CAN YOU HELP SPONSOR THE NIKKEI VIEW?
December 26, 1999
THOUGHTS ON JAPANESE FAST FOOD
fast food was only introduced in Japan during the past 30 years -- when
I lived there as a child, there were no McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC
to be found in the alleys and skyscrapers of Tokyo. Those bastions of
U.S. culture arrived in the late '60s and during the 1970s, and when
they did, they often adapted to Japanese tastes, by featuring custom
versions of the familiar Big Macs and Quarter Pounders we know and love.
In Japan, for example, you can order a Teriyaki McBurger with fries.
decidedly un-gourmet American cuisine has had some notable effects on
Japanese culture. Over the past several decades, not only has Christmas
become a very popular holiday in Japan, the "traditional"
Christmas day meal of choice has become... a bucket of KFC chicken.
According to a radio news report, no one quite knows how Colonel Saunders'
chicken won out over the typical U.S. feasts of turkey or ham, but the
management of KFC must be crowing over their good fortune. Can you imagine
a Norman Rockwell painting of an all-American family about to have their
holiday meal, gathered around a red-and-white-striped paper bucket?
an already rushed and increasingly faster-paced society, the idea of
"fast food" makes sense. In the past, food on the run came
from street vendors or noodle shops; but mostly, I don't think of Japanese
cuisine as being suited to quick cooking and serving.
the same time that American junkfood was invading Japan, some Japanese
food has made its way into the U.S. dining menu. In the 1970s, a "Japanese
fast food" chain called Yoshinoya's Beef Bowl first opened outlets
in the Denver area. The restaurants served donburi dishes -- meat and
vegetables with sauce over a bowl of rice -- quickly and inexpensively,
and did well for a few years. My younger brother Glenn even got a job
as assistant manager at the downtown location, and our family is still
friends with his boss from back then.
great memories of chowing down on beef bowls because they were so hearty
and in their own way, pretty authentically Japanese with their thick-sliced
marinated meat, onions and that sweet sauce, topped off with red pepper
and slivers of red ginger.
to admit, though, that there's one reason that American fast food such
as burgers and fries is better suited to the car culture that created
"fast food" in the first place: It's easier to eat while driving!
One night, I was so hungry on my way to visit a friend in Boulder that
I stopped at a Beef Bowl location and ate the damn thing while driving
on the highway using my knees to steer the car while I balanced the
bowl on the steering wheel and shoveled the rice into my mouth with
the chopsticks. A Quarter Pounder with cheese is just much easier to
handle on the road....
whatever reason, Yoshinoya's didn't last into the 1990s, at least in
Colorado, though I hear they still thrive on the West coast. There are
a couple of reminders of the chain here, though: The downtown location
where my brother worked is still a Japanese restaurant serving up a
variety of items including bowls. And the former Beef Bowl location
on S. Colorado Blvd. was immediately converted by a former Yoshinoya's
employee who settled in the Denver area, Mareo Torito, as Kokoro, with
the same type of men as the Beef Bowls.
the years, the hard-working Torito has expanded his restaurant's menu
to include other Nihon-shoku (Japanese food) such as tonkatsu, or fried
pork cutlets, curry dishes, a small selection of basic sushi and even
the somewhat exotic "korokke," or fried potato dumpling. Torito
has also expanded his business to include a second location in the northern
suburb of Arvada, in a nice bright building that used to house a Boston
Market franchise, and started advertising both restaurants with eye-catching
billboards scattered throughout the metro area.
newest menu item is tasty, hearty udon noodles, sold with the catchy
name of "Splash" for non-Japanese whose curiosity might be
sparked by the moniker. Despite its marketing spin, the dish is very
traditional: fish cake, fried tofu, seaweed, shiitake mushroom, boiled
egg and green onions swimming with thick udon noodles in a familiar
broth flavored with soy sauce and a touch of sesame seed oil. It's Japanese
comfort food that's perfect for cold weather!
to stop by the Arvada Kokoro location for a quick lunch on Christmas
eve, and I was pleased to see that even just before the holiday, the
restaurant was busy with diners. Interestingly, the customers were evenly
split between Asian and Caucasian faces -- Torito's recipe for success
obviously has cross-cultural appeal. Across from me sat a "Leave
It to Beaver" family with a young girl, a teenaged boy wearing
his baseball cap backwards, and mom and dad looking like something out
of a contemporary Norman Rockwell magazine cover, and they didn't seem
out of place at all, having a beef bowl for one of their holiday meals.
is the power of food to cross cultural borders -- even ones that span
vast distances. And, such is the appeal of fast food -- even if it's
not a burger with fries.
I was eating (I ordered the tonkatsu, a personal favorite, with a korokke
dumpling), Torito came over and asked me about my cap. I was wearing
a baseball cap with a Kanji character on the front, with the definition
of "Heart, Spirit and Mind" on the back. Torito was excited
by the cap because the Kanji was the character for the word "kokoro,"
that the cap came from a store in a local mall, but that the manufacturer
was based in Boulder, and called Kanji Kaps. I felt embarrassed to admit
that I wore the cap because I thought it was a cool looking Kanji but
that I didn't know it was the character for "kokoro." At times
like this, I feel more American than Japanese.
the Christmas weekend, I thought some more about how I mix many traditions
into my everyday experiences, including the celebrations of holidays.
For instance, Christmas dinner with Glenn and his wife Michelle and
their beautiful young daughters and the rest of my family featured traditional
Italian food, but after dinner we had traditional Japanese snacks such
as osembe (rice crackers) and yokan (sweet bean paste) alongside the
fudge and other European desserts.
have a single bite of KFC chicken all weekend though.
The addresses for the Kokoro locations are 2390 S. Colorado Blvd. in
Denver (303-692-8752) and 5535 Wadsworth Bypass in Arvada (303-432-0600).
December 20, 1999
CRAZY OVER TAIKO
to traditional Japanese music from many types of instruments, from the
pretty harp-like scales of the koto and the zen breeze of the shakuhachi
flute to the eerily banjo-like shamisen, all used along with many percussion
instruments to accompany kabuki and noh theater, and even in Imperial
"gagaku" music. But I'll readily admit that much of the traditional
music of Japan probably is too foreign to American ears to make much
of a commercial impact in the U.S. -- the ancient gagaku style in particular
can sound like avant-garde noise. Westerners will recognize both the
melody of "Sakura" ("Cherry Blossoms") and the koto
that most often plays the tune, but they may not develop a taste for
other Japanese musical fare.
type of traditional music from Japan has made tremendous inroads into
the American consciousness, however: Taiko drumming.
word "taiko" means drum, but it's been applied to the many
styles of music played on many types of drums, from small, bell-like
ones to the gigantic "odaiko" drums which are played by sticks
("bachi") the size of baseball bats. Taiko music is of course
percussive -- historically, it was used to both frighten the enemy during
samurai battles and to summon the spirit of the gods upon with the thunderous
call. Ancient cultures around the world seized upon drumming as early
forms of music, and used the powerful rhythms for rituals and battles.
Japanese were no exception, and clay figures still exist from the Haniwa
period (about the year 500 of the Common Era) with drums. Taiko drums,
which were designed after instruments probably brought to Japan starting
in 300 from Korea and China have also been used in religious ceremonies
through the centuries.
of this music was played by one drummer playing one instrument, however.
The sound that we associate today with the exploding popularity of taiko
-- the ensemble rumble of a group of musicians playing complex rhythmic
arrangements on different types of drums with the texture of the different
tones weaving together for an almost hypnotic effect -- is actually
a post-WWII phenomenon. The modern taiko style, or "kumi-daiko,"
was invented by Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer who took a classical
taiko arrangement and decided to add extra drums to suit his jazz group
style stuck, and today there are an estimated 4000+ taiko groups beating
a powerful pulse in Japan, with a complement of groups formed in the
U.S. as well.
all my appreciation for various traditional Japanese music, I didn't
hear taiko when I was a kid in Japan In fact, I can't tell you where
I first heard taiko, except that it was sometime after I became fascinated
by the drumming and intricate rhythms of African and Latin American
musical styles. In the context of "world music," taiko fits
right in, which is in large part why the style has caught on with Westerners.
Such high profile musicians as Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful
Dead and a scholar of world percussion, have helped raise awareness
first taiko group I saw live was Kodo, a remarkable group that tours
the U.S. regularly. I had the great fortune to interview a member of
the group a few years ago when they made several stops in Colorado.
The group's members commit themselves to taiko as if it were a religious
cult. They live on an island off the west coast of Japan and live, work
and play music in a communal environment. They run miles each day and
make physical fitness a part of their musical regimen, make their own
drums, practice constantly and leave the island to spread the gospel
of taiko to the world. They've become the best-known proponents of taiko
music, and if they ever come to your town, I recommend not missing them.
(Denverites will have to wait until February of 2001 for Kodo's return.)
Kodo - or any taiko group - is a breathtaking experience, because the
musicians don't just beat on drums for an hour and a half. I can only
describe the performances as ballet-like because of the physical grace
and endurance required to play the drums and also execute the often
very complex and intricate choreography that accompanies the drumming.
Some of the moves are simple, such as slowly raising your arms in time
to the rhythm like a sunrise and then bringing them crashing down for
a very loud crash, but the ensemble motion can become dizzying when
the players begin pounding two or more drums at once, and then switch
off positions with each other or spin to the next drum in a kinetic
pantomime that visually echoes the polyrhythmic aural celebration.
an exciting and visceral type of music, so it's no wonder it's popular
wit American fans (if you like rock music, it's hard not to like taiko).
week I got to see the fruits of Japanese Americans who love taiko music,
and saw the young students of Denver Taiko, an organization based out
of the Denver Buddhist Temple, perform a demonstration for its various
levels of groups from beginners to advanced drummers. Taiko's become
popular enough that a couple of dozen kids now play in Denver Taiko,
and there's also an adult group (which didn't play at this brief holiday
concert, which was followed by a casual party for kids and parents).
It was nice to hear the work of such dedicated students, and to see
that taiko has become another way for the Japanese American community
to explore its cultural roots.
music was introduced to California JA communities in the late 1960s,
when the first U.S. taiko group was formed in San Francisco. Denver's
group was originally formed in 1979, and the 20 years of performing
and keeping alive the community spirit through the drumming has made
Denver Taiko a vital institution.
I'm a dedicated amateur drummer who constantly beats my dashboard along
to music while driving ... I wonder if I'd make the grade if I try out
for Denver Taiko?
can learn more about taiko drumming at an excellent Web site, The Taiko Resource.
December 13, 1999
HARBOR, HIROSHIMA AND THE HATRED OF WAR
father's family lived in Honolulu in the years leading up to World War
II, but my grandfather took them to Japan in the summer of 1940. I don't
know if my grandfather knew that war was coming in the form of the attack
on the Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, but he surely was
aware of the building tension between Japan and the U.S.
my dad and his brothers and sisters weren't directly affected by the
attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7 has never been a big date in my family's
calendar. Growing up, I felt neither patriotism over the deaths of U.S.
military personnel, nor embarrassment that the country of my heritage
was responsible. As an adult, however, I find myself thinking a lot
more about responsibility and consequences of brutal acts of war, not
just over Pearl Harbor but also other horrors committed in the heat
week, I dwelled on these thoughts more than usual because of the anniversary
of the Pearl Harbor attack. But my musing was also sparked by a message
posted to a Japanese American e-mail discussion group I belong to, called
"Ties-Talk." The members of the group can openly and freely
about issues affecting the Japanese American (and Canadian and Latin
American) experience, and last week a flurry of e-mails were sent out
in reply to one from Alisa Sanada, a 17-year-old young woman in Dallas
who maintains the excellent "RealJapan" Web site.
was upset by a posting to her message boards, from a publisher promoting
a new book by two Marines, General Raymond Davis and Georgia state Judge
Dan Winn. Usually, having someone hype a book in our message boards
is a minor irritation, but this message was disturbing, considering
it was placed on a site celebrating Japan and Japanese American culture.
book being promoted, "Clear Conscience," tries to justify
the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki simply by considering it payback
for the "rape, torture, killing contests, cannibalism, and the
unrelenting murder of 30,000,000 civilian men, women, and children by
the JAPANESE" during and in the years leading up to the war. This
includes the rape of Nanking, and the brutal treatment of prisoners
of war during the war. There's no doubt that the Japanese committed
atrocities, and were particularly brutal with prisoners (even after
Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender over the radio, some officers
took American POWs out of prison and murdered them with their samurai
to justify the mass killings of a city full of civilians with one bomb
as revenge for atrocities seems so primitive and simple-minded that
it's ludicrous. It reflects a fundamental level of hatred that obviously
hasn't diminished over the years with this book's co-authors. "Clear
Conscience" is a sad commentary on how the flames of hate won't
die if you let them flicker in your heart.
message to Ties-Talk ignited a vibrant discourse on the bomb and about
Pearl Harbor (I've often heard how the A-bomb was appropriate because
Japan started the war). Alisa later wrote how she didn't mean to cover
old ground with her message, but most of us replied that it's healthy
to bring up these topics so that younger people can know what happened
five decades ago, and how the side effects of those nuclear explosions
still reverberate through our culture. One member wrote that "What
Japan did during the War was wrong. And what the US did by dropping
the bomb was wrong. It was just one horrible time when many innocent
people were killed. Two wrongs don't make a right."
a note reminding the Ties-Talkers that in one night using conventional
bombs to spark city-wide fires, a large portion of Tokyo was flattened
and 70,000+ people were killed -- a comparable number of victims to
the Hiroshima blast. This attack came on the night of March 10, 1945
-- months before the A-bomb was used -- and it was part of a systematic
plan by the U.S. to destroy both Japan' ability to wage war and her
people's will to fight. Did that night of bombing, during which thousands
of people died not from the bombs themselves but from the fires and
worse, from suffocation because the flames sucked all the oxygen out
of the air, and the bombings of almost every major city in Japan make
up for atrocities committed by the country's military?
I asked about atrocities committed in the name of war in general, starting
with the brutality of the "Holy Wars" waged in the name of
religion during the Crusades (not to mention atrocities committed through
the ages in the name of many religions). I asked about the murder of
the Jews by the Nazis, and whether Germany should have been blasted
into oblivion to repay that human debt, or over the indiscriminate rocket
bombings of London. The Allies did in fact bomb the city of Dresden
into ashes towards the end of the war in Europe.
the end, it seems to me that as civilized beings who have to share the
precious Earth as our home, we need to stop trying to place blame or
exact revenge on each other for the past, and plan a future together
that's as free from hate as possible. I'm not naive enough to think
that all Jews and Arabs will suddenly embrace each other, or that Hutus
and Tutsis will live in harmony, or that Serbs and Croats can settle
their racial differences, or that skinheads will see that minorities
are just like them. Nor do I think that the two poor misguided fools
who wrote this "Clear Conscience" will realize how backwards
hope that more people in the world think like me, and not like them.
can read some archived threads and learn how to sign up for the "Ties-Talk"
e-mail discussion group, or check out Alisa Sanada's "RealJapan" Web site.
December 6, 1999
CULTURE WHERE YOU DON'T EXPECT IT
it great when being wrong can lead to enlightenment?
what happened to me this weekend. During a brief trip to San Diego,
California, I was hoping to find a thriving Asian community and many
Japanese Americans -- after all, isn't California the promised land
for people from the Pacific Rim?
imagine my surprise when I found no sign of an Asian community except
for the occasional Japanese, Chinese or Thai restaurant, and no signs
of a district like San Francisco's Japan Town, Los Angeles' Little Tokyo,
or even Denver's one-block Sakura Square. I didn't even see many Asians
out and about throughout the city. When I played the "Japanese
tourist" and took a guided tour that included Coronado Island,
Balboa Park, the Gaslamp District and La Jolla, I was further surprised
to find no other Asian visitors -- at least, not on my bus. I asked
several tour guides if there were areas of the city that are predominantly
Asian, whether Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or whatever. One
driver told me there's a Filipino area, but that otherwise Asians are
I had given up my search for Japanese American connections in San Diego
by the time I returned to further explore the many museums contained
within the beautifully landscaped boundaries of Balboa Park. After spending
time wandering through the park's 1200 acres -- its museums were built
for a world exposition in 1915, and the temporary buildings have since
become a cultural landmark for the city -- I ended the day at the park's
Japanese Friendship Garden. It had already closed its gates but the
attendant just inside was kind enough to let me pay my $3 and enter
anyway. The garden included carefully tended plants, precisely placed
rocks and even a Zen rock garden.
the Zen garden from a small meditation room with a picture window that
looked out over its raked white rocks, broken by boulders representing
islands in Japan's inland sea, as well as a steep valley just below
the terraced garden and the dramatic foliage of the rest of Balboa Park
there a long time, just enjoying the view but knowing that the park
was closing outside. The tatami-covered benches were comfortable and
the exquisitely simple design of the Zen garden really helped my mind
wander. A tiny bird that looked like it could have leapt right out of
a sumi-e brush painting alighted on the outside of the window and sat
perfectly still for minutes, almost as if it too was meditating. Finally
an elderly man came into the room to shoo me out, or so I thought.
he was a volunteer whose job was to close down the Japanese Friendship
Garden every night. He began to explain the display of origami near
the entrance to the room, and I groaned in anticipation of a pseudo-lecture
I didn't need and wasn't that interested in: "Did you know that
you could create all these things with one little square of paper?"
for some reason, he sensed the origami talk was unnecessary and instead
turned his conversation to the Zen garden. He mentioned that the garden
and the room were for meditating (oh, really?) and said I was supposed
to meditate until I had a satori. Now, this was educational, since I'm
a spiritual simpleton. He explained that a satori was a state of enlightenment
that could be a flash of understanding or inspiration: an epiphany.
People can have daily little satoris, like when you find the car keys
that you misplaced, or major satoris, ones that can change the course
of your life.
was getting interesting.
added that the Japanese gardens at Balboa Park will be expanding into
the steep valley below us, and that the current gardens will become
a walkway leading down to the expanded gardens. He joked about this
not being completed within his lifetime, and when I said I didn't live
in the city, asked where I was from. When I said Colorado, he mentioned
he'd just been in Durango for a book signing.
man was revealing more and more interesting details about himself all
the time. Little by little, I learned more about this amiable and very
knowledgeable garden expert.
name is Lennox Tierney ("Like the actress Gene," I said, knowing
that she was a star of his generation, and he smiled in agreement),
and his book is "Wabi Sabi: A New Look at Japanese Design"
(Gibbs Smith, 1999). Tierney, who is a spry 87 years old, is the art
director of the Japanese Friendship Garden. He spends one week a month
in San Diego tending to the garden's upkeep and future plans, and lives
the rest of the time in Salt Lake City, were he's professor emeritus
of the History of Asian Arts at the University of Utah (he earned a
doctorate studying Japanese gardens from Sogetsu Ryu in Tokyo). He's
also a consultant to the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park, and the current
curator of Japanese Art for the Utah State Museum of Art -- all heavy
duty credentials indeed.
a sentence, he's a world-renowned expert. A garden he designed for the
posh and exclusive Golden Door spa north of San Diego almost 30 years
ago is so respected that Japanese officials regularly make their way
to the spa to admire his work (what better place for Zen meditation
than a spa?). He spoke eloquently of his efforts to make the Japanese
Friendship Garden as authentic as possible, and admitted he'd lost some
battles, pointing to the mixed color of some of the slate tiles surrounding
the meditation room, and the somewhat light color of the boulders in
another part of the garden.
clearly still passionate about and proud of his work -- he's an inspiration
to someone like me who's still just midway on my life's path.
we spoke, I had a satori of my own: I was meant to meet Lennox Tierney.
That's why I spent hours at Balboa Park, and ended the day at the Japanese
Friendship Garden then dawdled in the meditation room until he found
me. I needed to write about him, and to stay in touch with him. To mix
spiritual metaphors, it was a karmic rendezvous.
exchanged contact information after he shared wonderful anecdotes, and
he recommended a fine Japanese restaurant for dinner. As he walked out
of the garden to his car, he marveled suddenly at the fact that he was
as old as Balboa Park, and that he was born during the reign of the
Japanese Taisho emperor, who ruled after Meiji, the man who modernized
Japan and opened the country to Westerners. "I'm almost a Meiji
man," Tierney chuckled. "I've lived for most of the years
of this century... this is my century."
I'd just met him, I feel honored to have crossed paths with this man
of the 20th century. And, I feel humbled to know that after spending
several days searching for some sign of Japanese culture within people
who look like me, I found the source I was looking for in an octogenarian
American like Lennox Tierney.
now that the Japanese spirit lives in many places and within many different
you're planning a trip to San Diego, visit the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau first,
via its Web site. You can find a lecture
about Japanese Gardens by Lennox Tierney online. It's part of a
Web site dedicated to the Japanese Friendship Garden at San Diego's Balboa
Park. And, while I'm at it, I want to recommend ContacTours,
which does a fine job of offering many different individual and package
tours. I took a solo tour of San Diego's city and harbor sites by bus
and boat, and met some great folks. Ask for Dave Golston -- he was my
funny, knowledgeable guide, and he's a great storyteller who obviously
loves his job!
November 28, 1999
FOR A PLACE IN SPORTS
it possible that Japanese Americans were put on Earth to excel at mental
exercises, not physical ones? My brother Glenn, his wife Michelle and
I were sitting around the other day, trying to name Japanese American
professional athletes, and though I admit were not experts at
this sort of thing, we couldnt think of more than a couple.
Kristi Yamaguchi and Colorado-based skier-turned-TV-sportscaster Hank
Kashiwa came to mind. Who else?
its not likely that therell be a Japanese American National
Basketball Association star anytime soon - even if the current generation
of JA kids is growing up bigger and stronger than previous ones. Even
in hockey, a sport which seems less tied to a players size than
his or her skills, I cant think of a Japanese name on the ice.
And though were seeing Asian Pacific Islander athletes playing
now in the National Football League, I have yet to see a Japanese beefy
enough to play professional football.
are some Asians on the pro golf circuit, and people like Michael Chang
excel in tennis. But I cant think of many Japanese American names
covered in the sports pages.
OK, there are Major League Baseball players who are Japanese. But theyre
a way, we can take the excellence of Japanese athletes in Western sports
as a role model. That quality of player is the result of Japans
love of baseball and the commitment boys in Japan put to the sport.
But Japanese are crazy about other Western sports besides baseball.
professional wrestling, for instance. Thats right: pro wrestling,
as in Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and all the other wild, flamboyant entertainers
calling themselves athletes in the increasingly popular
we think Japan and wrestling we think of sumo, but during the 1950s,
American-style professional wrestling helped revive the national spirit
of the defeated Japanese archipelago. The country was still rebuilding
its cities and re-creating a peaceful government and society from the
ground up using a foreign blueprint (an American-style constitution
forced upon Japan during General Douglas MacArthurs Occupation).
Though the population accepted American rule during the late 1940s,
by the 1950s, quality of life was miserable for the Japanese and the
spectacular defeat still cut to the core of Japans psyche.
when western-style professional wrestling caught on. It caught on in
such a big way that the sport helped establish the young medium of television
in Japan, and caused the sale of early TV sets to skyrocket - just so
audiences could watch Japanese wrestlers take on Americans
often beat them. It was a thrilling form of cultural revenge played
out as entertainment on a countrywide scale, and it worked to take viewers
minds off their past defeats and current poverty and focus on the future.
Whitings 1995 "Tokyo Underworld," subtitled "The
Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan," suggests
that the matches between Japanese and American wrestlers were fixed
(no, say it aint so!) by the post-war Yakuza (Japanese
gangsters) that booked the events. Although some Japanese such as the
former sumo champion Rikidozan were powerful athletes in their own right,
the Western wrestlers were happy enough to lose a fight on purpose -
if they were paid enough to do so.
history of puroresu (a typically contracted form of the
English professional wrestling) in Japan goes back much
farther than the 1950s. Way back in 1883, a sumo wrestler named Sorakichi
Matsuda went to the United States and became the first Japanese pro
wrestler. The same year, another sumo star, Shokichi Hamada, known as
Sangokuyama in sumo, also became a pro wrestler in the U.S. and a few
years later brought 20 American wrestlers to Tokyo for a match. The
event sold out because of curiosity, but after initial interest, the
Japanese public wasnt interested. It took until 1952, when Rikidozan
retired from sumo and traveled to San Francisco for a match, for wrestling
to catch on in Japan.
first wrestling match broadcast by Japanese networks was in 1954, and
the tag-team matches that included Rikidozan, the main event, attracted
thousands of bystanders who gathered around publicly-mounted "street
television" for people who couldn't afford television sets at home.
eventually was killed in a Yakuza revenge stabbing, but his talent was
real: he won the World Heavyweight title from Fred Blassie in 1962 at
the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium and was the first Asian to win a
world title belt.
kind of international acknowledgement has also come from the signing
of Japanese players to American baseball teams. And it reflects a national
commitment to fitness as an important part of growing up in Japan. Theres
even a holiday every October where sports and fitness is celebrated
nationwide. It might be a good idea to adopt in the U.S., so we as a
society can all applaud the physical accomplishments of all our students
(not just JAs).
if Japanese societys commitment to sports has been handed down
to us through our immigrant roots. There certainly is a history of organized
sports within our community. Others who know lots more than I do about
JA sports leagues that were started in the early days of our Issei forefathers.
there were all-JA minor league baseball teams in places like Hawaii,
and scattered throughout the Western U.S, at one point. I know there
are all-JA bowling teams and leagues. And of course theres the
wide variety of Asian martial arts from judo and karate to aikido and
kung fu that Japanese Americans compete in. The Denver Buddhist Temple
has always sponsored all manner of sports for its young members - in
fact its hard to think of any Japanese American community center
that doesnt have an attached gym for its youth. Thats a
relic of the days when Asian faces werent welcome on the courts
or pools of local YMCAs and health clubs.
the Japanese American community isnt lacking for interest in and
support for sports - just for athletes in the national spotlight to
serve as role models. Just maybe, with the increasing size of every
generation of JA athletes, we may still get to see a Mayeda score a
hat trick, or a young Asakawa play pro womens soccer.
maybe another Rikidozan will rise up and take over the world of pro
wrestling. Id even tune in the WWF for that!
knew my lack of professional sports knowledge would betray me on this
column! Thanks to all of you who let me know there are already some
Japanese American players in the National Hockey League....
November 21, 1999
MONONOKE: A CARTOON FOR ADULTS
a Japanese cultural invasion underway, and a children' cartoon is leading
the charge. The Pokemon phenomenon is interesting because the animated
series ("anime" in Japanese) uses cute characters and fantastic
situations to illustrate situations requiring moral choices and value
judgments. Its popularity is surprising given the life lessons it teaches
its young viewers -- both with the Saturday morning TV series (dubbed
from the Japanese originals) and the new hit movie being shown in multiplexes
across the country.
is definitely kid stuff, though -- fun to look at, but simply presented,
not just in its plots and characters but also in its somewhat static
drawing style. That's pretty common in the U.S., where animation means
primarily cartoons which are create solely to entertain kids.
as a film genre in Japan isn't just for youngsters, though. In fact,
I'd venture to say there's as much or more anime available aimed at
adult viewers as for children (many are dubbed here in the U.S., some
have English subtitles). Most are science fiction stories or quasi-historical
samurai fantasies, and many are very violent and gory, with sexual undertones.
There's even an entire sub-genre of sexually explicit adult anime.
it's not surprising that in Japan, animated feature movies could be
popular with adult audiences. That was the case with "Mononoke
Hime," a full-length anime released in 1997 which was the highest-grossing
movie in the history of Japan's film industry until the Japanese release
of "Titanic" knocked it off the top of the charts.
Miramax, the American independent film studio, has decided to bring
the film to U.S. audiences as "Princess Mononoke," complete
with a carefully translated English script (not just clunky "lip-synching")
and the voices of well-known Western actors such as Claire Danes as
the Princess Mononoke (who's called "San" throughout the film),
the warrior who'd been raised as a wolf; "X-Files" star Gillian
Anderson as the voice of Moro the Wolf, Mononoke's adopted mother; Billy
Bob Thornton as the scheming priest Jigo; Jada Pinkett Smith as the
sassy steelworker Toki and Minnie Driver as the regal Lady Eboshi, a
character that walks the blurry line between being a villain and hero.
everyone -- Japanese and American -- should see "Princess Mononoke."
I saw it with some friends, including two Japanese American teens who
were engrossed in the movie and found it both entertaining and powerful.
First of all, it's a sterling example of the fine artistic quality that's
often achieved in anime. The background art is lush and very realistic
-- some of the landscapes seem photographic in their detail and rendering
of atmosphere. The characters are drawn in the typical anime style of
large eyes, but the costuming and figure drawing accurately evokes an
early samurai era. Within minutes, I forgot I was watching a cartoon
and fell into the plotline.
story's not set in a particular time or place, though, which is made
plain by all the mystical creatures that populate the film: Hideous
monsters, gigantic animal demons, and the cute, immediately likable
"Kodama" wood spirits that look like Caspar the Friendly Ghost
crossed with an alien. Nicole, one of the teens who saw the movie with
me, couldn't help but melt every time the Kodamas made an appearance.
can tell the story is Japanese from all sorts of cultural signs, both
obvious and subtle, from the use of chopsticks and samurai swords to
the cuisine of rice and miso soup, not to mention the characters' names.
In one scene, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) has to cut the
top-knot from his hair before leaving his village forever to search
for the cure to the curse that is killing him. Cutting the top-knot
was a tradition when a man was forced to leave his tribe. Many of these
"Japanese-isms" may slip by American audiences, but they're
a delight for anyone who's looking for them. Early on, when Ashitaka
meets the priest Jigo, they camp out and Jigo heats dinner over a fire,
and clearly stirs miso into a bowl of soup.
what's "Princess Mononoke" about?
a nutshell, the film is a metaphor for modern civilization's clash against
nature, and the horrendous consequences we may be calling upon ourselves
by indiscriminate development and industrialization. Director Hayao
Miyazakis themes are clear from the first scenes. The story is
about how indigenous people maintain their way of life in an untamed
world, the conflict between industrial progress and the environment,
and the power that myths have on our imaginations. The film isn't for
kids because it's gory and violent, and because these themes are explored
in complex ways. There are no easy answers in Miyazaki's worldview --
even the "bad guys" have a good side (Lady Eboshi may be destroying
the forest in order to profit and make steel, but she hires and cares
for prostitutes and lepers who are castoffs from society), and the "good
guys" can get lost in evil intentions. The plot is straightforward
but gives no pat answers to the problems facing our world today -- just
a lot of nourishing food for thought.
Mononoke" makes its audiences THINK, which is the main reason people
should see it. But alas, even Miramax understands that a box-office
smash in Japan isn't necessarily going to be a stateside hit. "Pokemon"
may be rolling through the mall multiplexes, but "Mononoke"
is relegated -- at least in Denver -- to one art-house theater, and
probably will suffer a short run. My suggestion: If you miss it in the
theaters, be sure to watch for it on video. Better yet, try to find
the Japanese version (I'm looking for one myself) and practice your
Japanese while you're enjoying the movie!
can learn about "Princess Mononoke," see samples from the
film, read about how the American voice actors were chosen and play
interactive games online at the film's U.S. home page -- http://princess-mononoke.com.
November 14, 1999
IMPORTANCE OF STAYING JAPANESE
glad when non-Japanese are so interested in Japan that they immerse
themselves in the culture and even commit to learning the language.
Conversely, it makes me sad when Japanese aren't interested in their
written in the past about how growing up, I didn't think of myself as
very Japanese. But my upbringing at home was full of Japanese culture
and traditions, from rice with every meal (except when we had something
like spaghetti) to taking off my shoes in the home. I also grew up with
my parents speaking a combination of English and Japanese -- my friends
marveled at how my mom spoke to me in heavily accented English with
a few Japanese words thrown in, and I replied with a hasty "Yeah,
okay mom" before running out the door. That's just how it is in
a bilingual household.
was only later that I realized that the mixed-up language I grew up
with was a doorway to my roots, along with all the food and household
rituals all around me. In recent years, I've come to cherish the Japanese
side of my life, and seek out ways to emphasize it and learn more.
with many immigrant groups -- I know many Italian Americans who don't
speak Italian after all -- not every JA feels this way. Nor do I pass
judgment on those who aren't deeply connected with their heritage. But
because Asians can't just "pass" unnoticed within a primarily
Caucasian society, we don't really have the luxury of ignoring who we
are and where our ancestors came from. Sooner or later, someone with
a racist attitude will remind us that we're not like them. Besides,
if I turned my back on all things Japanese, I'd be missing out on a
very rich culture, and deny myself a fuller knowledge of myself.
one adult sansei, or third generation JA, who until the 1990s had never
had sushi and knew more about Mexican food than Japanese food or culture.
Like me, he told friends he considered himself Caucasian. He was so
militant that his anti-Japanese tendencies seemed forced. I still held
on to my love of Japanese things even if I forgot my skin color in my
know many JAs -- even Nisei (second generation) but also Sansei like
me, and Yonsei and Gosei (fourth and fifth) -- who aren't interested
in traveling to Japan. I must admit that when I first returned to Japan
as an adult, I felt nervous because I wondered if I would fit in, or
if something about me would scream "AMERICAN!" to Japanese.
As it happened, I did stick out as an American, but no one made me feel
the lesser for it, and I enjoyed being able to straddle both countries
as much there as I do here. Although they're the most Americanized,
the younger generations surprisingly enough seem to have more of an
interest, borne out of curiosity about their distant roots, in visiting
younger JAs and future generations are the key to maintaining a sense
of cultural heritage in the Japanese American community. We should all
be nurturing an interest in all things Japanese in JA children, and
never act as if any aspect of our Asian side is shameful, embarrassing,
weird or inappropriate. My brother Glenn and his wife Michelle (who
happens to be Caucasian) are very good about keeping their two adorable
daughters connected. They use Japanese words as a part of their daily
routine, include lots of Japanese food in their diet and even read them
Japanese stories and play Japanese children's music recordings. For
the past year they've also taken my nieces to Japanese language classes
every weekend, even though they have to drive across the Denver metro
area for the classes. They think it's important and wouldn't deprive
their kids this experience, and I applaud them for making the commitment.
nieces enjoy the classes but they're young girls still, and probably
didn't ask to take them. When an older JA child asks to attend Japanese
language class or wants to learn taiko drumming, I say "hooray!"
and would urge parents to support these interests whole-heartedly. Jared,
the teenaged son of a friend of mine, looks forward to such activities,
which he's introduced to via the Denver Buddhist Temple downtown, a
true community center for the JA community. And his mom eagerly allows
him to explore his roots with these activities along with all the other
things teenagers are interested in like sports, which aren't part of
his Japanese side.
the way it should be. I'm no expert on child psychology, but it doesn't
take mental gymnastics to know that giving a kid a sense of his or her
own cultural identity, you're giving them a center that can serve as
a foundation for the rest of their lives and interests. It's even more
important in these times when the nuclear family tree has exploded into
fragmented and sometimes brittle branches of former spouses' households.
Parents who are lackadaisical about allowing their children to discover
and learn about their ancestry, or worse, won't let them explore their
roots because it's expensive, or inconvenient, or too far to drive to,
are simply robbing their children of a part of their identity.
that's a crying shame.
the way, I don't mean to imply that any Japanese American should be
fluent in Japanese.
Japanese culture a lot more these days than when I was younger, but
my language skills are still spotty. When I'm at a Japanese restaurant
or the Pacific Mercantile grocery store, I find myself trying earnestly
to speak in Japanese but end up mixing up my languages. Like my parents,
I throw Japanese and English together in a savory stew of verbiage.
that's all right. My friends from high school wouldn't be surprised.
November 7, 1999
BEHAVIOR: MEMORIES OF A MILITARY BRAT
a wrong turn today, and found myself driving through distant echoes
of my childhood.
images were all as if they were frozen in time -- flat open field of
grass, low housing buildings and the stodgy office and school buildings
of United States military bases. Only this one is a former base, Lowry
Air Force Base east of Denver. One building still featured a proud memento
of its earlier incarnation: A shiny air force bomber left as a monument
reminds passersby that this is a decommissioned military base currently
being redeveloped as a model suburban community.
symbolism -- a military facility is adapted for peacetime domesticity
-- perfectly parallels how suburbs were first developed to accommodate
the explosion of families as wartime GIs returned home in the late 1940s.
The drive also took me back to my childhood, when I was raised on or
near U.S. military bases and attended American schools on those bases.
issue doesn't seem to be in the Japanese headlines these days, but because
of Veterans Day coming up, I have thought about the U.S. military's
presence in Japan. I've thought about it because if it weren't for our
two countries' continuing -- and from to time, contentious -- military
relationship, I wouldn't be here. My father was in the U.S. Army and
stationed in Hokkaido during the Korean War, first at a small city called
Kushiro, and then in Nemuro, a smaller city that serves as the eastern-most
point in Japan (and therefore a popular destination for New Year's Day,
because the sun first rises on Nemuro). That's where he met my mother,
a schoolgirl who'd been named "Miss Nemuro" when she was 17.
only imagine what my dad was like when he was a teenager, or in his
early 20s. He was a lean, handsome young man who was quick with a smile
and quick to fool around while working. (The Japanese have a great onomatopoetic
word, "charra-charra," which describes the nervous energy
of goofing around... but I digress.)
he won my mom over, and went through the mountains of paperwork and
various bureaucratic hurdles the U.S. put up to make it difficult for
GIs to marry foreign nationals like my mom. After they were married,
and the Americanization of my mom began, our family took root on military
bases. My earliest memories are of vast, fenced-in expanses of open
fields and roads made for marching, bordered by row upon row of barracks-like
housing units and administrative buildings trimmed with cannons, tanks,
missiles or planes strategically placed as pieces of military sculpture,
much like the ghostly remains of Denver's Lowry Air Force Base.
youngest recollections as an infant include lots of snappy khaki pleats
and olive accents, shiny black shoes and always the American flag --
waving, being raised or lowered, the sound of its flapping and the clinking
of its rope against the flagpole a daily part of my noontime lullaby.
We lived and attended schools in places with names such as "Grant
Heights" or "Green Park," and we socialized in places
with names such as Tachikawa Air Base or Atsugi, the former Imperial
air field where MacArthur's Occupation forces first landed weeks after
also lived for a brief time in southern Japan, in Iwakuni outside of
Hiroshima. We lived off-base from the U.S. Marine facility at Iwakuni,
but as usual, my American friends and I were bussed into school on-base,
where I attended Matthew C. Perry Elementary School. I have fond recollections
of having hamburgers at the greasy spoon hut set up outside our school,
next to the baseball field, then after school riding bikes around town
with Japanese and American friends, stopping for Japanese snacks like
frozen pineapple rings while we played in our blissfully mixed-race
world. It never occurred to me, for instance, when I visited the Hiroshima
Peace Park as a boy, that my father's friends and co-workers are part
of the military might that dropped the bomb on such a beautiful city.
As a child, those deeper questions were beyond my ken.
father was never hard-core military like the father in the 1979 film
"The Great Santini," but military culture was definitely part
of my life until I was 8 years old and about to enter 3rd grade. That's
when we moved to the States, so my dad could work in a civilian capacity
for the Army Corps of Engineers outside Washington, D.C. Since then,
I'm only reminded of my familiarity with the Army life when go on-base
somewhere, or find myself driving through a former base like Lowry.
recent years, American military presence around the world has been questioned
and much of our presence has been cut back. For decades, a movement
in Japan has protested the concentration of U.S. military installations
still in that country, with an emphasis on the bases on Okinawa. Every
few years, a headline bursts forth like the ones in the early '90s where
GIs were accused of raping a young Japanese girl -- headlines that haven't
changed much since the immediate post-war days.
those headlines don't mention is how much friendship there has been
over the decades between and the U.S. and Japan, and how many GIs have
been stationed in Japan and left there enriched by the experience in
many ways both personal and political. And how many GIs have fallen
not in war, but in love while in Japan.
best memory of all from my childhood on-base is a vivid image of being
with my dad at the noncommissioned officer's club at Tachikawa, a dark
smoky place with lots of red, and helping him choose Glenn Miller songs
for the jukebox. It's easy to forget that in addition to everything
else my father was, he was also a veteran -- and that his military service
has left its impression me.
and happy Veterans Day, dad!
can "virtually" visit Iwakuni, where I lived briefly, through
a wonderful Web site, The
Spencers in Iwakuni, created by Donella Spencer, the wife of a U.S.
Marine stationed at the USMC base there. She loved the city and being
in Japan, even though her family's now transferred back to the
states. You'll find a lot of information about living in, traveling
in and visiting Japan and Iwakuni at her site, and lost of links to
October 31, 1999
PAST FOR SALE: ANTIQUES AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
for antiques is a popular pastime -- holding onto the past becomes more
and more comforting as we hurtle into a future where change is constant
and everything new is valued over anything old.
a fan of certain types of antiques -- pop culture junk such as toys
from my baby-boomer childhood, for example, always warm my heart. And
these days, I'm also interested in Japanese antiques as another way
to absorb and appreciate my historical roots. But a recent visit to
a dealer of Japanese antiques made me think about the purpose and power
of these objects, whether they're 100 years old or just a few decades.
occasion was the open house for Hanakago Antiques, a new business run
by Mark and Anita Meyer of Boulder, Colorado.
Meyers plan to operate Hanakago out of their home, with showings by
appointment to anyone who's interested in Japanese furniture, baskets,
textiles and decorative objects from artwork and handcrafted wood boxes
to a variety of vases for displaying ikebana, or flower arrangements.
The Meyers' home is a spacious contemporary style in a posh neighborhood,
and the antiques for sale in the living room add a classy thematic boost
to the clean lines of their architecture.
couple had lived in Japan for over a dozen years and when they moved
to Boulder, they realized there wasn't a source for the type of objects
and furniture and clothing they had begun collecting. That's when they
decided to form Hanakago.
taste for antiques is very refined -- at the open house there were many
beautiful tansu (dressers), kimonos and obis (the sashes that are worn
around the waist) and lots of appealing smaller pieces such as a variety
of baskets and containers, including "bento boxes" (lunch
boxes) with latches and handles which held smaller containers for rice,
vegetables and the other elements of a mobile meal. I almost bought
one because it was so exquisitely designed and crafted out of basket
weaves. I also almost purchased an ikebana vase (not that I have a lot
of ikebana to display) carved out of a burl of dark wood, shaped like
a giant ginger root.
of the items were dated by the Imperial eras -- Meiji, Taisho, Showa
-- by which Japanese mark their historical periods. The Meiji emperor
ruled from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, and oversaw the Westernization
and modernization of Japan after the country was opened up to the world
by the U.S. commodore Matthew Perry. Taisho was the brief reign cut
short by mental illness; the Taisho emperor's son, crown prince Hirohito,
actually ran the country for some of the Taisho era before becoming
emperor himself in the late 1920s. The Showa era under Hirohito is the
Japan westerners know best because it's the Japan of World War II and
the miraculous economic recovery since then (he ruled until 1989).
the Meyers are knowledgeable about Japanese history, going to their
home to see their collection can be an educational experience. At the
same time, though, the open house made me think about what happens when
objects that once were part of someone's life are taken out of their
process of "recycling" old stuff for new enjoyment or other
purposes is as inevitable as the passage of time, but in this case,
some of the consequences of recycling nagged at my heart. The Meyers
and the people who visited their open house certainly appreciated Japanese
culture. But I felt a little bit protective of some of the objects being
sold, because appreciation doesn't necessarily mean understanding or
sensitivity. I saw a gorgeous and striking obi sash that featured Kanji,
or Chinese calligraphic characters, woven black-on-black, which was
handled by a buyer as if it were a bath towel on sale at a discount
store. Because an obi is an important part of traditional dress and
there's a ritualized and respectful way of handling them, and my friends
and I felt somehow saddened seeing this beautiful piece treated not
as part of a traditional ensemble but as a perfect decorative touch
for atop a dresser.
is the process of all antiques, since collectors have differing levels
of background knowledge for the things they buy. I even found myself
thinking of much of the collection merely as decorative items, which
made me feel a bit shallow about my roots. Would owning some old Japanese
objects really make me more connected to my own past?
Denver, a store called East-West Designs sells some of the same types
of objects and furniture as the Meyers, though the emphasis isn't quite
so "high-end" and there isn't as much focus on pieces from
the Meiji era or older (in fact the tags at East-West Designs don't
note the age at all). Perhaps because the prices are somewhat less expensive
(though there are things that are pricey), and because the sales person
is Japanese and because a Japanese customer wandered in while I was
there, I felt less worried about cultural dislocation -- I felt the
items in the store were grounded in their context.
that unfair? I'm not sure... I'm still thinking about how I feel about
it. In the end, anyone who likes Japanese antiques has the right collect
it, no matter whether they're Japanese or not. Antiques deserve to go
to a good home where they'll be pampered, and perhaps that's the best
we could hope for -- that way the object lives on even if its original
owner's spirit is no longer part of its soul.
Hanakago Antiques is located at 1177 Cascade Ave. in Boulder, and is
open by appointment; call 303-938-8989. East-West Designs is at 303
Josephine St., Denver, 303-316-9520.
October 25, 1999
FOOD AND LIFE LESSONS
often about Japanese restaurants, but I love any kind of food, and this
week I'd like to tell you about my friendship with a man who has opened
a handful of great Thai eateries along the Colorado Front Range in a
little over the decade that I've known him.
met Paul Santanachote in the mid-1980s, when he ran Tommy's Oriental
Kitchen (now called Tommy's Thai), a tiny restaurant on East Colfax
Avenue. An attorney friend of mine took me there for lunch one day,
and I loved the food so much that I returned for lunch five days straight,
and on the last day took bags of takeout food back to the office to
share with my co-workers. Paul was the host and manager, and I found
out later that his wife, Oranuch, was the talent behind the dishes --
she cooks, while Paul takes care of business.
Pad Thai was delicious, extra-spicy (at my request) and filling. For
those of you unfamiliar with Thai cuisine, Pad Thai is the "spaghetti"
or "teriyaki" of Thailand, the one dish most foreigners have
heard of, which is made with various meats and vegetables stir-fried
with noodles and served with varying degrees of peppery heat. Over time
I tried almost all the dishes, from the cold beef salad to the green
and red curries and Sriracha, an explosion of flavor served in a spicy
red sauce. And, I got completely hooked on Thai iced coffee, a concoction
of strong coffee served over ice with sweet condensed milk added. Try
one sometime -- it's like sucking down liquid candy, and it has the
double-kick of caffeine and sugar so you'll be buzzing round for hours.
I had a business lunch, I suggested Tommy's for the meeting, and helped
tell more people about the quaint hole-in-the-wall eatery which had
started life as a KFC chicken outlet.
a few years of running Tommy's, Paul outgrew Tommy's and tired of the
fast-food pace. He longed for a larger, sit-down restaurant. After scouting
locations, Paul announced he had found a space in Boulder -- which coincidentally
had for years housed the Kobe An Japanese restaurant but had been vacant
for some time.
handed Tommy's to his brother-in-law, Sam (both are former mail carriers),
and then began renovating the space in Boulder, which is right on the
Pearl Street Mall at 14th Street. Paul redesigned the interior but he
had to work with some of the existing architecture: Kobe An had tatami-mat
rooms so Paul left them for groups who wanted the privacy of the enclosed
rooms. Sawaddee, the new restaurant started off slowly, but within a
year attracted a regular clientele.
this time, I got to know Paul better, and discovered that he lived in
Littleton -- the suburb south of Denver -- and I marveled at how he
and his wife, and even his teenaged daughter Dipany, who worked with
them during the summer, commuted to Boulder. The daily grind sounded
horrible to me. They got up early every morning and headed to the restaurant,
stopping only to pick up ingredients for the day's meals, and had the
restaurant open for lunch. The entire family worked straight through
to closing and got back home well past midnight after cleaning up the
restaurant. Then they got up and did it again.
the entire Santanachote family for its united effort to help the entire
business succeed. Their single-mindedness was then, and still is, a
great inspiration to me.
again got the itch to start another restaurant after a couple of years,
and this time to do it from the ground up and literally control every
aspect of the building. He scouted locations in Fort Collins, the small
college town another hour north of Boulder, where Dipany planned to
attend Colorado State University when she graduated from high school.
lost touch with Paul and his wonderful family about this time, because
I got a job south of Denver in Colorado Springs, and only occasionally
managed to visit Boulder. But I wasn't surprised at all when I heard
that Paul gave Sawaddee to another family member and finally opened
Sri Thai in Fort Collins.
years after he opened Sri Thai, I managed to finally visit Paul in Fort
Collins last month.
ahead for directions for my friend Leland and me, and spoke briefly
to Paul. It was great to hear his eager voice, and he told us how he
had achieved his dream. He had bought the land -- a corner lot at a
busy intersection -- and designed and oversaw the construction of the
restaurant from start to finish.
we got to Sri Thai, the place was packed, but Paul had held open the
one table in the room that had a corner view of the entire restaurant.
Paul wanted us to have the best seats in the house to watch the choreography
of his friendly, knowledgeable waitstaff and the servers scurrying around
food tasted fantastic, naturally, and even though we were stuffed from
dinner and ready to leave, Paul made us sit back down and was kind enough
to finish us off with some mango and sweet sticky rice for dessert.
Paul afterwards and told him how much I admired him, and explained how
I try to work hard, partly because of my own "Asian work ethic"
but also because of role models like Paul in my life.
go back to Sri Thai soon (I won't wait years again before I see Paul)
but I can always visit the other restaurants closer to home that are
Paul's legacy. Tommy's Oriental is still doing great business, though
Sam who took over for Paul is now running his own fine restaurant called
Wild Ginger. Sam handed Tommy's to family members to run, of course.
And Sawaddee still serves up delicious Pad Thai and other staples.
legacy reminds me always of the lesson that success has to be earned,
but that it's always achievable if you're dedicated to it. And best
of all, life's lessons never tasted so good.
Sri Thai is located at 950 S. Taft Hill Rd. in Fort Collins, (970) 482-5115.
Tommy's Thai is located at 3410 E. Colfax Ave., (303) 377-4244. Wild
Ginger is at 399 W. Littleton Blvd., (303) 794-1115.
October 18, 1999
RELATIONSHIPS: SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS
read "Snow Falling on Cedars," the 1994 bestseller by David
Guterson, but I got a sneak peek at the movie version of the novel last
week at the closing night screening of the Denver International Film
Festival. I enjoyed the film and hope it's a hit, with its twenty-something
star Ethan Hawke as the main attraction.
Japanese Americans, Hawke is a sidelight. We'll go to the film to see
how it depicts our history -- or at least, the experience of a small
JA community near Seattle. Much of the discussion over both the book
and now the movie focuses around the topic of Internment and whether
"Snow Falling on Cedars" does a good job of explaining what
happened to Japanese Americans who were uprooted from their Pacific
Northwest home and transplanted in concentration camps thousands of
people I've spoken to think "Snow Falling on Cedars" isn't
politically charged enough, and that the film misses the chance to educate
mainstream America about the tragedy of Internment and how Japanese
Americans were treated as recently as a generation ago. That's probably
true enough, but I find this perspective misses the point of the story.
see the movie as a political statement. I walked away thinking more
about the inevitability of the story's romantic subplot, and I felt
saddest not for the JAs who suffered the historic ignominies, but for
Hawke's Caucasian lead character, and his devastating realization that
he'll never regain the love of his life.
story has several levels: First, it's a murder mystery. Second, it's
a poignant if somewhat impressionistic look back at the Internment of
Japanese Americans from the small island community of San Piedro. Third,
it's a romance as star-crossed and doomed as Romeo and Juliet, with
race serving to divide the Capulets and Montagues in this passion play.
film -- like the book -- opens with the death of a fisherman on a foggy
night in Puget Sound, and the arrest of a childhood friend, Kazuo Miyamoto,
for murder. As the trial unfolds, we find out that Miyamoto hated the
victim and was on his ship the night of his death. A journalist covering
the trial for the island's community newspaper, Ishmael Chambers, is
forced to deal with his emotions because Miyamoto's wife is Hatsue,
a woman he's loved from childhood, and with whom he had a torrid teenaged
affair just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything. Although
he confesses his love for Hatsue before the war, he doesn't speak up
to try and stop the evacuation of Hatsue's family along with the rest
of the island's JAs. And though his father (played in a righteous cameo
by Sam Shepard), the editor of the newspaper, championed the rights
of the Japanese Americans to the consternation of the island's other
Caucasians, Chambers doesn't immediately reveal crucial information
that could affect the outcome of the trail.
the other hand, Hatsue's family plays the role of stoic outsiders who
endure the evacuation and then pressure Hatsue to give up her misguided
affection for Ishmael Chambers and settle down with her own kind. When
Japanese use the word "hakujin" for Caucasians, it stings
because it's so obviously a racist slur, and reveals how much racial
division and paranoia simmers below the "inscrutable" surface
of our Asian skin. It doesn't surprise us when the townsfolk call us
"Japs" and display their ugly prejudice during the courtroom
scenes. But I bet Caucasians will be somewhat shocked to see the bluntness
of the Japanese characters' racism against them.
a film, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is lovely -- the lyrical
camera work captures breathtaking scenes of the northwest landscape,
though the quick-cut flashbacks and non-linear storytelling style can
be confusing at first.
of the most affecting and effective scenes include the roundup of the
island's JAs; the extended flashbacks of Chambers and Miyamoto's separate
WWII experiences; and the tender moments of the young Chambers and Hatsue
hiding out in a hollow of a gigantic cedar tree in the forest.
out-marriage rate of Japanese Americans has of course increased over
the decades since the period in which "Snow Falling on Cedars"
takes place. It's hard to imagine a family insisting on marrying only
Japanese -- it would seem as shockingly out of place as a Caucasian
family refusing to allow a child to marry an African American, or --
gasp -- an Asian. Still, these sad situations occur, even now.
movie will surely stir sales of the book again, and I hope with the
combined popularity of the story, people will ponder the Internment
and our country's legacy of race and hatred. But then I hope people
will also think a little farther -- or closer to home -- and see how
race can break hearts as well as communities.
can read about the movie release at http://www.snowfallingoncedars.com,
or order the book from Amazon.com,
Tatteredcover.com or your neighborhood
September 20, 1999
THROUGH VIDEO GAMES: FROM PONG
watched Jared, the teenaged son of a Japanese American friend of mine,
drop a few quarters into an X-Men vs. Street Fighter video arcade game
at a movie theater. I noted with some interest that though the X-Men
is an American comic book institution, the characters in this video
game were clearly drawn in a Japanese cartoon style. Jared was slamming
away at the game, using rapid wrist movements to control the "joystick"
for movement and the fingers of his other hand to slam down the buttons
that controlled various weapons and martial arts moves carried out onscreen
by the characters.
a couple of minutes, two other Asian young men came by, and the older
of the duo slipped to the joystick next to Jared and pressed a button
that brought a message on the screen announcing a challenger. Jared
and the new kid on the game went at it, with teeth gritted, hands and
wrists banging away at the controls and a furious fight onscreen: two
superheroes (hell, I couldn't even tell which was the bad guy and which
was the good guy) hitting, kicking and jumping at each other, then shooting
balls of fire and other assorted powerful mutant weaponry at each other.
lost this round, but I didn't find out until much later, when he told
me. The second round, Jared kicked the other guy's ass. I had no idea
what was going on at all.
entire exchange was bewildering to me because everything moved too fast
for my middle-aged mind to absorb. But it took me back to the earlier
days of amusement arcades and video games, and how companies from Japan
such as Nintendo, and later, Sega and Sony have taken over the market
for computer-driven video games for both the home and arcades.
to sound too nostalgic, but I am a baby boomer, after all, and baby
boomers are nothing if not nostalgic. I still remember when a little
company called Atari introduced Pong, first as an arcade game (most
popular in bars next to the foosball and air hockey tables and pinball
machines) in 1972, with a home version in '74. The California-based
company was named after a term used in the Japanese board game Go.
I was in high school, my friend Bubba bought the first Pong game consoles,
sold by Sears. By today's standards it's incredibly simple and unappealing
-- it sort of replicated a ping-pong table on a TV screen, with cursors
at each side as "paddles," and an electronic "ball"
that bounced back and forth across the screen as players used a knob
to move their paddles up and down to intercept the ball.
too challenging compared to Jared's encounter with the X-Men, but the
silly pinging sound of the Pong ball as it bounced heralded a new age
of games and entertainment. The stuff that has come since from Pac Man
and Donkey Kong to Space Invaders and Super Mario all owe a debt to
to the dumb-named "Donkey Kong," Nintendo was the first superstar
company of this new era of entertainment.
Kyoto-based company has its roots in a small family business formed
in 1889 to manufacture sets of a card game called "Hanafuda."
The company grew and became Yamauchi Nintendo & Co. in 1933 and
eventually Nintendo Playing Card Co. Ltd. before expanding from playing
cards and started manufacturing other types of games in the early 1960s.
The company created the first video game system in 1975 in cooperation
with Mitsubishi Electric. Donkey Kong came in 1981, and the Super Mario
Brothers came in 1985 with the very popular Nintendo Entertainment System
for home use.
1989, the company was hugely successful, and got even huger with another
hit: The portable, battery-operated Game Boy which allows users to take
their obsessions out of the home or arcade (I'll admit, I own one and
will mindlessly play "Tetris," a simple puzzle game, to waste
time at the office).
Nintendo has a lock on the electronic game merchandise for Pokemon,
the mega-hit anime TV show. I think they're doing all right.
company doesn't have a lock on the industry at large, though -- Sega,
the Tokyo-based company, is worth $3 billion dollars -- nothing to sneeze
at. And Sony's PlayStation has shipped well over 30 million game systems
am I focusing on all this commerce?
so much of it serves as an indirect ambassador of Japanese style to
the world, and particularly to the U.S. I look at the characters and
see Japanese manga (comics) techniques. Even on the X-Men game, I heard
snippets of Japanese being spoken amidst the flying fists of fury.
a Japanese aesthetic that's hard to describe but which is tangible in
these games. And Sony, in its TV commercials, pays the ultimate homage
to its cultural roots by using the very recognizable voice of a Japanese
female announcer whispering, "PlayStation" with her familiar
accent (Japanese TV commercials often end with the soft voice of a woman
saying the name of the company).
you know, all this excitement can be tiring for an old guy like me,
who was there at the dawn of the digital entertainment revolution.
now that I think about it, I feel downright nostalgic about my own youth.
I think I'll drag out that Pong game (I eventually bought it from my
friend Bubba) and hook it up for some old-fashioned fun....
bought the Pong from Bubba long after high school -- it's a miracle
he still had it -- for research for The Toy
Book, which I co-authored with my pal Leland Rucker in 1991.
September 13, 1999
TIES THAT BIND: FAMILY FRICTION FICTION
the end of her debut novel,"Why She Left Us," Rahna Reiko
Rizzuto titled one chapter, "Shikata Ga Nai." A few pages
into this chapter, Emi Okada, the supernova around which the other characters
orbit, explains to her daughter Mariko: "'You know,' she said,
'my mother had a saying. "Shikata ga nai." She used
it a lot, especially during the war. It means,"It can't be helped."'"
is a very familiar phrase for Japanese, because its an all-purpose
repository for anything that could be described as an act of God, a
fluke of nature or more commonly, a man-made mess. Its all about
accepting what might appear as wrong -- or worse -- and resigning yourself
to having the all-too-human element of emotion scarring your psyche.
She Left Us is an examination of how the emotional fallout of
this phrase has infected three generations of the Okada family, starting
with the first-generation immigrants Mitsuo Okada and his wife Kaori,
their children Will, Emi and Jack, and their children.
tells the epic story, which starts before World War II and ends in 1990,
with skill, vision and verbal dexterity - her deft telling of the Okada
familys cross-generational breakdown is an intense dig into psychological
storys revealed in novel ways, with pieces told from the perspective
of four of the characters in non-linear fashion. Like archeology, the
story emerges rather flows. The reader has to assemble the truth about
the Okada family from memories preserved as shattered artifacts, jumping
back and forth in time, place and voice - each perspective even exists
within its own set of storytelling conventions.
holistic tale is simple: A Japanese American immigrant family in California
finds itself imprisoned at the Amache Relocation Camp near Granada,
Colorado, during World War II. Each of the Okada children have different
experiences -- Emi, the wild child, already is an unwed mother who has
given up her son Eric for adoption. But as war looms, Kaori brings Eric
back from his adopted family to raise with his birth family. Emi comes
and goes from this nuclear family, giving birth during the war to her
daughter, leaving her also with her mother and later coming back to
claim just Mariko to take with her new husband to Hawaii.
the book, Mari is the protagonist whos curious about her past,
and who eventually discovers the secret of Eric, who she had been told
all her life was her cousin. The plot is actually about the need for
both disclosure and closure about the unspoken, unresolved wounds of
fragmented memories suits the herky-jerky pace of the story. And, the
different points of view serve as Rizzutos verbal playgrounds
- there are terrific passages of dialogue that read like a killer screenplay
(hint, hint), striking images and lusciously crafted passages everywhere.
the very first chapter, when Eric thinks his mother Emi has finally
come back to take him with her, just the sound of his name unleashes
his emotions. When at last she says his name, the womans
voice splashes into Erics chest, cooling his insides down in a
rush that reaches his toes. It floods his eyes, too, blurring the perfect
lines in her face.
lingers throughout Erics story, as he grows up with his surrogate
family of his grandmother, grandfather and uncle Jack. At one point
Rizzuto writes, Families, Eric thinks, are deadly.
grows up a troubled youth but settles down finally with a wife and children
by the time Mariko undertakes her journey to discover the truth about
herself and her family. Near the end of the book, Mari meets Eric again,
and the two quietly begin to bridge the family chasm.
an enormous chasm to cross: The oldest generation, protecting traditional
values of image and honor, commited brutal sins and effectively destroyed
a family unit in the name of preserving it. The young generation can
play peacemaker in a dysfunctional family, and if loose ends are still
left hanging raw like a live wire shooting off sparks, at least the
circuit was finally turned back on and the electricity can flow again.
Why She Left Us isnt about the internment. Its
about the ties that bind families together - and the peculiarly Japanese
knots of obligation that can snarl and tangle those ties over time.
Perhaps Rizzutos great accomplishment here is in capturing the
tortured dynamics that are inherent in the line, shikata ga nai
- the Japanese side of her Japanese American background has served her
proven shes a first-rate storyteller - theres some temptation
to assume some of the characters and situations are autobiographical,
because her mother was interned at Amache and after the war moved to
Hawaii, where Rizzuto was born.
the historical accuracy and observant details that could have been drawn
on her own childhood, Why She Left Us is fictional. Rizzuto
interviewed many former internees about their experiences and created
composite experiences from the fragments of sad anecdotes she collected.
as fiction, the book rings true -- theres truth enough here for
anyone who comes from a Japanese family to recognize the inexorable
dynamics on display... and then to sigh, "Shikata ga nai."
Reiko Rizzuto will make two appearances to discuss and sign copies of
Why She Left Us: Monday, October 4, 6 pm, Denver Buddhist
Temple (1947 Lawrence) and Tuesday, October 5, 7:30 pm, Tattered
August 30, 1999
HOLLYWOOD'S VISIONS OF JAPAN
to watch movies for what they tell us about the world -- or at least,
what Hollywood thinks about the world. I especially love watching older
movies about Japan, to see how Americans have perceived Japan and Japanese
people over the years.
few years, American filmmakers tackle a plot that takes place in Japan,
and try to make sense of the foreign culture through homegrown lenses.
The results, not surprisingly, can be one-dimensional, if not downright
enjoy renting videos of older movies which show Japan in the immediate
post-war years and the late '50s-early-'60s years when I lived there
as a child. I like to try to capture the feel of what the country was
like during its rise from the ashes of war, and also to jog long-stored
I've seen several older movies about Japan: "Walk, Don't Run,"
a cute and sweet 1966 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant that's set
in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics; "Geisha Boy," a truly silly
1958 vehicle for Jerry Lewis' obnoxious humor; "Teahouse of the
August Moon," the 1956 comedy starring Marlon Brando, set in Occupation-era
Okinawa; and "Sayonara," the 1957 drama set in Occupied Kobe,
also starring Brando.
difference between the two Brando films is that in "Teahouse,"
Brando plays the part of a Japanese interpreter, with his eyes hideously
taped up into a slit and his speech tied up in a fake, lispy "ah-so"
accent, while in "Sayonara," Brando's cast as a fighter pilot
during the Korean War who ends up stationed in Japan.
the movies are enjoyable in their own way, even though "Teahouse"
especially makes me cringe for all its cutesy cliches about the earnest,
hardworking folks the Americans found throughout the defeated country.
Of the four, "Geisha Boy" is the most "offensive,"
but I have to admit, it's not because it's politically incorrect, but
because I never thought Lewis was so funny.
I like best about all of them are the scenes of Japan, caught by the
cameras not so much as part of the plot, but as the incidental background
for all the action. I'm fascinated by the glimpses of scenes with their
streets filled with people, cars and bicycles, the fashions, the buildings
and the many examples of exotic culture that every director captures.
is my favorite of these movies because it's the one that asks the most
questions about the relationship between Japan and America, Japanese
on a novel by James Michener, it's a thoughtful story about U.S. military
men falling in love with the "native" women while stationed
in Japan. In the years since World War II, the image of GIs bringing
back so-called "war brides" has become commonplace -- in fact,
I'd dare say it's common wherever U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines
are sent anywhere in the world, for them to find love in those faraway
locations and bring back new families. It's been part of the recipe
for the multi-cultural ethnic stew that makes up our "melting pot."
soldiers during the Occupation and the Korean War (the Occupation officially
ended in 1952, during the Korean "conflict") who fell in love
while in Japan were discouraged from marrying their sweethearts. The
military made it difficult with a mountain of paperwork and lingering,
suspicious questions about loyalty for many couples to go through with
their plans. This attitude lingered for years, even though the U.S.
did make it easier for GIs to marry and bring back foreign-born brides
after the Korean war.
come across a sheaf of papers from the mid-1950s, which my Hawaiian-born
Nisei father had to sign before he was allowed to marry my Issei mother,
whom he met while he was stationed in Hokkaido. It made me realize how
much trouble the two of them had to go through.
"Sayonara," Brando plays an ace pilot on a career officer's
path who's brought to Japan by the general whose daughter he's supposed
to marry. At the start of the film, he's a typical American, who lectures
one of his men (played by Red Buttons in a terrific role) for wanting
to marry a Japanese woman. But after he attends the marriage ceremony
as best man, Brando's character starts to see that love is color-blind,
and eventually falls for a Japanese woman himself. But because the Army
won't allow his friend to return to the U.S. with his new wife (played
by Miyoshi Umeki, a famous Japanese actress in a very subservient role),
the couple commits suicide, leaving Brando to take a personal stand
himself to try and change the rules.
contemporary, politically-correct standards, the race issue competes
with how women are shown (especially those exotic Asian women, who are
treated as objects and act like love slaves), but the original intent
was to show the tragedy of racial separation. The movie simply captures
the tenor of its times in an unfortunately accurate manner.
Hollywood might want to focus a little more on feminist issues. Perhaps
it will, in Steven Spielberg's upcoming version of "Memoirs of
a Geisha." Any film that takes place in modern Japan could also
show an American woman soldier stationed across the Pacific who falls
in love with a Japanese man -- that might be an interesting twist.
again, romance still crosses the color line, but these days, mixed-race
marriages won't raise eyebrows as they did 50 years ago. And that's
a good thing.
August 22, 1999
A BRIDGE TO JAPAN: MANJIRO SUMMIT '95
This column is a re-edited version of a story I wrote in 1995. Now sponsored
by the John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International
Exchange, this VERY AFFORDABLE trip has since been renamed a "Seminar."
You can read about the 9th Annual
Japan-America Grassroots Seminar, scheduled for November 3-10, 1999
in Shizuoka, Japan, or call IACE Travel at 800-526-4223 for information.
I left Colorado Springs for the "1995 Japan-America Grassroots
Summit," sponsored by the Manjiro Society for International Exchange,
I half-expected the trip to be an elaborate package tour. Nobody could
explain to me what happened at the summit. Would there be panel discussions?
Lectures? Historical presentations? Or would it be sightseeing?
turned out to be all of the above.
more: Attendance at the summit also included two nights of homestay
with a Japanese family. The homestay is what makes the summit truly
"Grassroots." After attending the summit Oct. 28-Nov. 6, the
American participants - there were about 200, with several dozen from
Colorado - came home with a better understanding of how Japanese live
their day-to-day lives.
summit took place around Kagoshima, a beautiful port city at the southern
end of Kyushu that has as its centerpiece Sakurajima, a live and smoking
volcano in its bay. The location was notable because the region was
home to Manjiro Nakahama, a teenaged sailor who in the early 1800s was
shipwrecked and rescued by an American whaling ship and educated in
New England (as John Manjiro or John Mung -- Chinese names being much
more familiar to Americans at the time) before returning to Japan.
of Sakurajima's majesty, I had decided on a homestay in Kagoshima to
get to know the city and its volcano better. Attendees chose in advance
from ten regional homestay locations, including remote villages such
as Wadomari, on Okinoerabu Island two hours' flight from Kagoshima,
and Nishinoomote City on Tanegashima Island (the headquarters for Japan's
reason it's hard to describe the summit is that much of its programming
structure depends on where you spend your homestay. This summit opened
with an afternoon of welcome speeches in Tokyo, but after one day of
cultural performances (traditional music and dance and a tea ceremony)
and history lectures in Kagoshima, the attendees split into small groups
according to their homestay locations. For the next two days, each locale
planned its own agenda, from loosely structured sightseeing to pretty
serious panel discussions.
Kagoshima homestay group spent the first day meeting with the city's
mayor and lunching at City Hall; sitting through more history lessons,
which are enlightening but a burden to endure during such an otherwise
exciting experience; and a brief but beautiful traditional dance performance
at a reception where we met our hosts for the next two nights.
we went off with our homestay families for our unique one-on-one experiences.
everyone got a real-life look at daily Japanese living, though: Jeff
Brown, a Colorado Springs art teacher who had his homestay in Wadomari,
had a wonderful time. But he was treated like a visiting dignitary,
and villagers dressed their best to visit him and take his picture.
He didn't get an accurate view of those villagers' lives. And though
accurate, some Americans got to see a privileged view of Japanese life,
because they were assigned to wealthy homestay families and showered
with extravagant gifts.
my homestay was with an unusually large (for Japan) family that doesn't
live extravagantly and didn't treat me like a curiosity. Mr. and Mrs.
Yamashita have eight kids who range from 7 to 23 in age. Tsutomu Yamashita
is a professor at the local technical college who works the long hours
typical of Japanese employees; I didn't get to spend much time with
him. Sayoko-san, my English-speaking, 51-year-old homestay "mother,"
is a housewife who volunteers with the local traditional dance troupe.
shared ideas and knowledge about the Japanese education system (she
thinks it asks too much of her children); about racism; about the difference
between Japanese and American work ethics; about things that affect
our lives, not just our countries.
took me to the 120-year-old local elementary school where her youngest
children walk to classes every day; the local hospital, where her older
son Shinya was having his sore throat investigated by a doctor (the
prognosis: didn't want to go to school); and Kagoshima's downtown entertainment
district, where hundreds of bars with tiny, discreet square signs attract
the working population after office hours. I slept on the floor on a
futon; used their Japanese-style furo (bath); ate sukiyaki communally
with the family.
in between the talking and eating, we also squeezed in a lot of sightseeing,
including a breathtaking ferry ride and drive halfway up Sakurajima's
smoking spout (the first night in Kagoshima it erupted a fountain of
ash that forced contacts-wearers to put on their glasses). We also visited
the mountainous area around Kirishima, a hot springs resort north of
Kagoshima; and the local botanical gardens, where a Chrysanthemum Festival
was being held.
climactic moment of the trip came at the end of the homestay, when all
the American participants gathered back in downtown Kagoshima to join
in an annual street festival and dance, or "obon."
the most lasting moment will be the one when I first stepped into Sayoko
Yamashita and her family's entryway, where the family took off their
shoes, and saw a crudely-drawn sign with a Japanese and United States
flag crossed, and the words "Welcome Gilbert" written across
like Manjiro Nakahama, returning to Japan after years away in America.
August 16, 1999
CHIC: IT'S HIP TO BE JAPANESE!
cultural trends ebb and flow like the ocean being pulled by the magnetic
mysteries of the moon, the tide is definitely running high for all things
Japanese these days. Ever since the 1997 publication of Arthur Golden's
enjoyable novel "Memoirs of a Geisha," there's been a slow
buildup of interest in Japanese culture, which seems to be culminating
in a veritable tsunami of influences from the west shores of the Pacific
lapping on the beaches of the United States.
of the Japanese affectations have been about geishas -- an often misunderstood
symbol of artful talents -- and this year the fashion world was all
a-twitter over Japanese elements such as kimono sleeves and Westernized
versions of the traditional dress, topped off with chopsticks used as
hairpins. Even popstar Madonna got into the act, donning a kimono-esque
robe for a music video and her attention-grabbing performance during
this year's Grammy Awards telecast. Articles in august publications
such as the New York Times have officially announced the Japan-fad,
opening the way for moderne Americans to feel hip and cutting-edge for
mimicking and co-opting styles and artistic expressions that are sometimes
hundreds of years old.
commodification of Asian culture is nothing new. Americans have flirted
with various forms of Asian style at various times over the decades,
whether because of the sheer exoticism of the Far East or because our
military spent time in Asia (there's an obvious cycle of Asian "war
brides" from post-WWII Japanese women to brides from Korea and
Vietnam and Southeast Asia marrying GIs during subsequent military engagements).
Maybe it's a combination of both -- certainly, Asian women have long
been objectified in Western sexual fantasies.
as always, is an early harbinger of cultural change. As each new Asian
community establishes a foothold in America, a wave of new restaurants
emerge. In Denver, a clear culinary shift could be tasted in the past
20 years, from long-established Chinese and Japanese restaurants to
many restaurants serving first Vietnamese, then Korean, then Thai food
becoming popular with young non-Asians.
the past couple of years, I've noticed a resurgence of Japanese restaurants,
albeit often the Americanized type of "fast food" Japanese
that serves up not-too-traditional bowls of gloppy teriyaki beef or
chicken served over over- or under-cooked rice. Now that sushi's become
an American staple, there seem to also be sushi bars galore, of varying
quality. There's even the combination of a sushi bar with an American
tradition, the all-you-can-eat buffet, here in Denver. I didn't like
it because it just didn't feel right to be eating sushi by the handful
with no regard to the delicate presentation f a true Japanese meal.
now, you can turn your kitchen at home Japanese.
latest mail-order catalog from Williams-Sonoma, a bastion of staid,
tasteful, upper-crust American consumerism, features four pages of "Asian
style" that includes such "classic" (that's a sarcastic
"classic") Japanese products as stainless steel chopsticks
that looks like something a surgeon might use to remove a kidney during
an operation; "Square Asian Plates" (I didn't know that Europeans
were so clever they invented the round plate!) and bamboo place mats
text next to one inviting photo of a table setting crows, "Even
a few simple strokes can create a visually exciting table and set the
stage for Asian-style dinner parties, exotic potlucks and other gatherings."
The photograph shows a careful arrangement of bamboo place mats (they
look like misplaced sushi maki rollers) square plates, bowls, wine glasses
(not very Japanese), candles (surrounded by moss, no doubt yanked out
of the backyard) and a bunch of silly smooth river rocks, laid out to
capture the essence of a rock garden. Yeah, right... a dinner party
in the Zen rock garden.
mother immediately saw through the well-intentioned but phony style,
and worried that anyone who didn't know better might think this is really
how Japanese eat their food. "Inchiki Japanese style," she
huffed, and walked away from the catalog. "Inchiki" means
"cheating" or "fake."
right. It's weird to think that Japanese culture's being molded into
something that's not a true reflection of Japan but more of a mix-and-match
hybrid that depends on style as a shallow hook to reel in consumers
like catching carp in a pond.
the other hand, at a time when troubled Americans are going around on
shooting rampages that include Asian-American victims, I guess I'd rather
have the spirit of Japan being introduced even in diluted form as something
that's hip and desirable. Even phony style can help bridge the cultural
gap between the U.S. and Japan, and I'd rather have a conversation with
someone who has an earnest, if misguided, appreciation for my roots
than someone who looks at me and sees only a yellow face and feels only
these "Japanese Lite" products hit the shelves of Kmarts,
Targets and Wal-Mart stores nationwide, I'll know that geisha chic has
become so saturated that it's about to fade. Then we can concentrate
on what may be ultimately a much more powerful force in U.S.-Japan relations,
and the TRUE Japanese fad of the year, because the kids are all crazy
for it: Pokemon!
August 9, 1999
Takashi Tanemori knows about violence at school. He was playing hide-and-seek
with second-grade friends at his school on a summer morning more than
50 years ago, when he saw something he hopes no one will ever again
saw a flash in the sky -- it was pure white," he said this week
during a layover at Denver International Airport, on his way back to
his home near San Francisco. "I quickly covered my eyes, but I
was blinded. Then, there was dead silence, and nothing moved."
August 6, 1945, Tanemori's school was less than one mile from ground
zero of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and he was about to feel the
full effects of the blast. "The air began to be compacted,"
he recalled. "I started scratching my throat for air, then began
to hear rumbling sounds like tanks which got louder and louder and closer
when his world exploded.
7-year-old found himself buried under the debris of his school building,
which ironically may have saved his life. "I began to smell the
heat and began to hear the cry of my classmates, who were asking for
their parents to come and pick them up."
also immediately screamed something he was to hear many times in the
days to come: "Mizu! Mizu! Mizu!" ("Water! Water! Water!")
saw flickers of "fire leaping like a serpent's tongue," listened
helplessly as his best friend died, and "felt hot liquid dripping
from my head all over my body." He doesn't remember much after
that, until a soldier pulled him loose from the debris and carried him
towards his home. The horrors he saw on that day's journey have been
seared into his memory: People were wandering in a daze everywhere.
"It was unrecognizable whether they were men or women," he
said, "because they were just charred."
for one person, whom you could tell was a woman because she was carrying
a baby on her back. But she didn't seem to know that the baby's head
was gone. "The memory's so vivid," he said, choking back tears
as if the tragedy had happened last week. There were elderly men begging
passing soldiers to kill them, and the pitiful cries for "Mizu!
Mizu!" were everywhere. When young Takashi was brought home, "My
father took me from the soldier's arms and my father hugged me. He was
crying, and he must have thanked the soldier 100 times -- and that's
not an exaggeration. The soldier just saluted and left, and my daddy
stood there just bowing."
though he'd been reunited with his family, the suffering wasn't over.
Tanemori's mother and baby sister were never found. The city was washed
by an incongruous black rain which carried more radiation with its cooling
family roamed the city for three days amongst the carnage and the walking
dead blistered by the blast, and finally crossed the river into the
countryside by stepping over a "human bridge" of corpses of
those who had died and fallen into the river, or died trying to cool
their burning injuries and dry throats.
the burns and cuts started to smell, and the black flies were swarming
-- the flies were everywhere, and I had no idea where they came from."
Tanemori still wonders at the fact that 75,000 people were killed by
one bomb but the flies seemed unaffected.
the fourth day, the family reached a train station, where authorities
had stacked wood at the end of the platform to cremate bodies as victims
fell. Two days later they managed to squeeze onto a train to Kotachi,
where his mother's family lived. His father died from his injuries,
and Tanemori and his brothers and sisters suffered the common plight
of children orphaned by the war. They were ignored, forgotten, and discarded,
and lived by their own wits, often sleeping under bridges, foraging
for food among trash and learning to subsist on weeds. He didn't return
to Hiroshima for years.
wanted vengeance for the death of his parents and the hardship of his
life. He failed at a suicide attempt when he was a teenager, and when
he immigrated to the United States at the age of 18, his goal was to
"kill American parents so that the children would understand what
it was like to live as an orphan."
the kindness of a nurse helped him turn his lust for revenge into a
need to forgive and "make peace with the painful past." These
days, Tanemori -- who is suffering from the long-ago effects of radiation
exposure with advancing blindness and stomach cancer -- is an activist
and storyteller with the San Francisco-based "First Light Project"
who uses his personal experience to help urge a nuclear-free planet.
the port where many Japanese Americans have their familial roots (the
region is where the early immigration of farm laborers to Hawaii and
America began) is today a bustling city, but it hasn't forgotten its
past. The Hiroshima Peace Park is a striking memorial to the bombing,
with the ominous skeleton of an observatory building left standing as
mute tribute to the destruction.
family lived near Hiroshima for a brief time in the mid-1960s, and as
a child the same age as Tanemori was when the city was bombed, I remember
visiting Peace Park. I vividly recall the deep sense of tragedy that
still envelopes the place even though the park is quite beautiful. A
family friend took my brother and I crabbing in the bay that day, but
I remember being worried -- I thought that 30 years after the war, the
radiation would affect me if I ate those Hiroshima crabs.
I know that the terrible bomb still does have its effects, on victims
who still suffer lives lessened by not only the radiation, but the horror
of the experience. Perhaps the ones who died that day were the lucky
You can learn more about the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki
(three days later, on August 9) at the A-Bomb
Museum online (the site includes photos and documentation not suited
to young children). You can also learn about Takashi Tanemori and his
activism at the Silkworm Peace Institute.
August 2, 1999
SPLIT PERSONALITY: LIFE AS A BANANA
a banana. That's what I've been told, by people who know -- Japanese
Americans who've been involved in community activism all their lives.
When I first joined the JACL, I didn't know much of our shared history,
and asked about the "no-no-boys" who refused to swear allegiance
to the U.S. when they were interned during WWII, or about Vincent Chin,
the Chinese American who was murdered in Detroit in the 1980s when he
was mistaken for a "Jap."
I didn't know about the history, I was told I was a banana: Yellow on
the outside, but white on the inside.
true that I grew up amongst Caucasian friends -- especially after we
moved to the states -- and wasn't involved politically or socially with
Asians or Asian causes.
I like to think of myself as more than just a fruit. I'm really a dessert.
I'm a banana split, with both my "yellow" and "white"
sides sharing equal attention.
more about Japan than some other Japanese Americans, for one thing.
Since I was born there, I have vivid memories of Japan (albeit the Japan
of 35 years ago, before the first McDonalds or KFC stormed the Yamato
shores), and feel at home when I visit. I've also immersed myself in
Japanese history and pop culture in recent years, and I feel I'm as
much a Japanese as I am American.
Nihongo is pretty wretched, I'll admit. I've written about this before
-- my mother tried to teach my brother and I to read and write Japanese
after our family moved to the states, and we refused. Instead, I learned
every American obscenity I could, and went around the summer of 1966
proudly mouthing some of the most foul language on Earth, even though
my 8-year-old mind had no idea what any of those words meant. My idea
of a cool four-letter word wasn't "kana," and my vocabulary
didn't include any Japanese alphabets.
I can understand a fair amount of Nihongo, and if I say so myself, my
accent on the few words I know is pretty authentic. Not that I'd "pass"
for a Japanese in Japan, but I can surprise an employee in a Japanese
restaurant by sounding first-generation, at least on a limited scale.
When I'm not cursing loudly in English, anyway.
my appearance that's more American: Rumpled jeans, baggy clothes, loud
colors, the loping way I walk (as if I'm moving to the beat of rock
music in my head) with my head up and making eye contact with others.
And my tastes: Colorful car, loud music, loud voice and colorful language.
when I was attending art school, it didn't occur to me that I might
be a banana -- or any ethnic flavor. My work followed the paths of centuries
of white, Eurocentric artists from Leonardo Da Vinci to Andy Warhol.
I learned about Japanese art including the Ukiyo-e woodcut prints that
so influenced the French Impressionists I loved so well, yet I never
felt the urge to make "Japanese-inspired" art.
my life, though, I was Japanese in all sorts of very visible ways --
not the least of which is my face and my skin. The banana peel, I guess.
I ate Japanese food, I usually took off my shoes in homes, I was polite
to seniors and people above me. I respected authority. Well, sort of.
slowly, as I got older and began to feel the need to get involved in
the community around me, I began to realize that the part of me that
was the banana peel wanted to reach below the surface. I wanted to be
around others who looked like me (whether they were also bananas or
not didn't matter). That's when I joined both the Japanese American
Citizens League and the Japan America Society of Colorado. These organizations
serve as an outlet for me to connect with both my internal and external
selves, and they help me make sense of my self-image. And ultimately,
the interaction with others has helped me accept my split personality
and feel comfortable in my own skin.
there are millions of people who are more Japanese than me. Good for
them. I've also met JAs who are even more banana-like than me, people
who can't speak any Japanese without fumbling over the syllable, and
people who've never dined on Nihon-meshi but prefer hamburgers and fries
all their lives. It's taken me a while, but I feel more aware of political
issues and the pervasive racism that surrounds all people of color in
our culture. I know who Vincent Chin was, and why the No-No Boys deserve
tough to be an American -- a lot tougher than most Americans realize.
Being a banana has helped me appreciate both of my selves, and it's
a nice feeling.
July 26, 1999
SAKURA IN SUMMER
Japanese community celebrated Sakura Matsuri, the annual Cherry Blossom
Festival, recently under the blazing July sun. I know, I know, the cherry
blossom season is in the spring when -- DUH -- the delicate pink buds
bloom. That's when they celebrate the cherry blossoms in Washington,
D.C., where sakura trees from Japan were planted in friendship around
the Jefferson Memorial in 1912. And, all over Japan, group outings are
carefully planned for the best viewing of the blossoms in late March
and early April.
here in Denver, this annual rite of spring has been pushed back over
the years to accommodate other events and now the home game schedule
of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. So once again, the festival was
held mid-July at Sakura Square, the downtown Denver block that houses
a handful of Japanese businesses, the Denver Buddhist Temple and Tamai
Towers, a high-rise apartment building for Japanese seniors. The block
of Lawrence Street in front of Sakura Square, between 19th and 20th
Streets, was blocked off and a stage erected along 20th St. The other
end of the block was crowded with booths and tents for merchants and
organizations and sponsors such as the Japan America Society of Colorado,
Korea Air, the Japanese American Citizens League and Sister Cities International.
on Sakura Square's mezzanine level were more cultural displays and demonstrations
from Japanese swords to a Japanese photo exhibit sponsored by the Museum
of Contemporary Art. And in the Buddhist Temple, more demonstrations
(a full tea ceremony was conducted several times throughout the day)
, lectures and the "main event" -- a dining room full of Japanese
food such as teriyaki chicken and beef, samplings of simple sushi, chow
mein and a variety of manju, or pastries filled with either meat or
sweet bean paste, all cooked up by festival volunteers. On Saturday
evening, the festivities were topped off by an Obon street dance.
honored to play master of ceremonies for the stage both days, even though
I was also supposed to be volunteering at the JACL booth the whole time.
The stage featured the gamut of talent from Japanese music both traditional
and contemporary, martial arts demonstrations, lovely dance performances
and even a fashion show of Anne Namba, a Hawaiian-born JA designer,
who takes kimono fabric and incorporates it into high-class couture.
festival has been held for 27 years -- it was begun the same year that
Sakura Square was completed, 1972 -- and it's become the most visible
public display of the area's Japanese and Japanese American population.
unusual in Colorado to see so many people in one place who look like
me, and hear Japanese being spoken everywhere, and enjoy Japanese culture
from hand-made dolls and clothing with traditional motifs to the many
dances and musical performances. It's the one time of the year when
Denver feels a little like Los Angeles or San Francisco, cities with
dense Japanese communities concentrated in areas such as LA's Little
Tokyo, which makes you feel like you're indeed in Tokyo, not California.
Each year, I've made new friends at the Cherry Blossom Festival. Growing
up, I didn't have many Japanese acquaintances, but that's certainly
not the case here.
looking out over the crowds all weekend, I was happiest about the number
of NON-JAPANESE faces milling about, smiling in appreciation at the
performers, admiring the crafts and gifts for sale, and eating and drinking
their way across cultures. I saw more than a few folks walking out of
the temple with a tall sack of the Styrofoam containers of meals --
a lot of hearty Japanese meals were eaten over the weekend, and that's
a good thing.
of the popularity of sushi and the burgeoning Japanese restaurant scene,
and because of the current "geisha glam" fad in fashions (it
makes me smile every time I see a young woman wearing straw sandals,
even with precariously high platform heels, because they're such a classic
Asian design), Americans seem very open to and curious about Japanese
culture. We should take advantage of this openness, and organize as
many public events as possible while the interest is still high, to
educate as many people as possible to Asian American issues and the
richness of Japanese culture.
opening and closing acts for both days were taiko drum groups, those
thundering percussion ensembles which have caught on with non-Japanese
rock and roll, jazz and world music fans. Denver's lucky to have two
popular resident taiko groups, the Buddhist Temple's Denver Taiko group
(with dozens of musicians ranging in age from pre-teen to adult with
some members who've been involved in the group since the 1970s) and
One World Taiko, a talented family troupe (its founding members worked
as a taiko duet at Disney World for a couple of years before transplanting
to Colorado). On both days of the festival, One World Taiko kicked off
the morning and Denver Taiko closed the stage at night.
both groups' performances, hundreds of people crowded the stage in awe
of the pounding rhythms and precise group choreography, where musicians
circle from one drum to the next and take turns keeping the multi-rhythms
rolling in waves over the block and mingling with the humid heat. The
cheers of appreciation inevitably followed the echoing taiko drums and
left both the musicians and audiences moved... and exhausted. Swaying
at the side of the stage, it felt to me like magic was in the air.
such a kinetic, powerful interaction of cultures, who needs cherry blossoms,
can visit the Web site for the National Cherry Blossom Festival,
and you can read about Denver's Cherry Blossom Festival and see photographs
and video clips of One World Taiko at asiaXpress.com.
July 19, 1999
DAYLIGHT: THE CLOSING OF A FAVORITE LUNCH SPOT
week I had lunch every day at a donut shop -- not just any donut shop,
but one that served Japanese food every weekday after the donuts for
the day had been made and bought.
ate at this Daylight Donuts franchise in the west Denver suburb of Lakewood
more than a decade ago. Tatsuo and Sachiko Ikeda have run the donut
shop for 15 years, but last week was their last serving up donuts and
coffee in the morning and teriyaki chicken and green tea for lunch.
They sold the business and are getting set to visit Japan before retiring
to their Lakewood home.
donut shop is located in a nondescript suburban strip mall, and there's
no indication from the outside that passersby could dine on anything
but a glazed donut or a bear claw. The only sign outside is the pale
yellow "Daylight Donuts" sign. But every weekday, nearby workers
discovered the unadvertised secret: That the Ikedas switch from sweet
snacks at 11 a.m. and start stirring up the miso soup, rice and entrees
for the lunch crowd. The unadorned, unglamorous room with about a dozen
tables and a short counter with four stools would fill up by noon, with
many of the faithful coming from the Denver Federal Center, a nearby
complex of government offices where word-of-mouth had spread amongst
the bureaucrats about great food at cheap prices.
Ikedas could never be accused of being greedy... in the time I've been
lunching there, I think the prices have increased only twice, and by
small increments. The "menu" -- a plastic sign on the wall
near the cash register with letters and numbers slid into grooves --
isn't large, and the small selection made for an efficient operation,
where Tatsuo knew exactly how much of everything he'd need to cook up
his daily dishes. The regular items on the sign included:
Chicken teriyaki for $2.30 (a huge full leg of chicken broiled to perfection
and served on a bed of soft, sticky rice)
Chicken yakitori for $3 (skewered pieces of chicken breast broiled and
topped with a thicker teriyaki sauce)
Chicken cutlet for $3.50 (a breaded fried chicken breast served with
the Worcestershire-flavored tick sauce that's a staple on Tonkatsu,
or Japanese-style fried pork cutlets)
Beef teriyaki for $3.95 (a full serving of sliced beef marinated in
a refreshingly non-gloppy soy-based sauce and served over that steaming
Shrimp tempura for $5.85 (the only item over $5)
A weekly special that almost always was a homemade wonder or a traditional
Japanese dish, such as Japanese-style stew-like curry, or the final
week's Ginger chicken ($3.89), served with the usual salad and miso
Donuts also served Gyoza, or fried dumplings, that tasted just like
fact, my mom was the one who introduced me to this suburban oasis of
budget gourmetdom. When she worked at the Federal Center (she was a
cartographer, or a mapmaker, for the U.S. Geological Survey for years),
she heard about the Japanese delights being served up a few blocks away.
By the time she retired, my mom was going to "Daylight" every
week with a large group of her co-workers, and taking back large takeout
orders for others who couldn't join the group. She's continued her weekly
pilgrimage since retiring, but she was visiting Japan when Daylight
one reason why I ate there every day last week: to make up for my mom's
is that I loved the food that Sachiko-san served every time I visited
Daylight, and the way she insisted on speaking in Japanese whenever
I saw her, to force me to improve.
trained as one of the early flashy, knife-wielding chefs for the Benihana
restaurant chain, and also cooked in other restaurants while his wife
raised the kids at home. Eventually, the couple decided to go into the
donut business. If they worked together in a donut shop and made Japanese
food for lunch, they'd be home by 3:30 every day when their kids got
home from school.
once told me her schedule: Getting up at an ungodly early hour, making
donuts by the dawn's early light, cooking and serving lunch and cleaning
up just in time to get home and cook dinner for the kids. When I first
started driving to Daylight, Sachiko-san and her husband's kids were
in elementary school. They're now out of college and have their own
lives, making it possible for the couple to finally slow down and enjoy
life a bit.
a very tired Sachiko-san on Friday, as she counted down the minutes
until she could turn around the "Closed" sign for good. I
could tell she was both relieved and saddened. All week, regular customers
shrieked with heartbreak when she told them, and many returned the next
day bearing going-away gifts, balloons and flower arrangements.
was sweet, the kind of send-off restaurants never get.
I got my lunch at a drive-through hamburger joint. A chicken sandwich
and order of large french fries cost more than a special from Daylight
Donuts. I miss you already, Sachiko-san!
July 5, 1999
Fourth of July holiday is the United States' biggest celebration, a
birthday party to honor the country's founding on principles of freedom
and fairness, which states that "all men are created equal."
But this year's holiday has been marred by a reminder that there are
Americans who don't think all men are created equal.
Illinois and Indiana, police spent much of the weekend searching for
a man who they think committed eight drive-by shootings aimed at Jews,
African-Americans and Asians. The suspect committed suicide during a
high-speed chase Sunday night. Americans are shocked and outraged at
the atrocities that can be committed in the service of blind hatred
in places such as Kosovo, but we forget that among us are people who
are capable of deep-rooted violence for the same misguided reasons.
get me wrong -- I'm truly proud to be an American citizen, and don't
plan on moving anywhere else. It's worth remembering, after all, that
freedom of speech and thought means those who harbor hate have the right
to their opinions. They just shouldn't act out their thoughts in violence.
holiday also made me think about patriotism and what it means to be
ago, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry spent part of World War II
in concentration camps in godforsaken locations away from their homes
merely because of their ancestry, and many lost everything because of
this unjust imprisonment. The wounds of internment have been healed
to a great extent since by the U.S. government's official apology in
1988 and subsequent redress payments to many of the families who suffered
half a century ago.
not all the pain has been erased.
Japanese American Citizens League is currently undergoing an agonizing
process of self-examination over an emotional issue left unresolved
since the war. As an organization, we're struggling with our role in
Japanese Americans think the JACL helped the federal government carry
out its internment policy during the war. The JACL has been accused
of helping to identify anyone who opposed the government during the
war, and helping to convince JAs that being relocated in prison camps
without complaint was a sign of patriotism. And, the JACL has long been
accused of treating anyone who disagreed with the war, or who refused
to sign up for the draft when Nisei soldiers were finally accepted into
commission, with contempt.
current rift is one that was inevitable as times changed and a younger
generation began to shape the organization's policy. One by one JACL
districts and chapters across the country have announced resolutions
apologizing to draft resisters during WWII, and the topic is sure to
be one of the major debates of next year's national convention. The
world is a different place than in 1942, and values have changed. The
unpopular Vietnam War made my generation feel that draft resistance
in the service of our principles was noble, but during WWII, resisting
the draft was a much more radical, and therefore more difficult, stance.
The JA resisters fought the draft because they couldn't accept fighting
for their government while their families remained imprisoned by the
JACL members -- especially the heroic veterans who were drafted from
internment camps and served with great valor in both Europe and Asia
-- feel that it may be worth acknowledging the poor treatment of resisters
during and since the war, but that an apology would be an insult to
the memory of those who fought and died.
in the Mile-Hi Chapter of the JACL (I'm the current president of the
chapter), we held a recent board meeting where we discussed how to vote
at an upcoming district meeting, where a resolution apologizing to draft
resisters will be presented. After emotional testimony on both sides
of the issue, the board decided to abstain from the vote, and poll our
local membership first to see how they feel. The chapter will represent
the opinions of the membership to the district and national levels.
A veteran pointed out how while he was serving in Europe, the draft
resisters abused his family in camp for sending its sons to war. Another
board member countered with documented cases of resisters being ostracized,
separated from their families and sent to higher security prisons.
personal thoughts are that the JACL has suffered too long from the perception
that we colluded with the government to facilitate internment and convince
JAs to act like "sheep" in accepting the injustice of imprisonment.
Our membership is a small fraction of the number of Japanese Americans
in the country, and part of the reason is this deep-rooted animosity
towards the organization. To become a stronger representative of all
the JA community in the future struggles for civil rights, we should
take the high road and do whatever's necessary to bridge this rift,
even if it means apologizing when many members feel the JACL has done
to draft resisters doesn't mean we can't still honor the heroism of
those who chose to fight in the war.
freedoms guaranteed by our country allow people to disagree with it
by refusing to fight a war on principle, and they also allow people
to harbor hatred against minorities. I think the manifestation of the
latter is a much more critical issue to focus on.
crimes like the shootings this weekend remind me that we have work to
do in the here and now. The JACL needs to look forward with a united
membership and support from the community. Let's not let pride paralyze
us internally while there's so much work to do in the world.
June 28, 1999
DESIGN OF DINING: IT'S ALL IN THE PRESENTATION
heard it so often that it's almost a cliche: Half of the joy of Japanese
cuisine is in the presentation.
it's with a sad heart that I tell you of a great concept in Japanese
dining that falls flat for its lack of finesse.
a national chain that recently opened a large outlet in Denver's swank
Cherry Creek Shopping Mall, is a concept that I should love, because
I'm a hearty eater. And when it comes to Japanese food, and especially
sushi, my appetite is downright gigantic. I once ate about $100 worth
of sushi myself during one family outing -- dad was paying, so I had
to get my money's worth. Todai feeds on that same instinct, getting
your money's worth. It's an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant, with
mountains of sushi and other Japanese entrees mass-produced and presented
not cheap (over $12 for lunch, over $23 for dinner), but it's worth
it if your goal is eat enough to get your money's worth. After all,
sushi is an expensive commodity, and when you're used to paying $2 per
piece of tuna or $4 for a handful of little seaweed-wrapped rolls, it
doesn't take much to plow through at least $23 worth at Todai. I ate
plenty of sushi, and also sampled the teriyaki beef, barbecue chicken,
fried shrimp, various salads and other side dishes. The food was all
right but not great. Some of the dishes tasted fresher than others;
the rice didn't have enough of the vinegar flavor that I've grown up
with; and the sushi wasn't made with dabs of wasabi inside, though we
could scoop a mound as a side dish.
meal was good enough to get stuffed on, but we had an empty feeling
despite being full. My friend Samantha put her finger on exactly why
the experience was lacking: The presentation.
a sushi fan who loves not just the food, but the presentation, with
the sushi perched on a little lacquered tray, and each piece hand-pressed
to perfection. Todai's sushi is hand-made too, by the chefs who stand
behind the buffet and shape little ovals of rice and slice the sashimi
to top off the ovals by the dozens. But it's a factory line, manufacturing
sushi selection is constantly replenished so there always are a dozen
or more pieces of each type on the ice, ready to be plucked by hungry
(or curious) diners. And diners oblige by stacking plates to overflowing
with a mishmash of food.
no presentation -- just a rush to move the food from the buffet into
our mouths in the most efficient fashion.
Sam pointed out the lack of presentation, I realized that's what had
been nagging at me too -- the restaurant itself is s huge open room
with high ceilings, painted blue and lit as if it were a Miami lounge.
It doesn't feel like any Japanese restaurant I've ever been in.
It's fine for people who come for volume and swallow their body weight
in rice and fish, but not for those of us who enjoy sushi for the experience.
why I was glad a few days later to dine at another Denver Japanese restaurant,
Domo. Domo is operated by Gaku Homma, a chef and Aikido martial arts
teacher who used to own a restaurant but closed it to run his Aikido
Dojo (school). Last year, he opened Domo in a large building to house
both his Aikido school and the restaurant, which is both special and
the "real deal."
the dining room is a stunning recreation of a Hokkaido farmhouse, with
handmade lamps and other accessories, and the addition of rough-hewn
tables of Colorado slate and seats made from tree stumps covered with
padding and Japanese fabric. Homma even created an authentic Japanese
garden outside with a fish pond and an attached "museum" of
Japanese farm implements and other items showing the everyday life of
rural Japan a hundred years ago.
the food is what's really special. You won't find any sushi at Domo,
which is the first clue that Homma isn't just catering to popular tastes.
His very instructive menu educates while it whets appetites, and even
familiar-seeming items such as teriyaki are served more authentically
marinated in flavoring rather than served with a sweet, thickened sauce
drizzled over the meat. The food, of course, was served with a visual
emphasis, on lacquered trays with separate compartments for the meat,
rice, and many homecooked vegetables and pickled "tsukemono"
of the day.
of hours at Domo reminded me how satisfying authentic Japanese food
can be, not just because of its flavor, but also its presentation. Best
of all, I left Domo just as full but much more satisfied. Gochiso
June 21, 1999
OFF & SHOPPING ONLINE
addicted to shopping. I started when I was just a teenager, buying books,
photography equipment, food, gasoline and lots and lots of record albums
(this was way before CDs were invented -- those came later). I used
to love walking up and down the nearby Villa Italia Mall, buying up
stuff like a squirrel collecting nuts for the winter.
trait -- oh, habit if you must call it that -- has its good side and
life's plus column, I have lots of stuff. In the deficit column, I have,
well, a deficit. Money comes, and money goes.
the Internet hasn't made my penchant for spending any easier to control.
In fact, it's made it easier for me to spend my money.
e-commerce thing that everyone's talking about is already an economic
force to be reckoned with. One of the best-known online retailers, Seattle-based
Amazon.com, started as an Internet bookstore,
and then added departments for CDs, videos, gifts and now even online
auctions. It's truly a "virtual" store, because Amazon.com
was started only on the World Wide Web. There's no "brick-and-mortar"
storefront, no cash registers, no clerks and no shelves stacked with
become a regular shopper at Amazon.com, using its search capability
to look up titles, then reading others' reviews before clicking
the handy One-Click Shopping button. I visit any time of the day or
night when I think of a CD I like, or when I find that an old movie
I like is available on video. I've bought a bunch of Japanese music
CDs (no J-pop, unfortunately, but more traditional music of koto, shamisen
that One Click button and go back to surfing the Web, and my order is
delivered a few days later at the office. How cool is that?
a way, I do the same thing at Amazon.com that I've always done at shopping
malls and my favorite book and record (excuse me, CD) stores: I hang
out. I read the descriptions. I try some of the music out (there are
samples of several songs that you can listen to for most CDs). I post
reviews and read others' opinions just as I would hanging out at my
favorite real CD store.
hanging out is what young people have always done at shopping malls,
coffee shops and burger restaurants.
of each era has come up with names for this behavior. Today, young people
who hang out are called "slackers." In the 1980s, young women
who spent spare time at the malls of Southern California's San Fernando
Valley and made institutions of chains such as The Gap were called "Valley
Girls." I guess when I was a kid, the word was "hippies,"
though that usually covered anyone who was young and anti-establishment,
whether we were hanging out or not. In the 1950s, "JDs" --
juvenile delinquents -- was the handy label for the rebellious teens
who listened to rock and roll music and hung out, like the song said,
"at the Hop."
labeling crosses boundaries of time and place. I came across the same
practice in Tokyo -- 70 years ago.
the 1920s, when wealth returned to the world after World War I and before
the Great Depression, a decadent decade of dancing and youthful exuberance
hit not just the United States. In Japan, young people were so infatuated
with being Western -- which represented all that was modern -- that
they became known as "Moga" and "Mobo," for Modern
Girl and Modern Boy. And these young people found their own perfect
place to hang out in the increasingly crowded urban landscape of Tokyo:
Amidst the bright, contemporary, cool neon shopping strip called the
Japanese even came up with a word for hanging out in the Ginza. They
combined the shopping district with an onomatopoetic word, "bura-bura"
which loosely translates to "hanging out" or "lollygagging"
and came up with the new word "Ginbura."
out in the Ginza -- doesn't that sound like hanging out at the local
mall? Or in my case, hanging out online? Maybe I should coin a new term:
if you'll excuse me, I need to place an order.
enjoy the convenience of buying online, but I also love to touch and
inspect books and CDs at my favorite "brick-and-mortar" stores:
The Tattered Cover and Twist & Shout, both in Denver.
June 9, 1999
PARADISE: THE UNTOUCHABLE JOHN WOO
finished reading "Tokyo Underworld" (Pantheon, 1995), a book
by Robert Whiting subtitled "The Fast Times and Hard Life of an
American Gangster in Japan." Whiting is an American journalist
in Japan, and the book is more or less about Nick Zappetti, the late
self-described "King of the Tokyo Mafia," and his post-World
War II rise and eventual fall as a semi-notorious crook and restaurant
the book is most interesting to me for its vivid history of the early
post-war Occupation years in Tokyo's rough-and-tumble underworld, and
the rise of the Japanese gangsters -- the Yakuza -- and the evolution
of the crimes they commit from petty extortion and territorial rumbles
to white-collar financial crimes involving the top levels of the country's
it's silly to think that gangsters are somehow more dangerous or evil
today than in the past, but back when I was young, the image of a gangster
was romanticized through characterizations by tough but cool actors
such as James Cagney, and by the dimly-lit black-and-white TV program,
"The Untouchables," which aired in the U.S. between 1959-1963.
It was also shown in Japan, and although the rise of the Yakuza was
well underway by then, the show had an impact on the young Japanese
who flirted with the "Dark Side" of their day.
recently saw a funny video, "Minbo no Onna," or "The
Anti-Extortion Woman," a 1992 film by director Juzo Itami, the
man who brought us "Tampopo." It stars his wife Mahiru Inoue
as a lawyer who specializes in the wily ways of the Yakuza, who often
bully people with fear without breaking the law to accomplish their
goals. She's not scared of them, and she helps a hapless crew of Yakuza-fighters
save their hotel from a ruinous reputation as a gangsters' haven.
burst of interest in Japanese gangsters comes on the heels of a streak
of watching Chinese gangster films on video.
of them were directed by John Woo, and many star Chow Yun Fat. Both
of these men are now breaking into the Hollywood world -- Fat recently
co-starred in "The Corruptor" with Mark Wahlberg, and Woo
has directed U.S. action thrillers such as "Broken Arrow"
and "Face/Off," and he's currently working on the "Mission:
Impossible" sequel with Tom Cruise.
come to really enjoy these movies partly because the handsome, round-faced
Chow is incredibly charismatic whether he's playing a cop with heart
or a gangster with heart, and also because Woo is a remarkable visionary
(in his Chinese films, anyway) who addresses a multitude of moral dilemmas
while he choreographs some of the most poetic scenes of violence imaginable.
Woo takes the famous climactic scene of Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic,
"Taxi Driver," where Robert DeNiro goes on a rampage with
guns and shows it in slow motion, and turns it into an art form.
all of Woo's movies, there are numerous shootouts between cops and robbers,
and they're all shown in slow-motion grace. In one, the 1992 "Hard
Boiled," Woo orchestrates an awe-inspiring shootout at the end
where an entire hospital goes down in flames and gunfire, and Fat holds
a baby to his breast while he shoots his way to safety. The scene is
almost hysterically funny in its over-the-top imagery. But Woo's also
an intriguing director because his movies all have an underlying moralism
Woo's famous "The Killer" from 1989, Fat plays an assassin
who spends the movie trying to find redemption for accidentally blinding
a beautiful nightclub singer during a shootout. In the 1990 film "Once
a Thief," Woo follows the criminal careers of two brothers and
a woman who grow up together as expert thieves -- and how they find
their redemption. It's as if Woo sees crime as an inevitable reality
of modern life, but that even criminals can be heroic.
rest of the bad guys in Woo's films are really bad, of course, and it's
always a relief to see them dispatched in the inevitable slow-motion
showdown. But this glimpse of the heroic in the bad guys somehow returns
me to the days of "The Untouchables" and James Cagney. I haven't
noticed a lot of titles in the video store in the "Yakuza"
genre like John Woo and the many other Chinese filmmakers who now copy
again, from the way they're portrayed in both the book "Tokyo Underworld"
and the movie "Minbo no Onna," maybe there isn't much heroic
you can find in the Yakuza lifestyle.
May 31, 1999
DAY: PAYING HOMAGE TO HEROES
is Memorial Day in the United States. It's a holiday where patriotism
takes center-stage, where those who've served in the military -- and
given their lives for our principles -- are given their due. All over
the country, ceremonies and services are held to remember the contributions
of military personnel who've made the "supreme sacrifice."
Denver, the Japanese American community has gathered for decades on
this day, to honor the memory of husbands, fathers, brothers and friends
who've died over the years. They gather at the Nisei War Memorial, a
fine, sculptural monument that sits in a serene quadrant of Fairmount
Cemetery, which consists of five stoic slabs of concrete. Four of them
feature the words "Freedom," "Honor," "Justice"
and "Equality." Beneath them are etched the names of Japanese
Americans who were killed in action -- most of them during World War
II, as members of the fabled 442nd Regiment -- the most highly decorated
unit of its size. On the other side of the monument are etched the names
of Japanese American veterans who died during peacetime, including the
names of heroes who died long after they retired from the military.
My father's name -- George H. Asakawa -- is on this side of the monument,
for his years spent with the U.S. Army and Army Reserves.
annual event is organized by Colorado's American Legion Nisei Post 185,
whose members are sadly thinned by age as the years go by. Those that
aren't there in person are added to the list on the back of the memorial,
and those that can make it don their light-blue uniforms and military
ceremony is short, but sweet in the true sense of the word. With the
balmy sun beating away the storm clouds for a few hours, the members
of the Nisei Post introduced the fiery reverend Nobuko Miyake-Stoner
of the bilingual Simpson Methodist Church, who made an impassioned plea
for peace and understanding between people, drawing a line from the
Japanese American internment to the racism of Kosovo. Then, reverend
Kanda Okamoto of the Denver Buddhist Temple -- himself a former internee
-- chanted his tribute. One veteran relived heart-wrenching scenes from
WWII, when several buddies got killed by a sniper, and he held one friend
as he died.
representatives of recently-deceased veterans laid flowers at the base
of the monument, followed by representatives of over a dozen Japanese
American community and military organizations. As the president of the
Mile-Hi chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, I was there
to lay a flower at the memorial on behalf of the JACL. The hundred or
more who assembled near the Nisei War Memorial included Asian and Caucasian
faces, babies and old folks.
mixed feelings about war. But I've come to understand the inescapable
need for soldiers -- throughout all of history. War has been part of
the inescapable fabric of human endeavor, whether it's for noble or
awful reasons, freedom or false spirituality. And, I think it's important
to honor soldiers who serve their countries honorably. It's patriotic,
and patriotism is different from nationalism. I guess sometimes it can
be a fine line.
Day celebrates patriotism, and those who believed enough in their duty
to give their lives in the spirit of patriotism. Looking out at today's
ceremony, and feeling the collective gratitude of the assembled group
for the Japanese Americans who fought for the United States, I was moved
by the power of the monument.
monument, the National Japanese American Memorial planned for a spot
two blocks from the United State Capitol building in Washington, D.C.,
would be an even greater tribute to not just the Japanese Americans
who served in the U.S. military, but for all Japanese Americans. It
would also reflect the tragic patriotism of the 120,000 people who were
interned during the War -- even as many of their sons went off to battle
on behalf of the U.S.
the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation is still struggling
to raise the finances needed for the project. President George Bush
in 1992 authorized the plot of land for the monument, but the NJAMF
only has until this August to come up with the $8.6 million needed for
the creation of the memorial.
Denver's Nisei War Memorial, the NJAM would be a tribute that would
stand so future generations could see and appreciate the efforts of
those who came before them. It sounds corny, especially coming from
someone as normally cynical as me. But I've given the foundation a donation,
and when I moderated a panel last week about the Japanese American experience
in Colorado, for an international educators' convention meeting in Denver,
the panelists agreed that a donation should be sent to the foundation
in lieu of fees.
how I celebrated my Memorial Day. I think my dad would approve.
me at 303-708-7224 if you're interested in donating to the National
Japanese American Memorial Foundation, or send your donation to: 1920
N Street NW - Suite 660, Washington DC 20036. You can read more about
the NJAMF at their Web site, http://njamf.org
May 23, 1999
DAZE: THE SMART ASIAN SYNDROME
all Asians supposed to be smart, especially in subjects such as math
and science? Well, I was a good student -- the model minority and all
that. I was near the top of my graduating class, but I wasn't a straight-A
student in high school.
never took any more advanced math courses beyond algebra and trigonometry.
That's as far as I needed to go in the math department. I can honestly
say I've never had to deal with a sine, cosine or tangent in my life
since high school.
that super-smart stuff to my brother Gary, who's a year older than me.
He was headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study
engineering, and he was the one playing with computer data cards (they
used cards and magnetic reel-to-reel tapes on gigantic computers that
covered a wall back then).
I split my days between the English Resource Center (a fancy 1970s word
for the library) and the art department. My friends may have thought
of me as a brainy kid, but my energy was channeled more towards words
and pictures. I was on the Alameda High School yearbook staff as a photographer,
and the newspaper staff as a photographer, reporter and cartoonist.
And when I wasn't in the ERC, you could find me drawing in the art room.
the end, my interest in art won out over my interest in journalism.
I went to art school in New York City and got a BFA in painting. But
look where I ended up -- I became a journalist in spite of myself, and
make my living now with words. (I have a confession to make here --
sorry mom: I was lazy in college, and though I graduated "with
honors," I skipped classes and crammed a semester's work into a
couple of weeks, preferring instead to learn guitar, volunteer in the
school radio station and write music reviews....)
all this personal history because I love to tell students that they
should follow their hearts, and if they're committed to it, they'll
find a way to make a living at it.
same goes for students of Asian heritage, though it does seem that Asian
students can have more options open to them because of their successes
in school. Asian American students do well because of a lot of reasons,
but I'm not sure it's because of their skin color. I think a big part
of it is the way they're brought up, which in a way is because they're
Asian. A cliche? Yes, sure. A simple explanation? Yep.
that I was supposed to get good grades, or else. Well, actually, I'm
not sure what would have happened. I know the most angry I ever saw
my father was when I got a "C" in handwriting. But then, he
wasn't as mad at the grade itself than at the way I tried to hide the
report card from him. I guess I felt I would be overcome with shame
if I got bad grades. It wasn't about failing my classes, it was about
failing my parents.
author T.R. Reid writes in his great new book, "Confucius Lives
Next Door," about the Japanese school system, and the East Asian
family structure that instills Confucian values in children. Reid's
right. I think I was raised with those values too, even though I never
heard of Confucianism growing up.
been thinking about my high school years (boy, they were a long time
ago -- the class of '75 celebrates its 25th reunion in the year 2000!)
today because this morning I attended the 14th annual award ceremony
sponsored by the Asian Education Advisory Council. The event was a wonderful
celebration of students who worked hard and deserved every accolade
other events I've attended lately, the best part about the AEAC banquet
was its pan-Asian spirit. Way back when I was a high school student
in suburban Denver, my older brother and I were almost alone as Asian
American students. There was one other Japanese family in the area,
and their daughter attended while we were at Alameda. But this was a
show of unity for all the Asian communities that call Denver home. Award
winners were Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai and more, and
ranged from a darling kindergarten student to elementary, middle school
and a stage full of high schoolers. And the program featured performances
from a talented young Chinese woman singing a bilingual pop song and
a young quartet of Laotian girls in a traditional dance.
keynote speaker was a student this year instead of a "grownup"
as in previous years. Hanh Phi gave a moving tribute to her parents
and the sacrifices they made -- they came to the U.S. during the Vietnam
War and wanted her to attain the "American Dream." She's well
on her way, with a long list of accomplishments through school, and
graduating as class valedictorian for John F. Kennedy High School.
sure if these kids continue their hard work and commitment to their
studies, they can take any path they choose in life, and succeed. I
just hope they'll take college a little more seriously than I did!
can see photographs from the AEAC awards ceremony at asiaXpress.com.
May 16, 1999
THE SMELLS OF JAPAN
say that smells are tied closer to memories than any of our other senses.
Binney & Smith, the manufacturers of the Crayola brand of colored
crayons for children, has determined that the waxy smell of a box of
Crayolas is one of the 20 most identifiable odors to adult Americans.
The top two? Coffee and peanut butter.
a Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) who spent my childhood
in Japan, I have very distinct "smellmories" that wouldn't
be familiar to Americans.
instance, I don't mean to be indelicate, but I have very vivid olfactory
memories of Japanese toilets from the early 1960s.
lived in a district of suburban Tokyo called Ogikubo for part of the
time, in an apartment complex nestled tightly among crowded homes along
a narrow street. Once a week, a truck came around the back of our building
and sucked out the sewage from the "obenjo" -- the traditional
type of toilet where you squat over a hole in the floor covered with
a ceramic cowl. The smell of those trucks is one memory I don't exactly
enjoy. I'm reminded of it whenever I'm at an outdoor event and have
to visit a "Porta-Potty."
nose has much more pleasant memories, of course.
for instance, is an ever present way to journey back to my childhood.
I can smell the Japan of my youth in good Japanese restaurants -- believe
it or not, I depend on my nose to tell me in part whether a restaurant
is authentic or not, by sniffing out the spices that waft from the kitchen.
There's a certain aroma that seasons a "real" Japanese restaurant
that you don't get from the phony fast-food variations or yuppie theme
are also certain times when the smell of city traffic -- not the carbon
monoxide haze of highway backups, but the more acrid smells of burning
rubber, screeching brakes (and perhaps the steel-on-steel odor of a
subway, which we don't have in Denver but do in New York) -- sends me
back in time to busy Tokyo streets with my dad honking the horn and
yelling "bakayaro!" ("you idiot!") out the window
at another grumpy driver.
childhood smell that I've tried to recreate for myself is the smell
of incense. Not the smell of patchouli, jasmine and other sweet-burning
sticks often associated with Indian culture or caricatured in the hippie-dippie
lifestyle, but the simple, pure-smelling smoke that's burned at Buddhist
ceremonies and in so many Japanese homes in front of the Buddhist altar.
I love walking into a Japanese home and noticing that comforting smell.
In my memory, the smoke from these green sticks of incense swirl together
with the scent of green curls of a mosquito repellant incense called
memories are those of a child, with too many years in between, so I'm
sure I'm simplifying things and confusing terms in my head. But that's
the beauty of memories, isn't it? They hold true to our own experience,
even if we subconsciously mold those memories to suit our present realities.
distinct memory isn't from Japan, but conjures a strong image of the
trip our family took when we moved from Japan to the United States in
eight years old, and we stopped for a few days in Hawaii and spent the
time with my father's brother, my uncle Ken, and his family. I remember
very little of the visit, of the things we did or places we went to.
I have an incredibly vivid memory -- a mental snapshot in brain-cell
Kodachrome -- of standing in uncle Ken's Honolulu backyard, with the
ever-present breeze rustling the always-green foliage and pushing the
puffy cotton-ball clouds along their blue sky course. I'm in the center
of this snapshot, my face inches away from the biggest flower I had
ever seen. It seemed like it could swallow my head. It was a hibiscus,
I know now, and it smelled wonderfully, intoxicatingly sweet.
of this smell from time to time and I can see the giant white petals
unfolding silkily in my mind again.
what they mean about smells being the most vivid of our senses for activating
our memories. And yes, I love the smell of Crayola Crayons.
May 9, 1999
a bunch of Asians yesterday, and it was a great experience. So what,
you might ask? Sure, I meet lots of people all the time, and especially
in the past couple of years, I've met many Japanese and Japanese Americans.
I have Chinese friends, my sister-in-law is Korean, and I've eaten most
types of Asian cuisines whenever I see a restaurant that serves something
I haven't tasted.
yesterday was different: I met Laotians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipinos
and more, of all ages, and all at one event.
at Denver's first-ever Asian Cultural Festival, sponsored by the Asian
Roundtable and held in a luxurious auditorium of a downtown bank building.
The Roundtable is an umbrella organization that covers the many facets
of the Denver area's Asian population, with representatives from organizations
as diverse as the Japanese American Citizens League (which I'm associated
with) and the Kunming (China) Sisters Cities Project to the Filipino
American Community Center. The event was organized because May is Asian
Heritage Month nationwide, but very little is done in Colorado to celebrate
the heritage of a huge part of the world's population. In fact, when
early calls were made to potential sponsors, one unfortunate but not
wholly unexpected response was, "Oh, we already sponsor Cinco de
Mayo" -- as if the corporate conscience can only accommodate one
ethnic show of support per month.
festival was casual in its setup, and very community-oriented. As one
organizer noted afterwards, "it was by Asians for other Asians.
If it was for the outside public, it would have been more of a show."
with her assessment. The best thing about this festival was the inescapable
sense of people learning more about each other in a relaxed environment.
There was a palpable atmosphere of cultural sharing amongst a couple
of hundred folks who in many ways looked alike -- but often knew little
about each other.
the different community groups brought samples of our cultures, including
food (of course). Japanese cuisine in the form of many varieties of
sushi (including niku-maki, or meat-roll, an Osaka specialty)
and other tasty samples was supplied by Sushi Tazu, a local restaurant.
And another eatery, Yoko's Express (a personal favorite of mine) made
a distinctly Japanese American specialty from Hawaii, "Spam Musubi."
There was also donated refreshments for adults from Anheuiser Busch
who brought samples of Kirin Beer, the popular Japanese brand, and also
Hakushika Sake, which is brewed just west of Denver for the U.S. market.
culture was also well represented by an exhibit of handmade dolls, a
display of beautiful bonsai trees and an Aikido martial arts demonstration.
Other performances included a Chinese choir, a troupe of young Filipino
dancers, and an enchanting Vietnamese dance with girls swaying with
lit candles to an enchanting melody.
this was enjoyed by an appreciative audience of Asian faces. It seems
obvious, but it was a revelation to realize that though we might share
similarities in appearance, we all have distinct heritages and discrete
friend told me that though he comes from the same country, he'd never
seen the graceful motions of a traditional Hmong dance performed by
several beautifully-dressed girls.
during the feeding frenzy for the different types of food served up
by every community, I found myself unexpectedly explaining the basics
of sushi -- even what to put soy sauce on -- to people I served. I realized
that I took for granted that the cuisine I love might be familiar to
others... especially other Asians. Partly, that's because I've gone
out of my way to try all types of food. In fact, one of my lifelong
rules has been that if something is eaten by people someplace, I'm willing
to try it. Once.
suddenly I realized that not everyone is exposed to a variety of food.
The line of diners passing by me included those who had never tasted
tofu, or who recoiled from the idea of raw fish. Like other non-Japanese
I know, a California roll with avocado was more appealing to them than
a piece of fried squid. In the end, of course, every last scrap of food
I felt I had learned a valuable lesson. Asia's an awful big place, and
a lot of different people have roots that reach deep into that part
of the world. We -- the Japanese and Japanese Americans -- make up one
part of this rich garden, but there are flowers blooming all around
the great success this first year is that Asians learned more about,
and shared a meal with, other Asians. Next spring for Asian Heritage
Month, maybe we can start to show off our many flowers to the rest of
can read this column reprinted along with photographs from the Asian
Cultural Festival at the Web site of Denver's Asian community, asiaXpress.com.
May 2, 1999
FOR LIFE: NICE RICE
been 20 years since I graduated from college (!), and I realized I don't
have much to show from those days.
laughably out-of-date clothes were turned into rags years ago; I've
upgraded my cheap stereo with better equipment and newer CD technology;
and I've driven several cars since my beloved Mazda Mizer. What I do
have still with me are a some books, a few pieces of artwork(I went
to art school), jade plant (it's huge) and my rice cooker.
a small, three-cup cooker made by Matsushita, with an old "National"
logo on its switch. My parents bought it for me when I went off to Pratt
Institute in New York City in the hot summer of 1975, the same model
they had given my older brother Gary the previous year when he took
off for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
use that rice cooker very regularly during college -- my roommate Joe
was such a great cook (he's Italian) that we both took turns mixing
up cuisines. I wasn't very "ethnic" in my cooking anyway --
I learned very creative ways to use "Hamburger Helper" without
the years since then, I've used my rice cooker intermittently.
I've been admiring my rice cooker lately. I'm amazed that I still have
it, and that it still works fine, despite some nasty-looking dents in
its white enameled exterior. There's even some paint splattered on part
of the lid -- some kitchen painting project from 15 years ago, no doubt.
I even have the little plastic measuring cup that came with the cooker.
I've gotten into the habit of making a full cooker of rice and snacking
on it for the next few days.
gone to Pacific Mercantile, the local Japanese grocery store, for various
additions to my plain white rice. I have a couple of kinds of furikake,
flavored bits (one has red pepper, garlic, ginger, sesame seed, salt,
bonito, seaweed and a lot more) that are shaken and sprinkled over rice.
I buy ochazuke, a seasoned soup base with tiny rice crackers
and seaweed flakes which you sprinkle over leftover rice then douse
with hot water. I have a couple of jars of a gloppy, salty seaweed paste
I smear over rice. And, I have natto, which is vile to even
many Japanese. It's fermented soybeans with a strong and somewhat foul
smell, which comes packed in a slimy, mucus-like film.
I know -- it sounds gross. And maybe it is. But I like it -- I grew
up with it, after all.
speaking with a Japanese American woman the other day, and once again
was reminded that food is the last bastion of one culture as it assimilates
JAs who speak hardly any Japanese, never take off their shoes in anyone's
homes and have never felt the inkling to visit the Land of the Rising
Sun identify with rice. My family had rice with almost every meal. The
only dinners without rice were when my mom would make spaghetti or later,
when she mastered pizza. (An early example of Italian food pushing into
my culinary territory!)
usually, that was white rice, the plain stuff. My mom used to yell at
my brothers and me if we even drizzled soy sauce on rice (OK, so it
was more like we poured the Kikkoman on).
never understand a couple of things about how Americans eat. They seem
to enjoy just cooking meat with no flavoring only to drown the meat
in a sauce like "A-1" after it's cooked. And, they think rice
should be cooked in such a way that my mom would call it "porro-porro"
-- so fluffy it falls apart. We used to shriek at the TV commercials
for Uncle Ben's Minute Rice, which made a point of saying it was better
because it wouldn't clump together
they know rice is supposed to clump together, so you can pick
it up with chopsticks?
stick to my sticky rice, thank you, and my 25-year old National rice
April 25, 1999
AND CONFUCIUS: LESSONS FROM TRAGEDY
I write these words, Vice President Al Gore is speaking on the television,
bringing comfort to the community of Littleton, where 14 students and
one teacher died at Columbine High School last week. The memorial service
is being held in a parking lot of a multi-plex movie theater -- the
place where many Columbine students undoubtedly congregated many times
before, in happier circumstances -- to accommodate the 70,000 mourners
who are still reeling from the worst school massacre in U.S. history.
tragedy literally hits close to home. I attended another Jefferson County
school, Alameda Senior High, just a few miles up the road from Columbine,
which was opened when I was a senior, to accomodate the growing population
of affluent suburbanites moving to the area.
class distinctions and thoughts of "That can't happen here"
have been shattered by the carnage.
a lot of people this week, I've been pondering the meaning of the deaths,
and talking with friends and family about how as a society, we can prevent
such a thing from happening again.
Columbine killings resonate partly because of its sheer scale -- 12
innocent students, one heroic teacher, and two sad young men who killed
themselves after destroying the lives of so many others -- and partly
because of the media coverage. Within the hour, the high school was
surrounded not only by police and emergency medical providers, but also
every local media outlet. Although it now appears that the two student
killers may have committed suicide within half an hour, no one on the
outside knew that the murdering was over, and treated the site as if
it were under siege all afternoon, and with the discovery of bombs strewn
throughout the school, for days afterwards.
TV cameras caught gripping footage of kids escaping the building, their
hands up over their heads so police wouldn't mistake them for perpetrators.
The cameras caught the harrowing rescue of a wounded student who was
pulled over jagged broken glass through a library window, only to bounce
against the roof of an armored truck. The cameras caught students fresh
in their fear and horror, telling their stories unfiltered to the world.
And in the days that followed, the cameras caught many moving moments
and memorials to the victims; there were dozens of interviews and heroic
and tragic stories to tell, which drew tears from even cynical viewers.
images crossed the oceans almost as quickly as the news spread across
the Denver area.
a frantic e-mail within the hour from a man in London who was desperately
trying to contact a woman in my office; he was concerned about my co-worker's
daughter. It turned out that she attended a nearby junior high school,
and she was safe. A few minutes later, my mother called. The first she
had heard about the killings was when my brother, who was on a business
trip in Japan, called from Tokyo because the story was already all over
the Japanese media.
if the Japanese media would assume this is what all American schools
are like, and that fear and hatred run rampant in our school hallways.
I hope not, but chances are, the Japanese media will simply see this
as another example of America's weakening grip on fundamental social
day of the Columbine killings, I was in the middle of a new book by
T.R. Reid, the affable National Public Radio commentator and former
Washington Post Tokyo Bureau Chief. The book, "Confucius Lives
Next Door," is subtitled "What Living in the East Teaches
Us about Living in the West." It's a well-observed and thought-provoking
look at the other Asian miracle -- not the Asian economic miracle, but
the social miracle that has allowed countries of East Asia to become
world players but still maintain low crime rates and drug use, stable
families and educational systems.
from a combination of bemused first-person experiences and his journalist's
sense for research in Japan and throughout East Asian countries such
as China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan and others, Reid offers
a fascinating conclusion: These countries have maintained their cultural
harmony (or their "wa") because of their social underpinnings
in Confucianism, the wisdom of the Chinese teacher Kung Fu Tzu.
who's now the Post's London Bureau Chief, makes his case eloquently.
He begins by outlining statistically how Asian countries (he focuses
largely on Japan because that's where he lived, but also explains how
each of the Asian countries differ from each other) have maintained
their social structure. Then he recalls his family's arrival in Tokyo,
and the many surface cultural differences that he observed, with his
usual wit and aplomb.
he introduces us to the "Confucius" who lives next door, a
neighbor named Matsuda-san, and the philosophical lessons he learns
from the constantly apologizing elderly gentleman, Reid gives us a biography
of Master Kung Fu Tzu and his teachings, as well as a history of how
those teachings were introduced to the West. All along, he points out
where Confucius' wisdom paralleled the Western teachings of Socrates,
Jesus and other European, Judeo-Christian leaders through the ages --
an important point he returns to at the end of the book.
he tells the story of his daughters' introduction to the Japanese school
system and its group ethic from top to bottom -- how students all wear
the same uniforms, clean their school, work in small groups as they
learn to create consensus. Later, Reid explains how this group ethic,
a basic principle of Confucianism, permeates all East Asian social structures,
including rituals such as the day every year when everyone who is about
to turn 20 is welcomed in a ceremony as adults, and the annual ceremony
when corporations nationwide induct their new hires.
oversimplifying Reid's book here because I don't have the space to explain
it, but I found his observations compelling and profound, even when
he admits to weaknesses in his theory. For my taste (and perhaps for
the condemnation of violent video games and movies that's sure to come
in the wake of the Columbine deaths), Reid doesn't address enough how
the violence in Japanese pop culture isn't reflected in violence in
society-at-large. There also isn't much mention of the stress in Japanese
culture that causes death from overwork or the suicide of students from
bullying. These are sometimes the costs of Japan's social hegemony.
expect a perfect society in this day and age. But, we in the West have
obviously paid a price for our individual freedom, as Reid points out.
And the price just went sky-high this week. Maybe the answer is a focus
on moral (not necessarily religious) values, and maybe it's something
as simple as a ceremony every year that tells young people that they're
now adults, with accompanying rights and responsibilities.
struggling to apply some of the book's insight to the tragedy that's
hit our community. I think I'll be ordering the "Analects of Confucius"
Lives Next Door" (Random House, 1999, 276 pp $24.95 hardback) by
T.R. Reid is available from Amazon.com
and bookstores everywhere.
April 18, 1999
I'm lucky. I haven't had to deal very often with death in my life.
first time I knew someone who died was a couple of years after our family
had moved to the United States. I heard from my mother that Victor,
a slight boy who was a friend of mine in first and second grade in Tokyo
-- and who was the first person I knew who used an inhaler -- had died
from an asthma attack after running to catch a school bus. I remember
feeling remote sympathy, but didn't know otherwise how I was supposed
a very good friend of mine, Alan Dumas, died suddenly of a heart attack
in the parking lot of a local shopping center.
was a writer, an actor, a radio personality, a music fan, an avid reader,
an art appreciator, an intellectual, an everyman, a wonderful human
being and a terrific liar. Which is to say, he was a great storyteller
but sometimes a scary reporter. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the
world), he was a reporter by trade -- he was an entertainment reporter
and feature writer at the Denver Rocky Mountain News.
met Dumas when I was a fledgling music critic at Westword, Denver's
alternative newspaper. This was back in 1980, when the paper was still
a struggling bi-monthly publication. Alan had been writing for Westword
since its very first issue in 1977. He had written about the Grateful
Dead -- a hippie rock band that I despised at the time. He was an awful
speller all his career, and he even managed to misspell his favorite
band as the "Greatful Dead."
the early '80s, after I had been hired fulltime as music editor by Westword
and the paper had become a weekly institution, I wrote one of the first
articles that got me a bit of local notoriety. It was titled "My
Dinner with Dumas," and it was a transcription of an argument Alan
and I had about the Grateful Dead while we ate pizza at the Wazee Supper
Club. The bar was on the ground floor directly beneath Westword's offices
at the time, and we held many staff meetings there.
wrote for Westword through much of the 1980s, and also flirted with
a series of high-profile (and better-paying) radio jobs, including as
the morning host on one of the most popular FM rock stations in town.
He later hosted a late-night talk show on the same station, and had
me as a guest a couple of times. I thought it was ironic that Dumas
-- a somewhat square, balding and overweight avuncular professor (for
the past few years he taught journalism at Metro State College) who
was blessed with a booming, stentorian voice -- was giving out advice
to pimply-faced teenaged listeners who wanted nothing more than to "Rock
he got a job at the Rocky Mountain News, Alan found his pace. In fact,
he really increased his pace. He would readily admit to being a lazy
writer, but you'd never know it from the amount of work he cranked out
week after week, interviewing writers, musicians, artists, anyone coming
to town who needed to promote a performance, any number of quirky local
subjects who would otherwise not have gotten the exposure a daily newspaper
did a thousand good deeds this way. He had a big heart, and he loved
his craft. He also loved popular culture of all types: Science fiction,
"Star Trek," "Bonanza," James Bond, John Wayne (he
told a funny story about dating John Wayne's daughter during his childhood
in southern California). And he loved obsessing about JFK and the president's
assasination. He wasn't alone -- a handful of us called ourselves "The
Commission" and read every book and watched every video about JFK
ever released, just so we could get together and solve the conspiracy.
After several years of this silliness, some of us finally decided Oswald
did it alone after all.
between, Alan acted, directed, and even officiated weddings (he was
licensed to officiate weddings through a mail-order church he had written
about). His own wedding was one of the most fantastic parties I've ever
attended. He and his fiancee Pam booked the Mercury Cafe, a funky nightclub,
and turned their ceremony into a night of comedic performance art on
marriage sadly failed, as did Alan's health. For a couple of years,
he seemed to be breathing hard and sweating profusely every time I saw
him, and we all worried about him. He was hospitalized last year with
a series of ruptured hernias in his chest. When I saw him at our friend
Phil's house to watch Broncos football games last fall, he explained
he had almost died at the hospital -- a priest was reading the last
rites when he awoke -- but now felt fine.
spoke with Alan just a few days ago, and learned he had been hospitalized
again with a ruptured hernia in his chest, but that he was happily back
called because he found out that while he was in the hospital, the writer
T.R. Reid had been in Denver to speak at a luncheon for the Japan America
Society of Colorado.
was disappointed, because T.R. Reid was one of his heroes, and he had
just been reading and enjoying Reid's latest book, "Confucious
Lives Next Door." Because I've become friendly with Reid -- the
former Tokyo Bureau Chief and current London Bureau Chief for the Washington
Post had lived in Colorado, and was a member of the JASC -- I promised
Alan that next time Tom was in town I would introduce him.
died just three days later.
death at age 44 comes as a shock, of course, but I'm somehow not saddened.
Unlike my childhood friend Victor, though, whose death seemed remote,
Alan's is palpable. Yet, I'm not saddened because thinking of Alan,
I can't help but think of a vibrant, joyful spirit. Alan may be gone,
but that spirit lives on in everyone he touched.
well, commissioner. Breath easy. And say "hey" to Jerry Garcia
-- thanks in part to you, I don't hate his old band's music as much
as I used to.
those of you who didn't know Alan, thanks for your indulgence with this
column. I've been asked to post a separate
Web page to post tributes to Alan (including this column). I think
Dumas would have chuckled at the thought of a Web site with remembrances
about him, and I intend to keep it online permanently.
April 11, 1999
FROM ASTRO BOY TO POKEMON
been enjoying a Saturday morning cartoon lately, for the first time
since I was a kid. "Pokemon" is a Japanese animated series
about a trio of kids who go around in search for creatures that are
called "Pokemon," which is a typically Japanese condensation
of "Pocket Monster" into one cooler word.
plot of "Pokemon" is simple -- the protagonist, Ash Ketchum
(in the English series) is trying to be the best Pokemon trainer in
the world, by finding and mastering or befriending every fantastic creature
in the Pokemon pantheon (they all have interesting powers, such as the
ability to affect the weather, or a song that puts everything within
hearing to sleep). He's helped by two friends and a mouse-like Pokemon
sidekick, Pikachu, which can harness the power of electricity against
Ash's foes. The bad guys aren't very bad -- the three members of "Team
Rocket" are bumbling baddies who are lovable in their inept way.
the show because it's exciting and funny and in its way, wise -- the
episodes I've seen have all had underlying themes about being accepting
of others. I also like the show because to me, it's so obviously Japanese.
is it about Japanese animation, or "anime," that's so distinctive?
a graphic sensibility that's a lot more dynamic than many U.S. cartoons...
in fact, it's hard to call Japanese animation merely a "cartoon."
It's more sophisticated, and somehow deserves to be called anime instead
of cartoon. But it's not just the sophistication of the style. With
their roots in the way manga, or comics, are drawn, Japanese artists
have created a distinctive look for characters in anime: Large, round
eyes, tiny button noses and expressive mouths that can cover the entire
face when a character yells, to great comic effect. They took the look
of Japanese comics and added the magic of the classic early Disney movies
"Bambi," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Sleeping
Beauty" (Osamu Tezuka, the creator of many of Japan's best-loved
manga and anime, reportedly watched "Bambi" 80 times and memorized
of these stylistic rules were evident early in the development of anime.
a baby-boomer, I have fond memories of many American television cartoons
from Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker to Superman and Spiderman, but
I also remember clearly the black-and-white images of "Testuwan
Atomu" (by Tezuka, translated into "Astro Boy" in the
U.S.) and "Tetsujin 28-Go" ("Gigantor"). The animation
was crude, but the round-eyed features were already there. Just before
our family moved to the States, I remember being infatuated with the
robot superhero Eighth Man, the cool-driving Speed Racer and Kimba the
White Lion (another Tezuka creation, "Jungle Taitei" or "Jungle
Emperor" in Japan, which apparently evolved into Disney's "Lion
King" more than two decades later).
the past few years, anime has become increasingly popular -- not just
the stuff for children, but also anime for older viewers. The Sci-Fi
Channel on cable television regularly broadcasts anime. And there's
an entire section dedicated to anime -- mostly various forms of science
fiction -- in every video rental shop. Some are for adult viewers. But
many of the mainstream releases, including titles such as "Project
A-Ko," "Sailor Moon," Doraemon,""Akira"
and "My Neighbor Totoro" (a cute anime that my nieces are
crazy about), are available dubbed in English (I prefer subtitles) and
are very family-safe.
anime I'm proud to own, "Hotaru No Haka" ("Grave of the
Fireflies"), avoids every cliche of cartoons, from its beautifully
detailed drawings which are almost photographic, to its heartbreaking
story of the fate of many children who were orphaned at the end of World
War II. It's almost documentary in its unflinching bleakness, and you
won't be able to watch it without tissues nearby. It's certainly not
book, "The Anime Companion" (Stone Bridge Press, 1999), makes
clear the connection of anime to Japan. It's an engaging and enlightening
encyclopedia of sometimes obvious, and often trivial, references in
anime. The book's author, Gilles Poitras, who's obviously a fanatic
for anime who catches every detail in a scene, explains the entry, then
explains where to watch for it in various anime. The book touches on
such everyday bits of Japanese life as the sweet dish "anmitsu,"
and then points out that you can see it being eaten in "Urusei
Yatsura" and also "Electric Household Guard." Other cultural
touchstones include entries for "geta" (wooden sandals) and
"sotoba" (Buddhist graveyard tablets).
point of the book isn't to analyze anime obsessively, but to show how
much of true Japanese culture appears -- and is absorbed by Western
viewers -- in the innocent entertainment of anime. It's great for fans
of anime as well as fans of Japanese culture.
it took an American cartoon character -- the animated "Colonel
Saunders" that now serves as the TV pitchman for KFC chicken --
to alert me to "Pokemon." The fast-food chain currently has
a promotion where it's selling Pokemon character toys, and that's what
got me to tune in the series.
I suppose animation has come full circle, and Americans are set to learn
from the style and stories from across the Pacific. Osamu Tezuka, who
died in 1989, is probably smiling wherever he is, at the thought of
someone watching anime over and over, absorbing every nuance and trying
to adapt this criss-crossing cultural gift once again, for a new generation.
can learn more about anime and find links to every imaginable anime
Web site at The Anime Web Turnpike, or learn about and
order "The Anime Companion" from Stone
Bridge Press. There's also a companion
Web site for "The Anime Companion."
April 4, 1999
FROM GODZILLA TO THE MATRIX
the new science fiction thriller movie The Matrix today, and I was
reminded how a well-done sci-fi movie can be a terrific escape from
the humdrum of everyday life.
Matrix, of course is meant to be exactly that -- an escape -- on
more than one level. Not only is it an escape in the way that any movie
is, an entertaining shelter from the real world, but it's also about
the possibility that the "reality" of our lives might not
even be real. It poses the intriguing possibility that the lives we
lead are actually an illusion, in this case an intricate imaginary existence
created by the machines and computers that rule the world of the future.
the special effects are simply fabulous and make the film a thrill to
sit through, the question raised in this movie isn't new. The clever
1990 movie "Total Recall" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger also
did a good job posing the question of reality vs. fiction (with the
help of the most cutting-edge special effects of its day). And if you
really wanted to get pretentious, you could say these types of films
are asking the same questions the great philosophers through the ages
have posed, about the purpose of our existence and mankind's place on
Earth and in the heavens.
OK, I'm probably getting carried away here, but the best science fiction
stories have a subtext of deeper thought that make them resonate. The
genre isn't new by any means. It began with the imagination of European
writers such as Britain's Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and H.G.
Wells (War of the Worlds)and France's Jules Verne (Journey
to the Center of the Earth), but of course American-style sci-fi
has ruled modern popular culture from Flash Gordon to Star Trek and
until computer animation and special effects made possible the contemporary
monsters of the Alien and Terminator movies, my main image
of sci-fi creatures came from my childhood in Japan, and monsters such
as Godzilla. The giant lizard has been so durable that it has starred
in over a dozen Japanese movies over the decades and most recently was
featured in a 1998 U.S. mega-budget flop.
early sci-fi movies had a strong impact on my young imagination, even
though the special effects were cheap and clumsy. I could tell that
"Gojira" as he is called in Japan (a combination of the words
for gorilla, "gorira" and whale, "kujira") was really
just a man in a rubber suit, stomping on a scale model of Tokyo. Still,
the message was clear to me: Mess around with mother nature in the form
of atomic bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean, and a mutant monster will
rise to punish humankind.
original movie came out in 1954 in Japan, and was released in 1956 in
the U.S. with a few scenes cut in starring Raymond Burr to create the
illusion that it was an American film. Subsequent Godzilla movies were
campy caricatures of the initial film, with the lizard fighting a pantheon
of goofier and goofier monsters.
have watched a lot of them when I was a kid in Tokyo, on our old black-and-white
TV. I believed that some of these monsters could really exist deep in
the sea or out in outer space, and that Japan's capital could someday
be destroyed by a giant moth, or even a giant tidal wave. That era's
special effects were crude and seem silly now, but they were state-of-the-art
Godzilla movies have had mixed success in the U.S. (Raymond Burr even
appeared in a 1985 sequel), but the monster made an impact across the
Pacific. In one celebrated poll, the three best-known Japanese named
by Americans were Emperor Hirohito, Bruce Lee (who was from Hong Kong)
movie industry's come a long way since 1954, and so has the limits of
what we consider to be "science fiction." A lot more things
seem possible today -- when the first Godzilla movie was made, the moon
landing wasn't even a possibility.
The Matrix will be followed by at least two sequels... maybe
the series will affect the youth of today as deeply as Godzilla affected
me. The movie is a great two-hour escape from the real world, but there's
a lot to think about.
You can find a fun Godzilla Web site at http://members.tripod.com/~world_of_godzilla,
created by a teenaged fan who first saw a Godzilla movie in 1988, when
he was four. The site is rough, but very passionate.
March 28, 1999
ROCK DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
South By Southwest Music and Media conference in Austin has a well-deserved
reputation as something of a "spring break" for the music
industry. Although on one level it's a place where hungry young bands
hope to showcase their talents for both record-company executives and
national and regional music media, it's also a week-long party of music
and heaping helpings of Texas culinary specialties such as barbecue
and Mexican food.
I was a rock music critic for many years, I've attended SXSW for over
a decade -- I was at the first, back in 1987, when 600 people showed
up. This year, more than 6,000 attended and caught showcases by hundreds
of bands and performers both famous and hoping-to-be.
understand the musical appeal of SXSW, you'd have to understand Austin,
Texas' love for live music. Many of the nightclubs that showcase bands
during SXSW are either on or just off the downtown strip of 6th Street.
Street is in the heart of Austin's downtown district, just a few blocks
away from the Texas state capitol. Every Thursday-Saturday night, the
police cordon off a section of the street -- I think about ten blocks
-- and create a pedestrian party scene like I imagine New Orleans must
be like during Mardi Gras. There's a tremendous cacophony that rises
up off the street like heat after a hot summer day, from what seem like
hundreds of bars and nightclubs, all featuring live music of one sort
recent years, one showcase has caught my eye: "Japan Nite,"
an annual lineup of cutting-edge Japanese bands hoping for some U.S.
Nite this year was held in a room called Copper Tank Main. Unlike last
year, when I first attended a Japan Nite showcase, there was a big crowd,
and a long line waiting to get in. Somehow, Japanese underground music
had become trendy. I found a spot near the left speaker, put my earplugs
in and waited for the next band, Ex-Girl.
Japanese flag hung behind the stage, next to the banner for SXSW. Cigarette
smoke swirled in the orange spotlights as I looked over the crowd. The
audience was mostly comprised of curious Americans, not sure of what
to expect. Sprinkled here and there were Japanese fans. One Japanese
girl near me had bleached her hair platinum blonde and topped it off
with fuzzy kitty-cat ears sticking up.
house sound system played a Japanese band singing the words "Okashi
Dansu" -- "Strange Dance." Another song over the sound
system had me laughing to its chorus: "Blah-Blah-Blah Cha-Cha-Cha."
a trio of women, turned out to be a hoot.
group sauntered out in flourescent ultra-mini skirt dresses with colorful
flowers over their chests, and huge foam headpieces shaped like 1960s
beehive hairstyles. The drummer stood at her small kit, pounding precisely
at it like a taiko drummer. The guitarist and lead singer wore a bored
expression at the right side of the stage, and the bassist stood just
a few feet from me.
man muscled his way right next to me with a video camera and faithfully
recorded Ex-Girl's entire performance. I felt sorry for him, because
he didn't have earplugs in, and he was right in the line of fire of
the speakers. I could feel every bass note and drum beat rattling my
teeth, but my earplugs saved my hearing.
music was a wacky combination of ear-shattering avant-garde noise with
campy pop-culture sensibility. They echoed the silly innocence of '60s
American "girl groups" such as the Shirelles, Shangri-Las
and Ronettes, but added the cutting-edge wit and self-awareness of more
recent groups such as the B-52s.
the first song, each woman shimmied and shook until their foam headpieces
fell off, then during the bridge, they stopped playing their instruments
and picked up various toy flutes and noisemakers for a few measures
before tossing them to the side. The songs were mostly short, and built
around a chanted lyric, sung mostly in English. And like many Japanese
rock groups that seem to gain attention in the U.S. (such as Pizzicato
5, Shonen Knife or Cibo Matto), the songs were about mundane subjects.
One was about a brown frog -- the bassist explained to the crowd that
Japanese hear "kero! kero!" instead of the "ribbit"
sound Americans use for frogs.
no matter how loud -- and this was a very loud band -- and strange the
presentation and some of the unison singing and Yoko Ono-style screeching,
Ex-Girl is a pop band. In "Upsy Daisy Ramsy," the menacing
beat and atonal guitar slashing was offset by the refreshingly unaffected,
bubblegum-sweet chorus, "Every day, walk in the darkness but I
don't care, you are my sunshine."
around the room, I saw delighted American faces. They thought this stuff
was COOL, which was pretty cool for me to see.
stay for the remaining bands -- Number Girls, Nicotine and Thee Michelle
Gun Elephant (I'm not making this up) -- but I felt sure some bridges
had been built that night between young Japanese musicians and U.S.
you're a music fan, you might enjoy reading my day-by-day journal
of this year's road trip to the SXSW Conference. It's long and self-indulgent,
and not for everyone (it's as much about food as it is about music).
Hope you like it!
March 16, 1999
OF JAPAN: SAMURAI AND GEISHA
difficult to argue with many Americans' immediate identification of
Japan with some tried-and-true symbols: the Samurai warrior and the
because so much of Japanese tradition is reflected in these images --
for Japanese people too.
discovered a wonderful Web site, an online Ukiyo-e Museum, which features
pictures from the golden era of Japanese woodblock printing, the late
1700s to the late 1800s, and some of the greatest works shown are of
samurai and geisha -- both formal portraits, and casual scenes of everyday
life back then. These images are still fresh in the mind of modern Japanese.
today, the visage of the fierce samurai scowls everywhere, including
down from the skies on kites and even from the TV screen in the form
of Arnold Schwarzenegger, dressed as a samurai and selling ramen noodles
in commercials. And the geisha is an ever-present image, from the placid,
oval Noh theater masks of the woman's face on walls to characters in
manga comic books. Japanese television dramas and films also keep alive
these archetypes of Japanese character.
the Japanese identify so much with these symbols, why shouldn't Americans
be using them to identify Japanese too? Are these stereotypes or cliches?
Or are they accurate reflections of a part of Japan's heritage?
even if they're historically accurate, are they appropriate as images
representing contemporary Japan? They are often used that way -- even
respected national media have covered trade friction between the U.S.
and Japan with cartoons of samurai representing Japan's business policies.
geishas seem to be a popular fad these days too. Many Americans have
become enraptured with the image of the geisha because of the book by
Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha -- even the pop diva Madonna
dressed in a geisha-chic faux kimono for a performance during the recent
Grammy Awards ceremony.
been grappling with the meaning and use of the geisha image on a personal
level too, not just because I love Golden's book. One of the organizations
I belong to, the Japan America Society of Colorado, has been working
on posters to advertise our presence and mission to the public. And
the advertising firm which has been good enough to come up with some
poster ideas pro bono (no charge) had a couple of striking, colorful
ideas, including ... a geisha.
get me wrong, the designs were truly stunning (the other one was of
the lucky cat with the upheld paw that you see in Japanese restaurants,
a good-luck charm for business). But I brought up several points about
this motif. First, it's such an instantly recognizable image that although
it's laudable from an advertising standpoint (instant recognition is
a good thing), it seemed like an awful easy, and therefore shallow,
choice. And second, the geisha as an icon carries some baggage -- both
from a western, feminist view of subservient roles, and from an eastern,
Japanese cultural perspective, where geisha can be perceived as prostitutes.
can people know what's "politically correct" or culturally
acceptable? It's hard work, but education is the key. Memoirs of
a Geisha is a wonderfully written life story narrated in the voice
of a woman who was raised in Kyoto and trained as a geisha from her
childhood. It explains a lot about the role of the geisha in traditional
Japan -- and how vestiges of geisha culture still survive to this day.
I now know more about geishas than I had ever pondered before, and I
feel richer for it. Besides, these lessons were a pleasure to learn!
great gift as a storyteller is his ability to effortlessly use similes
and metaphors that add descriptive depth and bring his characters and
settings to vivid life. But he's not merely a colorful and evocative
writer -- he did his homework and researched the life of a geisha in
the early and mid-20th century. We learn in his book that there are
high-class geisha who are truly artisans and performers, as well as
lower-class ones who are prostitutes. And, he explains that even the
high-class geisha can become courtesans and become long-term lovers
for wealthy (and married) sponsors who bid for their favors.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a powerful, romantic and believable novel.
I enjoyed reading it immensely, and would recommend it for anyone, especially
if you're interested in Japanese history and culture.
think the book is demeaning to Japanese women in any way, but it bugged
me that Madonna has decided to use the geisha "look" just
for the sake of style in her hit video and Grammy appearance. To me,
that trivializes the historic beauty of the geisha -- and the resonance
of Golden's novel.
for the ad agency that came up with the geisha design for the poster,
of course they didn't mean to offend anyone. The talented artist who
created the original sample is coming up with a new design using some
ideas suggested by the Japan-America Society of Colorado.
it's not easy finding a symbol that shouts "JAPAN!" at a glance.
By definition, such an image needs to be somewhat of a cliche. So what
else is there? Mount Fuji? A bonsai tree?
about a poster featuring a giant piece of sushi? Now, that would
get my attention....
can visit the online Ukiyo-e Museum on the Internet at http://www.nbn.co.jp/ukiyoe
March 6, 1999
Yasui's name is preserved forever.
a recent ceremony, the civil rights leader was memorialized as the namesake
of the very building he worked in for years, as director of what is
now called the city of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community
ceremony was attended by a large contingent of Japanese Americans and
Yasui's family, and Denver's Mayor Wellington Webb, among others, spoke
eloquently about Yasui's contributions to the civil liberties of all
people. At the end of the ceremony, the Mayor unveiled a bust of Yasui,
who died in 1986, in the building's lobby.
was one of three Japanese American heroes (the others were Fred Korematsu
and Gordon Hirabayashi) who first fought in the courts the injustice
of the Japanese American internment during World War II.
in 1916 in Hood River, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Oregon
Law School, Yasui was working for the Japanese Consulate in Chicago
when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next day he returned to Oregon, and
began representing Japanese Americans. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt
signed Executive Order 9066 into law, paving the way for internment.
That April, in order to set a legal precedent, Yasui purposely ignored
a Portland curfew, demanding to be arrested.
was eventually sent to Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, and spent
part of the time in solitary confinement. He fought the charges all
the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost his case. But he never stopped
fighting to right the wrong of internment. In the late '70s he became
involved with the Japanese American Citizens League's efforts to gain
governmental redress for internment, a battle that was finally won after
worth noting that Yasui's life wasn't just focused on the experience
of Japanese Americans. He came to Denver in 1944, and served as early
as 1946 on a Denver mayor's committee which became the Commission on
Community Relations. He became director of the commission in 1967, during
a time of turbulence throughout the U.S., and ran it until his retirement
in 1983. At the building dedication ceremony, Bill Hosokawa, one of
the speakers who had known Min since childhood, reminded people that
it was largely because of Yasui's pioneering community network efforts
that Denver was one of the few major American cities which didn't suffer
race-related riots and civil unrest in the late '60s.
met Min Yasui, but now I feel as if I knew him. I certainly know of
his accomplishments, and now know that others who walk into the Minoru
Yasui Plaza at 303 W. Colfax Ave. will know that he had a great impact
on the city he loved.
the power of a memorial -- it reminds the future of the legacy of the
past. And I can think of hardly a more appropriate memorial to someone
of Yasui's accomplishments than to name a building after him.
is why, the week after the Yasui dedication, I raised the question to
the board of the Mile-Hi JACL chapter to donate $1,000 -- which for
us, a small chapter in terms of membership and corporate support, is
a significant chunk of our finances -- to the National Japanese American
Min Yasui's name forever gracing the edifice of a city and county building
was a powerful statement to me that this man made a difference in his
in the larger American community, the Japanese American Memorial would
be an equally powerful statement, that our community served patriotically
during WWII but also that we were wronged by our own government. A plot
of land has been set aside for the memorial, just north of the Capitol
Building. An artist has already designed a striking crane. And the memorial
foundation has undertaken a national campaign to raise the over $8 million
needed to bring the project to fruition.
usually too much of a cynic to believe that a memorial can affect people
in any way other than mere nostalgia, but I have to admit, I think this
memorial is important. It's important to me as a third-generation Japanese
American, especially because no one in my family was affected by internment.
It's important to me because the memorial would remind others like me,
who grow up with no idea of the pain an entire generation suffered.
everyone who has any interest in the history -- and the future -- of
the Japanese American community to send in any amount you can afford
to the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, at 1920 N Street
NW, Suite 660, Washington DC, 20036.
bet anything that if Min Yasui were alive today, he'd be asking you
to do the same.
can read more about the National Japanese
American Memorial Foundation at its Web site and learn more about
Min Yasui at the Auraria
Library Archives in Denver, Colorado.
February 15, 1999
TASTE OF JAPAN
dont have to travel the world to know something about other cultures.
Perhaps youve never been on a Roman holiday, but of course youve
had spaghetti and other Italian food. And you may have never crossed
any border but youve probably tried tacos, burritos and other
is the most accessible way that people are exposed to ethnic cultures.
Food can break down barriers between counties and cultures, and serve
as a point of shared experience.
is a cultural ambassador, and restaurants are the embassies where you
can find the ambassador.
whos ever spent the night at a sushi bar with friends understands
this concept: Japanese restaurants bridge the Pacific and can bring
together not just generations of Japanese and Japanese Americans, but
people of all races and countries. Whether its something as commonly
ordered as meat marinated in teriyaki sauce or something more exotic,
the Japanese food thats served up introduces diners to a taste
of Japan -- not just in the ingredients, but in the presentation, and
the ambience of the restaurant, er, embassy.
goes both ways, of course -- American pop culture of all types are ubiquitous
throughout the world, and Japans no exception. Even with variations
such as Teriyaki McBurgers, McDonalds is an ambassador of
American values -- serving up fast food for modern Japans on-the-go
there are other cross-cultural currents that crop up through cuisine.
One of the popular types of restaurants in Japan is called "Viking-style,"
pronounced "bikingu." The word denotes a restaurant that serves
food buffet-style -- all you can eat. I encountered this in several
places in Japan during a 1994 trip. And it occurred to me later why
these restaurants were called "Viking-style": The word was
a bastardization of "smorgasbord," the Scandinavian word that's
commonly used for an all-you-can-eat buffet. To the Japanese ear, of
course "smorgasbord" would be too difficult to pronounce.
But "Viking-style" works just fine.
nothing like a great meal to bring people together, and one of my most
memorable evenings was spent over a great meal, in the heart of Tokyo.
a 1995 trip to Japan, I had dinner with my friend Jeff Brown, an artist
and teacher from Colorado Springs, and Tetsuo Shiitani, a journalist
with the Tokyo Shimbun. Tetsuo is a typical Japanese worker, who worked
long hours at a Tokyo office, then dined and went back to work some
more before heading home to his wife and daughters (who were no doubt
asleep by the time he got home).
took Jeff and me to one of his favorite dinner spots, a raucous restaurant
down a crowded alley from the busy Shimbashi train station that served
a variety of dishes all displayed in wax in the front window. We had
an incredible feast of many different kinds of skewered meats and vegetables
and a huge ceramic bowl of delectables (more meats and vegetables) simmering
at the table over a blue gas flame. I couldn't believe we ate it all,
and by the time we stumbled out the door, Jeff and I felt we had truly
bonded with the rowdy Japanese students and tired business-people who
were regulars there.
felt right at home at that restaurant.
here in Colorado, I also feel at home at Japanese restaurants, with
the menus, the decor (especially the small, family-owned eateries),
the smells of the ingredients mixing in the air, and even the murmur
of Japanese being spoken, wafting out of the kitchen.
lunch meetings at a Japanese restaurant called Samurai near my office
in south Denver. I like introducing my friends and business partners
to the variety of food served there, which ranges from a full selection
of fresh sushi to the type of meal my mother often serves herself: salty
grilled salmon. I feel so comfortable at Samurai that sometimes I leave
the office to dine alone there.
one recent lunch at Samurai, its role as a cultural embassy struck home.
I slurped away at the fat udon noodles I had ordered to fend off the
cold of the winter day, I overheard a group of American businessmen
introducing a man with a British accent to the joys of Japanese cuisine.
never eaten at a Japanese restaurant before? asked one man who
was apparently a regular, and was familiar with most of the offerings.
He proceeded to recommend some of the more esoteric dishes. Oh,
everything heres great. You can get teriyaki chicken or beef,
but you should try something else. The tempuras great, but I like
the donburi, he urged his lunchmates, explaining the combination
of rice and ingredients served in a bowl.
not sure what they all ordered, but they must have enjoyed their meal
-- the conversation faded as the food was served. Chalk up another step
towards world peace and understanding.
earlier version of this column originally ran as part of a longer article
about food and culture in the 1998 Holiday Issue of "Pacific Citizen,"
the weekly national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League.
February 7, 1999
ADVENTURES: COWBOYS AND ... NINJAS
my childhood, I didn't really fantasize about being a cowboy. Oh sure,
I had the requisite cowboy outfit -- western hat perched cockily to
one side like a young John Wayne, a real leather holster belt with a
pair of shiny pistols hanging down my side (I tied them to my thighs
with strips of leather) and a silver sheriff's star on my chest. I played
cowboys and Indians like American boys did back then. But not all the
Japan, there was another, more romantic character that boys could play
-- the Ninja. The Ninja were the elite samurai corps specially-trained
to be silent assassins. They were able to leap incredible heights over
palace walls, walk silently through a sleeping castle, and noiselessly
kill their prey with their samurai swords (which they wore across their
backs instead of hanging on their sides) or shuriken, razor-sharp
steel stars like many-sided daggers that ninja could throw with deadly
even looked cool -- instead of fancy, bulky, multi-layered samurai outfits,
Ninjas were wrapped in a simple outfit of midnight-black fabric (better
to skulk around in the dark) just loose enough to allow freedom of movement
in martial arts hand-to-hand combat. They covered their heads with a
black hood, and only their eyes were visible through the veil.
the Ninjas were, like the cowboys of America, a romanticized icon of
an earlier, "frontier-era" spirit, they also made sense for
the early 1960s. They were precursors of spies in a modern world deeply
divided by the Cold War. With James Bond and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
looming just around the pop-culture corner, I was ready-made for sneaking
around my small yard in Tokyo, fantasizing about being a Ninja.
to balance precariously on the cinderblock wall around our yard, pretending
to be a Ninja breaching the defenses of an evil warlord. I'd leap the
couple of feet it took to grab a hold of a low-hanging branch of the
persimmon tree, and in my head, I was jumping effortlessly 15 feet straight
up. I'd throw the dozens of plastic shuriken I'd hide in my shirt
(the Ninjas in the black and white movies I loved to watch kept their
shiriken hidden near their hearts, and they'd reach in and flip them
with a flick of the wrist) all over the property, losing a couple each
week to neighbors' yards or the street beyond the wall. For hand-to-hand
combat, I'd pull my plastic sword out of its scabbard strapped to my
back, and whack away at hapless branches, or stuffed animals, or whatever
handy victim that happened to be lying around.
enough, I don't remember playing Ninja with other boys. But then, the
lot of a Ninja can be a lonely one -- working solo is not uncommon in
the stealth trade.
were popular in samurai movies, and I recall being glued to our early
TV set, entranced by the fuzzy, black and white images. I even got to
see real-life Ninja paraphernalia, on special occasions when our family
would go to a fancy Japanese restaurant in the bowels of Tokyo. I don't
remember the name of the place, and I would be surprised if it's still
there, but I loved going, because the restaurant had a samurai theme.
Right inside the entrance was a display of full samurai armor, with
its imposing horned helmet and chain-mail body. There were also swords
on display, but they didn't capture my attention. I would always go
straight to one glass case filled with real shuriken -- shiny,
sharp and scary-looking.
been thinking about Ninjas recently because a young man I work with
came up to me to ask my nationality. It turns out he's fascinated by
Ninjas -- he later gave me a printout of instructions he found on the
Internet for the Ninjas' trademark "stealth walking" -- and
thinks it's great that I used to play Ninjas.
have come a long way since I watched them on a fuzzy TV set. They were
turned into cartoon characters -- the Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin
Power Rangers -- and have become key characters in a host of computer
and video games -- including the popular Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat.
nice to know that American pop culture has finally caught up to my cutting-edge
tastes, and that young people today still find Ninjas exciting. Now,
if I could find someplace that sells plastic shuriken....
can learn more about Ninjutsu, or the art of the Ninja, and also find
Web links on the topic, at "Ninjutsu:
The Art of Winning."
January 28, 1999
BASEBALL AND SUMO: FANS ARE FANS
would be an understatement to say that I've never been much of an athlete.
up, I played little league baseball for several years, and was lucky
enough to be on a championship team, without ever once having a hit
and thankfully rarely had to field a ball in the outfield. I was too
short for basketball, too small for football, and too lazy for much
of anything else. I hate to sweat, and that gets in the way of being
an athlete too.
I live vicariously through the giants of professional sports -- after
all, there's no way I could ever be like Michael Jordan, no matter how
many Nike sneakers I buy. Besides, there's a great sense of pride in
being just a fan, and cheering for the hometown team.
in my hometown, of course, the team is the National Football League's
followed the Broncos ever since my family moved to Colorado in 1972,
when I was in high school. I've been a fan through the low years and
the three Super Bowl losses. And, along with tens of thousands of other
fans, I cried tears of joy (and I admit, disbelief) when quarterback
John Elway, running back Terrell Davis and the rest of the team defeated
the heavily-favored Green Bay Packers for the NFL World Championship
sounds corny, but I feel privileged to have been a fan during the era
of Elway, and fortunate to follow the rise of Davis. There are many
great players that have helped the Broncos over the years and this season,
but these two have elevated the Broncos to a level of greatness under
the leadership of coach Mike Shanahan.
I write this, the Broncos are preparing to play another Super Bowl,
against the Atlanta Falcons. This year, the Broncos aren't underdogs
-- they're the ones favored to win. But with the memories of three earlier
Super Bowl defeats and years of heart-wrenching disappointment, I'm
still nervous. Don't get me wrong; I think we can win, and I hope we
will win. But I'm too superstitious to be over-confident of the outcome.
one way, I want to feel that same disbelief I felt at last year's achievement.
If we win another championship, I want to be amazed, not blase at the
the "thrill of victory," the phrase made famous by the intro
to the long-running TV sports show "Wide World of Sports."
The thrill is what fans live for, and in seeking this thrill, like the
athletes themselves, we fans often have to settle for "the agony
the competitive arena of sports, someone has to win and someone has
equation holds true in sports across political and cultural borders.
In 1994, when I visited Japan, I found out that the love of sports knows
no bounds. I was there in October -- which, for any baseball fan, is
that sport's championship season. And though we were in the small city
of Nemuro in the eastern edge of the northernmost island of Hokkaido,
we couldn't escape the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as
the final games of the year played out.
were having a wonderful sushi dinner with my grandmother, uncle and
aunts, but the family conversation was often punctuated by rousing cheers
and shouts of horror from the kitchen. The chef and staff were watching
the game as they cooked up our feast. The equally matched Yomiuri Giants
(70 wins, 60 losses) defeated the Chunichi Dragons (69 wins, 61 losses)
that night, and I watched the final moments and the locker room celebrations
over and over on the news in the days that followed.
my mom can be a sports fan, though football, basketball, hockey and
even baseball mystify her. My mom's sport is the traditional -- and
to me, mystifying -- Japanese sport of sumo, where gigantic men wearing
gigantic thongs push each other around in a carefully groomed dirt ring.
The goal of this sport, for those unfamiliar with its high ritual and
unorthodox tableaux, is for these behemoths to shove each other around
until one steps over or falls out of the ring.
mom watches sumo via satellite broadcasts, and doesn't miss a match.
She videotapes them if she won't be there to watch them live. I find
it comical, until I realize I've watched a videotape of last year's
Super Bowl several times, and I've just watched a documentary of the
1997 Broncos season.
all have our favorite sports, and our favorite athletes. And we all
want our heroes -- and heroines -- to win The Big One.
hoping the Broncos can do it again. GO BRONCOS!
official Denver Broncos home page is at http://denverbroncos.com.
You can learn about Japanese baseball at Latham's
Guide to Japanese Baseball (much of the site's in Japanese, but
this page for the Yakult Swallows is in English, and a good place to
start exploring) and get an introduction to sumo wrestling at Sumo
January 18, 1999
DOWN THE AMERICAN IN ME
this time last year, I wrote in one of my very first
"Nikkei View" columns about my history with Denver's Japanese
community, and how it had taken me a long time to join organizations
such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the Japan America
Society of Colorado (JASC).
I'm on the executive board of directors of the JASC, and last weekend
I was installed as the 1999 president of the JACL's Mile-Hi Chapter.
I'm not announcing these positions as a boast -- in fact, I'm pretty
terrified, and find it almost comical that I would be in a position
of responsibility with either group. We'll see how I handle my duties
(once I figure them out).
all, I've spent most of my life as a typical American baby boomer: Spoiled
every toy I wanted growing up. Instead of studying something useful,
I went to art school. As an adult, I've been a critic and pop culture
fanatic, working outside the mainstream and dressing weird. When my
mother asked me to go out and buy a nice-fitting dark colored suit for
a trip to Japan, I bought another wildly-colored baggy shirt. I couldn't
a Japanese saying that translates loosely to "The nail that sticks
out will be hammered down," but all my life I've strived to be
a nail that sticks out.
imagine my surprise to find myself wearing a suit (it's not even baggy,
mom!) at fancy dinners, mingling with properly dressed lawyers, executives,
movers and shakers, and working with these organizations. Have I grown
up? Naw -- at least, I hope not. But it feels right to be involved with
JASC's goal is to serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Japan -- the
organization fosters cultural and business ties between the two countries.
The first event I'm involved in for the JASC is a Feb. 5 tribute dinner
for longtime Denver resident Bill Hosokawa, who's served as honorary
Consul General of Japan in Colorado since 1974.
the JACL, my main goals for this year are to take the organization's
civil rights mission to a wider audience, by hosting more cultural events
for the general public; sponsoring a documentary video on Camp Amache,
Colorado's sole internment camp during WWII; reaching out to other Japanese
and JA groups (like the JASC) and also to the wider Asian community
for partnerships and events; and putting up a Web site for the chapter.
And of course, to be ever vigilant for acts of racism and discrimination.
honored that Katsuhiko Kubo, the Acting Consul General of Japan who
has just arrived to oversee Denver's first fulltime Consular office,
was able to attend the JACL installation dinner. Also gracing the event
were Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Mel Okamoto, the first Asian American
judge appointed to the Denver County Court (thanks to Mayor Webb), Bill
Hosokawa and mistress of ceremonies Adele Arakawa, the Japanese American
evening news anchor for 9News.
during the screening of a short preview of the Amache documentary video,
I wondered what Consul General Kubo thought about being in a room of
people that outwardly looked Japanese, but as one of the Amache survivors
declared in the video, are "American, not Japanese."
that our unabashed Americanism didn't sound strident or off-putting.
I want the JACL to be an organization that welcomes the presence and
the involvement of anyone, including Caucasian Americans (it's a great
organization for "Japanophiles"), people of mixed Japanese
ancestry (a common sight as the Nikkei assimilate into American society)
and first-generation Japanese (students, businesspeople and immigrants).
come to cherish the American in me -- even though I was "made in
Japan." I'm American through and through, from my outgoing personality
and loud voice to my sometimes extremely salty language. I'm immersed
in U.S. culture -- that's why I was so happy writing about rock music
for many years. But I'm also always eager to explore the Japanese side
of my roots. Japanese Americans are a unique bunch, because we have
such distinct cultures running through our veins.
on having a long talk with Kubo-san while he's here establishing his
consulate, and welcome him and his staff to Colorado. I want to know
more about how the Japanese see Japanese Americans.
as nails that need a little tap, I hope.
can learn more about the Japanese American Citizens League by visiting
the national organization's Web site at http://www.jacl.org.
The Japan America Society of Colorado has its own Web site at http://www.us-japan.org/colorado
January 10, 1999
THAT JAP -- AGAIN
remember the first time I was called a "Jap."
I have vague, unsettling memories of being called a "Jap,"
"Nip" or "Chink," when I was a kid and I understood
them even then as expressions of hatred, pumped up with power and presumed
high school, when some obnoxious troublemaker (I originally wrote "redneck"
-- ouch, see how easily we slip into stereotypes!) called me a "Jap"
at an intersection, my friend Bubba (that was his nickname, honest),
a very large football player, got out of our car, grabbed the kid's
shirt and practically dragged him through his window, saying, "Don't
you ever use that word again!" Thanks, Bubba.
just short for "Japanese," like "Brit" is short
for "British." Many ethnic nicknames probably had somewhat
practical roots: "Wop" for Italians came into use because
so many immigrants arrived "Without Papers," and "Mick"
for Irish was used because so many immigrants' names started with "Mc."
This doesn't justify the use of the words -- they still served to classify
people of one background into one faceless, stereotyped group. But if
someone used them, it probably meant they were ignorant, not necessarily
racist. I think there's a difference.
I also think these words have outlived their use.
not sure when "Jap" became a racist epithet, but it probably
took on its mantle of hatred when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and I think
hatred still resonates in the word, even if someone uses it out of ignorance,
headlines screamed "JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR" and news stories
of those years typically referred to Japanese as "Japs." Wartime
billboards for the Burma Shave company read: "SLAP THAT JAP."
(In the '30s and '40s the company used to put up billboards in series
so you would read one word of a message at a time as you drove down
years ago, when I worked for the Colorado Springs Gazette, every reporter
and editor helped out on a series commemorating the 50th anniversary
of the end of World War II -- a very significant observance for a town
with a substantial U.S. military presence. I got to interview a very
pleasant retired man who told me great stories about his time in the
Army, hopping across the islands in the Pacific and being among the
first Occupation soldiers to arrive in Tokyo Bay after the war.
flinch, but I found it interesting that he kept referring to the enemy
half a century ago as "Japs." A half-hour into the interview,
he stopped himself, turned to me and said, "Hey I hope you understand,
I call them 'Japs' but I know you're Japanese. It's just that back then
they were Japs."
imagine my dismay a couple of weeks ago, when I got an e-mail on a Japanese
American discussion group I belong to, asking all of us subscribers
to write an e-mail to the San Antonio, Texas-based H-E-B supermarket
chain. The stores were stocking a brand of chile peppers labeled "Jap-Style
Chiles," the e-mail said. I sent an e-mail asking if this was true,
and saying that I found the word offensive. The company replied and
said they did carry such a product, but couldn't control what names
their vendors used, at which point I suggested that the company could
also gave me the vendor's phone number. I spoke this week with Manual
Velasquez at Fiesta-Bollner Spice Company, the quality control manager,
and he said they had received the complaints made to H-E-B and they
were re-labeling the peppers either as "Japanese-Style" or
said until it was pointed out, nobody at the company had given the name
any thought -- and they had sold these peppers for 45 years with that
name. In fact, he said, "That's the name that's used in the industry.
Our suppliers call them 'Jap Chiles.' We're not here to offend anybody.
I guess you don't really think about it until it's focused at your group."
Manual's candor, and hope I never see a pepper in any grocery store
in Texas or anywhere that's called a "Jap Chile." But the
fact remains, the folks who grow the peppers and sell them to the suppliers
routinely use the term.
change everyone, but I hope I can help educate the people I can reach.
After all, "back then" and "right now" may not be
as far apart as we'd like to think.
December 27, 1998
THE FIRE: THE DEBT I OWE
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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, conversational voice.
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.
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."
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.
kicked off Hosokawa's journalism career, which he maintained even during
internment, as editor of the Heart Mountain Sentinel. 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 in 1946.
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
the book shares Bill's often bemused, soft-spoken wisdom and his perspective
on a half-century of Japanese Americans finding our own voice.
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.
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.
file the word away, and I know I'll use it sometime. It's just another
debt I owe Bill Hosokawa.
can order "Out of the Frying Pan" and other books by Bill
Hosokawa online from Amazon.com.