THROUGH THE FIRE: Connecting to Community


(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Sept. 30 2010)

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend several community events that reminded me how nice it is to be a JA. There’s something about our shared history that brings us together and sets us apart from other ethnic groups.

Perhaps it goes back to prewar days when Little Tokyo was the thriving center of our community, but camp undoubtedly provided the glue that stuck us together, whether we wanted it or not.  In our efforts to continue our discussions about camp and beyond, nowadays we find ourselves bonding at community events where I am constantly reminded that we are part of a shared cultural experience that keeps us together in 101 ways (to quote Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi). And though our numbers may be dwindling, there’s something wonderfully intimate about being a part of a JA gathering.

Take, for example, the get-together that celebrated the JAHSSC’s launch of its latest terrific collection of stories in the series, Nanka Nikkei Voices. Leading the festivities with her usual aplomb was the woman who singlehandedly gave birth to and nurtured this project through four volumes. Iku Kiriyama brought together the best and brightest of the JA community in this latest collection of stories centering on family, and many of them were present that day.

It was fun rubbing elbows with JA newspaper patriarch Harry Honda, former state assemblyman George Nakano, brilliant (now funny) UCLA professor Valerie Matsumoto, self-described troublemaker Jim Matsuoka, and I could go on and on. Even more wonderful to see was the mixture of young and old embracing one another (both figuratively and actually), like grandpa Harry with his arm around his new writer protegee/granddaughter, and moms and dads cheering on their burgeoning storytellers. Attendees came from as far away as northern California and as nearby as Gardena, once again making me realize that our ties really do bind.

Speaking of traveling a distance, the Heart Mountain Foundation’s weekend program at the Japanese American National Museum brought together another stellar community entourage that included North Carolina scholar Eric Muller, Wyoming author Douglas Nelson, Seattle filmmaker Frank Abe and UCLA’s own Lane Hirabayashi for another amazing two days of camp talk and community bonding.

Since I could not attend every session, I appreciated the fact that plenty of extracurricular time was reserved for mingling–the best part of any event. It was especially nice to see New York City resident Stanley Kanzaki and Sacramento’s Tule Lake historian Barbara Takei whose emails are nothing compared to their real-life greetings and hugs.

As I said goodbye to Frank Abe, I was reminded how years back, I called him to ask about his video interview with Michi Weglyn that I was dying to get my hands on. (Keep in mind that to the noted filmmaker of “Conscience and the Constitution,” I was then just a stranger on the phone who happened to have a JA name.) In an amazing, though not unusual, gesture of JA generosity, not only did he send me the original tapes, he allowed me to use whatever I wanted in a film which he had nothing to do with. Usually, these kinds of things come with a high price tag. His only wish was to honor the woman who meant so much to the community he was part of.

It brings to mind a favorite saying I have on a Clement Hanami-designed t-shirt that reads “There’s no ‘I’ in  team.”  You could say that we are all on the same team, like the JA Jets (Nikkei Nighthawks? Little Tokyo Tornadoes?).

And Frank Abe’s act of kindness demonstrated that we have a high stat for assists.  Even the Trojan and Bruin diehards among us are willing to lend a hand for our crosstown rivals when it comes to preserving our JA stories (even though I could still live without that Trojan horse. . .). I speak specifically about Richard Murakami and Masako Koga, just two Museum volunteers who never stop helping me out.

I’m also happy to report that there are no national boundaries to these assists. As I write from the Calgary International Film Festival, I am happy to report that the Nikkei in Canada are also very tuned in to their Japanese heritage and US counterparts. Screening my documentary on Michi Nishiura Weglyn along with a Canadian film about being hapa, I was delighted to meet filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, who helped me set up a screening at the Nikkei Cultural and Senior Center. He could not have been more helpful and anxious to spread Michi’s story to other Canadians. Look for his film, “One Big Hapa Family,” when it comes near you. It tells the little-known story about what happened to Canadian Nikkei during WWII with a wonderful humorous touch and laugh-out-loud animation.

Yes, I’m glad to be part of this homogeneous, heterogeneous Nikkei bunch!


Sharon Yamato writes this week only from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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