Welcome to the first installment of “J-Town Beat.” I’ve been writing an occasional column for years under the staff column header “Ochazuke,” but it seemed like now was a good time to stretch a bit.

This will be a place to share anecdotes, opinions, maybe even an occasional recipe or illustration. I’ve been reluctant to write columns, since it is difficult to separate the role of objective reporter and opinionated columnist, and frankly, my regular duties take a lot of time. But I think that I’ve worked in this community long enough to be able to manage, and I count on readers to understand and keep us honest.

It takes a long time to develop a distinctive voice — in my case, it’s taken 15 years here at Rafu Shimpo. And as an aside, I think as women, we tend to defer to men to espouse important thoughts. At Pacific Citizen, the longtime main columnists were Bill Hosokawa and Bill Marutani, two extremely accomplished Nisei who wrote with the clarity and authority of their remarkable life experiences and achievements. Here the columnist corps has been led by George Yoshinaga, Wimpy Hiroto, Guy Aoki, George Johnston, Phil Shigekuni and Sharon Yamato. Maggie Ishino’s “Maggie’s Meow” has been a welcome addition and if I’m not mistaken, the first column headed by a woman since Ellen Endo’s “Open Endo.”

In terms of longevity, there are others who recently notched double digits working in this community: Allison Kochiyama of Gardena Valley JCI and Pearl Omiya of East San Gabriel JCC were both honored for their 10-year anniversaries.

Fifteen years is enough time to see remarkable change in Little Tokyo. In 2000, J-Town was dotted by open parking lots and the neighborhood largely shut down at night. A shantytown behind the Rafu office on Los Angeles Street was filled with homeless and walking to our cars was always harrowing, especially for the women.

Today that same block is the future site of the Budokan gymnasium and downtown is awash in hipsters and their money. Gentrification is the new buzzword, but that doesn’t mean that the problem of chronic homelessness has gone away. Far East Café, a beloved institution known for chow mein and hom yu, has been reborn as Far Bar, beloved for its brews and single malts.

AVA Little Tokyo, a high-end apartment complex, is open on the site where there used to be parking for easy access to the former New Otani Hotel and JACCC. I recall the bitterness in Nori Ito’s voice at an LTCC meeting a few years back when he talked about the broken promises made by Related Co., the former developer of that site, to create parking spaces to compensate at least partially for the loss of so much parking on Block 8.

Fifteen years is also a longtime personally. I’ve gotten married and made a lot of friends here in Little Tokyo and around SoCal — that’s probably the best part of this job.

The hardest part of the job is saying goodbye to friends: something that happens all too frequently when you count some remarkable Nisei as friends. Like everybody, I look at the obituary section every day with trepidation and dread.

Tim Toyama’s seminar for Sanseis is a reminder: Sanseis have become the old guard in the way that we’ve always looked upon the Nisei. By turn, that means that people like myself, Gen Xers and Yers, are now looked upon to be leaders, where maybe we’ve been complacent to follow our Sansei older siblings and Nisei parents.

There are some millenials/Yonsei leaders who have risen to the forefront, but there simply have to be more 30- and fortysomethings who are willing to step up. Our readers may always prefer Horse and Wimpy, but hopefully this will entertain.


J-Town isn’t just this small cluster of streets in downtown Los Angeles, it’s more importantly the people, past and present, that make it such a special place.

That’s why it was great to see J-Town homegirl Helen Ota down in the OC emceeing the Irvine Rotary Kimono Festival. The night before Kizuna honored Ota and Alan Nishio at their first annual Roast and Toast event.

Reverence and honor is something we do very well in the JA community, but I think it’s fun that Kizuna, in creating this new event, has added humor to the mix. Congratulations to all involved!


Giri (obligation) is one of those core Japanese values and I always found it amusing when it is employed in the service of something that is supposed to be romantic like Valentine’s Day.

In Japan, women give men chocolate on Feb. 14 and in return a month later, men are supposed to give women white chocolate on March 14 or White Day.

Giri choco is given to acquaintances such as co-workers that you have no romantic feelings or intentions for. Honmei choco is for your true sweetheart.

Can’t say that I bought either giri or honmei choco when I lived in Tokyo but I always appreciated the intricate packaging that would show up in stores every January and February.

Here while it isn’t as rigid, there is definitely some giri involved in Valentine’s Day, especially if you’re a girlfriend or wife hoping your guy remembers with a nice dinner or bouquet of flowers. I think women love spontaneity and romance, to be swept off our feet, but for guys who have to meet those expectations, there must be some feelings of obligation.

I just find it funny that in Japan it’s the women who are obliged to buy chocolate. And seriously, white chocolate in return for White Day? Yuck! It’s gotta be real chocolate.

Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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