In Honor of My Ancestors, Manzanar and Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Editor’s note:  This blog post honors the spirits of my late parents, grandparents and family ancestors who were interned during World War II at the Manzanar military internment camp in the Mojave Desert of California.

THE QUEST TO better one’s life is universal. Leaving rice farms and their loved ones in Meiji era Japan, my grandparents boarded ships to the United States before the first Ford Model Ts rolled off the assembly line.  Like the legendary industrialist  Henry FordHenry Ford & Model T (Henry Ford Museum)  (Photo, left: Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan), Japanese American entrepreneurs had business in their blood, and blood in their business. My grandfathers and grandmothers raised a flock of kids, grew fruits and vegetables on leased land, ran a store in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles. Despite legal barriers and brutal discrimination, Japanese Americans rose in the agricultural and florist industries, and launched restaurants, metal shops, tofu factories, commercial fishing firms and other small businesses.

THEIR SAGA REFLECTS the spirit and work ethos of all U.S. immigrants and their kin, from our 18th-century founders to 21st-century entrepreneurs. In the modern U.S. economy, immigrant-owned startups churned out $52 billion in sales in 2005, according to research by Vivek Wadhwa, Ben Rissing and Gary Gereffi at Duke   University and AnnaLee Saxenian at the University of California at Berkeley. For old-schoolers who like digging through voluminous yet enriching history, my late uncle Masakazu Iwata, a UCLA scholar and Biola University dean, wrote about Japanese American farmers in Planted in Good Soil: A History of Issei in United States Agriculture (Peter Lang Publishing, 1992). 

MY FOLKS LEFT their store and farm work when World War II struck. How do you value that economic loss? While uncles served honorably in the U.S. Army, 19 family members — nearly all U.S. citizens — were bussed to the Manzanar military internment camp in the high desert of California. Evacuees of Japanese Ancestry Attending Memorial Day Services at Manzanar, California, a War Relocation Authority Center, May 1942, courtesy of Library of CongressOn work leaves from camp, my late father toiled in potato and sugar beet fields in Idaho and Oregon, and in the produce market in Chicago. My late mother, a speedy typist, whipped out letters as a secretary for the U.S. War Relocation Authority. Aunts contributed to the war economy by making camouflage nets. How do you measure that productivity? They kept on. They persevered. Seven times down, eight times up, goes the old Japanese folk saying.

(Photo, above)  “Manzanar Boy Scout Memorial Parade” by Frances Stewart of the War Relocation Authority, U.S. Department of the Interior, via Wikimedia Commons.

AFTER THE WAR, Japanese Americans scattered throughout the Western U.S. I grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, a cultural fusion over the decades of middle-class European Americans, black migrants from the South and Latino immigrants. Crenshaw Square (from LAist.com)The once-thriving Japanese American enclave in the Crenshaw district with its down-home sushi joints, summer festivals and obon folk dances — was a cultural sanctuary and an economic hamlet for Japanese American small businesses. But it died long ago, as my generation found the suburbs, middle-class jobs and interracial marital bliss. The early waves of Japanese immigrants and their entrepreneurial drive symbolize the vast ethnic and demographic forces growing stronger by the day in the U.S. Those same forces are cascading worldwide, transforming cities, nations, the economy. The local tales and global story are playing out on millions of like stages.

(Photo, above) Crenshaw Square from ww.LAist.com.

IN A RITE of passage, I spent part of my early career tracing the family arc, hounding my parents for shards of their personal histories.  Spring pilgrimages to the windswept Manzanar site. A trek to Japan, to Buddhist temples and family farms in the green hills of Wakayama and Okayama.Cemetery shrine, Manzanar Japanese internment camp by Daniel Mayer, under a Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons  Closure came with President Reagan signing the historic redress bill in 1988 that gave each interned Japanese American $20,000 for what legal scholars call the greatest civil rights violation in our nation’s history. A generation of economic dreams deferred, though not killed. During pilgrimages, Grandma always brought cool water to the Manzanar cemetery. The spirits are thirsty, she told my aunt. Beyond the politics of identity, my soul-searching and dusty boxes of documents honored the ghosts and their legacies. It was time to move on.

– Edward Iwata

(Photo, above)  “Cemetery shrine, Manzanar Japanese internment camp” by Daniel Mayer, under a Creative Commons license via Wikipedia. 

In Which We Save the World From Drought, Water Wars and Other Looming Disasters

  Nigeria by NASA


“Nigeria” by Jacques Descloitres of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, under a Creative Commons license on flickr. Satellite photo of the windswept Bodele Depression in the Sahara Desert in Nigeria. Formerly Lake Chad, the vast body of water has shrunk to 5% of its former size due to drought, dust storms and irrigation.


HOO BOY. IT’S gonna be hard for policymakers to halt the many mega-disasters expected to slam Planet Gaia in the coming decades because of our undying lust for fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency and a rising legion of scientists have warned in recent years that we’re at a dangerous point for global climate change. If we don’t throttle back carbon emissions over the next 25 years, the world’s temperature will rise 4% to 6%, and all the hybrid cars and solar panels in the world won’t make a damn difference.

Even the famed British physicist Stephen Hawking says in an interview with The Canadian Press that we’re unlikely to survive planetary disaster Stephen Hawking NASA 50th by nasa hq photoover the next 100 years, much less the next 1,000 years. Hawking believes that we need to build space colonies for the human race to survive. That’s not science fiction.

Grim, scary stuff. For our sanity, though, can we at least ward off one climate-related catastrophe that’ll shake the world? Maybe. Among many other natural-resource problems, the looming fresh-water crisis might be managable, if the political will exists. Lot of potential solutions in the experts’ literature, such as Running Out of Water by Peter Rogers and Susan Leal.

(Photo, above) “Stephen Hawking NASA 50th” by nasa hq photo, under a Creative Commons license on flickr. Hawking gives a talk on space travel at George Washington University in 2008. Photo by Paul Alers.

While the big brains and lawmakers debate climate change, what can we do? Well before any crisis strikes, many millions of everyday consumers can pitch in like so many legions of soldiers. We can conserve huge amounts of water and end our water guzzling simply by changing our daily habits. To wit: my water utility company says that my average-sized family uses 40% less water a day than households of the same size in California. Nearly half less than other homes. How? Easy:

  • By taking quick showers of 5 minutes, not 10 to 15 minutes. (If I ain’t rank and stanky, I’ll skip the shower and just use the sink.)
  • By not flushing the toilets after we pee. (Heed the old environmental saying: “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”)
  • By watering the lawn and plants with laundry water. (Full of dirt, bacteria and natural detergent, the water works better than fertilizer, and hauling the buckets is great exercise.)

Imagine if 113 million U.S. households and other indoor-water customers slashed half of our daily water use. That’s half of the 44 billion gallons a day consumed for indoor use in 2005, says the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s trillions of gallons conserved a year in America alone.

Simplistic? Probably. Realistic? Yes. We’ve got to wake up. If not for our sakes, then for our children and grandchildren. The cradle’s rocking above the abyss for Mother Earth. Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet on Stephen Hawking and a growing cadre of concerned scientists. The great cosmic clock keeps ticking, and we’re running out of time.



Editor’s note: This post has been updated since appearing originally in my old blog, CoolGlobalBiz.com. Everything still applies, with even more urgency .


Writing in business realm is “the work of our time”


AS THE KNOWLEDGE economy grows, writing in all industries has become “the work of our time,” says Deborah Brandt, a literacy expert and English professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The digital revolution hogs the media spotlight. But a quieter revolution — the rise of writing as a “dominant form of labor” in the business realm — is equally profound, she says on YouTube:

“I’ve always been interested in observing how writing works beyond the classroom. How, for instance, an insurance underwriter or a policy analyst or a nurse or an animal-care technician thinks about and worries about the words that they’re responsible for at work.

“We know that over the last 50 or 60 years, the U.S. economy has shifted from a base in manufacturing things to a base of services in knowledge, ideas, data, information. And as a consequence of this shift, writing has become the work of our time….

“In my research, I go out around and talk to workaday people doing all kinds of jobs, people who have their hands on their keyboards two or four or eight or 10 hours a day, and what they tell me is writing is hard mental labor, that it uses up time and it uses up spirit.

“And what they think most deeply about…is the effect that their words will have on others when they let them loose into these complex and densely interconnected networks of finance, commerce, healthcare, law, social services. They have to think: Are my words true? Are they fair? Are they legal? Will they help to bring about a good outcome? Will I get in trouble for them?….

“The digital revolution, computers, the Internet – they get a lot of attention…But there has been this other transformation, this rise of writing as a dominant form of labor. (This transition) has been more gradual, it has been quieter…but it is profound….”

Global Creatives Jake Shimabukuro, Bon Jovi, Riff on “Sakura, Sakura”


Jake Shimabukuro, master of the four-string ukelele, performs the Japanese folk tune “Sakura Sakura,” traditionally played on a 13-string koto. Video courtesy of JakeShimabukuro’s channel on YouTube. Didn’t know the intro to Bon Jovi’s “Tokyo Road” gave a nod to “Sakura Sakura” (See YouTube video here, courtesy of BuddyBerkman.) Nice.


Editor’s note: A late-summer heat wave in Northern Cali is fooling some plants into flowering, so I felt like re-running this spring post. Plus, we couldn’t score tickets to uke master Jake Shimabukuro’s upcoming concerts, so the videos will have to do.

REAL-LIFE CHERRY BLOSSOMS are beautiful. But the man-made images are tired and timeworn. The familiar and traditional need to evolve, or end up in museums and library archives, seen only by tour groups and graduate students. Global creatives — like Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro, rock band Bon Jovi, and the digital photographers here — dodge the cliches and seek out the new.

Dreaming of spring by Temari 09



“Dreaming of Spring” by Temari 09 (no real name given), under a Creative Commons license on flickr.




Illuminated sakura by Sue Ann Simon


“Illuminated Sakura at Kiyomizudera” by Sue Ann Simon, under a Creative Commons license on flickr. Simon is a photographer and language teacher in Japan.


Koyasan (Mount Koya) by CrystallineRadical

Koyasan (Mount Koya)” by CrystallineRadical (Kazue Asano), under a Creative Commons license on flickr. Asano is a photographer in Osaka, Japan. While clicking past thousands of photos, I was drawn to this one before knowing its subject matter. My late grandmother made pilgrimages to Mount Koya, and other ancestors tended the family’s rice farm and homestead in the surrounding Wakayama Prefecture.

The Rise of Global American Writers in That, How You Say, Universal Way?


Junot Diaz by Christopher Peterson, on Wikimedia CommonsSO JAZZED THAT 
American writers of more hues and cultures are winning wide recognition and critical acclaim, including Junot Diaz, Dinaw Mengestu, Krys Lee, and others who are eroding borders and shaping a new fictional language.

They represent a new generation of global urban writers, the progeny of Sandra CisnerosSalman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe. A polyglot, mulatto, mashed-up crew of young writers who reflect a dynamic world spirit that only will grow.  No brush-painting in that cloying, annoying, colonial voice that old-school publishers loved to court.

Are modern-day demographics, cultures, and commerce finally rising and converging, creating what journalist Guy Garcia has called the “new mainstream”?  Will “ethnic lit” no longer be ghettoized?  Are outsiders the new insiders?  Is exotic the new norm?  Are the “other” now us?  And can we stop using the word diaspora?  For those who yearn for more literature of all shades, we’ve been waiting a lifetime for the rise of the next-gen global literati.  I have no doubt that we’re at the cusp of a new cultural ethos.

Dave Eggers by David_ShankboneLest you think I’m p.c., the new breed of global scribes may be led by living white male Dave Eggers, the San Francisco-based author of A Hologram for the King. Where does this transcultural freak fit? He’s a cipher, a chameleon, beyond typecasting. Was he born that way, flying Lady Gaga-like from his mother’s loins? He’s the Bruno Mars of literature. He not only bashes borders, he transcends them, reshapes them.

At a certain point, the lines blur — no longer really matter. That’s the point with great lit authors, isn’t it? Transcendent writing that defies definition, yet defines us in that, how you say, universal way? Nothing is lost in translation, especially for readers who aren’t multilinguini and can’t speak grammar too well. The cultural parameters vanish, and the fine work speaks for itself.

Eggers has been dubbed heir apparent to the late Norman Mailer by author Pico Iyer. Norman Mailer? Eggers descends from a mashed-up, border-hopping, multicultural canon, from dead white and black males to living writers of all hues and persuasions: James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Ishmael Reed, Joyce Carol Oates, Maxine Hong Kingston, Bharati Mukherjee, Edmund White, Iyer, and others.

Everyman Eggers and his kin are trekking far and wide, showing us fresh new literary lands. Trash the TV, and try them.

(Photo, above) “Junot Diaz” by Christopher Peterson, via Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons.

(Photo, above) “Dave Eggers” by David Shankbone, under a Creative Commons license on Wikipedia.


Paris Street Artist JR: Global Public Art Crosses Boundaries

 From JR in LA by Lord JimFrom “JR in LA” by Lord Jim (Stefan Kloo), under a Creative Commons license on flickr. Kloo is a German photographer in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this blog post was published last year.

UNLIKE ART HANGING in galleries, street art has the mojo to smash class boundaries and cultural biases. The eye-opening work of JR, the Paris-based photographer and artist, can be found in France’s slums, Brazil’s favelas and other impoverished areas. The pieces are large and looming, but still connect on a soulful, human scale. This is public art that people embrace — not pretend to enjoy, to be polite. All are welcome, and they pass on the spirit. In JR’s new film, Women Are Heroes, a proud old matriach says: “I won’t be here, but that doesn’t matter. Others may benefit.”

Freeze, You're Being Filmed by MiguelFrom JR’s Web site : “JR owns the biggest art gallery in the world. He exhibits freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not the museum visitors. His work mixes Art and Act, talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit.”

After TED, the global think tank, awarded JR $100,000 in 2011, he said: “I’m not trying to change the world. But you know when I see a smile up there in the favelas, or down there in Cambodia, in a way I feel like I achieved my goal.”

(Photo, above) “Freeze, You’re Being Filmed” by Miguel 77, under a Creative Commons license on flickr. JR artwork at the Tate Modern national art museum in London, England.

JR in LA by Lord Jim (Stefan Kloo)

I especially enjoy his ongoing project in Los Angeles, where his work can be seen on old buildings and walls, in many neighborhoods from my youth. My late grandparents ran a grocery store in “Little Tokyo” in downtown L.A., before big business took hold. Relatives lived in the Silver Lake barrio, long before gentrification. And I spent way too many summer days getting charbroiled by the sun at Venice, the funkiest beach town in Southern Cal. Powerful images by JR in L.A., the city of 10 million mulattoes. Migration is a state of mind, and the European artist gets it. 

(Photo, above) From the “JR in LA” photo series by Lord Jim (Stefan Kloo), under a Creative Commons license on flickr.

“Wrinkles in City” project in Shanghai, China. Photo courtesy of JR and BasilicStudio // aKkY..

JR's Wrinkles in the City project in Shanghai, China. Photo courtesy of JR and BasilicStudio aKkY


The Reader in the Coffee Shop — And Why I Write for Her

ON SATURDAY NIGHT, my wife and I celebrated my e-book’s recent success on an Amazon Kindle Bestseller list by dining at a local coffee shop. Party people, yeah.

My fiction debut, a business parable called The Billionaire’s Gift, somehow had soared on Saturday to a No. 19 ranking on the Kindle Bestseller List for literary fiction (free book list) — one of many bestseller lists created by Amazon’s clever algorithms that seduce authors into believing we’re J.K. Rowling. Reading Woman by 19th century Russian painter Ivan Kromskoi. Photo by paukrus, under a Creative Commons license on flickr.Since then, my e-book has sank to near-obscurity. But let’s pretend it’s still rising, I’m John Grisham, and we’re dining with Manhattan literati.

As I droned on about the e-book market, I noticed a bespectacled middle-aged woman, in the booth behind my wife, eating dinner with her e-reader. She looked tired, pensive, a tad sad. When I mentioned my book, she glanced up briefly, then looked down when I caught her eyes. I thought of a quote from a novelist at last year’s Los Angeles Times Book Festival: “I write for people who carry their loneliness with them.”

As my wife and I got up to leave, I made polite chit-chat with the lady. She looked happy to talk with someone. I asked her if she liked her e-reader. Yes, she said, she reads a lot on it. When I told her that my fiction debut hit a bestseller list for two days, her eyes gleamed and her face lit up in a huge smile. She looked like another person. I left my business card with her, and thanked her for being such a passionate reader.

In the weeks before my e-book’s roll-out, I had fretted over marketing strategies. I had gotten intimidated by savvy authors and their big reps. I had worried about what pros would think of my rookie efforts in the e-book game. As a journalist, I had stormed fearlessly into big news stories and business investigations. But as a first-time fiction writer, I was scared sh-tless. I knew there was a long trek ahead.

Sometimes, though, the most important things are right in front of you. Amid all of my nail-biting and head scratching, I had forgotten the most rewarding part of the writing journey.

The woman in the coffee shop was a stranger, and I’ll probably never see her again. But the thrill on her face made my whole weekend. Clearly, she was a book addict, a devout reader. I hope that she devoured my book in one sitting. I hope that it touched a chord, made her ponder and reflect and even cry a bit. I hope that she continues to read many more books and authors.

That’s why writers write, yes?

– Edward Iwata

“Reading Woman” by 19th century Russian painter Ivan Kromskoi. Photo by paukrus, under a Creative Commons license on flickr.

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