J-TOWN BEAT: A Nisei Week Frame of Mind

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By GWEN MURANAKA

It’s Sunday afternoon, Nisei Week 2020. My office has been our tiny living room for the past six months. A cartoon I have taped to my computer monitor reads: “Goals for Today: GET TO TOMORROW.”

That pretty much sums up this year. 2020 started with hope and anticipation, and COVID-19 has completely altered the events that shape the way we gather, celebrate, mourn and mark the passage of time.

One by one, the events that make up the Japanese American community calendar were either canceled or moved online. I think the last event I attended in person may have been the Japanese Chamber of Commerce awards luncheon back in February.

And so now we come to what is normally the apex of the year in the JA community: Nisei Week.

Since 1934, JAs in Southern California of a certain ilk have set their calendars to Nisei Week.

Summertime is Obon festivals — the sounds of taiko and dancers in T-shirts or colorful yukata forming circles of movement and music, paper lanterns with names of departed loved ones, candles lit in reverence and prayer. Tanko Bushi and grilled corn, bingo and bake sales. At the end of it all is the Nisei Week Japanese Festival, or for others, the Hollywood Dodgers basketball tournament in Vegas.

It’s the busiest time of year for The Rafu. This past weekend, a new queen would have been crowned and we’d all be sweating as the crowds cheered on the dancers, taiko drummers and community dignitaries.

As an essential service, The Rafu office on Third and Alameda has been open all this time, but the majority of our staff has been working at home, except to go out and cover assignments. Six months in, I think we’ve proven that it is possible, but I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom in this lonely solitude of working at home.

During Nisei Week, the fuel that keeps us going is adrenaline, the relentless crush of our deadlines and Guiliano’s torpedo sandwiches. I’ll usually buy half a dozen or so and fill our fridge, and also make sure there are plenty of potato chips and Red Vines. Making newspapers is hard work. A typical coronation night is Mario, Mikey, Jun and myself heading back from the Aratani Theatre to the office to post our stories online before we leave to catch a few hours of sleep before returning to Little Tokyo the next day.

I’ve actually been in a Nisei Week frame of mind since last November. Dulcie Ogi Kawata had asked if I could help the committee as it was creating a new website by writing up a history of the festival. It’s an honor, especially thinking of those who have chronicled Little Tokyo through the decades. At their office in the JACCC, I flipped through the Nisei Week programs that have been archived and preserved going back to nearly the very beginning. Names like George Yoshinaga, Harry Honda, Togo Tanaka, Henry Mori, Chris Komai, Ellen Endo — and now it was my turn.

Over hearty bowls of tonkotsu ramen at Men Oh, Dulcie, Joyce Chinn and I shared our thoughts about the festival. I still have my scrawled notes of our talk. This would be a “love letter” to Nisei Week and what is no longer here in J-Town anymore and also a tribute to its volunteers. At the time I wrote down places like Tokyo Kaikan and the Kinema Movie Theatre, also popular events such as the Nisei Week Carnival, that would bring a wistful smile of recognition to old-timers.

What is not here anymore … That sentiment feels so much more poignant and relevant in this moment then back in November. Not only what is not here, but who is no longer here, as this pandemic and lack of a national strategy have taken so many fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, jichans, bachans and aunties.

Researching Nisei Week, I was amazed by the remarkable optimism that drove the early Nisei to forge ahead, despite the Great Depression, and later World War II, forced evacuation and incarceration. Who was it, experiencing the loss of property and possession, racism and xenophobia, facing bleak uncertainty, who wrote the bold headline in the last Rafu Shimpo on April 4 1942, “We’ll Meet Again”?

That optimism in the face of adversity is here today as well. In programs like Community Feeding Community and the Little Tokyo Small Business Relief Fund. In his remarks, Consul General Akira Muto expressed the determination that next summer the world will celebrate overcoming COVID at the start of the Tokyo Games.

So much time until then, but let’s hope so, that next year will be a different summer, with an Olympic flame in Tokyo and a return to Nisei Week.

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For the longest time, Rafu has been using a cartoon I drew of a paperboy as its mascot, but in reality for decades this newspaper has relied on the U.S. Postal Service for delivery. We’ve noticed that delivery has been delayed more in recent times. So our apologies for those who are experiencing delays. One way to help is to let your member of Congress know how important the postal system is, to receive letters, medicine, bills and yes, The Rafu Shimpo.

Efforts to undermine USPS pose an existential threat to businesses like Rafu, which rely on them to reach our readers. The continued existence of this publication provides a tangible link from those forefathers, to the efforts under way now to preserve Little Tokyo and the Japanese American community. Decades from now, researchers will be able to study how this community responded to COVID-19 and compare it to the response during the 1918 pandemic by reading The Rafu.

I’ve updated my cartoon to reflect this reality. I’ve heard from so many who say

Rafu has been this vital link to the community, particularly during the pandemic. For those receiving through the mail, this means relying on the men and women, many of whom are persons of color, to do the hard work of getting the mail out. In this time of year, it means carrying parcels under the hot, humid conditions.

With the debut of Dana Tanamachi’s “Thank You” stamp, it’s a good time to say thank you to USPS and support them in their vital work!

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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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