Carmel Tanaka meets with Bay Area Jewpanese families participating in her oral history project: (from left) Daniel Raskin, Kayoko Yokoyama, Tanaka, Kristin Eriko Posner and Bryan Posner. (Photo/Courtesy Tanaka)
Carmel Tanaka meets with Bay Area Jewpanese families participating in her oral history project: (from left) Daniel Raskin, Kayoko Yokoyama, Tanaka, Kristin Eriko Posner and Bryan Posner. (Photo/Courtesy Tanaka)

Growing ‘Jewpanese’ identity comes through in new oral history project

Carmel Tanaka doesn’t like fractions. She eschews calling herself “half Jewish” or “half Japanese.” Rather, she uses the term “Jewpanese,” a word she first came across about 10 years ago.

Born and raised in Canada, Tanaka, 34, is the daughter of an Ashkenazi mother raised in Israel whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Japanese father whose parents and grandparents, prior to his birth, were interned by the Canadian government in the 1940s. (Canada sent some 22,000 people, more than 90 percent of its population with Japanese roots, to internment camps in the years during and after World War II.)

Growing up in Vancouver, Tanaka didn’t know anyone — other than her sister — who had both Jewish and Japanese ancestry.

This month, Tanaka arrived in the Bay Area with a tripod, a digital camera and a photographer’s ring light in her luggage. She’s been traveling across the United States and Canada this summer, meeting people of mixed Jewish and Japanese heritage and recording video interviews with them for what she calls a “project of a lifetime” — a Jewpanese oral history project.

Carmel Tanaka (right) conducts an interview in the Bay Area for her Jewpanese oral history project. (Photo/Courtesy Tanaka)
Carmel Tanaka (right) conducts an interview in the Bay Area for her Jewpanese oral history project. (Photo/Courtesy Tanaka)

“It’s a dream project,” she said. “It’s a very deeply personal project. It’s very intimate. I’m going into people’s homes, asking them questions about what it’s like to be them.”

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League launched its Collaborative for Change Fellowship, a program for Jews of color to share their stories through independent projects. Tanaka is one of five inaugural fellows who are being supported by ADL funding up to $25,000.

For her project, Tanaka plans to interview dosens of Jewpanese people in Canada, the U.S., Japan and Israel, focusing on their lived experiences, such as intergenerational trauma brought on by having some relatives who experienced the Holocaust and some who went through Japanese internment. These stories will be showcased online, and she is currently seeking people who want to be interviewed through her website and over Instagram.

“I’m in my collection phase right now,” Tanaka said, adding that she’s eager to meet Jewpanese individuals during her stay in the Bay Area through July 14. “Then phase two will be trying to find funding to really take it to the next level,” such as turning the interviews into a documentary or series.

For the longest time, I’ve never felt Jewish enough, or Asian enough. I never felt like I belonged.

Tanaka said many of her subjects have told her that she’s the first Jewpanese person outside their family they’ve met. Some of the interviewees are people she met on social media, such as Jordy Pascual, 27, of San Jose.

Growing up in Moorpark in Ventura County, where her family celebrated Jewish holidays, Pascual didn’t know what to call herself.

Her California-born father is the son of Asian parents. When his Japanese mother was a young girl living in San Jose, her family was imprisoned in an internment camp by the United States government during World War II. Pascual’s mother is a secular Ashkenazi Jew and used to be a Hebrew school teacher.

Adding to her confusion, when she was 5, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (which is now in remission), so her Japanese grandparents moved nearby and played a major role in raising her and her sister.

“For the longest time, I’ve never felt Jewish enough, or Asian enough,” Pascual said. “I never felt like I belonged.”

Earlier this year, when she connected with Tanaka over Instagram and learned the term “Jewpanese,” she felt, for the first time, a sense of cultural belonging.

Left: Jordy Pascual and her grandmother Beth Pascual, 88. Right: A photo of Beth in years past.
Left: Jordy Pascual and her grandmother Beth Pascual, 88. Right: A photo of Beth in years past.

“I love this idea of ‘Jewpanese’ because, one, that’s exactly what I am,” she said. “But also, it’s me saying that I am worthy of each of these cultures, and that I belong, even though for the longest time I felt like I didn’t.”

When Tanaka met up with Pascual, they spent the day strolling through San Jose’s Japantown and noshing on Japanese cuisine. On their walk, Tanaka brought Pascual to an art shop, and introduced her to a man who works there.

“Carmel literally took me to someone who I’ve walked by in Japantown 5 billion times who has a Jewpanese family, and I never knew,” Pascual said.

“He’s Japanese, and has a Jewish wife. And that’s literally my parents,” Pascual added.

“This [oral history] project is so much more than collecting data and sharing people’s stories. It’s also bringing people together.”

Another interviewee was Peninsula resident Kristin Eriko Posner, whom Tanaka connected with in early 2020 after seeing a recipe for kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) challah on Posner’s Jewpanese-inspired website, Nourish-Co.com.

“After almost three years, meeting online and texting each other and supporting each other through a few pretty major life events, Carmel showed up at my door and we gave each other the biggest hug,” said Posner, 37.

Posner has been a participant for two years in monthly Jewpanese “family calls” on Zoom, co-created by Tanaka, during which 10 to 12 people chat about everything from their favorite foods to how they’re processing the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and antisemitism.


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Posner, a Japanese American, converted to Judaism in 2014 after meeting Bryan Posner, who is Jewish. The couple now has a 2-month-old daughter.

“I fell in love with my husband, but I also fell in love with Judaism,” said Posner, who had a conversion ceremony and later a bat mitzvah at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

She said the monthly Jewpanese family chats have been a “salve” during the pandemic, “just in terms of bringing me so much joy and so much comfort in being with people who are similar to me, even though we have similar but different life experiences.”

Being part of the Jewpanese “family” and involved in Tanaka’s project have been “really life-affirming,” she added.

Posner has for years been cooking recipes that blend elements of Japanese and Jewish food. Her Rosh Hashanah brisket, for example, is braised in Japanese barbecue sauce. On Passover, she serves her own non-traditional version of a Kamaboko fish cake as a substitute for gefilte fish.

Lately, she’s been exploring how to incorporate both traditions into parenting, starting with the Jewish baby naming ceremony. In Japanese culture, some families have a ceremonial “first meal” on their baby’s 100th day of life, called an Okuizome. (Posner did not have an Okuizome as a baby). She and Bryan are planning a celebration for their daughter that merges the Jewish and Japanese ceremonies into one.

Paul Golin, the founder of the Jewpanese Facebook page (“Where Jewish and Japanese converge”), also participated in Tanaka’s project. He’s a Jewish New Yorker and his wife is Japanese.

“While we are still a small group, I’m confident there are more Jewpanese households today than at any previous time in history,” Golin wrote in an email to J.

And now, thanks in part to Tanaka’s project, they’re finding a community to call their own.

“I was this very isolated person in the grand scheme of the world,” Pascual said. “But there’s a [Jewpanese] community that exists. And I feel very lucky that I found it.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.