By MATTHEW ORMSETH
I can remember a time when I thought of Little Tokyo as a ghost town. I didn’t go there often — a few times out of the year, for Obons, services at Higashi, the occasional meal at Mitsuru Cafe or Suehiro. The streets looked empty to me, like dried-up riverbeds; the restaurants looked empty too, except for proprietors gazing out of windows, wiping down tables that had yet to be sat at.
The whole place seemed like a museum to me — a moment fixed in eternity, a bug locked in amber. To my 15-year-old self, Little Tokyo seemed to be in mourning. The place seemed more about what it lost than what it had: You see that table there? That’s where so-and-so used to sit and have a beer, eight o’clock every night. That place with the “For Rent” sign? That’s where so-and-so’s shop used to be.
I grew up hearing about all the places and people that used to exist in Little Tokyo. For every restaurant or shop still standing, two had closed up or moved away. Even my early memories of The Rafu were associated with loss. I can remember my mother clipping out obituaries and sending them to my grandma so that she would know when a friend had died.
Perhaps this is why I used to shy away from identifying as a Japanese-American, and identified more with the Caucasian half of my heritage in high school. JA culture seemed to be in a state of mourning, and it made me sad, but frustrated, too. I felt embarrassed, going to Little Tokyo and seeing the home base of the JA community wither into memory.
I’m 20 now, and I know better than to think of Little Tokyo as a ghost town. Last summer, I interned at The Rafu. I’ve grown to understand the reasons people and businesses had for leaving the area. I realize now that the Japanese American community faced a dilemma that haunts every minority community in America.
No minority group — Asian, black, Hispanic, what have you — wants to be pigeonholed into an ethnic subcategory. If you’re not white, you don’t want to be defined by your “nonwhiteness.” You want to be American — American, as defined by a commitment to a certain set of beliefs, belief in things like opportunity, meritocracy, and personal liberty. And with each successive generation, JAs have succeeded in becoming more “American,” more or less. We’ve beaten the residential codes that forbade homeowners from selling to non-whites, and JAs have moved out of their designated enclaves and into traditional bastions of whiteness, places like San Marino and Palos Verdes.
I’ve never been asked why I don’t speak a word of Japanese, or why I don’t have a black belt in karate. As a kid, I played Little League baseball, AYSO soccer, and YMCA basketball. I ate burgers with my friends after school, not teriyaki. I’m as American as apple pie, in my opinion. We escaped the pigeonholing. So maybe we’ve won, after all.
But when businesses in J-Town, restaurants and shops that have been passed down from generation to generation like family jewelry, are first bled dry and then sent packing by posh sausageries and faux-industrial coffee shops with reviews in the LA Weekly and a celebrity sighting or two to their name, the kind of hip places that JAs of my generation would patronize over the depopulated family restaurants that have no need for ersatz gramophones to compensate for their lack of culinary ability, something is wrong.
When JAs across the Southland congregate only a few times out of the year at Obons for handshakes and backslaps before retreating to their far-flung homes in the South Bay, Orange County, and the Valley for another year, something is wrong.
I’m from the San Gabriel Valley, home to extraordinarily vibrant Chinese American and Vietnamese American communities. Perhaps it’s because they — for whatever reason, or number of reasons — have stuck together. Is this self-segregation? Furthermore, is there anything wrong with self-segregation? I don’t know — I don’t know the answer to this Catch-22, the choice between staying put in a designated ethnic enclave with strong communal and cultural ties, and going after what was promised in that old dream, the American dream — to own a house and raise a family in a good neighborhood, a place entirely of one’s own choosing, but perhaps a place where heritage is forgotten.
All I know is that my generation is more American and less Japanese than my parents’ generation, and that my children, in turn, will be even more American and less Japanese than I am. It’s the way it goes. But there must be some way to make Little Tokyo, the heart of the Japanese American community, reflect this continual shift, which is, for better or for worse, an inexorable law that can be denied as easily and successfully as a parachute-less skydiver denies gravity.
Our museums need to appeal to younger people; our publications need to appeal to younger people; our free, public concerts — which can, with the right acts and the right promotion, draw enormous crowds to J-Town — need to appeal to younger people. If not, when the time comes for members of my generation to raise a family, to show our children what it is to Japanese American, we won’t take them to Little Tokyo. We’ll take them to one of the two or three Japanese restaurants in our hometowns, invariably located in some suburb or another.
We won’t take them to Little Tokyo, because Little Tokyo always felt like a museum to us — a repository of memories, but none of them our own.
Matthew Ormseth writes from New York and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.