J-TOWN BEAT: Fight On Against Racism

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By GWEN MURANAKA

Torrance, California. If there is one city in America synonymous with Japanese and Japanese American culture, outside of Little Tokyo, then it would be Torrance.

It’s where Toyota and Honda both put down roots, and Japanese nationals could find familiar food and comforts, building a community that felt close to being back in Japan. So when two incidents of anti-Asian hate in as many weeks happened in this city, it has been profoundly shocking and troubling.

Torrance is where JA kids can play basketball and form friendships with kids from similar backgrounds. Growing up in a mostly white area, it’s something I never experienced myself.

Many, many years ago, my friend and I took a taxi back to Yokohama Station and the woman driver asked where I was from. When I said my hometown was near Torrance, she wistfully sighed, “Toh-ran-su …” The name synonymous with a way of life that accommodates the best parts of American and Japanese cultures.

Entrance to Farmers Market at Wilson Park in Torrance.

The owner of the cookware business said the hateful message posted on his door was an attack on Japanese food culture and its acceptance in America. His sense was not only was it a personal attack, but an attack on culture itself.

Hate is a disease and like COVID-19, it is spreading quickly these days.

What we can do is reveal these acts and insist that the authorities do more to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. We can support the business (when he wishes his business to be known), and reclaim spaces that have been marred by racism.

Last Saturday I went to Wilson Park for a jog. A week earlier, Lena Hernandez yelled at an Asian American woman to “Go back to whatever f***** Asian country you belong in.”

Wilson Park is such a beautiful place, a true crown jewel of the city. I did my slow laps around the park and you could see folks of all ethnicities enjoying a sunny day. There were long lines of people, in masks, waiting to get into Farmers’ Market; parents walking with their kids; squirrels running up and down.

It felt safe, it felt as normal as could be expected in this strange era, to exercise and feel the sunshine, it was restorative, once again, to be at Wilson Park.

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The founding sisters of Sigma Phi Omega. That’s my mother, Julia Uriu, in the red and white shirt at the top right. (Courtesy Sigma Phi Omega)

It’s about time.

USC on June 11 announced that the name Rufus Von KleinSmid would be removed from the Center for International and Public Affairs. In the announcement, USC President Carol Folt noted that Von KleinSmid was “an active supporter of eugenics” and that the removal has been sought for years by students and faculty.

As Confederate statues are coming down, so are other symbols that lionize individuals who used their power to inflict suffering on minorities.

I think somewhere, my mom must be smiling. In 1949, she and her sisters of Sigma Phi Omega formed the first Asian American sorority at USC in an atmosphere of anti-Japanese American sentiment, defying the authorities on campus. It’s only now, in this moment, that I have started to understand what that kind of racism must have felt like for young women just starting their lives after spending their childhood years in concentration camps.

I wrote about it back in 2010, and found that Von KleinSmid was openly hostile to Japanese Americans on campus. It would explain why in 1942, USC was the only West Coast school to refuse to release transcripts for the students forced to leave because of the incarceration. USC has still not given these Nisei degrees that they were denied. Back then, on graduation day, Jon Kaji and his parents, Bruce and Frances, waved protest signs.

As USC goes through the process of choosing a new name for the Center for International and Public Affairs, a full recounting of Von KleinSmid’s legacy and its impacts on students must be told.

But at this time, I’d like to celebrate those remarkable, groundbreaking women, the founding mothers of Sigma Phi Omega: Miki Haga, Joyce Ishibashi Tawa, Ida Kado Watanabe, Kazuko Kay Matsumoto, Helen Morita Matsunaga, Cherry Okimoto, Akiko Sato Miyamoto, Edna Tanaka Okui, Helen Taniguchi Wakamatsu, Miki Tanimoto, Dottie Uno, Julia Uriu, Grace Wada Iino, Betty Wakamatsu Nishikubo, and Chiyoe Yata Oki.

They took on institutional racism when they were denied access, and formed an organization that continues to this day. It’s a lesson for these dark times. Fight to claim your place, even if the odds are against you, and the headwinds are strong.

Fight on.

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Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

 

 

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