-Town is now an empty shell of what it once was. Portions of the area reek of decline. On the north side of First Street between Central and San Pedro, there is a row of make-shift video rental shops with videos of pirated Japanese TV shows. Most of the retail stores are geared toward tourist traffic–key chains, post cards, t-shirts of Nomo or Ichiro, or worse, with the Chinese character for samurai or love emblazoned in front. Indeed, the decline of J-Town is such that the Japanese Consulate, which used to occupy two floors of the Sumitomo Building on the corner of First and San Pedro, has moved out to the resurgent downtown area of LA. Where it once wanted to be a part of the Japanese American community, the Consulate has now divorced itself from the withering remains of a once vibrant JA center.
It is hard to believe that Japanese Americans living in and around the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area used to gravitate here. This may sound like an exaggeration to many these days, but I assure you it is not. People I know used to come on the weekends from Santa Barbara to the north, Chino to the east and Del Mar to the south, just to feel connected with the community. However, Southern California JAs have gone through a diaspora of sorts, and they have all gone their own way, pursuing the dreams of the middle class, or whatever class they feel they belong to.
I am no historian and certainly no sociologist, and perhaps I should do some digging before I offer any pseudo-socio-psycho-babble. But you know me: I can’t keep my mouth shut. In my experience–and this is admittedly a microscopic niche in the entirety of the Japanese American experience–JAs have led, like the ancestors of their heritage, a paradoxical, and at time contradictory life. As I am so quick to say, Japan is a nation that suggests ambiguity itself. It is a nation proud of its traditions and yet so willing to adapt to new and foreign ways. It is always adopting new foreign loan words into its vernacular, and yet vertical writing–anachronistic in today’s world of the Internet–still dominates its print publication–newspapers, magazines, novels–unlike Korea or even China. So the Japanese cling to much of their tradition, but adapt to the world, playing the hadn it was dealt.
Japanese Americans have also had to play the hand they were dealt. As a minority, many of us recognize the traditions of our parents and grandparents, and proudly follow those we still remember or understand. I still take off my shoes before I enter my home. I still eat mochi in soup on New Year’s day. And no matter how old I got, I woudl always listen to my mother and father. (Okay, there’s a gap between the ages of 17 and 22 when I didn’t listen at all…) However, I am two generations removed from the Alien Land Law passed in California in 1913, legislation created to prevent Japanese from owning land. In 1922, in Ozawa v. US, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the Naturalization Act of 1790 that restricted naturalization to free white people. As a person of Japanese descent, Ozawa could not become a US citizen. Anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting marriage between Whites and Asians were in the books in California as late as 1948. I am also a direct descendent of a community that was sent to internment camps during World War II, simply because they were of Japanese heritage, never mind that fact that many were born in the US and were de facto US citizens.
Circumstances such as this compelled many JAs to prove their Americanism over the years by mingling with their non-Asian counterparts, by denying their heritage by discouraging their children from speaking Japanese. Many people I have met of Chinese, Korean and Hispanic descent speak the tongue of their heritage at least into the third generation, but not so for most Japanese Americans I know. While being proud of their heritage, they are also victim of circumstances that caused them to lose a part of it. In an attempt to blend into the American landscape, we had to lose a part of our identity.
I’m not sure if I’m making sense…
The point is that Japan tries its best to maintain its traditions, but at the same time it adapts and adopts things foreign to its heritage in an effort to advance or to fit in with the world at large. Japanese Americans show this same trait by being proud of their identity as JAs but forgoing the maintenance of certain aspects of their heritage in a similar effort to fit in with society at large. I have previously wondered if this was part of our genetic code, but this idea was easily dismissed after I’d met Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent whose attitude resembled our Chinese and Korean counterparts rather than my own. While there is room for individual differences, to a greater or lesser degree mainland JAs, as are most people I suppose, are a product of their circumstances.