this other thing that I started getting into at that time that was called “conlanging”. So “con” is for construct and “lang” for language, and its like this nerdy hobby to make up a language. It was my friend who was interested in linguistics who introduced this to me.
There’s this online community with resources to do it, and you decide on which sounds you want your language to have, and how you’re going to deal with various grammatical things. Like, is the word order going to be S-O-V, or S-V-O? Subject object verb… subject verb object… that kind of thing. And just like dealing with a whole bunch of things related to language and getting into that force you to think more deeply about the structure of language: What is natural for language to do? What is unnatural? If a language has this sound and this sound, then it’s also natural to have these two sounds.
Language very much appears to be governed by a set of principles that some things are possible and other things are not possible and so, to make up a language, you have to think about all those things. I didn’t realize that necessarily at the time; I was just like running into things and realizing this doesn't work and this works. But like now that I’m taking linguistics classes, I’m like: “Oh, that’s what I was going for,” right? You’re trying to make a language that’s natural like human languages and as complex.
In order to use something in your language you have to kind of have an example language to base it off of, so basically, I would kind of read all over the place and Google things and maybe Wikipedia would have this. “Oh, this language is known for doing this,” and then I would read more of that language.
S: Can you give an example of that?
K: One thing I remember was that in seventh grade, some of my classmates were starting to learn Latin, so I was like really confused by the concept of grammatical gender in a language, right? Where you inflect nouns and adjectives and verbs and whatever, in different ways depending on the inherent property of that word. Like this word is masculine, this word is feminine, and Japanese doesn't have that. Chinese doesn't have that. English doesn't really have that other than pronouns.
So, what is this thing? How is the word, sandwich, feminine? And that kind of thing. And, so, I tried to make a language that had grammatical gender and that forced me to figure out things, like: “Oh, every word needs to be assigned a gender, or every noun.”
If you read the Wikipedia page for gender, yeah, then like I eventually learned that other languages are not just masculine or feminine, or masculine, feminine, neuter… They sometimes have more…. Like animate objects, human, inanimate objects. Right, like all these various categories and different languages doing things different ways. And sometimes it’s not even like—gender’s kind of a weird term to use—it’s kind of just inherited from studying Latin, but you could call them noun classes and …. A language could have 11 instead of three.
I would just learn about how: “Oh, these are the things that are possible.” And then, being like: “Okay, this sounds cool, I’ll try it out.” And usually, [laughs] I didn’t get very far with these languages. Usually, I’d putter out after a while and get interested by something else, but yeah… that’s basically how I went about learning things.
S: What is something about linguistics that the normal layperson wouldn’t recognize?
K: I think as a very broad misconception is that that there are incorrect and correct varieties of speech. So to a linguist, if someone says something in a certain way naturally, and they think that it works for them and it gets across, then that’s grammatical and that’s something worth describing and looking into and figuring out. Whereas, especially going to school and that kinda thing… “Oh, if you use this, you can’t use this in an essay—it’s ungrammatical.” … like ending a sentence with an infinitive [sic, preposition].
The linguist is not really interested in that. They’re not interested in how people say other people should speak; they’re most interested what is actually spoken. Right? There’s definitely a sphere for these prescriptive rules—don’t end a sentence with an infinitive [sic, preposition]— like if you’re going to publish a paper in academia, you maybe don’t want to do that. But that’s something that was imposed onto English by people, you know, not something that grew out naturally from how language works.
So basically the summary of that: grammatical means something different to linguists than it does to people. For the layperson, grammatical means: “How should I write this email or this essay?” Whereas for the linguist, grammatical is: “Oh, does a person actually say it this way?”
S: Looking forward, what are some things you want to possibly explore in terms of language, and to add on top of that, is there anything particularly shaped by the fact that you’re an Asian American?
K: I’ve started taking a wider variety of courses at Yale about different subfields of linguistics. For example, syntax is the study of how sentences are structured… like putting words together in the order that makes the most grammatical sense for speakers, versus phonology, [which] is basically studying the sounds of a language. How are sounds kind of like stored in the mind and what rules govern how sounds come out in a word.
And so far, I think I’m pretty interested in everything. So I’m not sure yet as to what subfield or discipline in linguistics I would be interested in pursuing more. But I think if I have the opportunity, it would be really cool to go back to Japan where my mom is from, and study that dialect and describe it or write a paper on it. Like research that dialect. I think that would be really cool.
Because I’ve been trying to find academic sources related to that dialect or that group of dialects, and it’s pretty hard. I think a lot of it is in Japanese, and even that stuff is hard for me to access even if I might be able to read it. So yeah, I just kind of like want to find out more about where the field is and how well those dialects are described and maybe try to describe them.
Also, recently, I’ve been interested in Shanghainese, because several of my friends speak it. That could be another thing that I’m might be really interested in.
I guess one really good thing that would come out if I were able to research these dialects—like my mom’s dialect—is that it would help me understand more about her background in a sense and like something that I’m really interested in is the kind of like place she comes from.
I think to describe the language in some sense gives it legitimacy. To promote a more empirical or scientific understanding of dialects, and about this dialect … That gives it legitimacy and it says that this is something worthwhile and not something that comes out of people being uneducated or people being inherently dumber or that kind of thing. So, that would be cool.