INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Japanese American Newspapers: Over and Out?

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on February 17, 2011.)

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That the last few years have been tough economically for many folks is hardly news. This community has felt it, too, if the decline and demise of newspapers serving Japanese Americans is any indication.

To my eyes, three of the main causes for the problems facing the Japanese American newspaper, in addition to the tough economic times facing everyone and newspapers as a whole are: 1) demographics; 2) the success of the civil rights movement; and 3) past efforts by Japanese Americans to assimilate and acculturate. In some ways, the causes are interlinked.

Demographics show that as a group, Japanese Americans peaked years ago in population and have been surpassed when compared with other Asian American groups. Yes, the influence of Japanese Americans among all Asian Americans at the national level is still worth something, thanks to folks like Sen. Daniel Inouye and current and former Cabinet members like Eric Shinseki and Norman Mineta,  respectively. But those examples are likely to be historical footnotes in a few years.

Once the most-populous Asian American group, Japanese Americans have been overtaken by Chinese and Koreans thanks to changes in immigration laws that took place in the mid-1960s that took a few years to manifest.

A case in point: While there have been Chinese Americans for decades, the “ABCs” are now far outnumbered by the “FOBs,” a change that can be credited to the civil rights movement that helped lead to said changes in immigration laws.

Meanwhile, nowadays comparatively few Japanese emigrate from their homeland to the U.S. compared with other Asian nations, and for those who do, they don’t necessarily interact with Japanese Americans and Japanese American institutions.

Veteran Japanese American journalists Harry Honda and George Yoshinaga attended last year’s “Save the Rafu” forum to explore what steps might be taken to help keep the Rafu Shimpo from meeting the same fate as San Francisco’s defunct Japanese American daily newspapers.

Even when Japanese from Japan become part of the existing Japanese American populace, the numbers are not enough to counter the declining Japanese American population. Japan itself is facing a decline in population within its shores, which is a result of prosperity and Japan’s anti-immigration policies. If not for immigration, the populations of many industrialized and modernized nations, including the United States, would have shrunk, too.

The Japanese American population is mature compared with other Asian American groups. That’s why we have the Japanese American National Museum, the JACCC and a UCLA building named after Paul Terasaki. Newer immigrant adults from South Korea, for example, trying to put food on the table and get their kids through school have other priorities. But I imagine that in the years to come, the Korean Americans who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s whose children have left the nest will want to take stock of their history and legacy. Actually, it’s already happening, since there is a Korean American Museum.

Back to demographics, a look at the obituaries showing the number of Japanese Americans in their 80s and 90s — Nisei, in a word — who are passing is staggering. This slice of the JA demographic, incidentally, is the most likely to subscribe to and support Japanese American newspapers, which doesn’t bode well for the remaining Japanese American newspapers.

Success in the civil rights arena, meanwhile, means that the ethnic enclaves that arose thanks to racist housing laws that kept different groups of people segregated no longer apply. Still, it’s evident that newer Asian immigrants do cluster in places like the San Gabriel Valley, where many Chinese landed, or Orange County’s Little Saigon for Vietnamese. But with education and affluence, more Asian Americans from those areas will likely disperse.

Nowadays anyone can live pretty much wherever they can afford. Not only that, anti-miscegenation laws have fallen by the wayside. But Japanese Americans are marrying not only Whites, Blacks and Latinos, they are marrying those from other Asian backgrounds, be they Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Filipino, not to mention Iranian and so on. Meantime, the stigma for Whites marrying outside their group — something often overlooked — has lessened to the point of becoming a non-issue except to those hardcore White supremacist types.

As for those loaded words “acculturation” and “assimilation,” the Nisei succeeded there in typical overachieving style, no doubt driven in large part by the experiences of being singled out for discrimination during WWII.

Although a visitor from outer space might not know it from fictional depictions on TV and in movies, younger Japanese Americans are more culturally American than Japanese; while physical features will always distinguish even a typical mixed-race Japanese American from a White American, other than some dietary and vestigial cultural affiliations, a Yonsei or Gosei is simply another  American. And wasn’t that the goal?

What does the preceding augur for the future of Japanese American newspapers, two of which — The Rafu Shimpo and Pacific Citizen — are based here in Los Angeles?

Regarding the Pacific Citizen, its constituency is mainly members of the JACL — which is experiencing a decade’s long slide in membership — across the country. That it’s a JACL paper is a limitation, since not every Japanese American wants to be a JACL member, although the paper’s national focus is a strong point. But the politics of the organization can be a hindrance to the paper’s ability to make changes. I have to note also that its frequency of publication to twice a month (from weekly when I worked there) doesn’t help it in the Internet age.

As for The Rafu Shimpo, last year there was enough concern about its future following the experience of San Francisco’s Nikkei papers to launch a grassroots “Save the Rafu” movement, followed by an L.A. Times article by Teresa Watanabe about the dire straits it is facing. By November, however, the Save the Rafu Committee threw in the towel. It turned out that concerned community members trying to advise business owners how to run their business was a doomed effort, laudable as it was.

So, if you’ve made it this far and are wondering what I think, here goes: To be blunt, unless major changes occur, it’s just a matter of time before The Rafu Shimpo ceases daily publication.

Is there anything that can be done? I think so. But that is a topic for a future column — if I don’t get canned for expressing my opinion!

“Tiger Mom” Dept.: Gotta make a correction after my last column about author Amy Chua’s memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” I wrote that she (and her husband) is a law professor at Harvard. Wrong, as pointed out by a couple of different emails. It’s Yale.

Other than that, my evolving opinion about Chua and her book is that she has been somewhat misrepresented in her media coverage, beginning with the Wall Street Journal’s publishing of an excerpt that was headlined, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Chua didn’t explicitly say that; the headline came from a copy editor. Well, if grabbing attention is one of the functions of a headline, it worked. But as anyone who has ever tried to encapsulate a story in the limited space of a headline can attest, sometimes nuance can get lost, and I’m afraid that’s what happened in Chua’s case. Still, I think that any grief she’s suffered in the media is at the very least self-imposed.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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