Friday Factoid Catch-Up: Toward Cultural Competence: Historical/Generational Trauma Related to Japanese Americans


Historical trauma is relevant to examine regarding the Japanese population in the United States, because those who never experienced the traumatic stressor themselves, such as children and descendants, can still exhibit signs and symptoms of trauma. “During World War II, the United States confined 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps based solely on their Japanese heritage and two thirds of those forced to live in the camps were United States Citizens,” (Nagata, Kim, & Nguyen, 2015.) In addition, the researchers noted that even though the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy, neither German Americans nor Italian Americans were subjected to mass incarceration, like the Japanese Americans.


When conducting psychological treatment with this population it is important to be mindful of the historical and generational trauma Japanese individuals have faced, and to note that, “Even though the incarceration assaults on identity represented a cultural trauma, Japanese Americans did not process them as a collective group. Instead, the impacts were contained primarily at the individual trauma level, during and after the war,” (Nagata, Kim, & Nguyen, 2015.) In addition, the researchers stated, after the Japanese Americans experienced incarceration in camps, they attempted to cope by silence to repress the incarceration trauma for more than three decades. Laub and Auerhahn (1984) supported Nagata, Kim, and Nguyen (2015) and stated, “The more profound the outer silence exhibited by a Japanese individual, the more extensive was the inner impact of the event experienced (p. 154).”


In many cases, the lack of communication about the interment created a sense of foreboding for the Sansei as they grew older, and ultimately increased the curiosity about the camps, as well as heightened their sense of parental trauma (Nagata, 1991). A participant described the topic of internment as a forbidden topic that family tiptoed around, like a family scandal. It is important when conducting therapy with Japanese individuals to explore the role of this silence, not only on an individual level but a familial level, and to explore the client’s interpretation of that silence. In addition, this population may experience lower levels of self-esteem and identity issues stemming from the historical trauma, which may need to be considered in current psychological treatment. According to Nagata (1991), after the camps, many Nisei felt particularly pressured to demonstrate their worth after being rejected by their country, and their Sansei children were also expected to be the best and acquire the respect of others. Further, while Sansei today have more opportunities accessible to them than their Nisei parents, the camp experience of their parents may continue to affect their sense of ethnic identity, resulting in issues of identity.


Narrative Therapy may be beneficial when working with this population because it will allow the therapist to evaluate the stories of the client and can serve several functions in clinical practice: (1) to “make the latent manifest,” (2) to “help construct a unifying narrative, “and (3) to “reconstruct a more useful and coherent interpretation of past events and future projects than the client’s present narrative” (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 178). Family therapy is also advantageous for this population because, “The focus of the family work is to unburden relationships by encouraging dialogues among family members whereby protected, hidden, and even unconscious conflicts of loyalty, obligations, myths, and legends can surface and be examined” (Miyoshi, 1980, p. 41).



Laub, D. & Auerhahn, N.C. (1984). Reverberations of genocide: Its expression in the        consciousness and unconsciousness of post-Holocaust generations. In S. A. Lueland P. Marcus (eds.), Psychoanalytic reflections on the Holocaust (pp. 151-167).   New York: KTAV Publishing House.

Miyoshi, N. (1980). Identity crisis of the Sansei and the American concentration camp.     Pacific Citizen, December 19-26, 91, pp. 41-42, 50, 55.

Nagata, D. K. (1991). Transgenerational Impact of The Japanese- American Internment:   Clinical Issues in Working With Children of Former     Internees. Psychotherapy28(1), 121-128.

Nagata, D. K., Kim, J. J., & Nguyen, T. U. (2015). Processing Cultural Trauma:    Intergenerational Effects of the Japanese American Incarceration. Journal Of      Social Issues71(2), 356-370. doi:10.1111/josi.12115

Polkinghorne, D. E.  (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. New York:         State University of New York Press.


Katy Roth, M.A., CRC
WKPIC Doctoral Intern



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