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to the 1998 Archives page of my weekly "Nikkei View" columns.
I started writing "Nikkei View" in 1998, so these are my earliest
articles. Some day I'll break up this long and slow-loading page with
an index and links to individual articles, but for now, please bear with
me. NOTE: The most recent column is at the top of
Take my word for it
-- it's not easy writing a regular column, coming up with ideas and crafting
words with passion week after week, month after month and year and after
year. But Bill Hosokawa has done just that, putting his musings since
1942 into a column called "From the Frying Pan" within the pages
of the "Pacific Citizen," the national newspaper of the Japanese
American Citizens League.
And this on top of
a career as an esteemed newspaper editor, author (he has nine books to
his credit) and diplomat (he's been Japan's honorary consul general in
Colorado since 1974). It's a legacy that few journalists can claim.
As an aspiring columnist
and a Sansei who's deeply interested in connecting my Japanese roots with
my American identity, I owe an enormous debt to Bill's pioneering work.
But I never realized how much I was following the trail he had blazed.
Anyone who reads my "Nikkei View" on page 2 of Denver's "Rocky
Mountain Jiho" newspaper after reading Bill's column on page 1 probably
thinks of me as a "Junior Bill Hosokawa," and that's a label
I'll gladly accept.
My debt to Bill started
when I was a teenager. I've told this story so many times it may be apocryphal,
but I swear Bill was the one who shook my hand and handed me my JACL merit
scholarship at an award ceremony the year I graduated from Alameda High
School in Lakewood, Colorado. At the time, he was editorial page editor
of the Denver Post, and a name I already knew and respected.
I didn't know then,
that I would become a writer myself. And my debt as a writer became obvious
when I read Bill's latest book, "Out of the Frying Pan" (University
Press of Colorado, 192 pages, $17.50).
The book is half autobiography
and half recontextualized "Frying Pan"columns over the years,
thematically woven together. And it's entirely readable in Bill's easygoing,
That voice developed
despite early efforts to silence it. As Bill explains in "Out of
the Frying Pan," he was told at the University of Washington faculty
advisor to change his major from journalism to something like business,
even though his grades were good.
"I don't think
there's a newspaper publisher in the country who would hire a Japanese
boy," he was told. "You'll never find a job. It's not fair,
but that's the reality."
In his frank, non-confrontational
way, Hosokawa admits early in the autobiographical half of the book that
the advisor was right. He couldn't find a newspaper job, so he ended up
a secretary for the Japanese consul in Seattle, writing speeches and press
dispatches. But that connection led to a recommendation for a job in pre-war
Singapore, launching an English-language paper, the Singapore Herald.
That kicked off Hosokawa's
journalism career, which he maintained even during internment, as editor
of the Heart Mountain Herald. Journalism saved Bill and his family from
internment when he got a job as a copy editor for the Des Moines Register
during the war, and brought him to Colorado to work for the Denver Post
The book deserves
attention for Bill's acute memories of the evacuation from his hometown
of Seattle and life at Heart Mountain, because his reminiscences bring
a touch of personal reality that most histories of internment can't capture.
But for me, the book's a testament to Bill's resilience in the face of
such experiences. The book isn't full of invective and angry declamations
against injustice, though there are plenty of thoughtful points he raises
about racism, and he doesn't shrink from criticizing injustice.
Mostly, the book shares
Bill's often bemused, soft-spoken wisdom and his perspective on a half-century
of Japanese Americans finding our own voice.
The book ends with
a 1977 column that describes how life at Heart Mountain was made better
in December of 1942 when a jeep-riding Santa Claus brought gifts donated
from all over the U.S. to the 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned in
concentration camps. It's just like Bill to put the emphasis on that scene,
not a bitter one.
And it's also like
Bill to continue working with words. I learned a new one from his vivid
description of Singapore as war against Japan became inevitable. He writes
of Scottish troops with "bagpipes skirling" march down to the
shore and sail home. I scurried to the dictionary to look up "skirling"
and found it's the shrill piercing noise that bagpipes make.
I'll file the word
away, and I know I'll use it sometime. It's just another debt I owe Bill
You can order "Out
of the Frying Pan" and other books by Bill Hosokawa online from Amazon.com.
Ever since the Vietnam
War, live, electronic media has been part of war, from the most brutal,
like those in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the slightest, like the one in the
And the media -- bolstered
with digital and satellite reach -- are there at the latest front lines,
tonight. I'm watching the live TV coverage of the bombing of Baghdad and
following the story on the Internet, and worrying where it will lead,
and how long it will last. If it's all-out war against Iraq, I hope it's
over soon, and that the Iraqi peoples' suffering is minimized.
The images of nighttime
Iraq lit up with the tracers of anti-aircraft fire and flashes of missiles
exploding on the eerily-lit green horizon brings to mind powerful memories
of the start of the war against Iraq seven years ago.
The night before the
air strike began, I reviewed a Paul Simon concert, which ended with a
moving solo rendition of "Sounds of Silence." At the end of
the song, Simon whispered "Peace" and was gone from the spotlight
while the audience mulled over the simple message. We all knew, as Simon
did, that military action against Iraq was imminent.
By the next night,
the military fury was in full force. I still have the videotape I popped
into my recorder as I watched three CNN reporters trapped in a Baghdad
hotel who kept covering the pandemonium around them.
With the fighting
flaring up again, I think about how Iraqi Americans are reacting to the
continued conflict between the U.S. and Saddam Hussein's government. The
media rarely shows this rather mundane human element of the consequences
of war, but I'm curious.
I wonder if Iraqi
Americans are outraged against Hussein's rule and the hardships his policies
have brought upon the citizens of Iraq. I wonder if Iraqi Americans are
worried at all about other Americans' reactions to their ancestry.
War can create an
adrenaline rush on a national scale -- patriotism and heroism are the
best results of this large-scale flexing of military muscle. But the flipside
of the war spirit is an us-vs.-them hysteria that can lead to paranoia
Just a few days ago,
I happened to watch a portion of a documentary being made by two Denver
filmmakers, about the experiences of Japanese Americans interned at Camp
Amache in Southeast Colorado.
The most moving interview
segments filmed so far were the survivors' recollections of December 7,
1941 and how they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There was no
CNN then, and no Internet to click to for the latest updates. One got
a phone call from a relative. One heard in church, where the Japanese
American pastor urged the JA congregation to go home and prepare for the
One was asked the
next day by his schoolmates, "Why did you guys bomb Pearl Harbor?"
Another was told by her Chinese and Korean friends that they were still
her friends even though they wore armbands to school stating "I'm
These stories live
on in these older Japanese Americans' memories and preserved in documentaries.
But that was 57 years ago, you say, it can't happen again today in the
I'm not so sure, when
hatred can run so deep that a person can get killed just for being black,
or gay, or Asian, or for performing legal abortions. And I'm not so sure,
when despite all the knowledge and the weight of history, even the media
can get caught up in the adrenaline rush of the moment when war is declared.
The morning after
"Desert Storm" blew over Baghdad on January 17, 1991, the Rocky
Mountain News announced the bombing of Iraq with a giant front-page headline
THAT'S SURE TO LIVE IN INFAMY"
The newspaper ran
a correction the next day apologizing for the incorrect and inappropriate
comparison -- it must have been a young copy editor who got caught up
in the chaotic frenzy of a huge breaking story, I figured -- but the fact
is, people get stupid when they go to war.
that goes for the media too.
Note: The Camp
Amache documentary video project, by Denver filmmakers David Foxhoven
and Irene Rawlings, is sponsored by the Mile-Hi Chapter of the Japanese
American Citizens League and is being funded in part by the Colorado Endowment
for the Humanities. I'm proud to be the president of the Mile-Hi JACL
I'm a junk food junkie.
A snack-aholic. A sugar-and-salt addict. Nacho Cheese Doritos are a favorite,
and so are Snickers bars. But those are typical American food obsessions.
Because I was made in Japan, I also have some decidedly more exotic junk
I love Japanese Junk
Salt is especially
popular in Japanese snacks -- starting with the shreds of dried salted
fish and squid that are often served the way beer nuts and beef jerky
would be served in the U.S., and of course the myriad forms of "osembe,"
or soy sauce-coated rice crackers, which are sold in bags or individually
wrapped like jewels in paper and foil and plastic.
Rice crackers are
even catching on with Americans -- especially the little peppery ones
that are called "kaki-no-tane" ("persimmon seeds"
-- aptly named for their appearance if not their flavor). You can find
small packets of them in regular supermarkets. And I've gotten many co-workers
hooked on rice crackers by buying them every time we get a visit from
a couple that sells pre-packaged candies and snacks from office to office.
I bought a bag of
rice crackers, and one of my co-workers recoiled in mock horror when he
popped one of the shiny glazed pieces in his mouth. I'm not sure what
he expected to taste, but the blast of crunchy saltiness wasn't it.
sort of gross," he said, as he spit it into his hand and then tossed
it into the trash can.
But others in the
office had either had them before, or liked the flavor when they tried.
The first bag was gone in a matter of hours. The next time the salespeople
came to the office, I got two bags -- one for myself which I hid in a
drawer, and one for my co-workers, which I left on my desktop. It too
was gone by the next day. (My personal bag didn't last much longer).
Now, several people
in the office buy them when the snack people stop by our office -- they've
learned to bring extra bags with them so they don't have to trudge out
to their van to fill our requests.
And the guy who thought
they tasted bad has taken a liking to them. I figure that's one way of
bringing Japan and America together.
Here are some other
Japanese junk foods:
Karinto -- A traditional
Japanese wheat cookie, blobs of wheat flour coated with sugar sesame seeds
and deep-fried so they come out looking like molasses-drenched Cheetos.
That's actually a charitable description -- I love 'em to death, but even
growing up, I called Karinto "Nekko-no Unchi," which translates
to "cat poop." Why? Because it looks like the stuff you scoop
out of the litter box. Don't let that stop you, though -- they're tasty.
Yokan -- This is a
classy snack in Japan, served in delicate slices at tea ceremonies. It's
a jellied slab of sweet bean paste (the Japanese get a lot of mileage
out of soy, rice and beans) which comes in many subtle flavors and colors
-- from a pearlescent green (tea flavored) to deep plum (plum flavored).
Yokan is wrapped in foil, then slid in a cardboard sleeve and finally
encased in a pretty box. They're very sweet and sticky, which is why people
slice a thin piece at a time. Not me -- I squeeze out big chunks and bite
'em right out of the wrapper.
Mitsumame -- This
comes served in dainty little cans, but it's roughly the equal of canned
American fruit salad, with a watery syrup and soft, sweet beans (there
they are again!) and cubes of almost-hard gelatin floating amongst the
slices of tangerines and pieces of grapes and cherries.
Calpico -- This is
a very popular non-carbonated soft drink in Japan, which you can buy either
in concentrate form (in a brown glass bottle wrapped in white crepe paper
with blue polka dots) or these days in individual, pre-diluted cans. What's
so special about this stuff? It's yogurt-based -- at least, its ingredients
include nonfat dry milk "treated with lactic acid culture" --
and it's very, very sweet depending on how much you dilute it. I like
mine with club soda for a fizz, but I've also been known to chug it straight
right out of the bottle.
One side note about
Calpico -- its actual Japanese name was and still is, Calpis, pronounced
"Cah-roo-peesu." But the importer changed the product name in
the U.S. because "Calpis" to many Americans looks like it should
have the same pronunciation as cow urine....
Thus ends my introduction
to Japanese junk food. Anyone care to join me for some Karinto washed
down with a brisk Calpico?
The previous day's
revelations about my father's family history, and the family maid who
was a longtime companion for my grandfather, added a richness to our trip
to Fukui. The discovery of family members made the original purpose for
our trip -- the retrieval of family records from the city hall -- seem
dry and inconsequential.
But the revelations
weren't over yet. Word had gotten around this small city and the surrounding
countryside that George Hisayuki Asakawa's son was in the area researching
"roots," a word that the Japanese understood.
On the final morning,
as we prepared for a relaxing day of sightseeing with our trusty driver
of the past several days, Kitagawa-san, we got a phone call at the hotel.
It was Hiroko Yamamoto,
the daughter of Kiyoko Yamamoto, the maid.
The maid! Somebody
had called her last night to tell her about our visit. Hiroko-san had
often played with my father.
We visited with her
in the hotel lobby, jogging her memory for more details about Dad's family.
remembered Dad as a troublemaker. She also said my oldest aunt Miki could
be intimidating. She agreed with my uncle Tadao that all the Asakawa women
were smart and picked up the language pretty well, but all the men had
various problems assimilating.
Hiroko-san was very
nice, but there were some details in her version of the story that conflicted
with others' memories, and sometimes her own (it's not surprising, since
these events took place 50 years ago). Instead of a dramatic escape from
the city amidst flames, she was sure the family had pretty much moved
to the countryside village of Kowata by the time of the "kushu,"
or fire-bombing of the city by the U.S., leading some neighbors to wonder
if they were American spies with foreknowledge.
But she said the kushu
was no secret, anyway - most everyone knew Japan was going to lose the
war, and American planes had been systematically bombing cities for months.
Hiroko-san said her
mother was with Kyutaro for 20 years, and they finally separated for good
over his gambling, not long before he ended up at the Red Cross hospital
with cancer. The couple's post-war house back in the city was just a block
from a bicycle race track (it's still there, and the races are still popular),
where he apparently spent what remained of his fortune from Hawaii.
She had some nicely
observed memories, such as traveling into town as a little girl to visit
the U.S. Army base with my aunt Miki, my other aunt Adan with dad in tow,
coming to play with her at her house.
Hiroko-san then took
us via a short taxi ride to the locations of two Asakawa homes in the
Asuwa district of Fukui, the war-time one in a converted pawn shop that
had enough property to include a garden where the family could grow their
vegetables, and the smaller one near the velodrome where Kyutaro moved
after the war. Both have long since been torn down; the first is now a
parking lot and the other has another home on the lot.
After the taxi ride,
we were dropped off at the hotel and Hiroko-san went off to work, but
she planned to take us out to dinner.
We called Kitagawa-san
then and spent the day sight-seeing, after first stopping by the Fukui
Prefectural History Museum, which was small but nice, with photos that
gave me a better idea of what the area was like before, during and after
We drove to Tojimbo,
an extremely touristy but beautiful point along some spectacular cliffs
along the Sea of Japan. We had some "remonade" (bottled lemonade,
a very popular soft drink in Japan) at a gift shop and saw a couple of
other scenic points, while Kitagawa-san recalled his youth in Fukui, including
a curious tale of finding long strips of silvery paper on the trees on
the hillsides near the town the day after the kushu. He also remembered
the jishin, or earthquake, that destroyed half the city in 1948.
We got to know Kitagawa-san
well over the few days he drove us around. I finally asked him if he could
read any of the many signs around Japan that are written in English, with
no Japanese translations (it's hard to imagine a business in the U.S.
would have a sign only in Japanese).
He said no - younger
Japanese can read English, but he can't.
of Japan has left him behind, but he took it in good stride. "I can't
read the name 'Cosmo,' but I know it's a gas station, so it's all right,"
he said as we drove by a Cosmo station.
Dinner with Hiroko-san
and Mayumi was at a traditional restaurant like the one Keisaku-san took
us two nights earlier, only fancier. We left our shoes at the entrance
to the booth, and knelt at one end of a long, narrow low table. A group
of boisterous businessmen were having a dinner meeting in the other half
of the large room, while we were served another multiple-course affair
with many mysterious seafood items, topped off with steak.
After dinner, Kitagawa-san
picked us up one last time for the trip to the station to await an overnight
bus to Tokyo. I'll never forget him - he was our guide for the most exciting
part of this incredible trip, digging for my family roots.
The story of my
father's family journey from Hawaii to wartime Japan, and life during
the American Occupation, has many more chapters. I'll tell them in a historical
novel someday soon, to explain to readers what life in Japan was like
during this tumultuous time in world history. Thanks for reading -- next
week, "Nikkei View" will return to popular culture commentary!
My father's family
story got more interesting the deeper we dug.
We returned to the
village of Kowata for a second day of interviewing my father's relatives
about his life in Japan during World War II.
My Mother served as
the interpreter and was asking 70-year-old Tadao Asakawa, Dad's cousin,
and his 67-year-old wife Tomiko-san about events 50 years ago.
We walked into the
formal living room, which was walled off with traditional sliding doors
(the house was elegantly balanced between contemporary and traditional),
and sparsely appointed with a low, square table in the middle, the floors
of course were tatami straw matting. On one wall, to the left of a Buddhist
altar, hung ornately framed photos of Tadao-san's parents and his brother,
a fighter pilot who was killed during WWII.
Tadao brought out
the Japanese flag his brother carried with him for luck in battle, covered
with autographs and good wishes from family and friends. He wore it wrapped
around his head when he went off to war.
The flag was returned
decades later by a former American soldier who picked it up off a Pacific
battlefield as a souvenir, and then contacted the Asakawas to give it
back. Tadao kept a yellowed newspaper clip showing the ceremony when the
flag was returned.
Then we moved into
the kitchen, sitting at the Western-style dining table that filled most
of the space. Yoshimi, who took the day off from her job at a local sake
brewery to be present, kept up a steady supply of Nescafe, tea, and snacks.
People came and went throughout the afternoon.
in high-speed Japanese while I tried to keep up, taking notes on a laptop
computer. My mom translated my questions, but my comprehension was good
enough that I could usually type the replies (more or less) before she
interpreted them for me.
According to Tadao-san,
my grandfather left for America when he was 19 or 20 (he was born in 1889).
A carpenter who worked first in Fukui and then in Yokohama before leaving
Japan, my grandfather started a successful construction business in Hawaii,
married a "mail order bride" and had eight children by the late
He brought the family
back to Japan in 1940 (my grandmother Tomeno died unexpectedly, literally
on the eve of their departure), first to Kyoto, and then in '41 to Fukui,
when it was clear Japan was headed for war.
Dad's family lived
outwardly as Japanese, but Tadao-san said they were obviously "American-style"
in spirit. Several people mentioned that the girls spoke better English
than any of the boys. Dad and his brothers and sisters didn't have a lot
of close friends, not even among the cousins.
Fukui was bombed (the
Japanese word for fire-bombing is "kushu") in July of 1945 because
of the rail lines that went inland from the city. 80 percent of the city
was destroyed. My father's family walked for half a day from Fukui to
Kowata -- about 15 kilometers --with their possessions on carts and on
their backs and watched the glow of the flames against the night sky from
Two weeks later, The
atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When Emperor Hirohito subsequently
made his historic radio speech announcing Japan's surrender (until then
the Emperor had been regarded as a god, and no one had heard his voice
before), Tadao said my Dad and his brothers and sisters excitedly yelled
out the distcintly American phrase, "Pow!"
After the war, Kyutaro
stayed around Kowata alone after the kids left, for perhaps another five
or six years before moving back to Fukui city. Tomiko-san remembered hearing
he was sick and in the hospital, but the Asakawas in Kowata never visited
him, and never heard from him again.
At this part of the
story, as the relatives squeezed in and out of the kitchen for with their
recollections, I started heraring repeated references to a maid. In one
anecdote, Kyutaro lived with a maid in the house he'd built, and then
fought with her and the maid threw him out.
Who was this maid?
After a few minutes
more conversation, I stopped my Mom to ask about this maid. Oba-san, the
widow of my grandfather's brother Yogoro, and the only surviving member
of that generation, explained Kyutaro had a live-in maid the entire time
the family was in the Fukui area.
After a series of
nosy questions I gathered the maid was my grandfather's lover, though
nobody was direct about it (remember, my grandmother had died back in
Hawaii before the trip back to Japan). The relationship must have been
up-and-down, at least during the years between the departure of his kids
and his hospitalization: Oba-san remembered him being lonely for the maid
after one final fight when she moved back to town. He finally went to
Fukui be with her.
Tarumando no oba-san
(another tiny and very old relative, the "Tarumando" refers
to the house she's from; "oba-san" is an honorific title for
elderly women) added more details. She said the maid's daughter visited
the family every day for three years, and was close friends with Adan,
like sisters. Tarumando no oba-san said the maid was "like a wife,"
and people would mistake her for one if they didn't know. She remembered
the maid was called "Hawaii-no-obachan," or "Hawaiian Lady."
After more conversation
and convoluted tracking of our family tree's tangled roots, we thanked
everyone and said our good-byes.
to drive us back to town since we'd sent our taxi driver, Kitagawa-san
home when we got to Kowata. She drove us first a few more kilometers away
from Fukui, to the elementary school Dad and Adan attended (they walked,
just like kids in the area today).
In front of the main
entrance was a small statue of a famous educator from Japanese legend,
placed on a base about four feet high. The original bronze statue was
melted down for the war effort, and a replica put on the carved stone
base after the war. On the back was an inscription that the statue was
paid for by Kyutaro Asakawa in 1938. Yoshimi said growing up, she always
felt proud that her uncle was responsible for the statue.
I can't describe the
feelings I had, staring at this steely, serene figure, knowing that generations
of schoolkids in this rural area of Japan knew a little bit more my family's
roots than I did.
Next week: The
final installment of the "Digging for Roots" series (honest!).
You can visit Fukui
Prefecture, the state that includes the city of Fukui, on the Internet.
The Asakawa family's roots are deeply planted in the rice paddies that
surround the city of Fukui. In the few hours that I spent getting to know
some of our relatives, we learned that generations of Asakawas had farmed
the land in the village of Kowata. And we found out that 16 different
houses had Asakawas in them.
Tadashi and Yoshimi
Asakawa now live in the farmhouse that my grandfather was born in -- it
belongs to Yoshimi's father, my uncle, Tadao Asakawa. In Japan, it's not
uncommon for a man to marry into a family and take his wife's name to
continue the line.
We met a blur of relatives
in the short time we spent at the home. We sat in the family room on cushions
the floor, while young and old trooped by to introduce themselves to us.
By a terrific coincidence, the day turned out to be a Monday holiday --
Sports Day -- and family members who don't live in the area had stopped
by on their way to nearby resort hot springs. We sat sipping Nescafe (an
ever-present substitute for "real" coffee all over Japan) and
ogling photos of my dad's family that my uncle
had carefully saved for six decades.
But the conversation
this first day was just a prelude. Because we had to get back to the "New
Yours" hotel in downtown Fukui in time for dinner, we made plans
to return the next day for a long afternoon interviewing the family.
Keisaku-san, the younger
brother of Keiko-san the nurse who had cared for my grandfather in the
late '50s, was waiting when we arrived back at the hotel.
A small man in a dark
business suit, holding a small satchel at his side, he could be any Japanese
salaryman (a lifelong company employee), but he happened to be the general
manager of finance for the Trans-Tokyo Bay Highway Corp., and he had recently
been working on the financing of the huge Tokyo Bay bridge and tunnel
He lived in Shimizu,
a city between Tokyo and Kyoto, and rode the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train,
into work every day. But today, he had taken the day off when he heard
that we had come to Fukui, and hopped a cross-country train ride to take
us out to dinner. It was a perfect example of the Japanese sense of obligation,
He spoke glowingly
of Mom and Dad all night, and he said his command of English today (it
wasn't exactly fluent, but passable for communication) was due in part
to Mom and Dad welcoming him when he was a student. He came for a couple
of extended stays and several shorter visits while we lived in Tokyo.
I remembered his face (especially after seeing photos of us with him),
but had no strong memories.
hadn't forgotten a thing.
He remembered our
life in Japan much more accurately than Mom did, because he gauged the
places we lived by his life's milestones, such as graduating from high
school and getting his job with Hitachi. We figured out we lived in Tokyo's
Ogikubo district a lot longer than we always remembered, and a duplex
at Asahi Court fewer years than we'd thought.
After a couple of
hours we walked to a nearby Japanese restaurant recommended by the hotel
and had an incredible, unforgettable dinner.
The restaurant was
a tiny sushi bar on downtown Fukui's main drag (deserted because of the
holiday), and upon entering, didn't betray any of the riches we would
be served. A couple of men sat at the cramped sushi bar on the first floor,
but we were led upstairs to what I thought would be a sit-down restaurant.
Instead, we were seated in a small private room at the end of a narrow
hall, and served course upon course of traditional food: sashimi, fried
fish, tempura, strange side dishes and pickled things, lots of squid in
various forms, chawan-mushi (a Japanese egg custard dish I hadn't had
in years), and finally, ochazuke (rice topped with tea). Wow -- I thought
endless praise on Mom and Dad, and insisted on speaking only in Japanese
to me to help me learn the language.
And, he told us something
which convinced me this day of discovery was meant to happen: He said
a swallow had built a nest in the rafters of his house during the summer,
and just a few weeks before our arrival, three chicks were born in the
He explained that
Japanese lore has it that swallows are an omen of visitors from his past,
so he knew when he heard that morning that we were in Fukui and had contacted
his sister, he was fated to come see us. That's why he unhesitatingly
decided to come to Fukui to meet us.
We were the swallows,
returning to the nest.
week: The second day of family interviews, and what's all this about
Fukui is the kind of Japanese city I remember from my childhood: The buildings
are grimy with streaks of soot, and electrical wires criss-cross crazily
above the narrow downtown streets. And the surrounding countryside is
the kind of Japanese countryside I remember: farms of rice paddies cut
in tidy rows as far as I could see.
When I rode into Fukui
from the regional airport an hour away, the air was hazy with the blue
smoke of rice husks being burned at the end of the harvest. The sweet
incense hung in the air the entire time we were there.
We expected very little
from our trip to Fukui because we knew very little about the family's
roots. Dad never spoke of his childhood to us. He never even told Mom
about his years in Fukui.
We knew his ancestors
came from Fukui, and we knew that my grandfather had paid for a torii
gate to be built in the Asakawa family name in the countryside outside
of town, in a place called Kowata. We knew that my dad and his brothers
and sisters were brought there from Hawaii in 1940 by my grandfather.
And we knew that in the waning weeks of the war, the family was forced
to move to Kowata when Fukui was firebombed by the U.S.
My mother met my dad
during the Korean war when he was stationed in Nemuro, the small northern
city where she was born and raised. He never talked about Fukui -- as
far as she knew, he was from Hawaii.
But in 1958, when
I was just an infant and we lived in Tokyo, my folks got a call from the
Red Cross hospital in Fukui. My grandfather, Kyutaro Asakawa, was dying
of cancer, and the nurse who had tracked down my father requested that
we bring him home to Tokyo. He came and lived with us until his death.
Four decades later,
we were there to visit the city hall and look up the records of my father's
But on a hunch, my
mom made a phone call the first morning at the hotel. It turns out that
for some years, my parents had stayed in touch with Keiko Utsubo, the
nurse who had taken care of my grandfather, and my mom still had her address.
Keiko Utsubo no longer
lived at that address, but as luck would have it, her sister did. And,
now married, Keiki Sasaki still worked at the hospital -- these days as
the operator of the hospital's restaurant and gift shop. My mom left a
message and we went downstairs for an American style breakfast of $3 coffee,
$12 eggs, $10 juice and $7 toast.
Breakfast was interrupted
by a phone call from Sasaki-san, who invited us out to the hospital to
reminisce. Before we wolfed down our meal to leave, my mom was called
to the phone again. The former nurse's brother, Keisaku, who had visited
our family in Tokyo when he was a young student, was calling from Shimizu,
a city across Japan between Tokyo and Kyoto. Now a vice-president for
Hitachi, the giant conglomerate, he was calling to say that he was skipping
work and riding the train to Fukui to take us out to dinner that night.
Overwhelmed by such
generosity, we went to the hospital, and sat with Mrs. Sasaki for several
hours (and ate her great food). She remembered Kyutaro Asakawa vividly
not only because of my parents' later friendhsip, but also because at
the time, it was so unusual for elderly Japanese to be hospitalized with
no family visitors.
She also remembered
taking Kyutaro to pick up some belongings, but he never mentioned that
his entire family had lived just a few kilometers outside of town. In
fact, she only found out about my father because she mentioned that her
dream was to be a nurse in America. Kyutaro perked up and said he had
lived in Hawaii, and mentioned he had two sons, one of whom was a U.S.
Army soldier in Tokyo. (He had five sons and three daughters....)
After a full morning
and some tantalizing details about my grandfather, she helped us find
a taxi driver who served as our guide for the next two days. Armed with
only the slightest idea of where Kowata was outside of town, we headed
into the countryside in search of a torii gate.
The landscape was
dotted with torii gates -- tributes to the rice crops -- though, and we
didn't have much hope of finding my dad's roots. I figured the real work
would come the next day, when we planned to go to the city hall.
But with a steady
drizzle starting, our driver suddenly swerved off the two-lane highway
onto an extremely narrow country road that sloped steeply down to the
level of the recently harvested paddies. He crept among a labyrinth of
crowded farmhouses, and just when my mom was about to tell him to try
the highway again, he turned a corner and in front of us was a torii gate
made of concrete and stone, standing guard at the bottom of a high, narrow
hill at the top of which perched a small Shinto shrine, or jinja.
We sat in the car
while the driver got out and inspected the monument, which was cracked
in parts. He returned and stuck his head inside. "Mr. Asakawa, right?
Kyutaro Asakawa?" he asked.
He had found an inscription
with my grandfather's name.
While we circled the
gate, the driver went to a ramshackle old home nearby. An old man came
out in his wooden geta slippers, and the taxi driver asked if he knew
anything about this gate.
said the old man. "A man from here who went to Hawaii and got rich
had this built when I was just a child.
"The family came
and lived there after the war," he added, waving over a rise in the
landscape to the left of the gate. "The house isn't there anymore,
We asked if he had
any memories of the family that lived there -- if he'd played with my
he said. "But if you want to know more, why don't you ask the Asakawas
-- they live right up there."
He pointed past the
rice paddies up the hill to a line of larger farmhouses, and started walking
along the dirt road in the drizzle, with all of us scrambling after him
and the driver bringing up the rear, creeping along in his Toyota.
At the top of the
hill, he stopped at the first building, a magnificent home with traditional
tile roof and wood detailing. We knocked on the door, explained who we
were and created a stir in the household.
It was the house where
my grandfather was born, and it now belonged to my father's first cousin.
His daughter lived there with her husband, and many members of the family
were there because this happened to be a national holiday. Phone calls
were made, food and tea were served, and we sat down (on the floor) to
get to know each other.
We saw a second cousin
that looked eerily like my younger brother Glenn, and my father's cousin,
who had the same dashing curl in his hair as my dad. It was an amazing
day, and it wasn't even over.
I never got the chance to hear from my father about his years as a youth
George Hisayuki Asakawa was 7 when he moved to Fukui from Honolulu in
1940, and 13 when Emperor Hirohito read his surrender announcement over
Japanese radio. He went to work for General MacArthur's Occupation forces
as a houseboy when they rolled into Fukui. When he was 17, he lied about
his age and joined the U.S. Army. After miltary life, he worked for the
Federal government all his career, and he was one month short of 60 years
old when cancer claimed his life in 1992.
He died before I got around to taping an oral history -- I just could
never bring myself to bring the video camera. It seemed like an acknowledgment
Since then, I've done a lot of research about Japan before and during
the war, and during the U.S. Occupation from 1945-'52.
And in the fall of 1994, I traveled to Fukui-shi in Western Japan and
went to the city hall there. Our goal was to get a copy of the Asakawa
family records, just to get an idea of the family tree.
Most of what I knew of my dad's family, I learned from interviews with
two of my aunts. My grandfather, Kyutaro Asakawa, was a stowaway on a
ship sailing from Yokohama to San Francisco in the early 20th century.
A carpenter from Fukui, he had decided his riches awaited him in America.
He may or may not have gone to San Francisco (it depends on who I ask)
but he ended up in Hawaii, and by all accounts, he was a wealthy, successful
Honolulu contractor by the 1930s.
In 1938 he sent my grandmother (a "mail order bride") and my
youngest aunt to Fukui with money to visit relatives and pay for a torii
gate at a shinto shrine near the family's hometown.
In 1940, he suddenly decided to take the entire family back to Japan,
but my grandmother died literally on the eve of the trip. After a month's
delay, the family made the trip with my oldest aunt, who had been accepted
to enter the University of Hawaii, as a surrogate mother to her younger
siblings. The oldest son stayed in Hawaii -- he had enlisted in the U.S.
Army. My grandfather stuffed the lining of the trunks with cash for the
History is fleeting, but it can be captured in a number of ways. Memories
can be the richest, but they're also the most private -- and most suspect,
if accuracy matters. Documents like the one we sought at the Fukui City
Hall are public and accurate (we assume), but dry as bones, and devoid
Photographs, however, capture a real moment in time. I have a reproduction
of an old, sepia-toned family
portrait, which speaks volumes of history to me.
Five boys and three girls flank my grandparents (my grandfather gave all
eight children American first names, so I have to think he had planned
to stay in Hawaii). Both adults are wearing traditional kimonos, as are
all three daughters. The boys stand straight-backed with ties on, the
two oldest in suits. My father -- the youngest son -- is the only one
wearing shorts, and looks like he'd rather be outside playing.
The family lined up in front of the kitchen counter, arranged on the shiny
wood floor (curiously, for a Japanese family, everyone's wearing shoes
or sandals inside the house except for one of the boys). In the background
is a vase of beautiful Hawaiian flowers, and glass-front shelves displaying
china and glasses. Along the top of the wall are several framed pieces
-- what looks like a maritime print of a ship, a large work of calligraphy,
and a photo of the Showa Emperor Hirohito and his wife -- all hung in
the typically Japanese style, very high and leaning out at a severe angle,
the easier for people sitting on the floor to look up at.
To the right of the family, frilly, American-style drapes and pulldown
shades partially cover a window that glows brightly with the Hawaiian
daylight. Within a couple of years, this light would give way to the dark
years of war.
One of the rewards of being a Nikkei is the opportunity to dig not just
into the recent immigrant history of my family, but also the deeper history
of Japan. I feel lucky -- everybody has roots, but not everybody gets
to indulge a passion for them. And the more I dig into my roots, the more
I realize the richness of the soil I've sprouted from.
Still, I took this fertile family tree for granted for a long time. Because
I spent my early childhood in Japan and have vivid memories, and because
I've met my mother's family from the northern part of Japan, I felt like
I "knew" my roots.
But I only knew one branch.
Although I love history and I've always appreciated all things Japanese,
it never occurred to me to find out about my father's family until he
was diagnosed with cancer. He never talked about his childhood. I took
it for granted that he and his seven brothers and sisters were all born
and raised in Hawaii, and he met my mother in Japan when he was stationed
there during the Korean war.
So I was shocked by his answer when I finally asked him, "So dad,
what was it like at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?"
"I don't know," he said.
It turns out that in July of 1940, my grandfather suddenly decided to
move his entire family back to Japan. My father, who was 8 years old when
Pearl Harbor was attacked, lived in Fukui, a western city near the Sea
of Japan, during the war. Two weeks before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima,
Fukui was firebombed, and my dad's family escaped to the countryside,
to a village named Kowata a few kilometers outside of Fukui.
My father never spoke of his years in Japan; not to my mom, and not to
me and my brothers. Perhaps it's because he didn't really have a childhood
-- I've since learned from my aunts the hardships of life in Japan during
the war, and the special hardships faced by a family that had recently
arrived from the land of the enemy. The Asakawa children were taunted
as American spies by other kids, and the Kempeitai, or Secret Police visited
weekly to keep tabs on the family. My father was sent out to the fields
after school to capture grasshoppers, which were ground up for protein
and sprinkled on rice bought through the black market. He learned fluent
Japanese because he couldn't be caught speaking English in public -- so
they sang Glenn Miller songs in hushed tones in the house.
My father's silence about his childhood wasn't because he hated it there
-- my dad chose to stay in Japan after the war, while most of his brothers
and sisters returned within a few years to the U.S. Perhaps it was just
part of the secrecy he adopted when he joined the U.S. Army during the
Occupation, and he served with the Counter Intelligence Corps as an interrogator
fighting communists during the first tests of the Cold War.
Or perhaps he was simply compelled to leave the war years behind, put
away on a dark shelf like an old hat he never wanted to wear again.
He wouldn't be the first Japanese (or Japanese American, who were tight-lipped
about their Internment experience for a generation) to never discuss the
war years. My mother to this day is reluctant to relive her childhood
during the war (her hometown, the Hokkaido fishing town of Nemuro, was
also firebombed in the weeks leading up to Hiroshima). When prodded, she'll
describe the final days before Japan's surrender, when she and other school
girls trained with bamboo spears, preparing for the coming hand-to-hand
battle to the death with the invading Americans. She describes these scenes,
and shrugs as if they're not important.
My mom has a perfect snippet of Zen-like wisdom to explain her lack of
nostalgia about this period in her life: "The past is passed; I only
care about the future."
For me, though, the past is part of my future. There's so much to learn
about who I am, and what I believe. I'm digging for that knowledge, and
hoping I'll be a better person for the effort.
I keep reading how the current generation of young people in Japan are
outgrowing the traditional scale of Japanese life -- thanks to such all-American
junk food as McDonalds and KFC, kids are growing too tall for their beds,
clothes, and even the doorways of their homes.
The evolving size of Japanese youth may be a fact, but I wouldn't be too
quick to put the blame on Teriyaki McBurgers (they sell 'em that way there)
and Original Recipe Fried Chicken. I've been eating the stuff since my
family moved to the states when I was 8 years old, and junk food hasn't
added inches to my physique... at least, not height-wise.
Yes, it's true. I'm vertically challenged. I'm short. Not too short, mind
you ... just short. But I think average for the Japanese in my genes.
Do I sound touchy about the subject of my height?
I'm usually not. But every once in a while, I'm reminded -- in a small
way like being rudely reminded of my skin color -- that I'm 5'4"
in a world where everyone can seem like Michael Jordan.
In high school, during those fabulous '70s, my date to Prom wore a beautiful
satin dress, and four-inch platform heels which added to the fact that
she was already three inches taller than me. I didn't let it bother me
-- she was just wearing the popular style of the day -- but it's comical
now to look at the pictures. I look like a munchkin from the "Wizard
of Oz," waiting to dance with Dorothy.
Later, while I was in college, Randy Newman had a huge hit with his satirical
pop song, "Short People." I thought the song was funny in its
nastiness (Newman's social commentaries were often misunderstood), but
because of the song, I had to suffer a lot more "short jokes"
than usual from friends.
I hadn't thought about being "vertically challenged" in a while,
but I haven't forgotten about it.
This weekend, the reminder came in the unlikely form of on-field heroics
by a professional football player.
Doug Flutie, a onetime Boston College quarterback and winner of the coveted
Heisman Trophy as best college player, had a brief career in the National
Football League in the 1980s but was always criticized for being too short
(at a reported 5'10"). He shifted his career to the Canadian Football
League and became one of the all-time great players in the CFL.
He's now returned to the NFL, as a back-up quarterback for the Buffalo
Bills, and last week he played brilliantly when the team's main quarterback
was injured. Yesterday, Flutie started his first NFL game in almost a
decade, and threw a long pass that took his team to the one-yard line,
then ran the football in himself for the winning touchdown.
And all yesterday and in today's sports news, there hasn't been a single
mention of Flutie's athletic achievement without adding a note of wonder
that this ... short guy ... could accomplish such awesome feats.
One of Flutie's teammates even went so far to say, "His heart's a
lot bigger than his size."
What? Granted, among the giants of professional sports, Flutie is diminutive
-- I won't argue his stature. But he wasn't hired just because he looked
cute in a uniform, like some sort of mascot. He's being paid hundreds
of thousands of dollars because the Buffalo Bills think he can play football
with the big boys.
It's too bad his small size became such a big part of the story.
Then again, I guess it's OK with me if it's OK with Flutie. This isn't
the first time he's heard about his height, and he hasn't let it chase
him out of sports. If he continues to play well, the pundits will eventually
run out of jokes and tire of the topic, and finally just talk about Flutie
as an athlete, not some sort of freak of nature.
Me, I'm comfortable being short, even if the next generation of Japanese
will outgrow me. I never wanted to play football (or basketball!), and
height isn't a factor in my life.
I must admit, though, that I like it when women wear flats... and I hate
the return of '70s fashions like platform shoes.
James Byrd Jr. died on June 7. Matthew Shepard died on October 12. Both
were victims of hate -- Byrd for the color of his skin, and Shepard for
his sexual orientation.
Byrd was the African-American man who was dragged to his death on a lonely
two-lane highway near Jasper, Texas after being tied unconscious to the
back of a pickup truck. It's an unimaginable way to die, and an unspeakable
way to kill.
Shepard's two accused killers committed an equally horrible act.
The media have reported that Shepard, who was openly gay and an activist
on the University of Wyoming campus in the small high plains town of Laramie,
made a pass at one of his accused killers at a local bar.
Enraged that he might be mistaken for a homosexual in the company of his
friends, the killer and his partner allegedly lured Shepard out of the
bar by claiming to be gay. They began beating Shepard in the truck, drove
him a few miles outside of town into the empty landscape and pistol-whipped
him and robbed him as Shepard, a slightly built 21-year old, begged for
As if to cement Shepard's place as another martyr in the fight for civil
rights, the attackers (I won't name them and give them any measure of
acknowledgment) tied him to a fence and left him to die. Then they made
their girlfriends agree to phony alibis, dragging them into their evil
act as accomplices.
Shepard was found the next day by a bicyclist who initially thought the
pitiful sight was a scarecrow, not a human being. But the scarecrow was
still breathing, despite the crushing blow to the skull by a .357 magnum
handgun which was found in the possession of one of the accused.
Matthew Shepard never regained consciousness from his coma, and his family
-- his parents had flown from Saudi Arabia, where they work -- was at
his side when he died. He'll be buried in Casper, where he was born.
This murder has struck a national chord much like James Byrd's death in
the summer. Both ignited a thousand candle flames lit for vigils and marches
and protests all over the country.
I should have gone to a memorial gathering tonight at the State Capitol,
but I didn't, and I feel guilty about it. But I'm also cynical enough
to believe the emotional support of a million good people won't stop the
evil of a few bad ones. Though I support these spontaneous demonstrations
of peace and love and calls for a stop to the violence that snaps when
the weight of hatred gets too heavy, I can't shake the pit in my stomach.
There are people out there who hate people like me, and always have, no
matter what most of society says. I've felt the sting of racist slurs,
ominous stares, and threatening talk. I've hit back (when I was a kid)
and talked back (more recently). I'm just glad I haven't been physically
attacked, but there are plenty of instances of Japanese, Japanese Americans,
and other Asians being attacked, and sometimes killed, because of skin
I'm not even sure that an expanded national hate crimes law that would
include sexual orientation and make such crimes a federal offense, would
make me feel better. I don't feel unsafe, I just feel... well, unsettled.
I'm afraid the bigots will always hate gays, blacks, hispanics, jews,
muslims -- anyone who's different from themselves.
And worst of all, I'm not sure we're even gaining ground in the war against
hate. Just when I think the world's becoming a better place, another senseless
death hits the headlines to remind us how much hard work we still have
ahead of us.
My vigil tonight's at my computer, Matthew, where I've read news stories
about you, and about James Byrd, and where I've looked up the status of
hate crimes legislation, and lists of other martyrs over the decades.
I'll hope with all my heart that your death might make a difference. It's
one small flickering symbol, but I did light a candle behind me. Maybe
it can help light part of the way on your journey.
I hated Grasshopper. That was the nickname for the character Kwai Chang
Caine from the 1970s television show, "Kung Fu," who was played
by David Carradine.
Even as a high school student, I was offended by the fact that a Caucasian
actor was cast -- with silly-looking makeup turning his eyes into Asian
"slits" -- in the role of a half-Chinese, half-American Buddhist
monk roaming the wild wild West of the frontier era in search of his long-lost
brother. Nothing against David Carradine, whose career was made (or ruined,
since he's been invisible ever since) by the show, but I figured if the
character was half-Asian, he could have played the part without the offensive,
Caine was a non-violent soul, but the series' attraction was the carefully-choreographed,
slow motion fight scenes using the ancient Chinese martial art of Kung
Fu, which climaxed every episode.
By the show's second season -- it ran from 1972-'75 -- it was a hit, and
part of a national fad in Asian martial arts including Kung Fu, Judo and
Thankfully, Carradine and "Kung Fu" wasn't the only reason for
the fad, though it was an obvious beneficiary.
Chinese American martial arts master Bruce Lee, who had his first taste
of U.S. fame as "Kato" in the '60s TV show "Green Hornet,"
became a certified superstar in 1973 with "Enter the Dragon,"
a flashy, furious and fun fist-fest. (He died mysteriously that year,
not long after the movie came out, and instantly became a mythic celebrity
who's still revered today for his athletic ability.)
Martial arts from various Asian cultures has had its ebbs and flows for
decades -- though I was a child, I remember the attention given the American
Karate team (which included a young Ben Nighthorse Campbell, long before
his Congressional career) during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And in the late
'60s, after the Kato character had been canceled from TV, a popular brand
of men's after shave, "Hai Karate," featured commercials with
mini-skirted women lustily chasing after a runty guy who slapped the stuff
on his face. This kind of image made an impact on young male minds....
During the mid-'70s, with Karate schools (dojos) opening everywhere, my
younger brother signed up and stuck with a program until he achieved brown
belt level. Being allergic to sweat and exercise, I abstained from such
activities, but I used to drive Glenn to his weekly classes. The phoniness
of "Kung Fu" on the small screen may have made me feel smaller,
but it was pretty empowering hearing a roomful of earnest young (mostly
Caucasian) kids yelling out numbers in Japanese: "Ichi! Ni! San"
Shi! Go! Roku! Shichi! Hachi! Ku! Ju!"
If nothing else, I figured, this martial arts stuff was serving as one
way for Americans to connect with an aspect of Asian culture and philosophy.
During the 1980s, the interest in martial arts was sustained by the "Karate
Kid" movies, which starred child star Ralph Macchio as that decade's
"Grasshopper," and character actor Pat Morita as the wise (and
More recently, Jackie Chan has taken up Lee's mantle as a popular action
hero, and I wonder if we're once again entering a time of prosperity for
martial arts. Chan's latest film, an action comedy (Chan is humorous and
self-deprecating, both likable traits) with Chris Tucker called "Rush
Hour," is currently a box office hit.
And the other night I watched a new TV series, a '90s take on "The
Mod Squad," "Martial Law." It stars Sammo Hung playing
Sammo Law, a top cop from Shanghai on assignment with a couple of young,
brash LA cops, a man and a woman (with a Chinese American woman cop thrown
in for good measure). Hung is a martial arts master, of course, and shows
up not just bad guys, but also a brutish police trainer in the series
"Martial Law" is a pretty awful show, and I probably won't watch
it again -- it used every cliché ever written into a cop show, and the
"acting" was wretched and phony.
I did like two things about "Martial Law," though: I've always
enjoyed the sound of snapping cloth (the sound-effects staff must use
a LOT of starch) during martial arts fight scenes, and I'm glad it's now
acceptable to have an Asian playing the role.
Honda, Acura, Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, Mazda, Suzuki, Isuzu, Mitsubishi,
Lexus ... all are respected brand names of popular Japanese-made (or at
least, designed) cars. You can see these names everywhere you drive --
city or country, east or west coast and in between. They're all over TV
commercials, right alongside ads for Ford and Dodge and Chrysler.
Yet, as recently as the mid-70s, you could be ridiculed for owning a Japanese
Back then, Japanese cars -- at the time, the best-known brands were Toyota
and Datsun (which later became Nissan) -- still bore the post-war stigma
of cheap price at the cost of shoddy workmanship. Along with electronics,
the Japanese automotive industry benefited from the Occupation's American
advisors, who brought quality control concepts to Japan's manufacturing
The first post-war Japanese cars didn't exactly take the U.S. market by
storm. In 1947, two cars were exported. The next year, 300 were sent overseas;
by '49 over 1,100. Even as late as 1964, the year the Japanese automotive
market exploded at home, Americans imported only 12,680 of those models.
Until the '70s, ads for Japanese cars emphasized one thing: their low
cost. Their gas economy didn't take the spotlight until the gas crisis
of the early '70s forced people to buy them not as status symbols, but
because they were practical. Gas mileage suddenly mattered when a gallon
cost -- gasp -- 52 cents in 1974, up from 34 cents in 1968. (These days,
we hardly blink if the price of gas rises or falls that much in the space
The one exception to this image problem was the Datsun 240 Z, first introduced
in the early '70s, and subsequent models of this sleek, Jaguaresque sports
car. The "Z-car" even has collectors' clubs just like classic
Americans cars such as the Mustang.
But Hondas, Mazdas, Nissans and Toyotas didn't achieve the respect of
quality until the 1980s, when they finally overtook American cars in popularity.
My family had big American cars when I was a kid, though I remember seeing
lots of smaller, rounded and aptly-named "Toyopets" in Japan
before we moved to the states.
I learned to drive in an ugly Plymouth Fury that was so huge I sank into
the front seat and had to look through the steering wheel to see out the
windshield. But by the time I was in high school, my family also had a
Datsun station wagon. My dad made me learn to drive on the Fury, presumably,
because it would be less likely to get damaged if I did anything stupid.
I guess it was a novelty to own the boxy little Datsun, but perhaps because
we were Japanese, no one gave a second thought about us owning the import.
But when my friend Brian Word, a star football player for our high school,
bought a Subaru hatchback in 1974, he took a lot of ribbing from his jock
friends. It was so tiny that even I joined in the ridicule -- it really
looked like two motorcycles covered over and held together with rubber
It was quite a sight. Brian was a big guy, and he looked positively shoehorned
into that early Subaru.
But he loved that ugly car, and before anyone noticed, more and more Japanese
cars were filling the parking lot at school.
Little did we know that within a decade, that Subaru -- and the Honda
Civic, the other tiny Japanese import that people made fun of -- would
become ubiquitous on American roads and highways.
In fact, after our Fury the last American car my folks bought was a lemon
of a Plymouth Volare station wagon -- a piece of junk. Ironically, they
became hooked on Subarus (though my Dad briefly owned a Mitsubishi). My
brothers have also all bought Isuzus and Subarus over the years, except
for one Mustang, but Mustangs are a class unto themselves.
I went from the Datsun station wagon, which I wrecked when I was a high
school senior, to the family Mazda RX3 station wagon, then a Mazda Mizer,
a Honda Accord, a Toyota Corolla and for the past several years, a terrific
I began thinking about cars because I recently participated in a consumer
study of several automobile models, which ended with a discussion during
which the other test driver and I were asked questions about our automobile
When asked her preference in cars, the other driver turned to me completely
without animosity, but with recognition of what she was saying, and announced
she always bought Dodges, and she wouldn't consider buying an import.
I was filled with unmistakable cultural pride when I countered that I
probably would never consider an American car, and that my preference
would be Japanese.
Was this a racial debate? It's the truth, but I didn't mean to sound antagonistic.
So I described the Plymouth I learned to drive in, and added to break
any tension I might have caused, that Japanese cars just fit me better.
But size isn't everything.... These small automobiles, which were once
the object of such scorn, are the giants of the industry.
I take back all the lousy things I said about Brian's Subaru.
DRAWING ON THE ISSEI EXPERIENCE: "THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS MANGA"
While Frederik Schodt was researching
his history of Japanese comic books published in 1983, "Manga! Manga!,"
he discovered the text that would become his latest book, an all-English
translation of "The Four Immigrants
During a search in the San Francisco Public Library for "manga,"
the Japanese word for comics, Schodt came across a dusty copy of the hardbound
comic book, self-published in 1931 and featuring both English and Japanese
dialogue. He paid passing attention to it in "Manga! Manga!"
-- now the undisputed bible of English-speaking manga fans around the
world -- by reproducing one of its pages as an example of how early Japanese
artists incorporated Western cartoon drawing styles.
But in the years since he discovered "Manga Yonin Shosei" (literally,
"Four Students Manga") by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, Schodt came
to appreciate the journalistic quality with which the book captured the
era. And now, he's translated the Japanese portions of "The Four
Immigrants Manga" for its first wide release in October from Stone
Bridge Press of Berkeley, California.
It's an entertainingly drawn, historically accurate autobiography of the
Issei immigrant experience starting with the 1904 arrival in San Francisco
of four friends from Japan. The young immigrants live through situations
common to many of the Japanese who came to the United States in search
of success: working as houseboys while learning English; losing a months'
wages to gambling, or years of savings to a bank failure; the tough labor
of farmwork; and always the glamour and hopefulness of starting a life
in such a great country.
Like a visual journal that breaths with immediacy, the story line incorporates
actual events including the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, the 1906 earthquake
that devastated the city, a 1911 visit by President William Howard Taft,
the Pan-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and World War I.
There are even San Francisco landmarks accurately represented in the background
while the book's four main characters -- young Japanese men who take on
menial jobs while they learn English and seek their fortunes -- stumble
through life in a new country.
"A lot of the places are the same; there are a lot that haven't changed,"
Schodt marvels. "I was amazed at how much of a documentary it is."
Using humor as a framework, Kiyama, an aspiring artist who became an art
teacher and regionally respected painter after his return to Japan before
WWII, also tackled the racism and political turmoil of his early years
in America. One of the darker series in the book covers the 1921 "Turlock
Incident," when Issei farm laborers were rousted by armed white men
and driven outside town in the middle of the night, then warned not to
Because the history of the Issei's early years in this country are under-represented
in books, and because "The Four Immigrants Manga" vibrates with
such immediacy and sharp observation, Schodt hopes his translation will
be both entertaining and educational to both Japanese readers, who may
not be familiar with American history, and Americans. And, of course,
to fans of manga.
Even Schodt -- a Japanese translator and manga scholar with a handful
of books to his credit -- initially missed the quality of the book and
the insights into the human condition.
"At first, I thought of it academically. It takes place in San Francisco,
it took place a long time ago ... and it took me a long time to realize
how much foresight he had," he says. "The more I read, I was
in awe of how modern he was."
Kiyama had come to the U.S. to study modern art -- Schodt's well-researched
introduction includes examples of Kiyama's fine art, which he learned
attending the San Francisco Art Institute. Kiyama exhibited his western-style
realist paintings in San Francisco to positive reviews, and by 1927, had
started the cartoons that became "Manga Yonin Shosei." After
his return to Japan, he came back to the U.S. briefly and distributed
his comic book (with one copy finding its way into the city library) before
settling for good Yonago City in Tottori Prefecture to teach and occasionally
exhibit his fine art.
Schodt tracked down the original artwork for the book at the Yonago City
Art Museum, which is the repository of Kiyama's life's work. He's regionally
remembered there, but he's all but unknown in America.
Not for long, if Fred Schodt can help it. "His time is come,"
he says. "I'm going to do everything I can to help him become well-known."
Asakawa. "Ah-sa-ka-wa." Pretty simple, right? Very phonetic.
At least, I think so. Yet, all my life, I've heard my name mangled by
people who don't take the time to read it. They see seven letters and
the fact that it's not, well, American, and assume it's hard to
I've gotten so used to it from clerks and phone solicitors that I let
even the more creative mispronunciations -- "ASK-a-wah-wah,"
"Ask-a-COW-a" -- roll off my back. I seldom try to correct people
when they get my name wrong. But it's different when Japanese Americans
can't handle Japanese names.
At a recent Denver Japanese American community dinner marking the end
of redress, one of the speakers, a Sansei whose grandfather had been interned,
was acknowledging people who were in attendance. He stumbled over several
longer Japanese names, then came upon one with two syllables. "Thank
you for having an easy name to pronounce," he quipped from the podium.
It irked me, because JAs should have enough connection with our heritage
to be able to pronounce names in Japanese. But was it unfair of me to
think this way?
I suppose it's inevitable, when a community of people concentrate so much
on assimilation that certain language skills just fade.
I remembered how disappointed I was earlier this summer when I attended
the national convention of the Japanese American Citizens League in Philadelphia,
and heard Calif. representative Bob Matsui say his name as "MATT-suey"
and, like the recent Denver speaker, stumble all over a list of names
of people -- HEROES -- involved in the JACL's efforts to help attain redress
I asked the opinions of other JAs (many on an e-mail discussion group,
"Ties-Talk" -- e-mail
me for information on how to subscribe to this free group), and not
surprisingly, found a variety of opinons about the name game. For starters,
one Sansei living in Japan noted that correct pronunciation is relative,
and no matter how perfectly we Nikkei might think we speak our Nihongo,
Japanese might think our accents are awful -- a good, humbling point.
Erik Matsunaga, among others recalled how friends had pronounced his name
when he was growing up. He wrote that after a while even he wasn't sure
which was correct: "I knew I always pronounced it 'Mott-sunaga,'
but then again I had heard so many people in my life screw it up that
I thought maybe I was saying it the wrong way."
After thoughtfully explaining the American immigrant dynamic and the importance
of names to cultural identification, Carolyn Takeshita offered, "I
can't change everyone else, but I can change the way I pronounce someone's
name. I really make an effort to pronounce all names as closely as I can
with the original pronounciation."
Alan Kita of Torrance, Calif. added that in a multi-ethnic world, you
can't expect all names to be pronounced the way they may have been intended
within their original culture. "Sure it would be easy to say all
Japanese names should be pronounced like they do in Japan, as all Mexican
names should be pronounced as they do in Mexico...but not so," he
In fact, I have to admit that though I know enough Spanish to realize
the correct pronunciation of a burrito is "bu-RRIT-toh," I think
people are being overly politically correct or even somehow condescending
when they pronounce it that way, especially if they're not Hispanic. I
call 'em "burr-ee-toes."
So from non-Japanese, I'll accept "Ah-sa-WOKKA" or "O-SACK-a-wah."
But I'll correct JAs if they say my name incorrectly -- because I feel
they should make the effort.
Because of who I am, in the case of Japanese words, I'm proud to pronounce
them the way they sound in Japanese. It's a complex and troubling topic,
though, and my decision is definitely a personal one.
Perhaps that's a good sign -- it means I'm struggling with what it really
means to me to be a Nikkei.
A friend of mine e-mailed me last week, wondering if I thought he was
racist. Bob's a good guy, and a fine thinker. Of course he isn't a racist,
I said. Why was he asking?
Bob was getting a ton of respones from an item he'd run in his weekly
column for a Denver suburban newspaper: a transcript of a conversation
between a traveler and a room service operator that he saw in the Far
East Asian Economic Review. He thought it was funny.
Here is the full text of the exchange, titled "Tendjewberrymud":
Room Service: "Morny. Ruin sorbees."
Hotel Guest: "Sorry, I thought I dialed room-service."
Room Service: "Rye...Ruin sorbees..morny! Djewish to oder sunteen??"
Hotel Guest: "Uh..yes..I'd like some bacon and eggs."
Room Service: "Ow July den?"
Hotel Guest: "What??"
Room Service: "Ow July den?..pry. boy, pooch?"
Hotel Guest: "Oh, the eggs! How do I like them? Sorry, scrambled
Room Service: "Ow July dee bayhcem...crease?"
Hotel Guest: "Crisp will be fine."
Room Service: "Hokay. An San tos?"
Hotel Guest: "What?"
Room Service: "San tos. July San tos?"
Hotel Guest: "I don't think so."
Room Service: "No? Judo one toes??"
Hotel Guest: "I feel really bad about this, but I don't know what
'judo one toes' means."
Room Service: "Toes! toes!...why djew Don Juan toes? Ow bow singlish
mopping we bother?"
Hotel Guest: "English muffin!! I've got it! You were saying 'Toast'
Fine. Yes, an English muffin will be fine."
Room Service: "We bother?"
Hotel Guest: "No, just put the bother on the side."
Room Service: "Wad?"
Hotel Guest: "I mean butter...just put it on the side."
Room Service: "Copy?"
Hotel Guest: "Sorry?"
Room Service: "Copy...tea...mill?"
Hotel Guest: "Yes. Coffee please, and that's all."
Room Service: "One Minnie. As ruin torino fee, strangle ache, crease
baychem, tossy singlish mopping we bother honey sigh, and copy...rye??"
Hotel Guest: "Whatever you say."
Room Service: "Tendjewberrymud."
Hotel Guest: "You're welcome."
Bob innocently passed this on, and later traced its origins. The writer
from the Far East Economic Review attributed it to a 1985 book by an author
named Shelley Berman, "A Hotel Is a Funny Place" (now out of
print). And ironically, Berman claimed the conversation took place in
the U.S., and was meant to make fun of bizarre conversations with hotel
staff in general.
No matter its origins, Bob was slammed with response for the column. Many
of the readers thought it was hilarious, but some felt it was racist.
The point here isn't to single out Bob, or Berman, or even this specific
passage. Anyone who's traveled in other countries has heard English mangled
in many creative ways. Anyone who's on the Internet has probably seen
e-mails that lists English signs from foreign countries, like the one
from a Japanese dry cleaner that urged customers to "take your pants
The point here is to poke around the edge of the racism envelope, and
feel for its limits.
After I read "Tendjewberrymud," I had to admit that I thought
it was funny. But in my reply to my Bob, I told him I felt a tad uncomfortable
because it made made fun of a foreign culture via his accent. And, in
this case, it was an accent that I was pretty familiar with, having known
people all my life who have Asian accents -- Japanese, Chinese, Korean,
Vietnamese and Thai.
At its core, this is the same as making a buck-toothed face and hissing,
"Ahhhh-soo" the way kids used to when I was young. Or is it?
Can it just be that it's reporting a fact of life -- that not everyone
can speak English well? In fact there are plenty of regional accents even
in the U.S. that we make "fun" of, including Southern draaawls,
Texas twangs and New Yawk accents. So what's the big deal? Am I being
too sensitive and politically correct?
I asked a Japanese American e-mail discussion group that I subscribe to
(e-mail me below for instructions on how to sign up, it's free) for opinions,
and found that even among the JA community around the world, the reaction
was split, though no one was horribly offended. The answers ranged from
(paraphrasing) "Some people have a better ear for accents than others"
and "At least this person tried to understand what was being said"
to "it showed the ignorance of the English-speaking tourist for expecting
perfect English to be spoken in a foreign country."
One reply noted that if you were used to hearing non-native English speakers
-- as many JAs are, having grown up among Issei with poor English skills
-- these accents aren't so awkward. That's true. I can often understand
foreigners' English better than many Americans can.
So, I was left with plenty of food for thought. I still don't think Bob
is a racist, but I'm not sure where I stand with this thorny issue of
what constitutes racism. Many instances are clear-cut, to be sure, but
the edges of the envelope are frayed and fuzzy. I guess I have to take
every incident individually, and gauge it against my gut instincts.
Because one thing's for sure: If you've ever been the target of racism,
you can feel it in your gut when it's being aimed again.
My friend Dave from work had his first sushi last week. He had had fake
sushi before -- you know, those California rolls with rice on the outside
that no self-respecting Japanese would consider sushi.
This time, Dave was going out for a business lunch at a nearby sushi bar,
and he was going to have the real thing -- slabs of raw fish gingerly
topping subtly sweet, vinegared rice.
Before lunch, Dave was visibly nervous.
Although sushi has been an American yuppie symbol for more than a decade,
many people have always been wary of this stalwart of Japanese cuisine.
The thought of eating anything like raw fish was just too exotic for them.
And, a few years ago, when stories first surfaced about mercury poisoning
from eating raw fish, those who had refused to try sushi cried out triumphantly,
"A ha!" They had always figured there was something, well, unhealthy
about the concept of sushi, and they had been proven right. Never mind
that these same people probably think nothing of the health effects of
a Big Mac with fries (I happen to like both).
And never mind that Japanese people had been eating sushi for centuries,
and we've done all right.
I grew up eating sushi. I have very vivid memories of restaurants my family
used to go to in Tokyo when I was young -- one in particular that had
samurai armor, swords and shiriken (those star-shaped darts that ninja
throw) -- to have giant boats of sushi for special occasions. Perhaps
my memory has glorified the experience, but I know I've had a deep appreciation
for sushi all my life.
My mom used to prepare gigantic sushi dinners for New Year's Eve, and
my folks invited over their friends for years. It was always my favorite
party that my parents threw. Those dinners got to be too much trouble
-- "mendokusai," my mom would grumble -- so as my brothers and
I grew older, the New Year's sushi blowouts faded.
Luckily for us, Mom still makes the best norimaki rolls I know, for every
family occasion. I stuff roll after roll of the simpler sushi (no, they
don't have raw fish in them, Dave) and try to recreate those New Year's
dinners in my tummy.
When I'm let loose in a sushi restaurant, I can do major damage to someone's
credit card -- and I hope it's not mine. I don't just do the basics such
as tekkamaki and hamachi. I might order chirashi, (sushi in a bowl), or
go for slices of sweet cooked egg, the salmon roe and some of the truly
exotic stuff like octopus and eel.
The one type of sushi I don't order is uni, or sea urchin. That's the
one type that's too yucky for me. Some Japanese food just has an icky
texture, and sea urchin is one of them, even if it is a delicacy.
But keep the other types of sushi coming -- yes, even the Americanized
specialty rolls (every sushi chef has his own creations). I'll try 'em
all. So it's been with some snobbish superiority that I've watched my
American friends (and the occasional Nikkei, who amazingly enough has
never tried it) go for their first sushi.
To his credit, Dave tried real sushi with an open mind, and came back
raving about even eel -- he'd jumped a real cultural hurdle, I thought.
And, because this was his first time, he really noticed everything about
his encounter with real sushi: The flavors, the texture, the cool mix
of ingredients that blend together perfectly yet stay separate on your
It made me appreciate sushi all the more. And it made me hungry. Anyone
SUMIMASEN -- NIHONGO
(Pardon Me, but Do You Understand Japanese?)
OK, OK. I'll admit it. My mom was right.
When we moved to the U.S. when I was a kid, she tried to make my older
brother and I study Japanese using elementary school primers. She told
us that it was important to learn to read and write Nihongo.
But my brother and I were more interested in learning American cuss words
and the contents of the TV Guide than in buckling down and memorizing
hiragana and katakana (never mind kanji!).
Now, I regret my slothfulness. I know that if I could read and write Japanese
-- especially that icky kanji -- I'd have a good chance of working in
a job where I could travel to Japan. Instead, here I am solidly in my
middle ages, thinking a lot about Japan and Japanese people, without actually
being able to communicate directly with them.
The worst part is that even my conversational Japanese is lousy, because
I was too young when we moved to the states to have a very developed vocabulary,
and simply because I haven't used my feeble speaking skills hardly at
all. Like many Nikkei I know, I've grown up with my parents (or mom, at
least) speaking lots of Japanese to me, and replying all my life in English.
When I'm in a situation where I'm expected to reply in Japanese, the little
bit of conversational Nihongo I've locked-up in my brain goes on a jailbreak,
and even the most common of words and phrases seems to escape me.
For example, my grandmother in Hokkaido called me late one night to wish
me a happy new year and ask how I was. I tried to fake it as grogginess
from being woken in the middle of the night by the call, but my reply
in halting Japanese finally disintegrated into stammering English, which
of course Obachan couldn't understand at all. She finally laughed and
teased me for not knowing Nihongo, but she understood: I was too Americanized.
One time during college, I was invited to be part of an exhibit of Japanese
artists in New York City. Though I was flattered and even sold my painting
in the show, I didn't remain a part of this group, because I felt uncomfortable.
The other artists were all very warm and eager to include me in their
organization, but I was embarrassed at not being able to converse with
them in their language. There were English-speaking members, and in fact,
one sculptor was a Caucasian Columbia University professor who was the
longtime companion of a Japanese artist. But I felt inferior in these
great people's presence. Maybe it was because I was intimidated artistically
too, but I felt too much an outsider because of my poor language skills.
As an adult, I've tried taking lessons at the Buddhist Temple, from Midori
Sensei, who is patient and engaging and supportive, but I was a lazy student
and didn't continue the lessons long enough. I apologize, Sensei, and
I will someday return to class!
I've even tried learning more vocabulary and some basic reading and writing
from a couple of CD-ROMS, which were somewhat helpful, but bored me after
a while. They both had one feature I didn't need: Sound samples of words
as they should be pronounced.
Thankfully, that's one part of my Japanese that doesn't need too much
help. My accent is pretty good for an American. I even know to pronounce
"sumimasen" -- the very useful "pardon me" -- the
way all Japanese I've ever met say it: "suimasen."
So even though my Nihongo is limited, at least I can speak the words I
know with an Issei's perfect pronunciation.
Sure, they're simple words and basic phrases that an 8-year-old might
know, like, "Pardon me, but where is the bathroom?"
The word "authentic" is often used in the description of ethnic
restaurants, but signs outside restaurants proclaiming "authentic
Italian/Mexican/choose-your-country food" are just silly hype. Who
would ever claim that their restaurant served "unauthentic"
Authenticity in food is an issue, though, as it should be in the appreciation
of any cultural experience.
It's trickier to judge the authenticity of food than, say, a folk costume
or a traditional dance. It's easy to just use elements of a style to give
food the flavor of another country, without being true to the roots of
Plus, the authenticity of food is partly a matter of the diner's knowledge.
Until I moved west when I was a kid, I thought tacos were all supposed
to taste like the ones I ate all the time at Jack-in-the-Box in Virginia.
Wrong -- I know better now.
But even when the culture is authentic, there can be wide differences
My mom makes great Japanese food, no doubt about it, and I measure restaurants
by her cooking -- the flavors and textures I've grown up with. It would
never occur to me that her cooking might not be authentic -- she's Japanese,
Yet, her norimaki rolls can taste different from even her friends' versions,
and her teriyaki or gyoza can vary from the same dishes served in my favorite
restaurants. Is that bad? Does that mean my mom's cooking isn't truly
No. It just means there isn't a definitive measure, beyond certain basic
principles, that makes a cuisine authentic.
Another way to judge ethnic restaurants is by looking at the diners --
it's reassuring to see Asian faces at the tables of Asian restaurants,
or hispanic faces at Mexican restaurants. Is this somewhat racist logic?
Maybe -- the more overt version of this theory is that a good ethnic restaurant
will only have ethnic cooks and servers. But there's no reason to think
that a non-Japanese can't make a great piece of sushi.
Still, I couldn't help but notice the non-Asian staff at a Tokyo Joe's
restaurant recently, when some co-workers and I went out for lunch at
one of Tokyo Joe's Tech Center locations.
The company has four area locations, and it advertises itself as "a
hip & healthy place to eat" because of its low-fat cooking, which
features charbroiled meats served on rice toppped with a "homemade
The idea's not new -- the national Yoshinoya's Beef Bowl chain served
similar fast food around the Denver area in the 1980s (the independently
owned Kokoro on South Colorado Blvd. started as a Tokyo Bowl location),
but without the "healthy" '90s spin.
Tokyo Joe's embellishes the concept with other contemporary touches --
a high-tech stainless steel and wood decor, and a small selection of sushi
that the company proclaims as "Safe Sushi -- Nothing Raw About It!"
None of the choices has sashimi. It's all designed to appeal to those
who are ignorant and afraid of trying sushi.
My Oyako Bowl (meat simmered with egg and sweet sauce and served over
rice) took much longer than my co-workers' meals. I assume they weren't
used to getting orders for the more unusual (and therefore, more authentic
Japanese dishes. To be honest, the bowl wasn't bad -- it was hearty (I
bet it's not exactly "healthy," though), and my main complaint
was the old and undercooked rice. I also tried a "sushi" order
and didn't like it at all -- the rice was just plain old, and typical
of phony sushi, I couldn't taste the subtle vinegar flavor in the rice
I was the only Asian customer in Tokyo Joe's that day, but that's OK --
the food was tasty enough that I'll go back. Was it authentic? Not really
-- the restaurant's really a product of ingenious marketing, not a passion
for Japanese cuisine. It's Japanese style packaged in a hip new way. I
just won't go there expecting to have the kind of food my mom cooks.
Then again, I return to the question in the headline: What's "authentic"
food, anyway? Her Japanese dishes might be the real thing, but my mom's
spaghetti or pizza aren't. Yet, I grew up tasting her way of cooking them,
and though I know a great Italian restaurant when I taste one, I still
count my mom's pizza and spaghetti among my favorites.
I guess authenticity is in the taste bud of the beholder.
I realize that not
everyone has a computer and a connection to the Internet. But from time
to time, I'm going to write about some of the things the new technology
offers, and how the Internet can -- and is -- changing the world.
I work for an Internet company, so I'm online all the time. But my introduction
to the wonders of the World Wide Web came in 1993 when the newspaper I
worked for put up a Web site (it was one of the first U.S. papers on the
Internet). When I read one of my articles online and realized that someone
in Japan could read it at the same time, I had an epiphany -- one of those
life-changing moments. That's when I knew my future would be online, not
in "dead tree" newspapers.
My interest in the Internet comes not just because I can e-mail friends
even in Japan without paying expensive long distance charges, but because
I can virtually visit Japan with just a few clicks of my mouse. And, as
a Sansei, I can better appreciate my Japanese American roots.
I often surf the Web just to keep up on Japanese news or to soak up culture
and history. Some of my favorite sites are Web pages that link to a bunch
of other sites -- these are "gateways" that serve as rich jumping-off
points for exploring Japan.
Here are just a few Web sites to explore. If you don't have Internet access
but these sites interest you, you can always check them out on a computer
at the Library. Have someone show you how to "surf" the Web
-- it's easy, and who knows; you may be like me and have an epiphany,
and go out and get a computer for yourself!
-- 24 Hours Mt. Fuji
Live: Just like it says. There's an archive of the best photos (many
are breathtaking!) of the famed mountain, in case you visit in the middle
of the night, or during poor weather.
-- Asahi Shimbun:
No-nonsense English-language online version of one of Japan's huge national
dailies. The quickest, best survey of top stories.
-- Japanese Information:
This plainly-designed site created by Japan's national phone company,
NTT, is primarily a guide for foreigners, although there are some links
in Japanese (which come out as gibberish symbols unless you have a Japanese-language
computer system). It features quirky stuff like a downloadable recording
of the Japanese national anthem, "Kimigayo," an interactive
map of Japan, geographic facts and figures, and links about culture and
customs, as well as plenty of helpful links for tourists.
-- Japan, My
Japan! This is a personal Home Page that's a terrific collection of
many links in a whole bunch of categories, and a great jumping-off point
for exploration of all things Japanese -- just be sure you have plenty
of time to spend online!
-- WWW A-Bomb Museum: A moving
and historically complete overview of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, with gut-wrenching photographs taken within days of the
-- Japanese-American Network
(JA*Net): The Japanese American Network (JA*Net) is a partnership
of Japanese American organizations based in Los Angeles. A goal of this
partnership is to encourage the use of the Internet and interactive communications
technologies to exchange information about Japanese Americans -- art,
culture, community, history, news, events, social services, and public
policy issues. You can even sign up for an e-mail discussion list about
JA issues and interests.
-- Japanese-American Citizens League:
I'm not only a member, but I'm currently the board vice-president for
the Mile-Hi Chapter, and I'll serve as president in 1999. What is the
JACL? It's a civil-rights organization formed in 1929 to protect the rights
of people of Japanese heritage. The organization was largely responsible
for the U.S. legislation that led to an apology and redress money for
Japanese-Americans who were interned in American concentration camps during
WWII. Now, the JACL's mission is changing because the redress campaign
is over. We need to pursue anti-civil rights battles throughout the country
and in Colorado, incorporate cultural programs into our events, and attract
younger members into our ranks.
-- Japan-America Society of
Colorado: I'm also a member of the JASC, the Colorado chapter of an
organization dedicated to promoting business and cultural ties between
the U.S. and Japan. The group hosts monthly cultural events and informal
get-togethers (some where everyone speaks Japanese), and its major events
are high-profile and well-attended by Denver's business and political
movers and shakers.
Well, that's it for now. I'll write more about the Internet and Japan
in future columns.
JACL 1998 CONVENTION:
THE JAPANESE AMERICAN GENERATION GAP
I am a "Sansei," or third-generation Japanese-American. My father
was born in Hawaii and that made him "Nisei," or second-generation.
My mother is an "Issei," or first generation, born in Japan.
You can't tell I'm a Sansei from looking at me -- I'll always appear Asian.
Still, I recently realized there is a growing gap between my parents'
generation and mine.
Last week in Philadelphia at the 35th biennial convention of the Japanese
American Citizens League, the organization formed in 1929 to advocate
for the civil rights of people of Japanese ancestry, the Sansei generation
began to take the reins of the JACL and steer it into the 21st century.
The defining moment of convention came during the first day of speeches,
before the hundreds of assembled delegates began the sometimes tedious
process of voting for resolutions, budgets and constitutional amendments.
As an informal way to judge the demographics of the delegates, a speaker
asked the Issei to stand. A handful of elders rose. Next, the speaker
asked the Nisei, and a larger group stood up.
When the Sansei were called, a full 75 percent of attendees -- mostly
of the baby-boomer generation (like me) or younger -- looked around and
recognized ourselves. There were a small group of fourth- and even fifth-generation
kids there too, but I realized the driving force for the JACL had become
a younger group than had been the case for decades.
As an organization, the JACL has focused itself since the late 1970s on
the issue of redress, gaining an unprecedented apology and repayment from
the U.S. government for the illegal and unjust internment of people of
Japanese ancestry during World War II.
The organization and determined Japanese American legislators like then-congressman
Norm Mineta and current congressman Bob Matsui, were responsible for the
passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, authorizing the payment of
But redress itself becomes history itself this year: The law sunsets in
For the Sansei members of the JACL, the end of redress is a turning point
-- time after time at the convention, young activists came to the microphone
and made passionate pitches for resolutions asking for support to fight
anti-discrimination legislation in states including California and Washington,
with the ominous warning that these laws are coming to others states,
including Colorado, in the next two years. A delegation from Hawaii asked
for a national show of support for efforts to strengthen ethnic studies
programs at the university level, and to state unequivocally that young
gay and lesbian students should be free of the fear of violence in schools.
These resolutions passed without much argument. Longtime members from
Denver who sat in the back as alternate delegates approvingly observed
after one session that the older "JACLers" seemed to be stepping
aside and letting the youngsters take over.
But when funding of a redress history project came under scrutiny, the
generation gap cracked opened as if an earthquake had rumbled through
the crowd and a volcano was spitting hot emotional lava.
Younger delegates pointed out how little money was budgeted to fight anti-affirmative
action campaigns in their states while a much larger chunk was set aside
for a history of JACL's redress efforts. Older members passionately argued
that many of the people behind redress were elderly and their stories
would be lost unless money was spent to record them soon.
In the end, the redress history was preserved but the youngsters had made
their point -- and clearly, they would speak louder and stake even more
of a claim at the next convention in 2000 at Monterey, California.
But the elders had the final say this year, at the four-hour long speechfest
titled the "Sayonara Ball" on the 4th of July.
The night was a virtual memorial to the fading memories of internment
and the recent glory of the redress campaign.
The best -- and for me, the most moving -- speech of the convention came
from former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Pacific War veteran who
backed the Act. He admitted that even when he was flying missions against
the Japanese, he knew the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry
was wrong, and he was glad that the redress legislation had been drafted.
"Even this country must be on guard," he said, "from hysteria
Then, he looked out over the crowd and urged Americans to "celebrate
diversity, and celebrate the Japanese Americans who did not let this bitter
experience embitter them."
For a few hours at least, as the sunset of redress approached, the central
experience of a generation of Japanese Americans caught the light and
warmed the entire crowd -- even the Sansei.
I've read a lot about the internment of Japanese-Americans. I've seen
movies, videos, documentaries, drawings and stark, moving, chilling photographs
that examine and memorialize the horrible experience that the United States
forced upon innocent and loyal citizens during World War II.
But I've never really felt the pain and deep anger that I imagine is felt
by anyone who experienced the internment, or anyone whose family members
or friends were interned.
That's because my mother was an Issei growing up in Japan during the war
(she had her own horrors to deal with, like the fire-bombing of her city)
and my father was a Nisei born in Hawaii but trapped in Japan as a child
during the War (that's a whole other story). And when we moved to the
States, we didn't live on the West Coast, where I surely would have grown
up amongst the children and grandchildren of internees -- we settled in
Washington DC, where the fact of internment was never brought up.
When we moved to Denver in the '70s, I knew one girl during high school
whose parents I learned were incarcerated -- I think that was the first
time I had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the experience, but
I wasn't curious enough as a teenager to ask questions. Not long after,
I learned a lot by reading Bill Hosokawa's "Nisei," which was
a landmark book for me.
But despite the knowledge I've since accumulated about the reality of
America's concentration camps, the racist policy of Executive Order 9066
authorizing the internment, and the recent, heroic efforts to gain redress
from the government, I've seldom felt an emotional connection to what
happened to so many Japanese-Americans of an earlier generation.
That's why I signed up for the Denver Central Optimist Club's annual pilgrimage
to Camp Amache, Colorado's only internment camp, on June 21.
The day-long bus trip, which has been organized by the Optimist Club since
1983, pays tribute to the tragedy and to keep alive the memory so it doesn't
happen again, to Asians or any Americans.
The trip was well-organized (by the Optimists' Jim Hada), and when the
chartered bus pulled away from the Tri-State Buddhist Temple at Sakura
Square early Saturday morning, it was full with folks of all ages making
the trek. This year's visit was special, because the national Amache Historical
Society was holding a reunion of former internees in Colorado Springs,
and they would be meeting the Denver pilgrimage.
There isn't much left to see today of the 10,000-acre site that held 7,500
citizens from August 1942 to October, 1945. The community was placed on
the plains of Southeast Colorado a kiss away from the Kansas line, just
outside the small ranch and farm town of Granada. The flimsy, tar-paper
shacks that served as multiple-family barracks are all gone, leaving nothing
but concrete foundations marked by discreet signs added recently with
the original barracks numbers.
As we pulled up to the gate, which was also marked by a sign and a site
map marking the land's former purpose, the only things that broke the
horizon of the undulating plains were cattle crossing the dirt road within
the camp grounds, a scattering of thirsty cottonwood trees amongst the
low ground cover of yucca and spiny cactus, and clouds of dust from all
the cars and buses gathered on this day. It must have been a grim landscape
to serve out a sentence such as internment -- relentlessly hot and dry
during the summers, crackling cold and wet in the winters.
The pilgrimage was unfortunately too brief -- because of the added hundreds
from all over the country, the Denver contingent wasn't able to take its
time and explore and maintain the grounds as it usually does.
We simply pulled up to the restored area by the Amache cemetery, where
the Optimists erected a memorial in 1983, for a quick series of tributes
and flower presentations, and prayers and homilies from Rev. Kono of the
Buddhist Temple and Rev. Miyake-Stoner of the Simpson Methodist Church,
both stalwart hubs of the Denver Japanese-American community.
Then, the Denver busload drove off to Granada Park for a picnic while
the hundreds there for the Amache reunion went to the town's City Hall
for a luncheon. I felt a little cheated of the opportunity to mingle with
internees and learn more of their experience first-hand, but also enjoyed
very much the chance to make more friends in the Denver community.
After lunch -- all fabulous food prepared by volunteers for the day trip
-- we climbed aboard the bus and drove the four hours back to Denver.
Before we left Granada, though, I did make an emotional connection with
the historical fact of internment. While we picnicked in the welcome shade
of the tall trees, someone pointed out a ramshackle olive-green shed at
the other end of the park.
It was one of two remaining original buildings from Amache, being used
for maintenance storage by the town of Granada (the other, I was told,
is in someone's back yard). I walked over and around the building and
felt both awe and anger rising up in me. The olive-drab tar paper was
torn off in many places, showing the thin protection of plywood that internees
had to protect themselves from the elements. The building was locked up
but I could peer inside from a number of cracks and holes, and through
some grimy windows. At one end of the building, which I estimated to be
about 20-by-60 feet, were the faded military stenciled letters, "Block
11F Rec. Bldg."
As I squinted and saw nothing but shadows of machinery inside, I imagined
Japanese-Americans of 50 years ago, trying to fashion a life for themselves
in dozens of buildings that looked just like this. Inside this rec center,
the men must have played poker and the women must have chatted about the
day-to-day details of life in prison. Children must have played games
and maybe someone played guitar at night, or perhaps someone had a phonograph
player for scratchy big-band 78s.
I tried to hear echoes of these lives, and of course didn't hear anything.
All I heard was a voice in my head saying, "This is insane. I can't
believe this happened. And it should never happen again."
I'm not particularly a religious person. But when I attended a memorial
service recently at the Tri-State Buddhist Temple, I realized how churches
serve as focal points for communities that reach out far beyond spiritual
I was asked to represent the Japanese-American Citizens League at the
memorial service for Kenzo Fujimori, a longtime active member of Denver's
Japanese community. I didn't know Mr. Fujimori personally, though I recognized
him from his photograph. But I was alone in my unfamiliarity. I was struck
at how many peoples' lives he and his family had touched in the area --
the service was packed.
I realized the reason I didn't know Fujimori-san was that our family wasn't
part of either the Buddhist Temple or Simpson Methodist Church Japanese-American
communities; we were in some ways outsiders to the region's daily Japanese
culture. Of course, we always had Japanese friends -- some who are very
active in the community, like the Kitas -- and we would say "hello"
to the regulars at places such as Pacific Mercantile or Nonaka's Barbershop.
We've also eaten countless boxed lunches and sushi rolls at fundraising
events for both Temple and Church and attended many of the annual Cherry
Blossom Festivals, another legacy of Kenzo Fujimori.
But the two main church organizations served as the focal points of the
J/A population, and since we didn't mix and mingle with the community,
and therefore never got the opportunity to know such important and fine
people like Mr. Fujimori. Maybe my folks knew him, but I never got the
Mr. Fujimori served as the financial officer for the Tri-State Buddhist
Church Apartments and Sakura Square Management Corporation for 18 years,
and was instrumental in the growth and success of the Sakura Square that
we enjoy today.
He and his family retired to California a few years ago, and he passed
away May 8 after being diagnosed with cancer just a few months earlier.
Everyone who attended this sweet, solemn service truly came to pay their
respects -- for they respected this man and his accomplishments and dedication
to the community.
After the tributes, Reverend Okamoto's Dharma Talk homily reminded me
of the wisdom that Buddhism expresses in ways that makes sense to me,
a non-religious person. The first time I realized this was at my father's
funeral service. He, like Mr. Fujimori, had gone suddenly just months
after being diagnosed with cancer, and I remember how Rev. Okamoto's words
about the transience of physical life resonated with me then.
My family's about to mark the sixth year of my Dad's death next week,
with a memorial service at the Temple. I'll feel more religious during
the ceremony, like I always do. But I'll also feel something more when
I'm there -- I'll feel the strength and spirit of the entire Japanese
community, and feel more than ever like I'm part of it.
The Japanese are crazy about anything Western, especially anything American,
right? It's true in many ways and on many levels, but one of my passions
as a pop-culture critic has been to note how Americans are crazy about
Japanese culture too.
"Godzilla," or as they pronounce it across the Pacific, "Gojira,"
is just the latest in a long line of Japanese imports that also includes
Power Rangers, Nintendo, Speed Racer, the Walkman (yes, I count technology
as a form of pop culture) and countless other toys and products such as
cameras, stereos and other electronic appliances, and of course, some
of the best-known and best-selling cars in the U.S. -- Honda, Toyota and
But there've been relatively few pop musical imports from Japan. Mostly,
that's because of the language barrier -- only a handful of foreign songs
from any country have made the U.S. hit charts over the years. In the
case of one modern band, the dance-pop group Pizzicato 5, a Japanese hit
song several years ago was re-recorded in English for its American release.
There was one big hit that made it in the U.S. in its original Japanese
version, however -- even though it had to be given a bizarre and pointless
title before Americans could even hear it.
Kyu Sakamoto hit number-one on the U.S. charts on June 15, 1963, with
"Sukiyaki," replacing Leslie Gore's "It's My Party"
at the top.
Sakamoto, born in Kawasaki, started playing clubs while still in high
school. He was signed as a "boy-next-door" type of star by a
talent company in 1959, and recorded for Toshiba Records. By the time
"Sukiyaki" was released in the U.S., he had 15 best-selling
singles and eight albums in Japan, and had appeared in 10 movies. He was
Here's the story of how the song was called "Sukiyaki" in the
The song was actually called "Ue O Muite Aruko," and it was
a big hit in Japan upon its release. I remember hearing it in the car
whenever my parents took us on drives around Tokyo. It's a sad love song
where the singer's tears spill down as he walks with his face skyward.
Louis Benjamin, the head of Britain's Pye Records (the label that would
a few years later be the first to record The Who), was visiting Japan
on business in 1962, and brought the song back for jazzman Kenny Ball
For the simple -- but condescending -- reason that British radio DJs might
find the Japanese title hard to pronounce, the song was renamed "Sukiyaki,"
one of the few Japanese words most Westerners were already familiar with.
Unfortunately it didn't have anything to do with the original title or
the sad story in the song, but perhaps that wasn't taken into consideration
because it was intended to be recorded as a jazz instrumental. I always
thought it would have been better to name it "Sayonara," one
of the other easily-recognized Japanese words of the day. Newsweek magazine
commented at the time, "It is like releasing 'Moon River' in Japan
with the title 'Beef Stew.'"
Ball's instrumental "Sukiyaki" went to number 10 in England
in January 1963. Meanwhile in America, a DJ for station KORD in Pasco,
Washington, got a hold of Sakamoto's original and found listeners liked
the song. The regional airplay caught the attention of Capitol Records,
which re-released it with the British title, again for the convenience
of radio DJs and listeners who might buy the record. It was the first
song sung in a foreign language to top the Top 100.
Country singer Clyde Beavers later recorded an English version, but his
recording wasn't successful. A new generation of U.S. pop music fans know
the song best from A Taste of Honey's 1981 release, which reached #3 on
the charts with its silky, soulful translation.
Sakamoto died in a plane crash in the 1980s, but most Americans wouldn't
know his name even if they do remember the melody.
Maybe Louis Benjamin did Ryu Sakamoto a favor by changing the name of
the song to "Sukiyaki." It's possible that even though it's
a great song, Westerners wouldn't have given it a chance if they had to
stumble through its real title. But it still bothered me -- when we moved
to the States and I found out for the first time that the song I knew
from Japan was called "Sukiyaki," I was puzzled because I never
heard that word anywhere in the lyrics.
It was only much later that I learned to accept that many things that
don't make sense are done in the pursuit of profit.
(This column was originally a part of a lecture given at the offices of
the Japan National Tourism Organization in Tokyo in 1994.)
I have this image of karaoke: drunken people (mostly businessmen) who
need the alcohol to steel their nerves, climbing on a stage and "singing"
along with pre-recorded backing tracks, usually painfully off-key.
But that's not the reality of all karaoke, especially in Japan, where
the entertainment form has become part of everyday life not just in public
places such as bars, but also at home, schools, and private "boxes"
that are like little recording studios.
It seems unexpected that such a public form of expression would be so
popular in a reserved culture as Japan. But according to the terrific
and fun book, "The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" (Weatherhill
Inc., 1997), there's a long history of uninhibited amateur singing in
Japan -- from a long-running popular TV show to family gatherings where
a little bit of alcohol goes a long way towards juicing up the vocal cords.
And in all these cases, the emphasis isn't on sounding like the professional
singers or just like the recorded hit version, but instead on trying as
best as you can and to improve with each attempt.
It's not about making a fool of yourself, but about supporting your fellow
"singers" in their efforts and making them feel good about their
That attitude was certainly what I saw at a recent meeting -- a rehearsal,
really, for an October 3 recital -- of the Denver Karaoke Club, one of
the organizations sponsored by the Tri-State Buddhist Temple.
The evening consisted of a group of about a dozen people (mostly older
and mostly Issei) who brought their backing tapes and signed up to sing
three songs each in three different rounds. The point was to show how
much they've worked on their singing since the last meeting, and to try
new songs out on a sympathetic audience of peers. The spirit of support
included applauding at every break in the songs, and helping faltering
singers by singing along loudly enough to guide them through a difficult
Each singer was announced when they approached the microphone and thanked
when their song ended, and the atmosphere was neighborly in a very refreshing
way. At the start, one woman was good-naturedly told "No excuses"
when she balked at being the first one up (it turned out she wasn't),
but later someone called out "gambatte" ("try hard")
when she got up for her turn.
Some of the singers sounded professional, including the current leaders
of the club, Mariko and Eichi Tsukiji.
Both are well-versed in that particular type of voice required for Japanese
songs: a clear, pinched nasal tone, a controlled quaver at the end of
phrases, and the ability swoop from very low notes to very high ones like
a crane taking flight. It's a type of singing, and a type of music, that
I've heard all my life from my parents' record collection, so it's comforting
and familiar to me.
Mariko-san in particular was the most commanding of all the singers there
-- I could easily imagine her on stage in Japan, dressed in a beautiful
kimono and entertaining royalty.
In between songs, I was urged several times to sing, and I declined. The
only songs I remember in Japanese (and then only snatches) are children's
songs, but they told me next time they could arrange to have tapes of
those songs if I'd like. They also accept songs in English and even more
contemporary rock songs -- they'd like younger people to join the club.
But somehow, the spirit of the music would be different if songs in English
and rock music were belted out. The only English I saw was the lyric sheet
of Richard Yoshida, a former president of the club, who can read Japanese
but prefers to write out the songs phonetically in "Romaji"
so he could keep his place while singing.
This group spoke mostly Nihongo in their conversation, and it felt like
a calm and comfortable oasis of Japaneseness that was sheltered from the
storms of American pop culture. Even the choice of music seemed timeless.
I liked it this way.
I may never get up enough nerve to sing a Japanese song with them, but
I bet I'd enjoy their October recital. See you there.
The club meets for weekly classes and also regular performances in the
basement of the Buddhist Temple; you can call Mr. and Mrs. Tsukiji at
988-8466 for more information.
Like a zillion other people across the country, I tuned in to the final
episode of "Seinfeld," and I gotta say, I was only mildly impressed.
Oh, I liked the show whenever I caught it, but I was a casual viewer,
so the nasty humor that the characters reveled in didn't connect with
me the way they may have for diehard fans.
What the show did, especially with its segments making fun of foreigners,
was get me thinking about Asian faces on TV. As a Japanese-American kid
enchanted by American popular culture of the 1960s, it never occurred
to me growing up that there were very few people like me on the shows
I watched for hours on end.
The first Asian face I can remember on TV was the camp cook on "Bonanza,"
Hop Sing, played by Victor Sen Yung. The show premiered in 1959 but lasted
into the '70s, and I remember being fascinated by Hop Sing's pigtail,
but I didn't identify with him because he was Chinese, and I knew the
distinction even if many of my friends didn't. Still, I often played Hop
Sing when we played cowboys and Indians.
Other Asians on TV did include Japanese -- Fuji, the POW on "McHale's
Navy" played by Yoshio Yoda, was in retrospect an obnoxious stereotype
of the easygoing, accommodating Japanese (the "good" American
stereotype -- the other was of course the "inscrutable" and
"sneaky" Jap that bombed Pearl Harbor). Yet, as a kid, I accepted
"Fuj," as he was called by the PT-boat cutups in the cast which
included Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway, and even went around happily
being called "Fuj" through high school by some of my buddies.
About the same time, for just a couple of seasons, the first strong Asian
character appeared on TV, but not on a sitcom. "The Green Hornet"
injected a lot of humor into the superhero genre, but it was essentially
a drama, and Bruce Lee, the young martial arts champion hired to play
the part of the limo driver/sidekick Kato, was a great role model in many
ways. I'm sure he got many kids -- of all races -- first interested in
martial arts. I admit I went around painfully chopping my hand down on
everything in sight for a while. But Kato was never allowed to stretch
as a character, or even talk much like Robin in the "Batman"
series. He was fated to always be subservient to his boss, the Green Hornet.
The '60s gave us one more Japanese character -- and a good one -- in navigator
Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek," played by George Takei, who's very
active today in Japanese-American issues. The entire cast of the show
was pretty progressively integrated (having a black woman playing the
communications officer Uhuru in the late '60s was a strong statement on
a couple of levels), so Takei's role was no coincidence.
The '70s resurrected the good-natured Japanese fellow in the form of Arnold,
the diner owner from "Happy Days," played by character actor
Pat Morita. I rather preferred Morita's corny but at least more significant
role as the mysterious martial arts master in "The Karate Kid"
movies. The decade also resurrected the reliable Asian sidekick, in Robert
Ito's easygoing assistant Sam Fujiyama to Jack Klugman's over-dramatic
L.A. coroner in "Quincy."
In recent years, when Asians should have become more common on TV, they've
become less so.
The most recent attempt at incorporating an Asian character that I can
think was "All American Girl" starring standup comic Margaret
Cho as an abrasive Korean-American woman written too obviously in the
mold of "Roseanne." But since the entire show was about her
and her family (instead of Cho being a character in a show along with
a mostly Caucasian cast), I don't think mainstream American viewers identified
with the series. It didn't last.
Though I didn't like the show, I recognized people I know from my upbringing,
including certain family members.
The next step must be to come up with strong Asian characters whose roles
ring true to the Asian-American experience, and include them as equal
characters in mainstream TV shows. A TV critic brought up the lack of
ethnic faces in the core group of Seinfeld's New York pals as if to criticize
Jerry Seinfeld for not being diverse enough. But that's not the point
-- and Seinfeld has a right to pick on minorities for humor if people
think that's funny.
The point is to come up with the NEXT Seinfeld and make sure there's someone
like me in the cast. In fact, I'm available. Just e-mail me!
When members of the Mexican-American community announced recently that
they were offended by the Taco Bell commercials featuring a talking Chihuahua
speaking the slogan, "Yo qiero Taco Bell," or "I want some
Taco Bell," I was a little surprised.
I admit that liked the commercials, and felt guilty that I took pleasure
from a visual joke that some Mexican-Americans found offensive. But the
local media followed up on the story by interviewing other Mexican-Americans
who didn't seem to mind the commercials.
I started mulling over what exactly constitutes offensive racist imagery
-- for Asians as well as other ethnic groups. Is the adaptation of a familiar
visual hook racist? Is the choice of a Chihuahua, a dog that's native
to Mexico, in a commercial for a Mexican fast-food chain a racist comment
in itself? (We can argue the relative merits of the food some other time.)
Would German-Americans howl about a commercial for a brand of bratwurst
that uses German Shepherds, or French-Americans pooh-pooh a poodle being
used in commercials for something associated with French culture?
I haven't come to a conclusion myself, and I'm not going to try and figure
it out here. But I know one thing: The Chihuahua is a funny-looking dog.
Racism is an ugly thing -- let me state that right from the start. And
I certainly have felt the flushed heat that comes from the sting of a
racist comment aimed at my skin.
I can remember many instances since my childhood, when other kids made
fun of me on the school playground as a "Jap" or a "Chinaman."
All my life I've suffered the laughing taunts of fellow Americans who
didn't know better, mangling Japanese words and phrases such as "ah-so"
and "hara-kiri" or even worse, making that hideous phony-language
sing-song sound that they think is similar to Japanese or Chinese.
As an adult, I've endured usually less direct but sometimes more cutting
instances of racism, like having a diner full of Texas ranchers staring
at me and my (Caucasian) friends while we tried to eat breakfast in peace,
or fresh-faced "wholesome" folks in places like Salt Lake City,
openly gawking at me in a shopping mall.
Several years ago, when I was at a music industry conference as a panel
moderator, and had just had a pretty successful session, I was brought
immediately to Earth when a tall man in a cowboy hat and I did that silly
thing people sometimes do in hallways. We both moved first one way and
then the other, trying to make room for the other to pass. I smiled sheepishly
and mumbled an "excuse me" with a chuckle, but his reply wiped
the smile off my face. "In this country, we pass on the left,"
he snarled, and pushed his way past. I stood there with my mouth open,
caught so off-guard that I forgot to get mad.
What, you've never seen an Asian face before??? I want to shout at these
I once explained to my best friend that since he's not a minority either
racially, spiritually or socially, he probably can never really feel the
hurt that I or anyone who is a woman, African-American, Jewish or yes,
Hispanic can feel at symbols, language, even the subtlest of racist cultural
signals that the sloppy melting pot of American stirs up. He can be sympathetic,
and try to understand and empathize, but he never has been treated with
derision merely for WHO HE IS, and he can never really know what it's
Given the relative perspectives that proscribe what offends each of us,
I accept others' comfort level on racist imagery. If something is offensive
to someone, so be it. It's not my place to question it, even if I may
not feel as strongly. These decisions are personal ones.
So the Taco Bell commercial has had me thinking about personal limits.
And it reminded me of something that bugged me a couple of months ago
-- an ad in one of our daily newspapers for a strip joint holding "sumo
wrestling" nights featuring women bouncing against each other wearing
monstrous-looking "sumo" costumes which look like they blow
up like the Michelin Man. I'm not sure where the sex part comes in, but
since it's at a strip joint, I assume at one point the blow-up sumo costumes
come off for more intimate competition.
I was all set to bring this silly notion of entertainment up with the
Japanese American Citizens League as a racist affront to the Japanese
community, but I didn't. I may still bring it up, but I realized one pretty
important fact: Sumo wrestlers look funny.
Perhaps it's natural for someone who's not Japanese and doesn't understand
sumo to take the appearance and use it out of context as "entertainment."
Is that racism? Or is it just bad taste?
Like many clichés, "you are what you eat" has an element of
truth at its core.
As a third-generation Japanese-American, I was raised on a combination
of cuisines, and it reflected my bi-cultural roots.
I remember eating plenty of "American" food as a kid -- steaks,
burgers and spaghetti with Jell-O and ice cream for dessert. But those
dinners usually had a Japanese twist. We always had rice with our meals
instead of bread or potatoes (except for the spaghetti, of course, which
didn't need rice). And we would often have little servings of Japanese
side-dishes -- tsukemono -- with our meals.
Even if we had something familiar to Americans like spinach, we didn't
eat it like my friends, boiled to a drab olive mush. We had it Japanese-style,
boiled but served cold with shaved dry fish and slathered with soy sauce.
For Thanksgiving we always had turkey -- with some norimaki sushi on the
side. And our weekly steak dinners were cooked with garlic, soy sauce
and butter, never plain the way Americans have steak. (No wonder why Americans
rely so much on bottled sauces like A-1 to add much-needed flavor to the
And since my Mom would often sit down to a traditional meal after serving
the rest of us, the smell of grilled salmon mingled in the kitchen air
with the aroma of our American dishes.
It never occurred to me that our family dinners might be unconventional.
I was used to the international variety of cuisine, a mix-and-match mentality
that has stuck with me in everything from fashion and design to pop culture
and of course, food.
Yet, I know some Japanese Americans who consciously avoid anything overtly
Japanese, including food. I have a sansei friend in Texas who until a
few years ago had never even had one piece of sushi, and would sooner
go to a Mexican or Italian restaurant than a Japanese joint for a meal
These days in Denver, it's harder and harder to avoid at least trying
some Japanese cuisine. There are Japanese restaurants seemingly sprouting
like shiitake mushrooms, touting tempura, teriyaki, noodles and other
healthy, fast and tasty fare, and not just sushi (let's face it, Japanese
cuisine isn't only sushi any more than Italian cuisine is just pasta).
When my family first moved to Denver, there were only a few Japanese restaurants:
The venerable Mori, the showcase Fuji En (now a swank upscale eatery called
Dazzle) and the establishments that have been based in Sakura Square over
the years. There were the "teppan-yaki" steakhouses like Benihana
too, but even as a kid I thought those places were more about atmosphere
and showbiz than about Japanese food.
Now, smaller Japanese restaurants are squeezed into strip malls all over
town, and though I can't vouch for the quality of all of them (some definitely
don't seem "authentic," whatever "authentic" means),
I hope to visit as many as I can.
I figure this is a good development, because anything that spreads Japanese
culture to Americans helps break down racial and cultural barriers. And
having all these restaurants to choose from keeps me fat and happy with
the flavors of my childhood. Even as an adult, I love my burgers, steaks
and spaghetti, but I still mix-and-match my food.
To help my continuing search for my Japanese "roots," I got
a bonsai tree, even though I don't consider myself much of a gardener.
The only plant I've managed to keep alive for a long time is an indestructible
jade I've had since college, which seems to survive whether I don't water
it for weeks at a time, or drown it in a flood of water at once.
I was nervous about getting a bonsai because I've always assumed the care
and feeding of one of these tiny artistically groomed trees was a chore.
But after reading up a bit (I got a book to go along with the tree), I
felt better - they're just little trees, and need some attention, but
they're not particularly difficult to maintain.
I've always felt ambivalent about the Japanese image as great gardeners
-- I've made jokes about how good "we" are at taking care of
lawns and plants, even though I've personally killed off more plants than
I care to admit. I know that even seemingly benign racial stereotypes
can open the door for uglier forms of discrimination. But like many stereotypes,
there seems to be a kernel of truth to the image of the Japanese gardener
-- because Japan was mostly an agrarian country well into this century,
and only since World War II has become an industrial and technological
powerhouse, and because of its spiritual roots in the respect for nature.
There is much historical record about Issei and Nisei who settled in various
parts of the American West and turned arid, inhospitable land into green,
fertile truck farms through smart irrigation, planting techniques, hard
work and diligence. Many lost the fruits of their labor to the horrors
of internment during World War II, but this legacy lives on in Colorado's
many successful Japanese American agricultural enterprises, such as Sakata
Farms in Brighton.
When we moved to the United States in 1966, my parents made friends with
a Japanese man in Virginia who was a gardener. My Dad helped him learn
English and study for his citizenship test, and we stayed in touch over
the years. When we moved to Colorado in 1972, it turned out this man had
a thriving nursery business here, so we had him landscape our home in
Lakewood. Although I knew his name, as kids my brothers and I always just
called him "Mr. Niiwa," or "Mr. Gardener," and it
was simply natural for us to look to his Japanese heritage as the reason
for his success. (As a postscript, Paul Yokomizo has since gone on from
the nursery business to run a number of successful Japanese restaurants
throughout Colorado, and I wish him well.)
My Dad was also always meticulous about grooming our lawn every summer,
and my Mom to this day has a very beautiful yard. I even take pride these
days in my weekly wrestling sessions with the cranky old lawn mower.
But I hated yard work for a long time. As kids, my brothers and I were
recruited as soldiers in my Dad's war against weeds, and I resented spending
my summer afternoons hunched over stubborn dandelions. And though my folks
always tended vegetable gardens, we never made much effort to grow flowers.
So I hope my bonsai thrives -- I won't judge my Japaneseness by its success
or failure, but it's too expensive for me to blow it. So I'll try to be
as Zen-like as possible with this plant, which I've chosen to call "Bonnie,"
and make it a piece of living artwork in our home.
"Cartoons can't hurt anyone," said a woman following a Nov.
13 lecture by Rocky Mountain News cartoonist Ed Stein, and said we should
remember the more horrible wartime acts of racism like the internment
of Japanese-Americans, not racist cartoon depictions of Japanese from
But just because they're "cartoons" doesn't mean these illustrations
were harmless. Stein pointed out that this type of imagery created the
environment that made possible the internment of Japanese-Americans with
nary a shrug of protest from most citizens.
The discussion, "Drawing on the Edge: The Art of Satirical Cartooning,"
was presented in conjunction with an exhibit that runs through Dec. 4,
"Arthur Szyk: The Man and his Art," at the Mizel Museum of Judaica.
The first images you see in the exhibition are some of Szyk's wartime
cover illustrations for magazines such as TIME and Collier's, which depict
the Japanese as clearly more animalistic and demonized than the German
and Italian axis forces. This type of imagery wasn't isolated to Szyk,
an immigrant who was passionately patriotic for his adopted country; "Jap"
soldiers were commonly represented as vicious, mindless apes or monsters,
a reflection of 1940s America's Euro-centric racial bias. And across the
Pacific, Japanese media portrayed U.S. soldiers in equally harsh, racist
Szyk was frankly an amazingly talented artist, and these works are amongst
not just political illustrations, but also intricate hand-calligraphed
illuminations, gouache paintings and pencil drawings. Even with the racist
art, it's a show worth seeing. The Mizel Museum, a multi-cultural resource
and a cornerstone for Denver's vibrant Jewish community, promptly added
wrote explanatory text that places these vicious renderings in their historical
place and time when the Japanese American Citizen's League pointed out
the lack of context.
Everyone of all races should go to admire Szyk's enormous talent. But
when you gaze upon the grotesque caricatures and stereotypes of the Japanese,
remember that words -- and pictures -- can indeed cause as much pain as
sticks and stones.
I got a haircut recently at Nonaka's barbershop, the newest addition to
Sakura Square. Its bright and spacious location may be brand-new, but
my memory of Nonaka's goes back 26 years, when my family moved to Denver
from Washington DC.
Nonaka's is where I got my hair cut when I was in high school in the early
'70s. My whole family made a ritual of going on Saturdays and lining up
for Mas' effortlessly gliding clippers and scissors while my Mom got her
hair done by his wife Yasuko-san.
Over the years, as I drove by the old storefront location on 20th between
Larimer and Lawrence, I wondered how business was. The adult bookstore
two doors down had become the block's major tenant, and the Mandarin Cafe,
where our family ate often during our early Denver years, had long been
shuttered. The building itself was so hazardous its owners had to buttress
it last year, on the corner just a few feet from the Nonakas' door.
I needn't have worried for Masabi and Yasuko's business; even as their
building was crumbling, their business was thriving. Doing well enough,
in fact, that last fall they expanded and moved to their new location
across 20th Street, in the Sakura Square courtyard cluster that includes
Kobun-sha (the very nicely stocked bookstore), Yoko's Express (wonderfully
hearty homemade Japanese food) and the publishers of this newspaper, the
Rocky Mountain Jiho.
The location's ideal for the regular customers who live in Tamai Towers
at Sakura Square, says the affable, 63-year-old Mas -- they don't have
to cross the bustling divide of 20th Street anymore.
For Mas and Yas, this new address is a homecoming -- their family business
used to be in the block where Sakura Square now stands. They moved the
barbershop to its 20th Street location in 1971 to make way for Sakura
Square, which was built in 1972.
My family moved here that year, but Mas moved here much earlier than that
-- his mother brought the family to Denver in 1946, when they were released
from Camp Amache, the sole internment camp in Colorado during WWII. She
had learned to cut hair from her parents; Mas followed the tradition and
became the third generation barber.
Wow, I thought to myself. I came in to get a haircut and say "hi"
to Mas, whom I hadn't seen in years, and I found myself immersed in local
I felt a similar connection to history at the January 17 annual dinner
of the Japanese-American Citizen's League, where I was one of the new
board members installed for 1998. It felt right for me to be there, pledging
to work hard on behalf of this organization, which has since its inception
fought for civil rights for Americans of Japanese descent. I also felt
that I was finally paying back an obligation from my high school years.
I was one of the winners of a JACL scholarship when I graduated from Alameda
High School in Lakewood in 1975. I remember receiving my award and shaking
the hand of the presenter, Bill Hosokawa. He was a working newspaperman
at the time, not a retired one, and he had been named the honorary consul
general of Japan to Colorado. I was in awe of him, because I had just
read his book "Nisei," and he had awakened my interest in my
Despite that interest, it's taken me two decades to become actively involved
in organizations such as the JACL or the JASC (Japan-America Society of
Colorado). And people like Bill and other longtime Nikkei (Japanese-American
of any generation) leaders are still the role models.
The next generation of Nikkei leaders has a lot to live up to, to leave
a worthy history of our own. I'm going to start by getting my hair cut
by Mas again, and by listening closely to those who have come before me.
When I was a kid, I was so entranced with the 1972 Sapporo Olympic Winter
Games that I painted a picture of a Japanese ski jumper, hurtling through
the blur of the crisp sunlit air.
That was the year the Japanese team swept the small hill ski-jumping medals,
and though I'm a sansei, I still remember feeling a surge of what could
only be described as "nationalism" for the Japanese team.
That's what the Olympics do, after all -- pit nations against each other
on the playing field instead of the battlefield. And with the willing
media's help, most of each country's attention gets focused on its own
That happened this time with CBS' coverage of the Nagano Olympic Winter
Games, but not as much. Because the U.S. wasn't that dominant, the network
gave plenty of airtime to other countries competitors. And the purest
moments of Olympic ecstasy -- the U.S. Women's Hockey Team gold and the
gold-and-silver duo of figure skaters Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan
-- were accomplishments of international glory, not just ours.
network coverage was uneven, and although the network tried mightily to
balance live events with pre-taped ones, the thrill of uncertainty was
dulled since most of us knew the results of the important events before
tuning at primetime.
I watched anyway, and realized somewhere into the marathon viewing that
I was hooked not just for the sports, but also for the glimpses of Japan.
Japanese people, fashions, street scenes, culture -- all the goofy feature
stories served up by both CBS and KCNC, Denver's CBS affiliate, which
sent a team to Nagano. I saw several stories on the exotic fugu, the deadly
blowfish that's a delicacy in Japan, and other features that introduced
U.S. viewers to Japanese daily life, and some of the odder cross-cultural
currents across the Pacific: Here's how a Japanese family lives. Here's
a Japanese bluegrass band. Here's our reporter wearing a kimono. Here's
our reporter in an onsen, or hot springs. Here's our reporter eating a
variety of weird squishy food. Here's our reporter singing at a karaoke
bar. I could tell that Katie Kiefer, KCNC's reporter for the games, made
some lifelong friends in Nagano.
Many were well-done, and these stories were important, because they helped
familiarize Westerners to what could seem plain alien. Everything that
breaks down resistance to Japanese culture ultimately helps us -- the
Japanese and Japanese-Americans -- be more "American" and still
accept and celebrate our "roots."
Nationalism will always come into play, though.
I noticed after the Olympics were over, when I dug around my Mom's basement
and found my sixth-grade painting of the ski jumper, that although I clearly
painted the rising sun of Japan on his glove, I made his hair blond. I
guess even as a kid, I was juggling my two identities in my head.