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

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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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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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Meet Leroy Chiao, a real-live AAPI astronaut

Note: This post was originally published on AARP’s AAPI Community Facebook page.

26-_MGL0235“The Martian” starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet curiously won the Golden Globe Award in December as the best musical or comedy (hint: it’s really not either, though there’s some funny lines) but on Oscar night, despite being nominated for six awards; the Academy Awards left the movie stranded.

The lack of awards hasn’t hurt the film, which is also now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services. It’s a commercial hit.

But it took some critical hits when it was originally released in 2015, because two of its characters, who were Asian American in the bestselling book by Andy Weir, were played by Caucasian and African American actors on the big screen.

The switch was called “whitewashing” by Asian American groups who accused director Ridley Scott of depriving Asian American actors of significant roles. Both characters kept their Asian names from the book – one NASA scientist is named “Park” and her background is never explained while the other is named “Kapoor” and is explained in the film as half black and half South Asian.

The lack of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood is an old complaint, and especially in the science fiction genre. George Takei’s “Sulu” in the 1960s Star Trek series and subsequent films is a big exception. As an example, the “Star Wars” franchise features scant few Asian faces (unless they’re ugly aliens who dress and sound vaguely Asian). It’s as if in the future, Asians just never make it into space.

That lack of role models didn’t stop Leroy Chiao, who is one of only a handful of Asian Americans who have flown in space as a NASA astronaut. He flew on three Space Shuttle flights and was Commander of the Expedition 10 crew and lived on the International Space Station.

Chiao grew up in the Baby Boomer era when Asians weren’t generally included in mainstream American culture (except as the Chinese cook in “Bonanza,” the POW houseboy in “McHale’s Navy” and Kato, the martial arts-fighting chauffeur in “Green Hornet”). So he didn’t really think he was being ignored with the lack of role models.

He didn’t need an Asian role model to find his calling: after he watched Neil Armstrong make his historic moonwalk, young Chiao was hooked.

“When we landed on the moon in 1969, I was 8 years old. I was building model airplanes and model rockets even before we landed. When we landed, I thought ‘wow, that’s where I want to be.’ That’s where it started in my mind.”
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Building bridges with the Muslim community

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Late last year, Erin and I were lucky enough to travel to New York City to see the Broadway musical “Allegiance” starring George Takei. It’s a story about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and it vividly and powerfully brings to life the emotional toll of the experience on JAs for generations since then. I wrote about the play and interviewed Takei and others for AARP’s AAPI Community.

Two nights after attending the show and while we were still in New York, the Paris attacks happened. The next day, we had scheduled a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and museum in lower Manhattan. Like the way “Allegiance” evoked the racial hatred against my community 75 years ago, it was a powerful reminder of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. There’s a lot in the museum exhibit about the terrorists who committed the acts, and the aftermath that included hate crimes, not just against Arab Americans but also Sikh Americans. I saw a photo of the slogan that someone put up on a banner in the Ground Zero site: “United We Stand.”

The rest of the day, I was haunted by the 1970 hit song, “United We Stand” by a group called the Brotherhood of Man: “United we stand, divided we fall; And if our backs should ever be against the wall; We’ll be together, together, you and I…”

The song was widely played in the days after 9/11, though most people probably missed the spirit of uniting with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

I was proud that JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League, held a press conference within days after 9/11 to decry violence against Arab Americans. We were the first voices nationally to warn against racial profiling in the wake of the attack, because we knew too well the potential disaster that can be sparked by fear and ignorance.

Unfortunately, there were hate crimes committed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, including against Sikh Americans, who aren’t even Muslim. And some commentators supported rounding up Arab Americans into concentration camps just like the Japanese Americans during WWII.

Sadly, the hatred and fear that was aimed back then at Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians and anyone who might represent “the Other” are back.
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