OCHAZUKE: From One J-Town to Another

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By J.K. Yamamoto
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on December 8, 2010.)
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My new job at The Rafu Shimpo has brought me back to L.A. after a 23-year absence.

I was born in L.A., grew up in Gardena, and attended Long Beach State and UCLA. I worked at the Pacific Citizen from 1984 to 1987 and then moved to San Francisco to serve as English editor of the Hokubei Mainichi for 22 years.

Twenty of those years were spent at 1746 Post St., which was the Hokubei’s home for 30 years (it was originally a block away on Sutter Street). We sold the building and it was torn down in 2007 to make way for New People, a center for Japanese pop culture. If you go there, you can find a display about the site’s history in the elevator. We relocated to the Buddhist Churches of America building on Octavia Street.

The sudden closure of the Hokubei in 2009, just a year after it celebrated its 60th anniversary, was preceded by the closure of San Francisco’s other Japanese American bilingual daily, the Nichi Bei Times. The loss of both papers within a couple of months of each other sent shock waves through the community and gave a sense of urgency to a public forum on the future of The Rafu. (We had a public forum in San Francisco too, but it was after the fact and therefore kind of pointless.)

Northern California still has some Nikkei media. Kenji Taguma’s Nichi Bei Weekly, a non-profit paper, began publishing as soon as the Nichi Bei Times closed. Another community newspaper, Jeffrey Kimoto’s Nikkei West, comes out every other week. I have been freelancing for Nikkei West for the past year while continuing to update the English side of the Hokubei website.

However, there is no daily paper for Japanese Americans in Northern California, and no paper for Japanese speakers except for the free weeklies Bay Spo and Sports J, which are aimed at newcomers from Japan. Even the Japanese-language S.F. Radio Mainichi, which shared office space with the Hokubei for many years, went off the air earlier this year.

So amid all this uncertainty about the future of the Nikkei press, I am joining the Rafu as it continues the community tradition of print journalism while reaching people online through Rafu.com as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Big Changes in Little Tokyo

Although I have visited Little Tokyo from time to time over the years, I didn’t really see all the changes until I started working here for the first time in 23 years, literally a lifetime ago.

For those too young to remember the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan was re-elected president, defeating Walter “Where’s the Beef?” Mondale. The Olympics were held in Los Angeles. “Ghostbusters” and “Back to the Future” were box-office hits. The airwaves were filled with songs from Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Cabbage Patch Kids were the must-have Christmas gifts.

Closer to home, Pat Morita was nominated for an Oscar for “The Karate Kid.” He lost to another Asian American actor, Haing Ngor, who won for “The Killing Fields.” Astronaut Ellison Onizuka died in the Challenger disaster, and Weller Street was renamed in his memory. The man who killed Vincent Chin was found guilty of civil rights violations, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. The redress movement was in full swing with bills in Congress and cases in the courts. Activists were up in arms about a hair salon in West Hollywood called “JAPSS.” One or two of the owners were Japanese. It’s sort of like the “Japadog” that is popular today.

In addition to The Rafu, L.A. had two other Japanese American papers: the daily Kashu Mainichi and the monthly, feature-oriented Tozai Times. They have passed on to that big pressroom in the sky along with papers like the New York Nichibei, the Utah Nippo and the Rocky Jiho (Denver).

To look at the Japanese American National Museum today, one would never guess that it started out as an office with a staff of three or four, sharing space with the Pacific Citizen in a converted warehouse on 3rd Street.

The same goes for the Little Tokyo Service Center, which I remember as an office in the JACCC. Now it’s a multimillion-dollar agency with dozens of staff members.

The old Union Church is now a cultural center that houses East West Players and Visual Communications. When I left L.A., it was a deserted building that was used in the 1987 horror movie “Prince of Darkness” (check it out if you haven’t seen it).

Tokyo Kaikan and a large parking lot, once located across San Pedro Street from the JACCC, have been replaced by Sakura Crossing. In fact, all of the empty lots have been turned into office buildings, condos and mini-malls.

The Atomic Café is now Señor Fish. Suehiro and Kouraku, my former late-night hangouts, are still there, but now there are dozens more eating establishments, from the trendy frozen yogurt places to commercial chains like Subway and Starbucks.

You may know the story of Urashima Taro, who returned to his village and didn’t recognize anyone because centuries had gone by while he was visiting a palace under the sea. It’s kind of that way for me, except some of the movers and shakers in J-Town are the same people I knew as a young activist 30 years ago, so at least I won’t be a total outsider when I attend events. But the fact that all their kids, whom I remember as toddlers, are out of college and taller than me is a reminder of how much time has passed.

I also remember some departed former colleagues, like Duane Ebata, Bert Nakano, Linda Mabalot, Judy Nishimoto Ota and Megumi Dick Osumi. Duane, who managed the Japan America Theatre, was sort of a mentor to me at CSULB, so he gets some of the credit or the blame for me being where I am today.

On a happier note, Naomi Hirahara, who was English editor of The Rafu when I was at PC, has gone on to become a nationally known mystery writer with her Mas Arai series. So working in the ethnic press can actually lead to bigger and better things.

I also recall printing an award-winning essay from a promising high school student named Gwen Muranaka when I was at PC. She went on to work for the PC, the Japan Times and The Rafu, and now I work for her. Full circle!

I will be doing mostly reporting and will only write a column when I have something to say, which won’t be often. So enough reminiscing for now—see you around J-Town.

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Ochazuke is a staff written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.

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7 Comments

  1. Patricia Wakida on

    I second Naomi’s sentiment- Urashima Taro was a perfect analogy for the boy fisherman who, lured by nostalgia and a wish to see his family again, returns from the perfect underwater life to find his village changed. Welcome home JK. You have lots of ropes to tutor me on in this strange new prefecture.

  2. It’s great to have you back in LA! A nice retrospective on how things have changed while other things have endured. Hope to see you soon.

  3. Welcome back JK! I didn’t know you were from LA originally. We’ve been living the changes in J-town, especially in the last 2-3 years. Although many of the older activists have passed, you will recognize a lot of familiar faces still keeping on keeping on. 🙂

  4. Excited that you’re down here working for the Rafu, JK. It’s like the Hokubei Mainichi + Rafu = a super power! No?

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