(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on March 3, 2010)
I just returned from New York City where I was privileged to participate in this year’s Day of Remembrance at the Japanese American United Church in lower Manhattan. Having attended a number of DORs here in L.A. (faithfully organized each year by the dedicated and hard-working band of familiar NCRR folk), I was curious to see how the great big city on the other coast chose to commemorate this important day in JA history. After all, since New York was far outside the designated military zones, I wondered how many people who actually experienced the full consequences of that fateful day—Feb. 19, 1941, when EO 9066 was signed—were still around. In a city the size of New York, I was warned ahead of time that the audience would be small, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
I was even more concerned when I was told by one of the organizers that there weren’t many active Nisei left who remembered the first days of their organization back when redress and reparations was their raison d’etre. At one time, New York was the home of star activists of the movement, like Michi Nishiura Weglyn, Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig, Yuri Kochiyama, Chris Iijima, and JACL’s Ruby Schaar. These people were now either gone or moved to Los Angeles. Those Nisei (and even some Sansei) left were now anxious to turn over the planning to the younger folk. Would the next generation have the time, energy, and passion to carry on?
Much to my amazement and delight, I found a hearty young group who still organizes, executes and attends this beautiful ceremony and program. Though I didn’t ask their ages, the two co-chairs of the event were young indeed. Tsuya Yee, who introduced the program, stated in a direct yet poignant way how important it was to recognize that the continuing fight for civil liberties beyond the redress movement. In a few words, she reminded us that there are still people being denied redress, like the Latin Peruvians. Co-chair Mike Ishii brought a quiet but hard-working presence to the event by giving careful attention and somber thought to the program. Using wooden signs that were made many years ago by activist Bill Kochiyama for the candle-lighting ceremony, he introduced the ten camps and asked people to step forward to remember those who were incarcerated at each one. As volunteer members of the audience spontaneously joined the organizers on stage, they spoke the names of people who they wanted to remember. Then the roll call opened to everyone in the church as more names were called out. Remembering mothers, fathers, relatives, and loved ones, each name resounded quietly yet strongly throughout the room. I was honored to mention the name of our own West Coast activist Sue Kunitomi Embrey and was moved when someone approached me afterwards thanking me for the mention of her name. The event was heartwarming in such an intimate way.
What followed was the traditional JA potluck with an enormous table of everything from Japanese sushi to Chinese dumplings. In a full room of some 100 people, someone mentioned that a lot of people liked to come just for the food, and I could understand why. How nice to know that good homemade nihon shoku is alive and well in the Big Apple.
It was great to see photographer Stan Honda, another younger member of the committee, who had just returned from an assignment covering the devastation in Haiti. NY’s favorite Asian American photographer Corky Lee was also there complaining that there were several other events that he was missing that day, including a Korean event in New Jersey. It has been said that if Corky Lee is not there, then it is not an official Asian American event.
At the same time, it is sad to note that there is no longer a Japanese American newspaper on the East Coast where Lee’s photos can be seen. At that moment, I was reminded that the same predicament is being talked about here in our much larger Japanese American community. Thanks to Los Angeles Times writer Teresa Watanabe, the sorry situation was brought to the attention of the greater Los Angeles population in this week’s story on the amazing history of the Rafu Shimpo and its current financial problems. It’s hard to imagine life without this venerable daily, and it’s up to all of us to prevent its demise. I just renewed my subscription and am so glad to find it in my mailbox again.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. She can be reached by e-mail. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.