How to Be a Better American

How to Be a Better American

How can I be a better American? At age 52, I never asked myself that before. Last week, though, I interviewed James Tanaka, WWII Relocation Camp survivor, who spoke passionately about how to be a better American.

His tips:

  • Look upon fellow Americans as Americans, not as _______________ Americans, with the blank filled in by another nationality. Most people’s heritage in the United States is from somewhere else.
  • Respect others’ property and personhood.
  • Make due with what you have, even if it is small; but do not steal or hurt others trying to get more.
  • Utilize the resources and services available in America to create a better life.
  • Be responsible in working hard and getting an education.
  • Look upon strangers as potential friends.
  • Give service to your country and volunteer anyway that you can.

How did James come up with these ideas? During his life in America, he was first put in a relocation center as a young boy due to war hysteria following Pearl Harbor and racial prejudice. He was an American citizen, and yet was sent from Oregon to Minidoka, Idaho, where he stayed from 1942-1945, locked behind barbed wire and armed guards.

When he got out, life was rough. His family had little money and lived on potatoes and chicken’s feet until they could afford better. James said, though, that part of the Japanese culture is to respect others’ property. He told of people in Japan leaving their doors open, trusting that no one would take their belongings. Thus, even though James’ family lived on such meager fare, they respected others’ property and did not steal.

When James got out of high school, he served in the Korean conflict, and then used the G.I. Bill to go to college. He became a teacher and provided for his family. He bought a home, cars, went on vacations, and eventually retired from teaching. He now volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum in L.A.

When he introduced himself, he said that he was James, an “American,” not James, a “Japanese-American.” Putting another adjective before “American” divides us. We’re meant to be the "United” States, united as a people and helping one another. Granted, in this age of radical killings, we need to be careful. We can still work on being better Americans, though. As James said, if we all do that, we can create a better America.

James was one of the wise fathers I featured in my DADLY Wisdom book, and thanks to his wisdom, I now have a new goal — to be a better American. I hope you join me in this, and together we can create a better America.