J-TOWN BEAT: Fathers, Sons and a Community in Discord



Last Thursday night was unlike any I have experienced in the JA community.

Thick storm clouds gathered, the microphone hissed and crackled, and a community that has so much to celebrate, gathered together and, for one evening, threatened to split apart.

“Kikitakunai! (I don’t want to listen) No! No!” shouted a Japanese man seated behind me, as Gary Kawaguchi, the Keiro board chair, spoke sincerely from his heart of the reasons why he and the board felt that it was necessary to sell Keiro’s facilities.

Neither side was listening to one another that night, and how this will finally resolve itself is uncertain. At the “Ties That Bind” meeting the next morning, someone I spoke with observed that the Keiro meeting would have benefited greatly from having an outside mediator, and I think that is true. The sense that Keiro was speaking at, not with the community only served to inflame tension that finally devolved into angry outbursts.

The loudest and most passionate seemed to be Japanese nationals, who expressed frustration with the translation. There is also a level of anger among Japanese that we at Rafu experienced when the newspaper held its “Save Rafu” forum back in 2010. That anger roiled again during a meeting for Japanese-speaking business owners to discuss the Regional Connector that same year.

It made me think about the feelings of social isolation that come with moving to a foreign land where the language and customs are not your own — even within a Japanese community like Little Tokyo, where the local leadership is long-standing and entrenched. Their passion is understandable: institutions like Keiro and Rafu Shimpo are vital lifelines for Japanese speakers in a way that is just not the same for Sansei and Yonsei.

When I lived in Japan, I was for the most part comfortable with being a gaijin Nikkei who would never truly be accepted, but I knew other JAs who were hurt by the isolation and at times, experienced outright discrimination in areas such as housing and employment. I think I was accepting of my outsider status because I always knew that it was temporary. But for Japanese nationals who have made the U.S. their permanent home, there can be loneliness if there are not individuals or institutions that reach out to them, especially for the elderly.

Chako Ryu

Chako Ryu

It is one of the reasons I am grateful for Japanese-speaking bridge builders in our community like Kaz Tsuboi, former Nisei Week president Mike Okamoto, and the late Chako Ryu.

Chako passed away in August at the age of 77. Every time I saw her, she was just too busy volunteering to spend more than a few moments together. Chako volunteered for many organizations, including the Aurora Foundation, Japanese Career Women’s Network and Japan America Society.

For me, Chako’s help was personal and it changed my life. With her help, I found my job at Japan Times. Yesterday, I was doing some house cleaning and found an envelope she had sent to my father. It contained copies of articles I had written, with a note, “Dear Gwen’s father, here is what she is doing in Japan.”

We are many diverse communities of Japanese and Japanese Americans that connect and disconnect here in Southern California. We are in a moment of discord now, but it in this moment of upheaval let’s also think about ways to connect and move forward together.

* * *

Ernest Doizaki, Gary Kawaguchi, Bruce Kaji, Jonathan Kaji, Frank Kawana and Frank Omatsu — seeing these men together, facing one another in opposition on Thursday night, made me think of the fathers and sons of Little Tokyo.

Here in Little Tokyo we seem to be rather obsessed with our (Nisei Week) queens and princesses, but I’d like to reflect for a moment on J-Town’s kings and princes: the men who built Little Tokyo and in turn, their sons who inherited that legacy.

Mo Nishida and Helen Funai Erickson, a Nisei Week queen, escorted Frank Omatsu and Bruce Kaji to the front of the auditorium, with all the decorum given to a community’s elder statesmen.

For these men, it must be a burden, and it is almost invariably men, who are given the responsibility of leading a family, or in this case, a community. I believe it was Ernie Doizaki, a Keiro board member, who noted that his dad spent more time working in the community than selling fish at his company. Gary Kawaguchi said that when his father passed away, the Nishi Temple auditorium was filled with mourners, and that George Aratani took him in as a mentor.

The point of this personal narrative was to show the depth of commitment these men have been instilled with from early on by their elders. Kawaguchi said, with sincerity, “Never would I do anything to damage the community.” I think unfortunately, these personal vignettes fell on deaf ears among many in the audience.

It strikes me how much of the power structure has passed on from one generation to another, from a father to a son, and how much the JA community relies on their support. How many fathers served on boards, and were followed in turn by their sons. Even here at Rafu, Aki Komai turned to his son, Michael, and gave him the responsibility of keeping this institution going.

But the JA community is changing, its demographics are shifting, and the responses to those changes are laid bare in the Keiro issue. As much as there are kings and queens, there is also the democracy of the crowd, the shambling diversity of voices that feel ownership in the institutions of Little Tokyo and want a say in its decisions.

* * *

And finally, you are not experiencing déjà vu, the Keiro story from Saturday is being run on Page 2 of today’s paper. Due to a printing error, a segment of the story was missing, so it is reprinted here again. It is not done to show favor to one side or the other of this issue, just to get the story out there in its entirety.

When I worked at Japan Times, the newspaper printed several editions daily. The first edition was sent out to the outlying parts of Japan, while later editions circulated closer to Tokyo. Some day’s stories were edited and changed multiple times as the news developed, so there were opportunities to correct a story in subsequent editions.

The Rafu is a small staff trying to keep up with a story that has been quickly developing. This is no longer just a newspaper but rather a news outlet, updating a website, an online publication and on social media. It is unfortunate, but let’s call today’s reprint a Rafu mulligan.

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.



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