Growing up J-Town #JT-040

M

y first memories of J-Town are indeed of Nisei Week. Well, they aren’t really memories or recollections. They are more like flashes of memories interwoven with old photos and the conversations I have had with my mom. She would dress my sister and me in yukata, the cotton, summer, casual version of a kimono, and took us to Nisei Week to see the parade. We were about four and five and all I remember are the feet and the sticky pavement. We were small, and wearing unfamiliar geta (wooden clogs), I had to concentrate on my steps, so I walked along looking down at the concrete sidewalk stained black from all the spilled soft drinks and snow cones. My dad lifted me up once to see over the crowd but I still could see much, and my dad–not the strongest man–didn’t hold me up for more than three minutes. But there were a lot of people at the festival. J-Town got this crowded during Nisei Week because most JAs felt it was their community. It was a place to visit on a regular basis, not just special occasions.

Our family usually went on Sundays after church. We were members of Maryknoll Church, a Catholic mission operating a K-8 elementary school for children of Japanese descent. They stipulated–if I remember correctly–that a child had to be at least one-quarter Japanese to be eligible for admission. I don’t remember if there was any specific law passed, but sometime in the 80s it became clear that the school could no longer discriminate based on race and they began accepting all races. As a Catholic Mission, Maryknoll attracted Hispanics from nearby areas, but as the enrollment of non-Japanese went up, the number of Japanese American families went down. In the end, it closed its doors as an elementary school in the mid 90s due to lack of enrollment. It continues today as a community center, the Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center.

But back then, Maryknoll was segregated. It sounds awful by today’s social standards, but it was also a blessing of sorts for Japanese in the beginning. It was established in the early 20th century when racism and the “yellow peril” mentality was still a part of mainstream society. It provided a place where Japanese nationals in America could worship in peace in a language they understood and study without fear of prejudice. The Catholic mission is located about three blocks from J-Town, and unlike the current Lil’ Tokyo, J-Town back then was a place where many of the Japanese community lived. There were a few houses, but most rented long-term hotel rooms–some are still there above the stores and restaurants on the north side of 1st Street across from JVP and Koyasan Temple. (My dad used to live there as well.) The kids could then walk to Maryknoll for their education. During my time, the school was still a haven for me. I was born ten years after WWII, a couple of years after the Korean War and was a student there for nine years during the Vietnam War. On the street, away from Maryknoll, I was called a Jap, a Chink, and a Gook. Maryknoll provided me with a place I could study and play without fear of random and malicious harassment, and sometimes violence–I have been beaten up for being “Japanese”. While I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Maryknoll empowered me, it did allow me to grow without restraint and, in a way, innocently. Unfortunately, it also cultivated that attitude of being special to the detriment of others; by segregating others, we ultimately segregated ourselves.

In any event, every Sunday after Mass, we went to J-Town to do our weekly shopping of Japanese goods. Back then, soy sauce or short grain rice was not available at the local supermarket, so we went to J-Town to do our shopping. We usually went to Modern Food on San Pedro, and when my dad felt especially philanthropic, he would by a pound of maguro tuna for sashimi dinner that night.

We would also make a number of other stops. As one of the founders of the senryu salon, it was his responsibility to provide some of the refreshments. And he did so with what looked to me to be a scam of sorts. He published a monthly magazine that he distributed amongst those interested in senryu poetry. He had somehow talked the proprietors of the local Japanese confectionaries to donate a couple dozen rice cakes a month in exchange for advertising in his magazine, which had a circulation that included the salon members and whoever would accept the magazine he handed out for free at church and other community functions.

Anyway, he held his senryu-kai once a month and it was a treat to tag along with him on those Sundays. These confectionaries not only sold Japanese sweets, but an assortment of American candies as well, and I would get the chance to “guilt” my dad into buying me something. He was so into “face” that there was no way he could say “no” in front of other people to a kid who was asking for a measly 5-cent pack of baseball cards or five penny strips of candied dots. While there were two stores he visited, it was an unwritten code that I could only do this at one store, and I usually did it at Mikawaya since they had a better selection of candies than Fugetsudo. But I guess it must have frustrated him at times. I was so good at this “poor me” routine that my dad would try to send me to another store with mom.

“Go to Ueda Department with your mother.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you want to look at the toys?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Maybe there’ll be something good.”

“Okay!” I said, hoping that he would actually buy me something.

Of course, it was merely a ploy, and so when he showed up at Ueda’s and I led him to the toy I wanted, he simply said, “Maybe, Christmas.”

Try as he might, this ploy never worked on me again. In fact, I distinctly remember finagling a pack of baseball cards AND five strips of the candied dots on our next visit to Mikawaya and Fugetsudo.

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