There once was a time when, according to Japanese American National Museum CEO and President Akemi Kikumura Yano, if you got three Issei together, they’d start a newspaper.
Yano’s quip was made Saturday, April 2 at the JANM and Discover Nikkei-sponsored conference and panel discussion titled “From Newsprint to New Media: The Evolving Role of Nikkei Newspapers,” held at JAMN’s National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo.
Though Yano’s remark drew laughs, decades ago newspapers that catered to first-generation Japanese immigrants were numerous, thanks to high literacy rates and the desire to keep the many Japanese American communities informed.
According to an overview by the event’s moderator, Denver-based journalist Gil Asakawa, Japanese communities along the West Coast and in inland areas like Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and elsewhere established their own Japanese-language newspapers, eventually adding English-language sections for their Nisei offspring.
Asakawa noted that the tradition continued even when Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII at various U.S. concentration camps, when newspapers like the ironically named Manzanar Free Press came into being.
The landscape today, however, is different. Many of the smaller Nikkei community newspapers like the Rocky Shimpo, Utah Nippo, and Rocky Mountain Jiho are now entries in history books. More recently, in 2009 the Nichi Bei Times and Hokubei Mainichi, two daily Japanese American newspapers that served San Francisco’s Japanese American community, ceased publication.
“When the Nichi Bei folded in 2009, it was a pretty big deal,” said Asakawa during his introductory remarks, accompanied by a slideshow. Noting that the Hokubei Mainichi soon followed, he said, “It really was kind of a turning of the tide when these really established names in the publishing world in our communities had to shut down.”
In 2010, Los Angeles’ Rafu Shimpo revealed its own struggles to stay in business, which resulted in a grassroots Save the Rafu Committee that, before disbanding in November, tried to advise the newspaper on ways to keep afloat.
With that backdrop, Discover Nikkei put together the conference to look at the past and present of Japanese American journalism, and see what might be in store for the future with the advent of Internet-based news distribution methods.
Present to discuss the subject were four representatives from some of the still-extant Japanese American news outlets: Gwen Muranaka, Rafu Shimpo English Section editor; Kenji Taguma, editor-in-chief of Nichi Bei Weekly, published by the nonprofit Nichi Bei Foundation; Shige Hayashi, Cultural News editor; and George Toshio Johnston, NikkeiNation.net editor. Unable to attend was Karleen Chinen of the Hawaii Herald.
Noting that the Rafu Shimpo is “really a community newspaper,” Muranaka said the paper’s role is to provide the community’s connective tissue in Los Angeles.
Taguma said that when he learned the owners of the Nichi Bei Times were going to shutter the paper, he began working “20 hours a day” to create the nonprofit infrastructure for the Nichi Bei Foundation and the Nichi Bei Weekly, noting that they didn’t want to interrupt the continuity between the end of the last issue of the Nichi Bei Times and the first issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Higashi and Johnston followed, giving background to how their respective Japanese American news sources began and what their missions were. A native of Japan, Higashi noted that with Cultural News, which is still primarily a print publication, he was very interested in creating an English-language source for L.A.’s many Japanese cultural events.
Johnston said that his goal for NikkeiNation.net, which has no newsprint component, was to use the inherent advantages of the Web to disseminate news for Japanese Americans nationwide, which he learned of as the senior online news editor for the Hollywood Reporter’s website.
After remarks by the four panelists concluded, Asakawa asked various questions of the panel and took questions and comments from the audience, including Mikey Culross of Rafu Shimpo, Iku Kiriyama of the Save the Rafu Committee, Nikkei West’s Jeffrey Kimoto, who attended from Sacramento, and Rafu Shimpo’s J.K. Yamamoto, who was at Hokubei Mainichi for 23 years and, prior to that, at the JACL newspaper Pacific Citizen.
Regarding the Pacific Citizen, whose advisory board he served on, Asakawa noted that when it was proposed to have that publication go completely digital to save costs, its nationwide membership balked because for many the twice-monthly paper is the only tangible benefit of JACL membership. Similarly, Nikkei West’s Kimoto said that when the 12,000 members of the Buddhist Churches of America were polled as to whether they would like to get its publication, Wheel of Dharma, as a digital-only publication, only 300 were in favor.
Johnston, however, compared that to when Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared the end of floppy disc drives in its computers. People groused at first — until they realized life still went on and that Jobs was, ultimately, correct.
“Look at where Apple is now—bigger than any other company just about,” said Johnston.
Asakawa concurred, saying, “That’s true. Technology marches on and in the last 15 years, it’s marched faster and faster. It’s almost like if you don’t try to keep up, you get really far behind.”
At the conclusion of the panel and closing remarks from JANM VP Darryl Mori, the audience and panelists mingled at a mixer.
(Note: An edited audio version of this event will be available at IntoTheNextStage.com.)
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(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.)