POINT OF VIEW/ Charles Burress: Ironic death for oldest Japanese paper abroad

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The death of San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Times — which may have been the oldest surviving Japanese newspaper outside of Japan — represents the disappearance of a historic bridge between Japan and the United States.

SPECIAL TO THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

October 24, 2009

The death of San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Times — which may have been the oldest surviving Japanese newspaper outside of Japan — represents the disappearance of a historic bridge between Japan and the United States.

With its final edition on Sept. 10, the newspaper’s loss is being mourned by numerous Japanese Americans who see the closure as a symbol of their eroding cultural identity. It also closes the book on a news organization whose history was entwined with Japan, including The Asahi Shimbun, and with prominent Japanese individuals who had a significant impact on both sides of the Pacific.

“We will all ‘die’ a little because of its absence,” wrote Paul Kaneko, president of the Japanese Cultural Fair in Santa Cruz, California, in a letter to the editor.

Although many Japanese American papers have folded over the years, the end of the bilingual Nichi Bei Times carries special significance because of the paper’s history. U.S. news coverage of the paper’s closure has widely noted that it was the oldest Japanese American paper in northern California, but when its earlier incarnations are included, it was the oldest of all the surviving overseas Japanese papers in the world.

The paper’s origin can be traced to 1896. A few other Japanese papers were started by Japanese emigrants earlier but they did not last. The pre-World War II version of the Nichi Bei Times, called the Nichi Bei Shimbun, was the largest and most influential Japanese paper in the United States during its heyday in the early 20th century, with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It fought vigorously against the ban on Japanese ownership of property and for the right to acquire citizenship.

After the war, it played important roles in sending relief supplies to war-devastated Japan and pushing for redress for the wartime internment of people of Japanese ancestry. In 2005, it was awarded a Grand Prize from the Overseas Japanese Press Association for the paper’s candid coverage of a dispute over whether Japanese Americans have a responsibility to serve as a bridge between America and Japan.

The founder of the long-lasting newspaper enterprise was a remarkable Japanese immigrant named Kyutaro Abiko. Born in 1865 in Suibara, Niigata Prefecture, he ran away from home and is said to have had only $1 in his pocket when he arrived in San Francisco in 1885. He enrolled in a San Francisco elementary school at the age of 20 and later studied at the University of California at Berkeley.

Abiko became a successful businessman, Japanese community leader, and co-developer of Japanese farming colonies in California’s Central Valley, but perhaps his most influential role began in 1896 when he bought a San Francisco paper, the Japan Herald, which began the evolution that led to the Nichi Bei Times.

The paper’s leadership had ties to famous figures in Japanese history. When the founder died in 1936, control of the paper passed to his wife Yonako. She was a younger sister of legendary Japanese education pioneer, Umeko Tsuda, who studied in America and founded Tsuda College.

The paper’s pre-war editorial chief, Asano Shichinosuke, was an issei (first-generation) immigrant who had been a protege in Japan of Takashi Hara, the so-called “commoner” prime minister in 1918-21 who expanded voting rights. Asano, who led the Nichi Bei’s resurrection after War World II, also served as a San Francisco correspondent for The Asahi Shimbun for half a century.

The most famous name associated with the paper is now prominently displayed for anyone flying into Silicon Valley at the Mineta San Jose International Airport. Norman Mineta was once a Nichi Bei delivery boy who later became a U.S. secretary of commerce and U.S. secretary of transportation.

Meanwhile, today some Nichi Bei Times supporters, led by the paper’s English edition editor Kenji Taguma, are trying to sustain another rebirth of the Nichi Bei Times, though only in English. They are asking for donations as a nonprofit foundation for a new, once-a-week Nichi Bei Weekly.

They face an uphill struggle. The Japanese American community’s cultural identity has been steadily diluted by time. The Nichi Bei Times fell victim not only to the decline in the newspaper industry but also to a decrease in Japanese immigration, the inability of many Japanese Americans to read Japanese, and the high degree of cultural assimilation and out-marriage among Japanese Americans. Its circulation at the end was only about 8,000, published three times a week in Japanese and once a week in English.

Before the war, San Francisco’s Japantown was the oldest of 40 Japanese American communities that flourished across the United States. Now there are only three — in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. San Francisco’s Japantown once covered 20 or 30 square blocks. Now it’s down to about four.

Japanese were the largest of the major Asian ethnic groups in the United States during the 60-year period between 1910 and 1970. By 2000, they had become the smallest, behind Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese. The out-marriage rate of Japanese Americans is about 50 percent, much higher than the figures for the other groups.

In one sense, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the paper’s death is ironic. The Nichi Bei campaigned hard to win equality for people of Japanese ancestry so that they could integrate fully into American society and have equal opportunities to achieve respect, prosperity and personal fulfillment. That dream has now been realized to a large extent.

The eventual success of the long struggles of the Nichi Bei Shimbun/ Nichi Bei Times is a cause for celebration, and yet that success also helped sow the seeds of the paper’s downfall.

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The author is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former staff writer and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, he also has been a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo and Keio University, twice as a Fulbright Scholar and once as an Abe Fellow.(IHT/Asahi: October 24, 2009)

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