JA Roots in Crenshaw

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By NICK NAGATANI

I am but one of hundreds of JA Baby Boomers raised and “educated” in the Seinan/Crenshaw neighborhood. We owe our Crenshaw “roots” to restrictive racial covenants that prohibited renting to Issei and Nisei after being released from America’s concentration camps. Crenshaw and Boyle Heights were two of the few post-war Southern California enclaves affording rental housing for Japanese Americans.

Ironically, it was this continuation of systemic white racism that provided us young “Buddhaheads” with enriched experiences  that we will forever maintain and take to our grave. Post-war Crenshaw was a blue-collar mixed ethnic community—whites, Asians, and a sprinkling of Latinx were part of a predominantly African American community.

This was a time before we self-identified ourselves as Asian Americans and Afro-Americans. White America labeled us as “Orientals” and “Negros”; these were two of the “nicer” names they called us.

Seinan became the postwar hub of the JA community. The Nisei utilized the “tanomoshi” group tradition (a precursor to the JA Credit Unions) to monetarily assist members to borrow money to start business (mom-n-pop shops), gardening routes, etc. For their Sansei kids they developed JA sports leagues, providing us an opportunity to play organized basketball in the winter and baseball in the summer. JA swim school and clubs arose. Martial arts dojos instructed JA youth in the disciplines of judo, karate, aikido, and kendo, “old-school” style. JA churches and temples developed youth programs and scouting. Oh yeah, can’t forget Japanese language school.

At home, the emphasis on education and good citizenship was paramount. Living up to the “model minority” stereotype was stressed. What was not discussed in JA households was the denial of due process and concentration camp experience based on our ethnicity.

Outside our self-contained JA bubble, we were exposed to life in the “Shaw.” From kindergarten-junior high-high school we shared common experiences with our Black neighbors. Together we were classmates, teammates, student body leaders, friends, and “running partners.” Dorsey and L.A. High were the epicenters of Black-Asian unity, but it was also prevalent at Manual Arts and Washington as well.

The aftermath of the Watts Rebellion resulted in massive white flight that further solidified Crenshaw as an Asian-African American stronghold. It should be noted that during the uprising, many of our Black neighbors served vigil on Jefferson Boulevard protecting JA mom-and-pop businesses.

Our cultural differences (e.g., “You eat seaweed!” “What’s a chitlin?!”) were outweighed by our commonalities. We shared joint success in the classroom and athletic field in the name of school spirit. For young Buddhaheads, Black culture and mannerism became a way of life. We listened and partied to Motown, Little Anthony, Smokey, Marvin, Martha, Temptations, Supremes, and oldies. Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jim Brown, Jerry West (had to include the logo) were a few of our athletic role models. Streetwise, we adopted “jive” talk into our vocabulary, and the JA “bad cats” took the cool swagger (pimp walking) to another level.

Thanks to our upbringing, we understood that we were no closer to being “white” than our Black brothers and sisters, nor did we strive to be.

As time elapsed, we became aware of the advantages afforded to us based upon the “model minority” stereotype. Many teachers expected more from us than of our African American friends—fortunately or unfortunately, many of us disappointed these teachers! In the streets, LAPD cut us more “slack” than our Black brothers.

As we ventured out in the world, those of us who served in the military experienced the disproportional number of Blacks serving on the front lines as “grunts.” We also envied Black unity, how brothers unconditionally welcomed and took in a “cherry” fellow Black soldier entering “in country” (Vietnam) looking out for each other and having each other’s back.

The more we learned about our true history as people of color in America, the clearer we could identify with the overt systemic racism perpetrated on the Black nation. I am proud that the reparation movement afforded monetary compensation and a written apology from the president to survivors of the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans predicated on racist hysteria. I am equally dismayed at the lack of compensation and compassion afforded to African Americans based upon 400 years of oppression, which continues today.

Imagine if the seven states where the concentration camps imprisoned our people built “monuments” serving to celebrate and glorify our racist incarceration and remained erected today. It would be appalling if these reminders of systemic racism were not taken down or destroyed. Yet statues and monuments symbolizing white supremacy are daily reminders of oppression and racism Black folks are confronted with daily.

In most ways, my childhood, youth and adulthood seemed no different from those of my Black partners, teammates and friends; yet having raised two sons, I did not have a sit-down with them to instruct them the “proper protocol” when being stopped by law enforcement. Nor did their mother have to worry or wonder when they left home for an evening activity whether they would be safe, or not come home at all.

As long as white supremacy deprives people of color their basic human rights, we are all at risk. Our history and experiences as people of color in America demands us to support Black Lives Matter and demolish white supremacy. For those of us (most of us) raised in Crenshaw, Black lives have always mattered! Support the BLM movement!

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Nick Nagatani, a retired public interest attorney, is married and a jiichan. Opinions expressed in Vox Populi are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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2 Comments

  1. Nick, you conveyed a beautifully written “reality” article that speaks volumes to our way of life in the Crenshaw district from the 50’s and upwards. Thank you for the memories. As I shared your article on Facebook, I’m sure the comments will pour in and heartfelt likes will continue. Your support of the BLM movement shines brightly in the fabric of our lives. Arigato gozaimasu!

  2. Anne Chilcott on

    Beautiful article- I could see it all. My uncle owned a barber shop in Crenshaw Square called Tropics Barbershop. May Mervin Miyashiro rest in peace.

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