If there were a top 10 list of Rafu stories in the last 25 years, I’d nominate Jenni Kuida and Tony Osumi’s “101 Ways to Tell If You’re Japanese American,” published in March 1996.
We’ve moved our office three times since I started at Rafu and each time I’ve kept a copy of Tony and Jenni’s article taped up in my cubicle. Looking at it now, it summarizes what it meant to be Japanese American in the ’90s and reflects those years following redress. (Hint: it’d be great to have an update for the new generations.)
Most entries still ring true today, such as “Number 1. You know that camp doesn’t mean a cabin in the woods,” and “Number 62. You know what it means to eat footballs (inari sushi).” Others on the list are a sign of a bygone era. Younger JAs probably don’t know the infamous anti-redress leader Lillian Baker (Number 97 on the list) and never got the chance to eat at places like Mago’s, Kenny’s Café, Holiday Bowl or even Far East Cafe.
The “101 Ways” list offers keen observations of our parents and grandparents, the Nisei, and their quirks. For example, “Number 46. You fight fiercely for the check after dinner,” perfectly describes my dad and the battles he’d have with relatives whenever we’d go out for a meal. Also it is true that he has had at least one Members Only jacket (Number 83).
At a recent meeting I attended, a topic came up and as the discussion went around the room, somebody exclaimed, “That’s really un-JA of us.” I think the topic was about offering constructive criticism and that to be forward and even blunt was to be “un-JA.”
It’s true. As Japanese Americans, we tend to avoid conflict and direct criticism of an individual or group is very “un-JA.” Whenever there is controversy in the community, there seems to be a lot of buzzing around kitchen tables or on the street, but few will come forward and actually say how they feel publicly, let alone confront the parties in question. It means a lot of the community’s juiciest stories and skeletons are kept safely in the closet.
This is not just a JA trait. In Japan, when a foreigner wants a direct response, a Japanese person might say “ehh-to” and suck in his breath, leaving things in the mind of the gaijin unsettled and vague, even if what the Nihonjin really meant was “heck no!”
What are some other things or tendencies that are “un-JA”? An obvious one is taking the last piece of food on the plate. When I do that at the office, I usually preface by saying, I’m being “un-JA.”
Having no interest in basketball, either as a player or a fan, seems “un-JA” to me.
Preferring rice pilaf over steamed rice? Super “un-JA.”
Bragging about your own accomplishments is something else I consider “un-JA.” But bragging about your children or grandchildren — that is very JA.
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There’s a lot of talk about boundaries here in J-Town and Rafu is right on the border where Little Tokyo and the Arts District meet.
I think that the very fact that Rafu Shimpo, which just turned 112 years old, is here on the east side of Alameda Street, means that this little corner must be part of Little Tokyo. Alas, we are not included in the official boundary as drawn up for the Little Tokyo Community Design Overlay in 2013.
However, we are part of the map for the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District, so it really just depends on which map you look at. And in our kokoro (hearts) we are of course part of J-Town. That goes for the other east-of-Alamedas such as Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center and Zenshuji Soto Zen Mission.
But step outside our offices onto Third Street and you definitely do feel the Arts District vibe. Across the street are restaurants like Umami Burger and Wurstchke, where you can order rattlesnake sausage with a huge mug of beer.
Poketo, a boutique that has been featured in Rafu, has artfully curated knick-knacks and, except for its cavernous space, feels like a shop you might see in fashionable Jiyugaoka, a neighborhood in Tokyo.
Last week Nike installed a pop-up shop right next door to Rafu. Sneaker geeks stood in line for hours in the hot sun to buy the new Air Max. I think both Little Tokyo and Arts District stakeholders want to preserve the small business flavor of our neighborhoods, so it was really something to see what massive corporate money and marketing can do in a short amount of time.
Using large LED video screens, Nike created a giant shoebox that pulsed with quick images of colorful shoe graphics. Apparently if you were lucky enough to make a reservation to get inside, the new Air Maxs were reverently displayed inside pneumatic tubes.
It all seemed a bit much, but hey, Nike’s got the money and Little Tokyo has become something of a sneaker mecca in DTLA. Also, March Madness had swept into Staples Center. (UCLA did better than expected, but this is Kentucky’s year.)
Multinational corporations can snap their fingers and things just happen. J-Town residents, businesses and organizations have to hold meetings, plan, strategize and hope that our interests are heard in the midst of all this money flowing into the area.
It may take shouting — for us to be “un-JA” — to make sure Little Tokyo interests are heard and implemented in the midst of big-money interest in our neighborhood.
Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.