J-TOWN BEAT: Shining a Light on a Year of Darkness

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By GWEN MURANAKA

A year ago this week, we at The Rafu Shimpo started producing the newspaper from our homes. The first issue came out on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. The week before that was a stressful scramble, finishing up deadlines, taking computers home, saying goodbyes to one another, not realizing that we wouldn’t be in the same place again for what is now 12 months and counting.

In those weeks before the shutdown, we were still fighting the reality that was so suddenly and harshly before us. Future scholars will see the phases in the pages of this publication. A cruise ship docked in Yokohama, its passengers quarantined. Early announcements of event postponements and cancellations; initially some cited poor weather as the reason, not really wanting to acknowledge that a deadly pandemic was altering our lives in ways that none of us have ever experienced.

Eric and I had planned a trip to overseas in April and held out hope until the airports shut down that we may be able to take that trip. Needless to say it was cancelled like so many things. A minor loss in a year of so much loss.

A month before that, I interviewed Taiji Terasaki for his exhibition, “Transcendients,” at the Japanese American National Museum, a celebration of community heroes and a meditation on the migrant experience and its parallels to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. A year later, the signage is still there as if time stopped, but today brings welcome news that JANM is planning to open on April 16 as Southern California moves into the red tier, allowing more businesses and institutions to reopen.

:Front page of The Rafu Shimpo, March 24, 2020 — the first issue made by staff working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In that same issue on Feb. 1, 2020, we announced the retirement of Irene Hirano Inouye from the U.S.-Japan Council, with no way of knowing that Irene’s health had declined and that she would pass away on April 7, just a couple weeks into the lockdown. In my mind, Irene’s passing was the first real challenge for our scattered newsroom — if we could cover a major developing story, share information and get it to press. Now so much has happened that these crises have become an everyday occurrence.

The death of such an icon of the Japanese American community would have been a moment of gathering in collective mourning, perhaps some amusing and poignant stories of a life well spent. There have been so many losses since then, so deeply felt and so innumerable.

There is also the absence of sound, the vibrancy of crowds. The eerie quiet of the elementary school in our neighborhood, normally alive with the sounds of kids on the playground. Hopefully kids will be back to classrooms soon, but how do you make up for a year without in-person instruction.

Data and numbers have never guided life as much as they have in this time. Every day has been a look at the case numbers and rates of infection in our area. And the number that comes back are the deaths: 543,975 in the U.S., 23,022 in L.A. County and tragically,118 in the former Keiro facilities. Although Kenneth Hayashida in correspondence on March 25 with members of Save Our Seniors stated that number is actually now 121. It is damning that as a society, we’ve been unable to protect the most vulnerable.

One year ago, the themes of 2020 were already there in the pages of **The Rafu,** we just didn’t know it at the time. Community centers, small businesses reacting to the pandemic by adapting and in the face of crises helping one another.

I interviewed Hiroo Nagahara of Bao Hiroo in the Arts District. We didn’t wear masks but warily kept our distance in his restaurant. He would later be one of the businesses helping feed the hungry through LTCC’s successful Community Feeding Community program.

Nagahara said, “Unfortunately and sadly, we all know that not all of the restaurants closed will reopen. I think it’s important to help each other out where we can.”

Ominously, the headline from JACL on March 24, 2020 read: “Asian People Are Not a Disease.” COVID-19 has revealed the inequality, racism and hatred always simmering in American society.

The thing is, these conversations that are happening now nationally aren’t anything new for this community. It’s just that the powers-that-be wouldn’t listen and it took the blood of innocents, the broken bodies of elders for them to finally start paying attention.

The Rafu will continue to shine a light on these problems, even as the spotlight inevitably moves on. It’s not a trendy hashtag, it’s a mission that has been part of the DNA of the men and women who have worked here since three Issei determined a community needs its own publication to tell its own stories, share our victories and mourn our losses.

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A year ago, Chris Komai wrote about the uncertainty of lockdown, likening it to “indefinite house arrest.” It’s so true. At the time, none of us realized how long we would be confined to our bubbles.

We’re all getting tired of making masks, baking bread and all of the Zooming.

But now with the vaccines, a lot of our more senior members of the JA community are finding some measure of freedom. My Facebook feed is populated with photos of Sansei (gasp!) getting together once again and enjoying spending time together.

I’m jealous. The last time I spent time with someone who wasn’t in our bubble was October. However, with the announcement that vaccine eligibility will be opened on April 1 to everyone 16 and older, it’ll soon be our time as well.

What do I want to do? Eat in a restaurant with real plates and forks, maybe Cherrystones or Burnt Tortilla, or eat a big stack of pancakes at Norm’s or the lunch special at Suehiro. And hugs with friends.

I really miss those hugs.

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Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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