Haircut and history


NOTE: I just heard today that Mas Nonaka, a member of the local Japanese American community who has cut hair at several iterations of his barbershop, Nonaka’s, in and around Sakura Square since before the block was called Sakura Square, passed away.

Nonaka’s was where I first got my hair cut when my family moved to Denver from northern Virginia in 1972, and his shop at the time was on 20th Street across from the Buddhist Temple. Mas and his wife Yasuko (who styled women’s hair in the shop) were familiar figures whenever my family and I went to Sakura Square.

In recent years, I would see Mas and Yasuko at many Japanese American community events. He was always upbeat and very warm, even though I could see the years had cloaked themselves around him. He always called me “Gilbert” because that’s how he knew me, from my dad. It was when I went to college, everyone started calling my Gil. I never minded him calling me by my full name.

He had moved his shop to the ground level of Sakura Square for some years, and I know he wanted to sell the business, but it seemed younger barbers weren’t interested in small, family-owned barbershops. They would rather work for a chain, or maybe save money to buy a chain’s franchise. The past couple of years, Mas had relocated his shop to the mezzanine level of Sakura Square but it was rarely open when I walked past it.

I’m sad on hearing about his passing because Mas was the subject of the second-ever “Nikkei View” column I wrote way back in 1998, when the Rocky Mountain Jiho newspaper, now long-gone, asked me to write weekly columns for them.

I’m “repurposing” that second column today in his honor. Rest in peace, Mas…
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Quick culture check-in: Disposable chopsticks’ ends

Here’s a query from Facebook, where someone shared a story about how the blocky end tips of disposable chopsticks are meant to be snapped off and used as chopstick holders on your table (image to the right).

I responded with this comment and posted some photos I took:

I’ve seen this post, or one like it, before. I can honestly say that although you might be able to do this with the tab, here’s why I think this is a bogus theory:

1) The block is pretty small, and would not serve as a very good chopstick holder.

2) Japanese (most of the disposable chopsticks with this block at the end are manufactured for Japanese consumers, made from stripping bamboo rainforests all through SE Asia) are sticklers for packaging and usability, and if these pieces were meant to be snapped off, there would be a notch to make it easy to break off.
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My New Year column written for the JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper

I’m the chair of the editorial board of Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the JACL. Below is my column in the New Year’s issue of the PC. I wanted to post it here and also add even more current concerns given President Trump’s rocky first three weeks, his eyebrow-raising relationships with world leaders (including Japan’s Shinzo Abe, which merits a separate blog post), the currently on-hold Muslim travel ban, and the wild ride of national security issues climaxing — with possibly more climaxes to come — in the resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser. On top of all the political insanity in a dangerous and shifting world, racism and prejudice still loom large, not just against African Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews but also against Asians in America.

The photos at the top are mirror images of anti-Asian ignorance. The first is from a news story today about racist graffiti on the Minneapolis home of a Hmong American family; the other is a very similar message on a Japanese American family’s home 75 years ago. This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. We need to think about that document’s impact on America, and hope we don’t make the same mistake today.

Here’s my column:
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George Takei’s “Allegiance” is coming to a theater near you Dec. 13, 7:30!

NOTE: A full version of this post with more from Takei as well as cast members and producer, as well as videos from the musical, was originally published on Dec. 7, 2015.

After a November performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York’s fabled Broadway district, George Takei and other cast members answered questions about their powerful musical, “Allegiance.”

“I remember we started the school day, each day, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school house window as I recited the words, ‘with liberty, and justice for all.’”

Takei recalled his experience as a child, sent with his entire family to a concentration camp along with more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II – including, like Takei, half who were born in the US and therefore American citizens.

At age 78, Takei made his Broadway debut in the musical, which tells the story of Japanese American incarceration inspired by Takei’s childhood. The parallels between the 1940s incarceration and the national mood today are striking. Talk of banning Muslims, and citing the Japanese American incarceration of 75 years ago as a “precedent” for creating a Muslim registry, rings some serious alarms for anyone who’s studied the wartime injustice.

Takei has spoken out eloquently on his vast social media networks in response to the current hate-filled climate.

Educating the public about what happened to Japanese Americans, who were removed from the West Coast and sent to nine concentration camps as far east as Arkansas, is one of Takei’s lifelong goals. His family spent the war years in Rowher, Arkansas.

“I’m always shocked when I tell the story (of Japanese American incarceration) to people that I consider well-informed,” he said, “and they’re shocked and aghast that sometime like this could happen in the United States. It’s still little-known. So, it’s been my mission to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history.”

“Allegiance” accomplished Takei’s goal with Broadway grandeur that matches any hit musical, with songs that soar and tug at heartstrings, tight choreography and a storyline that is familiar to many Japanese Americans, but not to the public at large.

The musical ran for several months on Broadway. And now, it’s being screened across the country in movie theaters on Tuesday, Dec. 13.
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The Olympics are a celebration of pride — so we should never forget the JA who set records in the 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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