‘Bridging the Gap’: In Conversation with Sansei Musician/Producer/Songwriter Michael Sasaki & Nisei Educator/Writer/Performer George Yoshida

Part 1: Michael Sasaki

I’m sitting in the frigid cold of an air that has been conditioned to make the arms on your hair stand on end. While awaiting the arrival of my two interviewees, I am in familiar territory. The Peet’s Coffee & Tea location in which I find myself, employed me not but six months ago, and yet I’m able to recognize only one of the staff. I give my former co-worker a pound and order a pot of Genmai-Cha as Michael Sasaki, guitarist of 70’s funk band, Cold Blood, strolls in dressed sharp as a tack. We greet each other warmly and I add a latte to the order, which I pay for with a wink and a few bucks into the tip jar.

George Yoshida (L), Michael Sasaki (C) and Cole Yoshida perform at the 2011 Bay Area Day of Remembrance. photo by Kahn Yamada

He dons a crème colored cap, is dressed in all black and his movements are fluid and syncopated, as he speaks to me. Michael was born in 1951 in Raymond, Wash., and arrived in my hometown of Richmond, Calif. in 1953. His grandparents made roots in Richmond after leaving the Tule Lake Internment Camp where they were incarcerated during World War II. Sasaki shares with me that both of his parents were incarcerated, that his father was drafted into the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team from camp, and that when he would ask his father, “Did you ever shoot anybody?” as a child, he would be met with a matter-of-fact, “A couple.”

Raised in a Richmond household of Issei grandparents, and a Nisei father, aunts and uncles, Sasaki learned to play the guitar. His uncle was legally blind but also a talented enough musician and mentor to become Michael’s instructor. Together, in the days before the “British Invasion,” they would listen to country and western records, playing along to the sounds of Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery. As he grew older, Sasaki began auditioning and getting gigs as a lead-guitarist in various bands around the Bay Area. In 1971 at the age of 20, Sasaki joined Lydia Pense and Cold Blood Inc., who had recently been moved onto Bill Graham’s Fillmore label. They toured the entire country and Michael recorded four different albums, the last in 1976. Today he performs at local clubs restaurants and festivals, providing beautiful ambiance to a vast array of people with his vast array of sonic wisdom and experience.

As he paints vivid pictures of his memories, I can’t help but feel a kinship as I notice what I perceive to be his Richmond, working-class and Japanese American identities fusing into one. For one, he curses (almost as much as I do) in efforts to emphasize the hopelessness, beauty and/or general enormity of a person, place or thing, and secondly, each time he is about to do so he leans across the small table towards me, peeks around for a nanosecond, lowers his voice, and cracks a smile as he does it.

This occurs when I ask him the undeniably leading question, “What was it like being an Asian American musician in a space predominantly dominated by black and white Americans?” He grins coolly and replies, “S— man… Well, what was interesting is that in the ‘70s we were at the height of the struggle for civil rights and most people viewed this as a black and white issue, so I kind of felt like I was stuck in the crack in between.” He pauses momentarily before shifting gears and recollecting, “I remember feeling like there was a backlash because of the ‘car wars.’ At the time, factories were closing in Detroit and the Japanese auto industry was being blamed for American job-loss. I remember our manager making it pretty clear to me that he’d prefer to have me as hidden as possible in our photo shoots. Then we had another manager, who was also an attorney for ABC, telling me that he wanted me to dress up as a samurai!” Here he bursts into laughter and states, “If they asked me to do that today, I probably would have just for the money! But back then I felt like, if my brothers and sisters were separated out for not being ‘real Americans,’ why should I have to do this?”

While resembling a nodding and grinning bobble-head doll, I notice Nisei educator, writer and spoken word/poetry performer, George Yoshida waltz slowly into the coffee shop. Michael and I stand to greet our elder and the 88-year old Yoshida, an El Cerrito resident informs us he has just arrived from leading an exercise class for senior citizens. Sasaki and Yoshida have known each other for since the late ‘90s when they united to perform poetry and music that spoke to and for the Japanese American experience. In this space I am reminded of the love, pain and growth inherited from the teachings and experiences of my father and jiichan, feeling utterly content as I thank George and Michael (once again) for being here.

(To be continued in Part 2: George Yoshida)

About Colin Masashi Ehara

Colin Masashi "Senbei" Ehara is a Yonsei Nikkei/Scottish/German/Iroquois American writer, Hip-Hop/Spoken Word artist, and educator from Richmond, Calif. He received a B.A. in American Studies and Education from UC Santa Cruz, an M.A. in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing a Single-Subject (English) Teaching Credential at the University of San Francisco. He resides in El Cerrito, Calif., with his wife, artist Emalyn Lopez.

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