SENIOR MOMENTS: Brotherhood Camp USA

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By PHIL SHIGEKUNI

Our JACL chapter sponsored the performance of “Happa Girl Sushi Bar After Hour” at our JA Community Center last Sunday. We were pleasantly surprised by the good turn-out for the play. It was good to see some people I had not seen for a long time.

A sushi bento was served after the play, and Marion and I were able to eat with J.K. Yamamoto of The Rafu Shimpo. I first met J.K. back in 1981 in connection with the redress hearings. Until it closed a few years ago, J.K. was editor of The Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco. We thanked him for running our attorney daughter Laurie’s columns on wills and trusts.

I was glad to see Naomi Hirahara, and as we chatted about her recent books, I was somewhat stunned when someone from the distant past came to join us: I hadn’t seen Sindy Saito since we worked as staff members for Brotherhood USA,  a summer human relations camp back in the late 1970s. The camp originated several years before,  and was sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Sindy is news editor for Channel 4. She told me an interview with Naomi had been broadcast earlier in the day as part of Channel 4’s recognition of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. I congratulated Naomi for the great mystery novels she has been writing.

Sindy and I reminisced about the experience we shared at Brotherhood Camp. Being in education, I was off during the summer, and was able to serve on staff for the week-long camp between 1973-83. I remember Sindy when she first came to the camp as a camper, then later as staff.

Some of the people who were with us on staff make quite a list — to name a few, Ron Wakabayashi, Alan Kumamoto, Glenn Masuda, Marshall Wong, and Karl Nobuyuki, a neighbor and friend, whom I play golf with every week. Sindy remembered June Lagmay, who has since risen to be L.A. city clerk.

Also on staff was Mark Ridley Thomas, now an L.A. County supervisor. Mark was going with his wife-to-be, Avis Ridley, when they both were on staff.  I was impressed that he adopted her name when they married.

Ethnic identity was a big part of the program at Brotherhood Camp. Warren Furutani was not on staff, but was always well-received when he came up to talk about Asian American identity. Also included in the program were sexuality, LGBT issues and tolerance for religious differences. A number of gay/lesbian young people felt safe enough to come out of their closets during the course of the week.

Each evening we had a town hall meeting when various issues of the day were discussed. Black/white issues frequently became heated. At one session someone noticed the Asians were not saying anything. Her comment was, “Why are you not saying anything? Don’t you care?” I and others explained that respectful listening was valued and displays of emotion were not. This position was accepted and provided a moment of learning cultural differences.

The multi-racial teens who attended came from high schools throughout Southern Cal. The program presented to them was confrontational, and designed to make a strong personal impact. Before we could help the young people deal with these issues on a personal level, the staff preparation involved having them have the same experiences we exposed the young people to.

This staff training experience I received changed my life. I was made to face some prejudices I harbored about other Asians. In growing up I had learned prejudices towards Koreans, Chinese and Filipinos, which I needed to discard.

I realized I had not come to terms with the damage done to my sense of being Japanese while growing up during the war and, as a child of 8, being forced into a camp purely because of who I was. I came to realize, as well, how this form of self-hatred carried over to hating the Japanese enemy. My dilemma: Yes, I felt like an American, but not an American who was accepted by the rest of America.

In working through these issues I was able to gain a sense of liberation, and in the process it gave me the energy to get behind issues such as redress and other social issues. I feel a sense of satisfaction in having the same liberating experience as those folks mentioned above, as well as thousands of others who were enriched by what they gained at Brotherhood USA.

Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted via email. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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