By GWEN MURANAKA
The wooden mallet lifts and falls, lifts and falls. Steam rises, the hot rice cake is turned with deft, quick hands. With each strike, a lumpy, globular mass is formed into something smooth, elastic and delicious.
This past year was certainly a lumpy one in the Japanese American community, filled with discord and protest. Will 2016 see those lumps smoothed out, or are we in for another sticky, bumpy year?
From Keiro to Rago to Metro, the year 2015 was a tipping point in the Japanese American community. Issues long discussed reached critical mass and what happens from this point forward is uncertain. While uncertainty can be disconcerting and stressful, it can also be exciting. These moments are when dynamic, innovative change occurs — if the challenges are met with vigor, pragmatism and optimism.
So on that note, I offer four hopeful thoughts for 2016.
1. Little Tokyo is a gathering place
The Little Tokyo mural turned 10 years old in 2015 and as the mural says so simply: home is Little Tokyo. But it is an evolving J-Town that is becoming only more chaotic, vibrant and diverse. Even as we mourn the loss of Oiwake Restaurant and other businesses, the Go For Broke National Education Center’s move to the historic Nishi building further solidified that Little Tokyo is the national center of Japanese American culture.
The JA community gathered in August to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Nisei Week. At the close of this year many of those same folks rose up to protest the decision to move up road closures for the Regional Connector before the Metro Board of Directors, and an entire city took notice.
The problems of gentrification aren’t going away, but as this J-Town community asserted, neither is Little Tokyo.
2. A youth movement reaches maturity
Kizuna, started by a small, scrappy group of young Nikkei leaders, hit its five-year anniversary in 2015. Since its start, the youth leadership group has inspired and engaged hundreds of JA youth, bringing energy, new ideas and fresh faces to a community that is reluctant to accept change.
Handovers from aging institutions to youthful organizations were embodied by the transition from the now-dissolved Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California to the Little Tokyo Historical Society. LTHS pursued their vision in 2015 with exuberance: planning and installing the Sei Fujii monument that is passed by thousands of visitors to Japanese Village Plaza.
3. Japanese and Japanese Americans relations
Last year saw the emergence of a loud and energetic Shin Issei community. Whatever the ultimate resolution of Keiro, the voices of the Shin Issei have been heard loud and clear. Their opposition to the sale of Keiro’s facilities speaks to a continued need for services for a large Japanese-speaking community.
Corporate Japan continues to expand its presence in the U.S., with stores such as Daiso, Uniqlo and Tokyo Central Market seeing opportunity in the Shin Issei demographic. Yet recent Japanese immigrants as a group are underrepresented on the boards of many of the JA community’s institutions.
In a year that saw the sitting Japanese prime minister (and USC alumnus) visit Little Tokyo and pay his respects to the Nisei veterans of World War II, it is perhaps not surprising that the Shin Issei presence has been affirmed so emphatically.
4. Digital Awakening
Here at The Rafu, a difficult 2015 was most exemplified by the passing of George “Horse” Yoshinaga. Love him or hate him, he was the voice of the Nisei generation, and one of the last of the old Taul Building leaners. Horse got his start at The Heart Mountain Sentinel and knew the ins and outs of the presses. He lived to see the digital age of Rafu, a 112-year-old newspaper, moving forward in fits and starts.
The future is here and it’s digital. The Rago auction of Heart Mountain artifacts was a moment where Japanese Americans successfully took to social media to advance a cause, in that case, the preservation of priceless artifacts from Heart Mountain.
Our brethren at Pacific Citizen will be embarking on a fully digital format from 2016, ending a print tradition of more than 80 years. Will Rafu be far behind? In an era of Twitter and Facebook, the medium has changed but the importance of conveying news, commentary and information to the Japanese American community has not diminished.
It is truly remarkable that, as it has been for over 100 years, if you want to know what’s going on in the JA community, you have to read it in The Rafu.
It is a mission we look forward to as we rush headlong to the monkey business of 2016. No doubt it will be a year of continued changes in the Japanese American community, more closures as well as openings in Little Tokyo, more Regional Connector construction — and, of course, more Donald Trump.
Shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. May your year start off with lots of mochi, family gatherings and hopes for peaceful times ahead.
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.