Published in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly Sept. 10-16, 2009
By KENJI G. TAGUMA, Nichi Bei Times
There I was, an inaka no ko or kid from the country, the son of a tomato farmer from the countryside of West Sacramento. A scant few days after turning 26, I was by far the youngest staff member, taking helm of the English section of what is perhaps the most storied community institution.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Before making the trek, I called Dr. Clifford Uyeda, a good friend of mine, to ask him about the Nichi Bei Times. “I don’t think anyone can do anything with that paper,” he warned.
But I was determined to prove him wrong. After all, as the son of a tomato farmer, who worked a couple of long summers in perhaps the least glamorous of occupations — waking up at 4 a.m., breathing in residue of fertilizer and pesticides, and working long days in the scorching hot Sacramento Valley sun — I knew anything was easier than the agricultural alternative.
I made the trek from the country to the big city, armed with a healthy dose of idealism and other ulterior motives as well — entering San Francisco State University’s Ethnic Studies Graduate Program and chasing after my girlfriend at the time, a San Francisco resident who I met on a trip to China a year earlier.
It was almost a disaster before it began. On my second day on the job, Sept. 6, 1995, I lost my last remaining grandparent. Besides that, the difficulties of trying to earn respect while so young — much of the staff at the time was in their 60s or 70s or beyond — was a burden as well. Promises made to me weren’t met — more specifically, I didn’t even have a computer. Imagine this model of inefficiency: Kathy Aoki and I would type stories up on our typewriters, and then hand them to a typist who would then retype them into a computer. Yes, this was 1995, and not the 1970s.
Months passed and I still didn’t have a computer. The stress of running a daily newspaper with just one other staff writer was a bit too much to bear. I was almost defeated. After a few months on the job, I was ready to leave, and indicated as much to confidants. Then a good friend of mine told me: “Maybe you should get some rest before you make such a decision.” True, I was tired, exhausted in fact.
I took some rest, and then awoke to find what was my true calling. For my first New Year’s edition, I focused on the changing face of San Francisco’s Japantown, and soon after came the movement to reclaim the historic Japanese YWCA and an old Jewish synagogue which would eventually become Kokoro Assisted Living.
And then, my landmark story: the fight for redress by family members of Japanese American railroad and mine workers, whose family heads were fired by the U.S. government after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While this group was excluded from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, we provided them a forum to voice their frustrations, and our lead story in our 1998 New Year’s edition became the most comprehensive piece on the subject. A couple of months after the piece ran, they finally received redress from the U.S. government.
That story won me the Community Service Award from New California Media, but most of all, it reminded me why I was here in the first place: to give a voice to the voiceless, to make sure that our community was not taken advantage of, and to reclaim our history.
And fighting for rights was in my blood. My father was a Nisei draft resister, one of some 300 who said they would gladly fight for the country once their families were released from barbed wire concentration camps. Once shunned for taking an unpopular stand during a popular war, today such resisters are heralded for their civil rights stand.
With pride and principle, and with the support of some great friends and family, this small town country boy was trying to do what I could for this community and this awesome Nichi Bei legacy that I’ve grown to respect so very deeply.
It’s been tough along the way, and the sacrifices were far too many than anyone in their right mind should bear. But somehow I felt that I was made for this, as it covered my interests in human and civil rights, Japanese American history, U.S.-Japan relations and community activism. In the Tenrikyo religion, we are taught to do hinokishin, or “expressing our gratitude to God the Parent by selflessly using our minds and bodies for the sake of others.” I may not go to church regularly, but as I tell my family, this job was my hinokishin.
But it was never just a job; it was more of a mission. Working hundreds of 20-plus-hour days, till the sun came up, undoubtedly will take its toll over time. And my blind commitment to the newspaper led to the dissolution of my relationship of nine years, which I have deeply regretted. But I always thought that half of this job was indeed community service and volunteerism. It had to be, or I’d be really crazy.
Along the way, I’ve had to write obituaries for dear friends who I had such deep respect for, people like author and historian Michi Weglyn, human rights activist Clifford Uyeda and community activist Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima. In 2006, the death of pioneer Asian American journalist Sam Chu Lin — a dear friend and colleague who was by far the most dedicated and committed to the Asian American community — hit me hard.
But that goes with this job. We are, after all, documentarians, charged with this awesome task of documenting our community’s history for generations to come.
And that’s part of what makes the struggle worth it. Over the past 14 years, we’ve seen the community change in many ways — capturing the hopes for new organizations, the struggles of existing ones, and the potential demise of Japantowns.
We’ve seen the resiliency of this community, and the work that can be accomplished when we band together for a common purpose.
We were the first Asian American newspaper to publish an English-language Green Issue, and we’ve done some award-winning work in engaging and covering the growing multiracial, multiethnic segment of our community. We’ve informed the community about the potential sale of Kokoro Assisted Living, and some will say that our coverage helped to “save” it. We’ve helped to empower Asian American musicians; we’ve helped to promote several community festivals.
We’ve changed with the times, as we say, and perhaps the times have changed in small part due to our work.
Over the years, we’ve developed an army of contributing writers and columnists, who add their varied perspectives to the Japanese American and Asian American diaspora, and we seem to somehow find some overachieving interns who we’ll continue to support throughout their lives.
Thank-yous can be endless, and run the risk of omitting deserved people, but I just wanted to give a few shout-outs to all my staff, interns, and family and friends who have given so much along the way. Special thanks to those who helped to launch the Nichi Bei Times English Weekly in 2006 — we had no idea how successful it would become, but your pride in the product was a source of inspiration.
Thanks, also, to our closing crew. To Kathy Aoki, whose love of and dedication to the Japanese American community truly embodies the Nichi Bei spirit. And to our younger staff of graphic designer Rodger Takeuchi, April Elkjer and my co-editors Heather Horiuchi and Alec Yoshio MacDonald — you have been inspirations that have played a large role in creating such a leading publication with utmost professionalism, a passionate sense of purpose and ever-expanding creativity. The pride that my staff has in their work is beyond what I ever expected, especially in those dark early days when all I had was an electric typewriter.
To our office staff, Japanese section and former printing staff, past and present, it was an honor and privilege to work with you all these years.
And to Rui Takashima, whose 47-year tenure with the Nichi Bei Times seemingly eclipses the combined total of everyone else, you are the heart and soul of Nichi Bei. To Mikio Okada, our president and Japanese edition editor, it has been a pleasure running the company with you these last few years; I hope now you can get some much-needed rest and follow your own dreams.
And to the person who hired me in the first place, the late Tsutomu Umezu, thank you for having the faith in this boy from the country. I was recently reminded of a profile that ran in the Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times and other publications in 1998. In it, Mr. Umezu said of me, “He’s young, but he’s the best English editor in the newspaper’s … history. A person like him is hard to find. He has the potential to become a leader in the Japanese community here — or even the whole Asian community.”
I’m both touched and empowered by such words, and as we face a daunting task ahead — launching the first nonprofit newspaper of its kind next week — I can use any source of inspiration I can find.
Through the Nichi Bei Foundation, we hope to carry on the community-serving legacy of the Nichi Bei visionaries: Kyutaro Abiko, who established the most-influential Nichi Bei Shimbun in 1899, and Shichinosuke Asano, the Nichi Bei Times founder who led Bay Area postwar relief efforts to a war-torn Japan. As we close this chapter of the Nichi Bei legacy, we invite you to join us in the rebirth sas we launch the Nichi Bei Weekly.
It’s an almost overwhelming task ahead, but inspired by our Nichi Bei pioneers, and guided by an engaged, sharp and enthusiastic Nichi Bei Foundation board of directors and team, out of the ashes we shall prevail.
Lastly, I’d like to thank you, our devoted readers. Your subscriptions help us carry on our mission of keeping the community connected, informed and empowered. We are moved by your support, as we both rebuild our subscription list from scratch as well as gather donations to carry forward. Without those much-needed funds, the Nichi Bei Foundation and its nonprofit Nichi Bei Weekly may cease to exist.
Hope to see you on the other side of the fence.
Kenji G. Taguma, a Sansei originally from West Sacramento, Calif., is the vice president and editor of the Nichi Bei Times, and the founding president of the Nichi Bei Foundation and editor of its upcoming nonprofit newspaper, the Nichi Bei Weekly. For more information on the Nichi Bei Foundation or to donate, visit www.nichibeifoundation.org.