When I first started writing for YO! Youth Outlook in 2004, I had no idea it would bring me closer to the Japanese American community. The subject matter, mostly stories of the lives of Asian American refugees, didn’t strike me as something the community would be interested in.
I grew up both inside and outside the Bay Area’s Nikkei community. I played basketball for the Rams and was a Jr. YBA member at Oakland Buddhist Church. The people I met were nothing but kind to me, but at the same time, I felt like we lived in different worlds. When I moved to El Cerrito, where there were many more JAs, I found myself with a lot more Nikkei friends, but I still felt like the people I hung out with were sort of on the edges of the community, not esteemed members.
So when Nichi Bei picked up one of my Yo! pieces from the wire, I was a little bit shocked. It turned out Steve Tanamachi, a friend from El Cerrito, worked for the paper and he invited me to come visit. I checked out Nichi Bei and was really excited by a lot of what I saw. I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it.
Since joining the paper in 2006, through interviews I conducted firsthand and articles I read by other Nichi Bei writers, I got to see how diverse our community truly is. I learned about lively community debates, about the amazing work the National Japanese American Historical Society does, about Nikkei delegations to Cuba, the fight for redress for Nikkei railroad and mine workers and countless Nikkei civil rights pioneers. I was introduced to the work of Nikkei filmmakers, writers and artists, many of whom are now among my favorites. And I got to read news of all kinds — politics, entertainment, and culture — covered with sensitivity to Asian American issues not present in the mainstream media.
This greater understanding allowed me to feel truly connected to the community and to feel like the various aspects of my life were, for the first time, integrated into a cohesive whole.
I also feel privileged to have met Nichi Bei’s amazing staff and contributors, from Chizu Omori — whose “Rabbit Ramblings” were an early and important inspiration for my writings, to fellow YBA-er J-dorama watcher Jeff Asai, to Greg Yano, April Elkjer, Leslie Tokiwa and Tomo Hirai, who share my interest in pop culture as something more than disposable entertainment, Heather Horiuchi whose in-depth and probing coverage of important current events gives Nichi Bei an even greater relevance, Greg Robinson who opened my eyes to countless untold stories of Japanese America, Alec MacDonald who gave me a new perspective on what it means to be JA in general and hapa specifically, Kathy Aoki and Rodger Takeuchi whose dedication inspires me and who have reminded me of how small the community is — to people like Tim Shimizu and Kori-Kai Yoshida, who kept me grounded. I could write a whole article about any of these people (and other NBT staffers I haven’t named here).
And of course, there is our editor Kenji, who made it possible for me to experience this connection and meet these people by almost single-handedly building the Nichi Bei Times Weekly. I’ve yet to meet anyone with a stronger vision for and dedication to his work and his community, and I probably never will.
I believe my experience is not unique. Anyone anywhere who reads the paper can understand and feel connected to the true breadth of the Japanese American community and can get to know the stories’ writers and their subjects. I’ve always taken comfort in the notion that, every so often, someone gets a gift subscription or picks up an issue at a Japanese market and feels a brand new connection to the community.
With Kenji and his talented, devoted staff behind it, I believe the Nichi Bei Foundation can reach even more people than the paper did in its previous incarnation, and continue to keep the community connected, informed and empowered.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine.