(Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo’s Holiday Issue on Dec. 5, 2012)
Shuko Akune is an actress whose numerous credits include the TV shows “E/R” (the sitcom, not the drama), “Seinfeld,” “Murphy Brown,” “General Hospital,” and the classic final episode of “Newhart”; voice-over and commercial work (she plays the mother of the bride in a McDonald’s commercial); Velina Hasu Houston’s plays “Tea” and “Kokoro” and an upcoming concert reading of Perry Miyake’s “Hapa Girl Sushi Bar After Hour,” directed by Chris Tashima. Active with the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, she can be seen dancing with the Meiji Ondo Group at local Obon and ondo events.
Also a handbag designer, Akune and her husband formed a small company and named it Yancha — “little rascal” in Japanese and the name of her favorite cat. Guided by Maria Kwong at the Japanese American National Museum, Akune developed her prototypes for the bags until they were just right.
When thinking and remembering about childhood holiday gifts, I always think about the handmade gifts I received from my aunties. Those gifts remain in my memory and heart dearly because I know that great thought and time went into each gift made for me.
My parents had a dry cleaners in Chicago and the aunties would come and knit in the storefront. Very much like how many knitters hang out now at Starbucks, knitting away with their cup of latte and their latest knitting project. But back then they drank ocha from their designated cups on the dish rack in the back of the cleaners.
My Auntie Takako, who was Nisei, would knit beautiful scarves, sweaters and mittens for me. She had many nieces and nephews, so I would get a sneak peek at all the gifts she would design for them throughout the year. Auntie Takako worked from no pattern, just impromptu designs that would come to her as she sipped her tea and enjoyed the gift of gab with my mother and the other aunties.
To this day, what I remember her saying to me is that every stitch was made with love, with thoughts of each person in her mind as she knitted away.
I love to knit because I was inspired by all the aunties’ passion for their craft. I have knitted many scarves and given them as gifts to friends and family.
I received a letter a while back from one of my best friends. She sent me a composition essay written by her daughter about me. In it, her daughter said that I make scarves for all the nieces and nephews and I write a note with each gift to tell them that “every stitch was made with love and with thoughts of you.”
I was very touched because I knew that Auntie Takako’s kimochi/feeling lived on and I was able to pass the message of gift-giving in a special and personal way.
When I create my Yancha tote bags and cosmetic bags, I think of each person enjoying the handmade accessory. Each item has been individually cut and sewn by me. I have no outside help and do everything on my own. So the memory of a hand-made gift lives on in Yancha.
I was very fortunate to have had a talented and creative Issei mother who made all my Barbie clothes and creative aunties who knitted away at Omar Cleaners on 5407 N. Clark St. in the heart of Andersonville, a Swedish community in Chicago. Toguri Grocery store was kitty-corner from my parent’s cleaners.
All the wonderful influences that have inspired my creativity and who I am as a knitting “auntie” and designer of Yancha. Thank you for letting me share my holiday memory. Happy holidays to you and may this holiday be a wonderful one for you and your family.
(To order Yancha products online, click here.)