Long before I ever read a word written by George “Horse” Yoshinaga, I knew of his reputation. In the ’80s, I remember hearing people at NCRR meetings grumbling about his latest Kashu Mainichi diatribe against redress.
So it was telling that after we helped pass the bill, he nevertheless cashed his check and was defensive about how he was going to spend it.
Kathy Nishimoto-Masaoka once wrote a letter to the paper defending our stance and criticizing Horse’s. Whoever was in charge of The Kashu apparently didn’t observe proper journalistic protocol. Instead of printing the letter and forcing Horse to respond to it afterwards, s/he gave it to the columnist, who used portions that he could conveniently retaliate against, but didn’t allow the entire letter to be considered by the readers without his editorializing.
So in 1991 when Naomi Hirahara invited Horse to write a column for The Rafu, I called her up and uttered a cry surprisingly close to the one Nancy Kerrigan would use years later after she was clubbed in her knee: “Whhhyyyyy?! Whhhyyyyy?!”
It was funny: After the paper ran a letter critical of Horse, he complained in his column that people with criticisms should write to him so he could respond to them directly. Hah! Nice try! This ain’t The Kashu no more! I wrote my own letter to the editor warning readers not to fall for that trick, explaining what had happened to Nishimoto-Masaoka. Thankfully, at The Rafu, there was a firewall between the public’s letters and the newspaper’s writers.
Most disturbing was how, 45, 50, 60, 70 years after getting out of camp, former internees like Horse chose to fight a never-ending war against the draft resisters, calling them cowards, angry that they ruined the “good, loyal American” image they’d tried so hard to maintain to gain white America’s acceptance by going to camp peacefully and enlisting in the war when allowed.
They still didn’t understand that the real enemy had been the U.S. government who’d put them in concentration camps in the first place and forced them to make the terrible decision whether to fight for a country that had deserted them — to uphold values that didn’t apply to them — or to contest their treatment in court knowing the rest of the country (and some in their own community) would hate them for it. That took guts.
Horse would often protest anyone calling “relocation centers” “concentration camps,” almost psychotically wanting us to remember the fun times and not the bad. He chided people like Norm Mineta and others younger than he who told the media how horrible the camps were, complaining they should’ve asked him for his opinion as he was older and more aware of how they really were. And what would he have said, that he was glad 120,000 were imprisoned for three years for being the unfortunate race of the decade? A psychiatrist would’ve had a field day with Yoshinaga. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) would’ve held dinners in his honor for making them look so good.
His diatribes against the Fair Play Committee and leaders like Frank Emi (and later, Lt. Ehren Watada for speaking out against the Iraq War) continued for decades. Once in a while, Yoshinaga would promise never to raise the subject again. At one point, he even added (as if it would make any difference) “no matter what.” But a few months later, he’d be back at it again. And once in a while, I’d write a letter to the paper pointing out his hypocrisy.
And his response was also so predictable I could’ve written what would happen next on a piece of paper, stuck it in a bottle, and buried it at the James Irvine Japanese Garden outside the JACCC and you could’ve dug it up three weeks later and everything on it would’ve come to pass: 1. He’d feel sorry for himself, saying, “Gee, maybe people like Aoki are right and I should hang it up.” (And where, pray tell, did I ever say you should stop writing?) 2. His fans would write in urging him not to listen to me, that he was the only reason they subscribed to the paper. 3. He’d say, “Wow, thanks! That does my ego good! Maybe if I get more letters like that, I’ll continue!” And, of course, he would.
Yoshinaga also had a strange passive-aggressive streak. He reported going to the “Save The Rafu” forum but wouldn’t volunteer any of his marvelous ideas because nobody asked him for his opinion. He acted like a king who expected to be treated as a celebrity. So, wait, raising your hand was beneath you?
He called himself a journalist, but he wound up more an opinion and entertainment writer. When I read Naomi Hirahara’s essay “A Man Called Horse” (Rafu, Aug. 22) and learned Yoshinaga had made up the story that Vin Scully repeated on television —Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo thought someone said to him “osu na” (“don’t push me”) when he was actually calling out to teammate Antonio Osuna — I shook my head in disbelief. What else did you make up all these years, Horse?
Yet he did seem to evolve on some points. Whereas in the early ’90s he’d get upset whenever people seemed to support a candidate simply because they were Asian or Japanese, I noticed he later wrote more and more about being proud of Japanese American athletes, journalists, and politicians.
And I continued to read his column in between sets at the gym. I didn’t have to agree with his politics to learn what people think about as they get into their 70s, 80s and 90s. It was a way of looking ahead to some of the issues I might be facing were I lucky enough to live that long.
I routinely tore out some of his jokes that were funny and sent them to my sister for her birthday and Christmas. I even said so in a letter to the editor in March 2010: “Remember the joke you told about the Schitt family? I laughed out loud and sent it to my sister in Hawaii. She didn’t have a scanner, so she actually typed out the entire joke and sent it around to friends so they could get a kick out of it too.”
I ended it with: “So (ulp!) keep it up, George.”
I could never understand how the guy knew how to use email yet not how to email his columns to editor Gwen Muranaka, so she either had to pick up a hard copy from him in Gardena, or he had to drive it up to her. So I sent an email explaining to him how to attach a document. In 2011 when a Latino documentarian was trying to find noted minority athletes, I sent Horse an email asking him for Japanese American leads.
Two years ago when I read that his son had passed away at 52, I felt terrible. Despite going to Rafu.com to see what was going on when delivery of my paper was running a few days behind (as usual), I could count on one hand the number of times I left a comment on any of the articles. On Horse’s column, I sent my condolences: “My heart dropped when I read the paper tonight, Horse. I’m so sorry. Cherish the memories Robin gave you. Maybe writing about him in your column will be cathartic.” In a separate email, I added, “You don’t have to include jokes when you return to writing. Just be honest about how you feel. People will understand and reach out to you for support.”
He never responded to any of my emails, but that was fine. I just didn’t want him to think of me only as an adversary. A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised when he mentioned that he read my column, which he’d never admitted to before.
For the past few months, anyone paying attention would have to agree his columns were almost a waste of time. He’d spend the first half explaining how difficult it was to think of what to write about. Then he’d remind us how long he’d been writing, saying, “Who’d guess I’d still be writing 70 years later?” Then, “I’m short today, but I’ll be back to my regular length next time” (and he never was).
He was like Robert Hilburn of The LA. Times: You could write parody articles based on what subjects or terms they always returned to. Why not write about why you were going to the hospital so often? Maybe muse about what happens after you die? I guess those issues were too close for comfort.
When The Rafu began running reruns of his older columns, I knew something was up. I didn’t believe his excuse, that he was having computer problems, because he’d had them before and could rely on an electric typewriter in a pinch. I’d always had a hunch George Yoshinaga would write pretty close to the end, and not just retire for years. And I was right.
On my Saturday visit to Rafu.com, I saw the article “‘Horse’ Yoshinaga Passes at 90.” I felt sad. Despite my differences with him, he had often been an entertaining writer. And I always felt that he should compile the best of his columns throughout his 72-year run that could provide a flavor for the times in which he lived (though being mindful of some of his blind spots and the times he was simply wrong). That’s still possible, and someone should consider it.
And I’d love to see what kind of presence he had as an actor in films like “The Crimson Kimono.”
He closed one of the last columns he ever wrote on June 13 by saying: “Sorry my chatter is somewhat short today. In the meantime, readers will have a lot of talented writers to entertain them and won’t miss the Horse.” Oh, but I beg to differ. It definitely won’t be the same.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.