Community Insights: Thoughts from a Shin-Issei

This article is part of a series of insights and op-eds from members in our community. If you would like to be featured in an article, please click here.

Insights from Masami Izumida Tyson (Council Leader; Global Director of Foreign Direct Investment and Trade, State of Tennessee, Department of Economic and Community Development )

Masami Izumida Tyson grew up in Yokohama, Japan. She came to the United States as a college student in Baltimore, Maryland, and now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and children, where she practiced law for twenty years prior to her current position as the Global Director of Foreign Direct Investment and Trade of the State of Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

I am a shin-issei – a first-generation immigrant from Japan. Growing up, the idea that America is a place of diversity was ingrained in my mind. I specifically remember reading in a grade school textbook that the United States is a “melting pot” of people of different colors from various countries – and that is precisely why the nation is special and powerful. It is a wonderland of people hailing from all over the globe, bringing their own cultures and backgrounds to be put to use for a common goal. Another image embedded in my memory is a drawing in another textbook of that first Thanksgiving dinner, in the land of the free where people celebrate one another, where everyone gets a fair shake, with justice and liberty for all. Being different or unique is to be honored, quite different from the Japanese concept of “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Of course, once I moved here in my late teens, and later as I became a U.S. citizen, I observed and personally experienced that as with everything else, nothing is as it seems from afar. The true test comes when we face a crisis – or two. And so, to be completely frank, the events in the last six months have been eye-opening and have “re-reshaped” my view of this country I have chosen to call my own. The pandemic created situations in which Asian Americans have been subjected to grossly misplaced scapegoating and stereotyping – yet again. The heinous crimes against George Floyd and other African Americans have been devastating for America, yet this time, Asian Americans were inadvertently but wrongly placed somewhat outside of the discussion – seemingly because we are not black or white and supposedly irrelevant to the dialogue that has followed.

As a relatively new American in these challenging times, I admit that I have said to myself and even to others, “This is not the America I chose.” I also shamefully confess that I have used this as an excuse to take an outsider’s stance and a ticket to not face difficult realities. I have hidden behind my Japanese identity and claimed that “they” are having problems. Besides, the Japanese voice inside me said that people should have the ability to understand each other without expressing any thoughts and emotions, so all the discussion is unnecessary. It has been hard to depart from this way of thinking, because it has been convenient to hide behind it – best to keep my head down to avoid being hammered down.

But now I finally make the conscious decision to own and embrace this country’s challenges, its problems, and its mistakes. It is not fair that for years I have claimed and felt entitled to the benefits of becoming and being an American but not the burdens. In this moment when this nation needs to keep moving forward – a seemingly insurmountable task – the first step is for me to personally take responsibility for the nation’s situation. I must choose to interject myself into these national discussions. I must stay engaged because our nation’s ailments are ours to admit, even if we think we didn’t create them. I choose this because I belong to this country, and that is what it means to belong.

I did not merely become a part of a country which was a complete and final product, but I, along with all the Japanese Americans before me and after me, am part of continuing to shape and build America. We experienced adversity and successes along the way and overcame and achieved with commitment and strong conviction. So I take on that legacy, and I now realize that what I learned growing up in Japan is also true: I not only inherit this rich Japanese American story, but I also bring to the melting pot my upbringing in Japan, my culture which shaped me, and the Japanese virtues of humility and issho kenmei – to use my utmost effort and to do so with all my might and life. And I ask myself: What can I do to make America better? This is my contribution.

I also have the added burden and privilege of being a product of two countries which have an extremely special bond despite whatever happened in the past. A mere seventy-five years ago – which in the big scheme of things is just like yesterday – the United States and Japan attempted to destroy each other. As a Japanese American, I should tell and retell my story, a symbol of overcoming what was seemingly impossible, and a story that is a small part of the countless stories before mine – the wrongs, the pain, the triumphs and all – and eagerly anticipate that we would come out stronger after our current challenges, both for the sake of ourselves and for the country. Appropriately, another Japanese virtue encourages us to have the wisdom to know when to give up and to know when to persevere. This is a compelling case for the latter.

Masami Izumida Tyson (Council Leader; Global Director of Foreign Direct Investment and Trade, State of Tennessee, Department of Economic and Community Development )