Back in J-Town, Barons Reflect on Yesteryear

HAPPY BIRTHDAY! — Members of the Barons social group, as well as their sister group the Stinkers, celebrated the 75th birthday of members of their group on Nov. 14. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

The lines on their faces may have increased with each passing year, but old familiarities shined through as social groups that emerged after World War II recently gathered to reunite in their old stomping grounds of San Francisco’s Japantown.

“It’s hard to believe how we all aged,” said Shig Yabu, 77, who now resides in the Southern California city of Camarillo. “Their features changed, but their personalities are the same.”

Some 60 people gathered at the Konko Church of San Francisco last month for a reunion of the Barons social group — who once roamed the streets of Japantown in their trademark red jackets — as well as their sister group, the Stinkers. The occasion? The 75th birthdays of members the groups, nine of whom were in attendance.

“It’s great to see you guys,” declared Willie Ito, among those celebrating their 75th birthdays.

Ito, the emcee of the event, said the Class of 1934 was the biggest in the Barons.

“Our group is rather unique,” said Ito, whose father used to run the Nisei Barber Shop and a sweets shop where the Kabuki Hotel now stands. “Three of us share the same birthday.”

According to Ito, the majority of the Barons grew up in Japantown. One day, “a bunch of the guys said ‘hey, let’s get a club together,’” he recalled. “It wasn’t too long when you would walk around Japantown and see red jackets. At some of the local dances, the red jackets were there.”

Legend has it that there were also occasional skirmishes with groups in Chinatown.

Because the group was “reaching puberty,” Ito said, they “adopted” the Stinkers as their “sister group.” In some cases, those “sisters” eventually turned into wives. “Some of the Barons and Stinkers committed incest,” joked the affable Ito, to roaring laughter.

As the group aged, they used the birthday celebrations as a reason to reunite.

“It’s become somewhat of a tradition,” Ito said. “I’m glad that the tradition is continuing.”

Nineteen members who have passed on from the group, including leaders Yori Wada and Toshi Koba, were remembered at the gathering.

Ito left the ethnic enclave to a career as an animator in the bright lights of Hollywood, most notably at Disney and Hanna-Barbera. He worked on such classics as “Lady and the Tramp” and “The Jetsons.”

But he remembers where he came from. And others, apparently, remembered him as well.

Chiz (Miyazaki) Shiro recalled when in 1953, she asked Ito out to her senior prom at Washington High School. “Willie was very popular,” she recounted, sharing memories with the group.

The long-held linkages are impressive to at least one bystander.

“It’s really amazing for me, to come from Southern California, to see their continued camaraderie,” said retired dancer June Watanabe, who grew up in East Los Angeles but currently lives in the Marin County city of San Rafael with her husband of 46 years, Baron Akira Watanabe. “You’re drawn from your past and you want to hang on.

“You really appreciate the relationships that you had,” Watanabe added. “It’s been a wonderful community environment.”

These types of reunions can also lead to some awkward moments as the participants grow older.

“One of the most embarrassing things is when people come up to you and say ‘What’s my name?’” reflected Yabu. “Their smile and the way they greet you is a giveaway.”

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