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 Ford (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. On 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.
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. 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.
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. 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
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….”
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.
“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.
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.”
From 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.”
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.