Back in 1972, my grandparents informed my mother that they were willing to have me come to Japan for the first time in an attempt to nurture a relationship that was on again, off again, due to the physical distance between us. Back in the 1970s, going to and from Japan was not an inexpensive journey, and my siblings and I rarely saw our grandparents. In fact, the first and only time I had seen them until I became an adult was in the summer of 1968, when I was 12 years old, in Zurich, of all places. But in the summer of 1972, I had already been working at a Japanese confectionary in J-Town for about two months, and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to quit. I convinced my mother that my sister should go in my stead and that, in fact, she was the better candidate to “meet the grandparents” as she was much more studious and therefore more highly valued as a grandchild in the eyes of the grandparents. My mother bought into it, and I was free to continue my adventure in J-Town enveloped in an excitingly new environment at a Japanese confectionary shop, the place where I first started to break out of my Good Lil’ Oriental Boy shell and learned that I didn’t have to live up to the expectations of my parents and my JA school/church circles, a process that I detail in a rather long yet still incomplete autobiography-post. One person I got to know at the sweet shop was SJK, a guy who didn’t even work there.
I used to work six days a week after school, 5 PM to 9 PM, 10 PM on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and SJK used to drop by the store almost everyday after his work at some government job. He usually arrived having already had a drink or two at a bar near his office, then moseying on down to J-Town around 6-ish after the day crew had gone home. The first few times I saw him, I couldn’t figure out who he was. He’d just walk in and say “Hi,” sit at the soda counter with his half-lit cigar and start reading the newspaper or commence small talk with the owner, Mrs. H, or my work colleague, Billy. Nobody bothered to introduce me to him; he just seemed to be an evening fixture–the counter glass gets wiped down, the store front lights get turned on, and SJK walks in to visit. As the new guy on the job, it wasn’t my place to inquire in depth or detail, but after a whle SJK revealed enough of himself for me to piece together who he was.
SJK was a nisei who spoke Japanese relatively fluently–bera bera as he would say–and served in the 442 during World War II. He was a medic and used to tell me how he hated it, because he always felt like the red cross on his helmet was a bull’s eye. He enjoyed drinking in the neighborhood which he did virtually every weekday night before he came to the store and after he left around 7 PM. He was very familiar with Mrs. H, her daughter, KZ (the legal owner), and nephew, Mikey. He was very familiar with Mrs. H and her daughter, KZ, and nephew, Mikey, but I am to this day uncertain of how his relationship with the sweet shop started.
Over the years, I got to know him fairly well. Indeed, he was one of my more corrupting influences–mind you, I mean that in the most affectionate of terms. He would occasionally take me to his favorite watering hole, the bar at Horikawa Restaurant. Over Jack Daniels on the rocks with a glass of water, he would talk about girls, his work sometimes, then more about girls and finally about girls. He loved women but was not married and proud of it. He told me once that he’d never get married because, as he put it, “That’d be stupid.” He had his friends and his bourbon and he needed little else. He would often bitch about how the bar girls at Eigiku or Kawafuku would get too cozy in and attempt to sweet talk him into leaving large tips, but if you saw him at the bars, you’d never kow that he had any complaints. He’d be talking with them, laughing and giggling until 9 PM, when poof he’d vanish. He had work early the next morning and would always leave promptly, although it took me a while to get used to his disappearing act. Unless you were a faithful drinking buddy of his–which we became after a few years–he would never tell you he was leaving. One minute he’d be there, the next he’d be gone.
But in the summer of 1972, I had not yet gotten to know him that well. All I knew was that he visited almost every evening to say “hi” before he went drinking around J-Town. Much to my chagrin, Billy decided to quit early in the summer–I had developed quite a crush on her and had been following her around the store like a puppy dog wagging its tail. But more seriously, summer was a busy stretch for the store–in J-Town, tourist season–so without my senpai (elder, more experienced work/classmate), I had to focus on learning my duties which involved, among other things, serving customers, stocking trays of rice cakes, mopping the floor and closing shop. It was not particularly hard work, and it did give me the glorious opportunity to learn Japanese. But it kept my attention from the more extraneous happenings around me. By August, I had learned the ropes fairly well, and was able to take care of business without supervision. I had become familiar with my fellow workers and the regular customers, and was able to tell the difference between them and the frequent visitors who just dropped by to chat. During this time, SJK’s visits increasingly became infrequent. He told me that the tourist were hogging up all the prime bars stools–SJK rarely sat at a booth or table… come to think of it, neither do I. So he went drinking elsewhere with his buddies. By the time Nisei Week arrived in August, he had stopped coming completely.
I hardly noticed, the store was so busy.
Nisei Week was a large celebration for the Japanese American community that actually lasted two weeks. There were exhibitions and parties, as well as a Miss Nisei Week Pageant. The finale was a weekend carnival and on on the climactic Sunday, a parade featuring Obon dancing, JA pioneers, local politicians and of course Miss Nisei Week and her court. Parade day was so crowded, that you couldn’t walk a straight line anywhere in town, and during the parade, the crowd on the sidewalk was so thick you could barely walk through–which actually gave us a break from making non-stop sno-cones. It was a pretty big deal for the community and the tourists flocked to J-Town, a few short blocks from downtown and the civic center. It was definitley good for for Japanese American pride and a sense of community, and it was certainly good for business in J-Town. But not for guys like SJK. It wasn’t surprising I had not seen him at all during Nisei Week.
When things wound down a few days after the parade, my sister returned from Japan. I learned that I had made the right choice to stay in LA. Grandma is nice, but perhaps too unfamiliar with American kids. She was very controlling and demanding, and my sister rebelled in Japan. My mother was rather upset at the whole ordeal–which I hardly noticed since I was too involved in my first part time job–and my sister ended up spending quite a bit of her time with our aunt in Hiroshima rather than with grandma in Tokyo. Sis discussed in detail the horrific standards and demands placed on her and I felt like I had dodged a bullet–I was a young seventeen and rarin’ to learn to be my own person, away from the demands of my own parents and the enormous expectations on a good little Japanese American boy. I certainly didn’t need to be with Grandma. But after Sis gave me the lowdown, she changed the topic and told me of someone she met on the plane who knew me.
“Me? You met someone who knows me?!?”
“Yeah, a Japanese guy was sitting next to me. He started drinking and was talking to me, asking me questions about what I do and where I live. He asked me if I go to J-town, and I said ‘no’ of course, but I said you worked there. He asked where, and I said at the sweet shop, and he said he went there all the time, and that he knew you. It was kind of creepy, like he was trying to pick me up.”
I thought about my friends who might have gone to Japan but couldn’t think of anyone, let alone someone old enough to drink. “I don’t know anyone who went to Japan.”
“He said he knows you really well.”
I swore I didn’t know who she was talking about. I kept thinking that it was some random dude, maybe? A customer, maybe? I had no idea, but my sister was not attacked and she did not seem particualrly traumatized by the encoutner so I left it at that. The next day I went to work and around 6 PM, SJK walks in for the first time in a long time, sits at the soda fountain counter and points his cigar at me.
“Hey, Ray, your sister’s pretty good looking. What happened to you?”
I learned that SJK went to Japan annually to see his relatives in Hiroshima. According to Mrs. H, he went every August for a couple of weeks, right during Nisei Week. Did someone not think to tell me this? Not that it would have done any good. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Tell my sister to avoid being assigned a seat next to someone who drinks Jack Daniels on her flight back from Japan? Seriously, what were the odds of that happening?