“Why the Japanese American Press Matters, Then and Now”: Tim Yamamura in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly

Published in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly Sept. 10-16, 2009

By TIM YAMAMURA

During the first major wave of Japanese migration to the United States, roughly 1880-1924, the Issei found themselves in an unfamiliar, often times hostile world. They were actually a diverse group of people, stemming from regions throughout the Japanese archipelago, a country that at the time was in the midst of great change. Yet they faced a similar challenge of forging their individual futures in a new land while at the same time maintaining the connections shared.

One of the ways in which the Japanese migrants faced the struggles they encountered was by telling their stories.
As the late historian Yuji Ichioka writes in his foundational book, “Issei,” the origins of the Nikkei press can be traced to the 1880s with the efforts of student-laborers, in particular a group called the Aikoku Domei (The Patriots League). The Aikoku Domei were a small crew who published out of the Bay Area. Living lives that the well-known Issei writer Washizu Bunzou described as “wretched,” they were writers, lithographers and delivery boys; they ran a paper by themselves as they went to school or held down jobs, surviving on biscuits and steaks so stiff they dubbed them “stone-[bis]cuits” (ishiketto) and “stone-steaks” (ishisuteki).

Yet the Aikoku Domei did so because they had much to say. Ichioka notes how the students were critical of the changes taking place back home in Japanese society and of the Meiji oligarchy that spoke of progress and modernization yet limited freedom for the masses. And they used the medium of print to make their voices heard through a host of publications ranging from single sheet mimeographs like Shinonome (Dawn) and weekly papers like Shin Nippon (New Japan) and Dai-Jukyu Seiki (The 19th Century). The fact that the Meiji government banned the importation of nearly every publication the Aikoku Domei ever produced, and even imprisoned one of its writers during a visit home, confirms that however small their staff, or seemingly limited their readership, the progenitors of the Nikkei press did make waves, and were also willing to sacrifice much because they believed in making their voices heard.

Soon, just a decade later during the 1890s, early Japanese America enjoyed a whole host of daily publications. In Northern California alone, the Soko Shimbun (San Francisco News) evolved out of the labors of the Aikoku Domei, and was joined by papers like the short-lived Kinmon Nippou (Golden Gate Daily) and Shin Sekai (New World). Later, the Nichi Bei Shimbun (Japanese American Daily News), the oldest extant Japanese American newspaper in Northern California, joined the scene. These publications, while keeping their pulse on what was happening on the other side of the Pacific, began to focus their coverage and commentaries on the lives and concerns of Japanese here in America, thus keeping their readership, a nascent Japanese American community, informed and connected. What’s striking is that although the Japanese community in America numbered only in the tens of thousands at this time, and were located in disparate regions all across Hawai‘i and the West Coast, Japanese newspapers were popping up everywhere! There were almost too many!

But they existed because the Issei understood the need for institutions and practices that would allow them to tell the stories of their lives. They saw themselves as participants in history and felt the need to write themselves into an era of which they were part and parcel. According to a more recent work of scholarship by Eiichiro Azuma, “Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America,” from 1908 to the early 1920s more than a dozen books written by Issei writers chronicling the history of Japanese in America were published. Less than three decades had passed since the first Japanese laborers touched U.S. shores and the Issei were already writing their history! And this trend continued all the way up until the Pacific War with the 1940 publication of the 1,300-page tome, “Zaibei Nihonjinshi” (“The History of Japanese in America”), written and edited by community leaders who possessed the commitment and luckily the cash necessary to leave a major record of early Japanese American life for future generations.

Today, we may look back on the writings of the Issei and find some of their ideas antiquated, their versions of history a tad too romanticized. We should. A lot of them were. But I can’t help but admire their impulse to speak out, to record their history, and to tell their stories — for themselves and for the world — an impulse that made Nikkei publications central institutions in our community’s history. For all the talk of Japanese Americans as “quiet” people, the Issei had voices, a diversity of them, in fact, and used them often. And it was the act of telling their stories which helped them garner the necessary courage to struggle on in an environment that was often times very harsh, decry the injustices they faced, and call out for their place in the world by asserting their existence as part of the world. Simply put, they had a story that they believed was worth telling, and they did. They thought it would make things better.

While working as a staff writer for the Nichi Bei Times before deciding to go to graduate school, I would hear from some community members from time to time that they only read papers like the Nichi Bei for the obituaries — so they could find out who died. And that always made me sad, and as a reporter it frankly made me a little mad. Yes, the Nikkei press exists to offer the important function of memorializing our community members who pass on. And it’s true; sometimes it seems like there are more JAs in Colma than on the streets of J-Town, and that can be hard.

But the Nikkei press exists for a more important reason: to continue telling the story of a people who are very much alive! We, like the Issei, like all communities of people, big and small, are playing our role in history. And for that reason, the charge of writing the story of Japanese America, our community, remains. It remains because we, the descendants of the Issei, and sadly soon enough, the Nisei, live on, and thus the story of what it means to be Nikkei in the world goes on.

So even if the challenges we face today are very different from the ones our great-grandparents and grandparents faced, institutions like our papers remain a vital resource, helping us now in ways very similar to how they aided the Japanese American community back then: they provide us a means to voice what matters to us, they keep us connected, recording our experiences, both big and small, and they anchor us to the history we share as we navigate ahead on the routes of our varied lives. And the Nikkei press will continue to do so as long as we as a community still believe ours is a story worth telling and are willing to support the institutions entrusted with that mission. We are worth saving.

A former Nichi Bei Times staff writer and current Nichi Bei Foundation board member, Yamamura is a playwright, non-fiction writer, and scholar working on his Ph.D. in the UC Santa Cruz Literature Department.

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