Family ties

For most people — but I think especially for Japanese Americans, who tend to come from very defined communities bound together by geographic roots, generational branchings and, for many, the shared trauma of internment — meeting a stranger and finding out you’re somehow related isn’t such a big deal. It might be novel, or surprising, but it’s probably not a life-changing fact.

My wife Erin and I joke that in Denver, there are only a few Japanese families, and that everyone’s related, if not by blood then certainly by marriage. She plays the “six degrees of separation” game all the time when she meets a JA, and invariably finds that they have friends or family in common.

For Erin, whose nuclear family all live in the area as well as a huge number of extended family members, funerals and holidays are like frequent family reunions.

Not me.

My family has always lived in a community and family vacuum — an isolation chamber devoid of contact with relatives. We didn’t live within JA communities, didn’t grow up attending the Buddhist temple or Methodist church with other JA kids, and seldom saw or made contact with cousins, uncles and aunties. Even when my dad died, it was difficult tracking down the contact information for his brothers and sisters. Certainly, I’ve never had someone come up to me in Colorado and play “six degrees of separation” to see if we’re related.

But last weekend, I was in San Jose to attend the bi-annual Youth Conference for the Japanese American Citizens League (the APA civil rights organization for which I’m on the national board). Erin gave a workshop and the closing keynote speech for the conference, and I went to give a book reading and sign copies for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. That’s when my little isolated world was shattered.

A young woman came up to me with a copy of my book, “Being Japanese American.” She explained she didn’t buy it at the reading, but brought it with her. She had moved to California recently from Hawaii, and her mother had sent her the book. And, she added, her mother told her she was related to me.

WOW. Continue reading

Book ’em, Danno… all over again

One of the cool things about traveling to LA is getting to watch KDOC, a local station that unearths old TV shows and airs them. For some reason, whenever I’m in town I get to tune in to old episodes of “Hawaii Five-O.”

The show is fascinating to me for several reasons. It fit my early attraction for TV action shows (“Dragnet” just didn’t cut it) with its tire-squealing car chases and gun fights, and the cool, noir-hero cop Steve McGarrett, played by the square-jawed Jack Lord. It had one of the all-time greatest theme songs, which was recorded by the pioneering instrumental guitar-rock band the Ventures. It’s a cultural snapshot of a transitional time in post-war U.S. culture, when the generation gap produced by the baby boom was bulging into college age, and pop style was evolving from ’60s mod to ’70s avocado and harvest gold. Most of the men still had Brylcreemed hair, and the women had big poofy hairstyles when the show debuted in 1968 (it ran all the way to ’80). Continue reading

Jake Shimabukuro’s Ultimate Ukulele

jakeshimabukuro.jpgThink “ukulele” and you’ll invariably get a quaintly exotic image in your head (and the wrong pronunciation – it’s “oo-koo-leh-leh,” not “you-koo-leh-leh”): warm sun, swaying grass skirts, coconut bras, colorful cocktails with umbrellas, and palm trees and a beach in the background.

It’s true, the ukulele is a stringed instrument that was born in Hawai’i (albeit it has its actual origins in a Portuguese instrument that was brought to the islands by 19th century sailors) and given its name, which means “jumping flea” in Hawai’ian. And it’s also true that the ukulele, which basically looks and acts like a miniaturized, four-string guitar, has helped spread Hawai’ian music and culture for a century, since Hawaiian music first caught the fancy of mainlanders during a 1915 exposition in San Francisco.

But the cute little uke isn’t just a tool for strumming up tourism to Honolulu. Continue reading