I wasn’t surprised that anti-Japanese sentiments were expressed when Takuma Sato, a Japanese driver, won the Indianapolis 500 race — he is the first driver from Japan to take the flag. But I was shocked, and disappointed that the hateful sentiment was blurted by a journalist. In Denver, where I live. And that it was someone I had worked with.
Terri Frei, a veteran sports writer for The Denver Post whose main beat was the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, tweeted shortly after Sato’s historic victory, “Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.”
The comment sparked a social media furor, and within 24 hours, on Memorial Day, The Denver Post announced that Frei no longer worked for the newspaper.
I didn’t know Frei well, but I worked with him, when I managed the DenverPost.com website. I was bewildered that he would post such a blunt, ethnically charged statement.
My most recent Denver ramen was at the original Osaka Ramen location in the RiNo district. I had the special Miso Ramen of the day with an order of kara age fried chicken.
I grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and have vivid memories of bowls of ramen and soba noodles stacked high in bowls or boxes, being delivered by crazy men riding bicycles through crazy Tokyo traffic like the photo on the right. Ramen had been around since the late 1800s in Japan, but it was during the post-WWII years, and particularly in the 1960s, when ramen became the ubiquitous Japanese comfort food it is today.
I loved ramen as a child, and when my family moved to the states in the mid-‘60s I was sad to find that ramen wasn’t sold in the few Japanese restaurants that were available here. But in 1970 Nissin, the company that invented instant ramen in 1958 began selling instant ramen in the U.S. The next year, the company rolled out Cup Noodles.
Several generations of college students have grown up with instant ramen and Cup Noodles since the ’70s. Who can argue when each savory serving can cost just pennies? Lots of people even use instant ramen as a base for fancier dishes by adding meats and vegetables. But I think that’s cheating. If you want to have some “real” ramen, nothing beats going to a good ramen-ya (shop) for a steaming bowl.
The steaming hot soup of a real bowl of ramen is salty and meaty with hints of chicken, pork and fish bathing together like it’s a friendly hot tub of flavor, and the noodles are firm and chewy (though a good ramen-ya will offer the option to have your noodles hard or soft to your liking) with just the right amount of absorption of the soup, and the toppings can be creative but respect tradition. The experience is several cuts above plopping a square of fried dried noodles into a saucepan for five minutes or pouring boiling water into the styrofoam cup and waiting two minutes with the top flap closed (no peeking!). Instant ramen is cheap, but it’s not food for the soul. The noodles are immediately limp, the soup is flavored hot water (though it can fool your brain into thinking you just ate some real food) and out of the box the topping are… well, there are no toppings.
All the Japanese Americans I know have all sorts of ways to show their cultural roots. It may not be evident when you meet them, but the signs are there, in their homes.
When I was a kid living in Japan, it never occurred to me that the stuff in our house was… well, Japanese. And when we moved to the U.S., we took a lot of our stuff with us – folding screens, small artworks, dolls, dishware, pottery, chopsticks and cooking utensils, and a lot more.
Once we moved into a suburban Northern Virginia home in the mid-1960s, we set about fitting in to our all-American Wonder Years life: nice ranch home, big back yard, all our Japanese stuff inside. Oh, except for my dad built a Japanese rock garden in the back yard complete with a stone lantern, and he planted a cherry blossom tree in the front yard, which bloomed every spring at the same time the famous cherry blossoms that were given to the US.
That tree has grown huge in the decades since – I’ve seen photos, and it looks like a giant fluffy ball of pink cotton candy that dominates the yard, and hides most of the old house behind it.
We recently were privileged to enjoy a concert of contemporary jazz by a vibrant young group from Japan, the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project. Simply put, the combo rocked the joint at the King Center for the Performing Arts at the Auraria campus. The auditorium was full for the free performance, and I bet everyone there were blown away.
Pianist Kuwabara is impossibly young for such an astonishingly assured and accomplished musician and composer. She’s a mere 23 years old, but she and her bassist and musical partner Yusuke Morita have already released two albums as the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project (the “Project” part is because the group doesn’t have a permanent drummer, though Shintaro Imamura is doing a sterling job on the current tour).
The musicians’ youth comes through in the way they are almost starstruck at their own success. At a pre-show reception, Kuwabara bowed deeply when she was introduced to Ikuhiko Ono, the Consul General of Japan at Denver, and his wife Eiko. The tour is organized by the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles, which brings a variety of Japanese arts and culture and showcases them here in the States. This particular tour was too brief: The group played in Berkeley and LA before coming to Denver, and the next day they flew off to Anchorage — yes, Alaska — to perform one more time before flying back to Japan.
Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with an over-the-top performance of her song “Unconditionally,” dressed in a gaudy, faux-Japanese kimono (with Chinese-style mandarin collar and slits up the legs, as well as American-style exposed cleavage) and painted in hideous full-yellowface makeup to fake an “Oriental” look.
The performance has sparked some outrage in both the blogosphere and mainstream media. Maybe that’s what she wanted. She’s probably pissed that Miley Cyrus has been getting all the media attention recently for her edgy, racy performances.
The opening notes of the AMA segment (below), plucked out on shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, while a woman in kimono was silhouetted behind a Japanese shoji screen, had me hopeful that something that showed respect, appreciation and understanding for Japanese culture was about to be broadcast.
As the screen is pulled away and the woman behind it — Perry in her fake kimono — started singing, my heart sank and my gut clenched. Here we go again, a cultural mishmash of what white people think is “Japanese” all thrown into one ugly, cluttered, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink four-minute nightmare.