Our Rafu, Our Daily Legacy

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2009 has seen the demise of both the Nichi Bei Times and the Hokubei Mainichi, leaving the Rafu Shimpo as the only Japanese American daily still published in California. With newspapers everywhere folding into extinction, reminders of the value of a community cornerstone are more important than ever.

What Would Happen if the Rafu Was Gone?

By NAOMI HIRAHARA

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“What would happen if the Rafu was gone?” I informally asked some community workers and former staff writers after hearing about the closure of the Hokubei Mainichi, the Japanese American vernacular based in San Francisco, in October.

Their answers were sobering. “To tell you the truth, Naomi, it wouldn’t mean too much to us. Our organization has our own publication.” “Actually, all the people of my generation get their information from blogs and the Internet.” “It would be just the sign of the times.”

I appreciate how candid they were, for their answers reflect why ethnic newspapers – well, why print journalism in general – are in such jeopardy. In this “everything is free” mindset of the 21st century, why pay for something that arrives to your home at least a day late and must later be placed in some recycling bin? With news constantly being segmented and divided in smaller and smaller chunks, is there a need for a news organization that represents all of one ethnic community?

My answer to that last question is a definitive “yes.” It’s an answer that comes from years of observation and participation (I served as editor of the English Section from 1990-1996), my work as a nonfiction and fiction writer, and my latest temporary incarnation as a partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hirahara, right, and former Rafu Shimpo Japanese Editor Yukikazu Nagashima working together.

Hirahara, right, and former Rafu Shimpo Japanese Editor Yukikazu Nagashima working together. (By MARIO G. REYES)

What happens when an ethnic community loses a daily/weekly newspaper?

1: Our political power is diminished.

Remember the beginning and height of the redress and reparations movement? Those issues were introduced and hotly debated in the pages of the Rafu and other Nikkei publications. These newspapers gave a voice to varied individuals-Republicans and Democrats, World War II veterans and Sansei community activists. Through hashing out strategies, philosophies, and details, a movement was stretched and developed further.

The Rafu Shimpo also played a large role in shaping the redevelopment of Little Tokyo.

I remember when the First Street North Project was being introduced in the mid-1980s. This project would have literally destroyed most of the historic buildings on the block bordered by Central and San Pedro (Judge John Aiso) streets. The San Pedro Firm Building, now well-maintained, low-income housing under Little Tokyo Service Center, at one time was a dilapidated slum building managed by the city of Los Angeles (no hot water, etc.). Without a publication like the Rafu covering such stories, Little Tokyo would look very different today.

Currently there is strong discussion over the Metro Regional Connector in Little Tokyo, a discussion which is featured regularly on the front pages of the Rafu. How would this information be disseminated if the Rafu didn’t exist? Through blogs, websites, and e-mail blasts – but it may only go to those already well invested in this issue.

Furthermore, what makes more impact on a politician or decisionmaker – a personal blog or a product of an actual news organization?

2: Our financial power may not be fully acknowledged.

When it comes time for the government or large corporations to do outreach to an ethnic community, where do they go? More often than not, an ethnic newspaper. Some ethnic communities do not have print publications and as a result, those advertising dollars may go to other communities instead.

3: Small businesses and cultural organizations serving our community suffer.

As an independent writer, I’m a type of an entrepreneur and papers like the Rafu are invaluable in getting the word out on books, craft fairs, new products, and services. We can’t always count on mainstream sources, so it’s nice to know that the Rafu is in our corner. Also, in terms of advertising, it’s always good to have a targeted affordable option.

Cultural and community organizations publicize their events through the Rafu. Of course, again, e-blasts and social networking are becoming important vehicles to reach our constituencies. But there are older folks who still haven’t embraced the high-tech bandwagon. We’d be cutting out an important segment of our population if we eliminated print altogether. And some innovative papers like the Cultural News do send weekly e-blasts heralding upcoming cultural events. There’s definitely a place for the ethnic press to embrace technology and use their subscriber base to their advantage.

4: We lose a place to celebrate our victories.

Whether it be a child becoming an Eagle Scout or making his first basket, small victories are always celebrated in the pages of the ethnic press. We see photos of community leaders, personalities, celebrities and sports stars on a regular basis, positive role models for our children.

Sometimes those victories are more communal; I personally recall when the first redress checks were presented in Washington, D.C. It was wonderful to have photos documenting this milestone on the front page of our paper.

5: Our community’s writers will lose a place to develop their craft and get published.

Writers such as Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto and Wakako Yamauchi regularly wrote for ethnic newspapers. And with those issues archived, we have a treasure trove of literature documenting our lives in camp, before and after World War II.

I personally cut my writing teeth at the newspaper rather than at college or a writing program. Young people currently contribute to the paper as staff writers, columnists, and interns. Yes, Internet presence is fast replacing the printed word, especially for the generation under forty. But to write for a built-in audience rather than to cultivate one from scratch can accelerate the improvement of a writer’s skill and help build her platform.

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missing pages after pearl harbor

This past year, I became a paying subscriber of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper again, instead of one who waited for Nisei friends to clip articles to forward to me. What I’ve since discovered and been reminded of is that the Rafu does indeed document the heart of the community.

It’s vital for us as the Japanese American community to have our own newspaper. Obviously, that product also needs to move with the times and constantly re-envision itself. Does the Rafu need to change and improve? Most definitely, and steps are going in that direction with the new website and online edition. Meetings are also taking place to further invigorate the content.

But we as community members also need to change, too. We can’t assume that the Rafu will always be around. We need to open up our pocketbooks and get our own subscriptions. We need to consider a community without a newspaper like the Rafu – will it be better for our Japantowns, community groups, our children, and our grandchildren? I guarantee you that the first two will be weakened and quite visibly so over time.

With its now over century-long existence, Rafu has always had history on its side. History, however, is becoming more and more irrelevant. The future is pushing more and more papers down the black hole of financial insolvency. To start new ventures to replace the old ones takes a huge commitment – both financially and time-wise – and the odds of long-term success are not good. I believe that it’s preferable to rethink what now exists. Let’s do that with The Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News, before it’s too late.

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Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series. Her fourth mystery, Blood Hina, will be released by St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne Books in March 2010. She worked at The Rafu Shimpo as a reporter from 1984-1987 and as English editor from 1990-1996. She currently is a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau.

What Next, Rafu Shimpo?

By GWEN MURANAKA

RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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Click, snap and keep moving. That’s been Rafu photographer Mario Reyes’ routine at every Nisei Week Festival for the past 20 years. During some of those hectic summer days, I become Mario’s flunky go-fer, taking down people’s names or just holding camera equipment. Watching Mario at work and the heart and soul he brings to his photos embodies the best of The Rafu Shimpo: an editorial perspective that still shows a dancer’s grace or the twinkle in an obachan’s eye.

It’s not easy to do. Find the artistry in the moment, come back to the office, download photos and get out there to do it again. Make the deadline and keep moving. Everyone at Rafu has a similar task at hand: from Nao updating the Rafu’s Web site, to Jordan interviewing basketball players and combing the Web for stats, to Michelle and Seiko answering calls and cheerfully manning the front office.

Although the equipment has changed, it has been that way for every man and woman who has worked here since the newspaper began in 1903. A newspaper has a dreadful inertia dictated by the deadline: get it done and move on. Every triumph or mistake is transient and put aside for the next day’s work. When former English editor Henry Mori used to stop by or when I see Harry Honda, Tak Nakayama, Naomi Hirahara or George Yoshinaga, it’s with a camaraderie that comes with shared struggle.

It leaves very little time for contemplation of what happens beyond today. But I think that’s precisely what is needed now – contemplation followed by action – if we are to continue in the future. We at the Rafu Shimpo are now in the uncomfortable position of witnessing and reporting upon what may be an end to Japanese American publications as we know them. The landscape for Japanese American media changed horribly in 2009 with the demise of Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Times. Now when I speak with editors at other publications, we all ask the same thing: how are you holding out? How are you holding on?

The answer is, we are holding on, but just barely. Paul Yempuku, publisher of the nearly 100-year-old Hawaii Hochi said, “Right now is the biggest crisis, worse than any time before.” With three years to go to their centennial, he vowed to Emperor Akihito when he visited the islands in July to try and keep the publication going until that anniversary.

Similar vows are being made in the few remaining newsrooms covering the Japanese American community, as we summon our strength and tighten our belts. But what will be the response to these vows among the JAs who these papers serve? Will it be a shrug or  a call to action? Will Facebook or some other social networking app fill the void?

How can you help? Subscribing to the newspaper if you support it would be a start. Also let us know how we can improve, offer your thoughts on ways to make it relevant and sustainable. A few of us will be gathering on Sunday, Jan. 17 at Veterans Hall in the Gardena Japanese Cultural Institute, 1964 W. 162nd St., from 2 to 4 p.m. to talk about these issues and the challenges facing The Rafu and you can e-mail your thoughts to [email protected] before that. Our community has met crisis before and emerged stronger. Hopefully the same will be said of The Rafu.

joe yamada working on typsetter

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