The Olympics are a celebration of pride — so we should never forget the JA who set records in the 1950s

(Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History Sacramento Bee Archives)

(Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History Sacramento Bee Archives)

I’ve been watching the Olympics when I get tired of obsessing about the presidential campaigns. I’ve been a fan of the Olympic games since I was just a kid – I remember vividly watching the 1964 games in Tokyo when my family lived in Japan.

I was not quite 7 years old at the time, and the coolest part of that year’s competition was that my dad took the whole family on a day trip on the new “Shinkansen” Bullet Train, the fastest in the world, from Tokyo to Osaka and back. I remember the hubbub over the Olympics because Japan was even more hyped about that year than the Tokyo games coming up in 2020.

In October of 1964, Japan was to host its first-ever Summer Olympics. The honor was originally scheduled for 1940, but those games had been first oved to Helsinki, then cancelled entirely because of the conflict already engulfing Europe and the tensions with Japan over its invasion of China, a major step towards the start of World War II in 1941.

After its defeat in 1945, Japan had been focused on rebuilding and modernizing, and by 1964, the country was ready to show itself off as a member of the world’s first tier of nations. Facilities including an iconic stadium were built, and the entire country, not just the city, was abuzz with anticipation.

We didn’t see any of the games live, but I remember we watched every day on our flickering black and white television sets.

Later from the US, we watched the 1972 Winter Olympics which were held in Sapporo, Japan – the first winter games to be held in Japan. My mom is from Hokkaido, the prefecture where Sapporo is, so we were glued to the (color) TV for those games.

The Olympics is a showcase of the world’s greatest athletes, but let’s face it, it’s also a chance for all of us to feel proud of our own countries (or countries where we have roots). There’s an element of patriotism that creeps close to nationalism. I’m proud of the US athletes who’ve medaled in Rio de Janeiro, especially the athletes of color who are making their mark on the world stage, or track, or court, or pool. And who isn’t amazed by Michael Phelps, who’s overcome personal adversity to extended his legacy to retire on top of the swimming world?

But fame is fleeting, and some of the greatest athletes in the world can become forgotten heroes over time.

How many people know the name Tommy Kono today? A Nisei athlete who was unknown at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, he won the Gold in weightlifting and set a new Olympic record while he was at it – by 20 pounds more than his closest rival, from Russia. But today?

When TV reporter Ryan Yamamoto saw the name Tommy Kono in 2012, he wondered, “who?”

Unfortunately, most people today might ask the same question about Tommy Kono. But thanks to Yamamoto and his wife and fellow TV reporter Suzanne Phan, Kono’s legacy has been captured in a half-hour documentary, “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story,” that’s making the rounds this month on PBS stations across the country, just in time for the Rio Summer Olympics.
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Peachy: “Changing Season” captures the passing of a family farm from one generation to the next

NOTE: “Changing Season” will be screened during the Colorado Dragon Film Festival on Sunday, May 22 at 12 noon. Click here for full information about the festival.

You’d think after a lifetime of growing and harvesting peaches, you’d get sick of eating them. But the Masumoto family still loves peaches and serves them up every way imaginable. David “Mas” Masumoto, 62, the farmer who has nurtured his parents’ peach groves, says “Actually no. I love peaches, almost literally in my blood.”

Nikiko Masumoto, his daughter, adds, “We have 10 varieties and each has a window of ripeness for two weeks. So it’s like getting to see your best friends for two weeks out of the year.”

The father-and-daughter interaction is central to the delightful dynamics of “Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,” a documentary by director Jim Choi. The film follows the two, as well as the farm’s matriarch, Marcy and Nikiko’s brother Korio, through a transitional year not only in the farm but in the family’s life.

The Masumoto Family Farm, which produces nectarines and raisins in addition to peaches, was purchased and first tilled by Mas’ father, Takashi “Joe” Masumoto, in 1948. The family had returned to California’s Central Valley after spending World War II in a concentration camp in Arizona along with thousands of other Japanese American families.

Mas wasn’t planning on following in his father’s footsteps. He attended the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1970s, thinking he’d escaped the sweat and labor. “I studied something that I thought would never bring me back to the farm: Sociology, he says. “But it got me to study how a plant grows and everything around the peach” – the whole community of people and processes that produce the fruit.

He ended up embracing the sociology of farming as part of the ecosystem that connected humans to the Earth. And maybe Cal helped lead Mas to be an early adopter of organic farming.

“When I was growing up it was somewhat conventional. At the time fertilizers and pesticides were expensive. When we were transitioning to organics, I relied on my father’s experience of farming. It was much simpler.”
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Cross-cultured leader keeps Asahi Foods’ promise of perfect sushi fish

DSC_3297It’s cold outside, but it’s colder in Asahi Foods’ refrigerated cutting room, where stacks of cardboard and Styrofoam boxes filled with giant fish await. The fish cutter is in early on a Saturday, wearing a white lab coat and heavy rubber gloves, various razor-sharp knives at the ready.

Charlene Thai, a tiny woman in a similar lab coat, hovers nearby, watching over the daily cutting ritual that begins the flow of fresh-cut fish for sushi and sashimi to 200 restaurants in Colorado and surrounding states.

“If you see our tuna, it’s clean-cut, like a machine,” she says. “It’s not just the texture, but the clean cut that matters. If it’s not right, our customers can return the tuna and say ‘this is not the way I want it to be cut.'”

Thai is Asahi Foods’ general manager, and oversees two dozen employees, including the fish cutter as he tosses a headless 70-pound tuna onto an enormous cutting board and first trims off the collar and tail. He guts it from underneath, then hacks along spinal column to slice the fish all the way through. Then he deftly cuts the tuna neatly into filets about equal size, about 15 pounds each. They get gingerly arranged on trays and will be wrapped, labeled and delivered to sushi chefs up and down the Front Range.

Hapa Sushi owner Mark Van Grack was Thai’s first customer when Asahi Foods launched five years ago, although he didn’t realize it.

“But I do remember meeting her when she came in to take some of our fish business, and I really liked her right away,” he says. “I thought she was a lovely, bubbly woman. ”

Since that day, Asahi Foods has been “one of our biggest suppliers.”

Van Grack credits Thai’s commitment to customer service for Hapa’s bond with Asahi Foods.

“One of the reasons we’ve had such a good relationship is that she has the same mentality about her customers that we have for our customers,” he says. “We want everything to be right 100 percent of the time, which is impossible, but it’s what we do when something’s not 100 percent that’s what’s important. Charlene has the attitude of ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to make it right.’ ”

Tokio chef Miki Hashimoto, who serves sushi and ramen from his restaurant in the shadow of Coors Field, has known Thai for years and says he buys from her because he respects her. “She’s loyal and has a wonderful personality,” he says. “I trust her.”

That’s why it’s important to Thai to make sure the fish is cut cleanly — just right for her customers.
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Five Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Note: I’m now a regular monthly columnist for Discover Nikkei, the multilingual project of the Japanese American National Museum. For years they’ve repurposed my blog posts, but now the tables will be turned: I’ll write something for DN first, then post them afterwards here. This is the first column I wrote for them.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

I can still remember March 11, 2011, the night of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated a huge swath of northeast Japan, as if it were last week.

It was just before midnight in Denver when I got an alert on my phone. An earthquake had been reported off the eastern coast of Japan. I turned on CNN and watched in horror for the next couple of hours as the footage came in. I saw the tsunami rolling over farmlands and crash into cities, carrying with it buildings and cars and ships. I saw footage of people trapped on rooftops. I saw houses being shoved aside as if they were origami boxes being blown by the wind, before they burst into flames. That was just the beginning; the seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were caused by the quake, and the cleanup around that disaster is still ongoing.

The disaster remains the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, and the fourth worst in the recorded history of the world’s earthquakes. The toll was awful: almost 16,000 people have been confirmed dead, and over 2,500 still missing. Almost 229,000 people have been relocated or are still living in temporary housing.
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Is China’s economic domination coming to an end?


I follow news from all over Asia. Primarily, I pay attention to all the news happening in Japan, from the goofy stuff to the serious headlines. But the world is so interconnected these days, that Japan can easily be affected by news developments — political, economic, cultural — in other parts of the globe, and especially Asia. The crazy dude in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, for example, has been shooting missiles into the sea to flex his weak muscle and try to scare Japan and it allies, like the U.S. and South Korea, whenever the U.S. conducts military exercises in the region.

The most important news from Asia is often about China. China is the 800-pound economic gorilla of Asia. A more appropriate description might be a slinky Asian tiger or dragon, but the enormity of China’s outsized impact is like a gorilla: brute strength sometimes flailing about like King Kong beating his chest and romping through Manhattan — Wall Street, to be exact.

For years, China’s economy was growing so fast that it attracted laborers from rural regions (of which there are many) to the cities where good paying manufacturing jobs were available. For years China invested huge amounts in building cities and the infrastructure to reach those cities. For years, China’s growth and spending was a windfall for the rest of the world, which was happy to supply the raw materials and technology to help China become the second largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan.

The whole world got richer as China got rich, and the Chinese got rich too, relatively speaking. A middle class developed in the cities, and China became one of the biggest markets on Earth for cars. Hollywood studios regularly court China’s humongous audience, these days flush with disposable income and able to go see the latest theatrical releases. Luxury goods and Western brands are all the rage with the nouveau riche, and Chinese tourists, who now have the cash to travel all over the world, are visiting Japan in droves and returning with modern rice cookers and fancy heated toilet seats.

The downside to all this growth is captured in the nervous joke that’s been making the media rounds: “When China sneezes, the world catches cold.”
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