I see your “Empress Cixi,” and raise you “Ninjas”

Emily Okikawa
August 9, 2016

Once, when I was very little, my best friend in the whole wide world of fourth grade bragged to me that her Chinese heritage extended as far back as the Song dynasty

            “I’m descended from the Empress Cixi,” she said proudly, her head aloft.

            “Holy crap,” I thought.

That afternoon, when my father took me home from school, I burst through the door and demanded that my grandpa explain to me our lineage.

            “Christe,” I said, my hands on my hips, “is practically a princess.”

He nodded, understandingly.

            “Tell me I’m a princess,” I demanded.

“Emi,” he said, “Our last name, ‘Okikawa’ comes from the kanji ‘ookii’ for ‘big’ and ‘kawa’ for ‘river’.” He drew them on the back of my hand.

I grew excited, “Did we have a kingdom by the ocean? With samurai? With geisha? Were we,” my voiced dropped to a whisper, “ninjas?”

My grandpa laughed.

            “You know, girlie, I think…”

My eyes grew wide with anticipation.

            “…that we were probably just poor fisherman. Peasant, basically.”

            “Well that’s just unacceptable,” I thought.


Unfortunately, I never came clean to Christe, whom I told that I was in fact descended from a long line of powerful ninjas. I think she caught on to me at some point though, since all my “ancestors” had names taken directly from the manga, Naruto. Subtlety has never been my strong point.

My interest in my family history did not resurface until I was 6,000 miles away from home, at a tiny liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, named Franklin & Marshall College. After spending my entire childhood in Oahu, Hawai’i, it came as a shock to realize that being Japanese-Filipino actually made me a minority. In a sea of blonde hair and blue eyes, I felt small and insignificant--like an outsider in my new home.

People would come up to me and ask me what country I was from, commenting on how well I spoke English. When I responded that I was from Hawai’i, they would let loose this short barking laugh, give me a knowing look, and follow up with, “But where are your ancestors from?” It was a prying question, meant to validate what preconceived ideas they had already made about me. Being an American was not enough, they were looking for an ethnicity that preceded it, and ultimately, undermined it.

My first year at college was eye-opening and uncomfortable, but an experience that really drove me embrace the Japanese-Filipino heritage that I had once taken for granted. This blog was created to chronicle the struggles of a Japanese-American trying to find her place in this world; I am too American for my Japanese heritage, but also too Japanese to be accepted as completely American.

So, this is me, unapologetic and completely genuine. I chose to study abroad in Tokyo because I’m searching for the language still resting on the tongues of my ancestors, and looking for ways to piece together a fragmented heritage they left behind.


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Emily Okikawa

<div>Emi Okikawa escaped from Oahu, Hawaii by hiding in the cargo hull of a plane headed for the East Coast.&nbsp;</div>
<div>She was last seen at Franklin &amp; Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.</div>
<div>Recent rumors have surfaced about her being set loose in Tokyo. Be advised, the suspect has been spotted eating her weight in Japanese pastries&nbsp;and sitting in animal cafés for multiple hours a day.</div>

2016 Fall
Home University:
Franklin & Marshall College
Environmental Studies
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