By KAREN TEI YAMASHITA
My sister and I grew up in a series of Japanese American bubbles in the 1950s and ’60s that shaped our Sansei lives in L.A. from elementary to high school, each bubble bursting into another.
By bubble, I mean a protective community space of Japanese Americans who didn’t have to explain to each other who they were or how they got there. Didn’t have to explain the war, that they’d been imprisoned in camps, exiled non-alien citizens, had returned to the West Coast to try to resume their American lives.
The bubble was never an easy space; its safe containment also harbored shame, antagonisms, censures, provincialism, but it was still home. We stayed in this bubble even as we moved through three L.A. neighborhoods, confined by racial covenants at the margins of postwar social mobility.
Fifth Avenue, L.A.
In 1952, my parents were a young couple with a one-year-old baby (me), arriving from Oakland, my father called to pastor the Japanese American Centenary Methodist Church near Normandie Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard in central Los Angeles. That church, founded in 1896, became in the postwar years part of a social safety net for returning Japanese.
My parents moved into the church parsonage, located about a mile and a half from the church on Fifth Avenue. The following year, my sister was born. The church and the Fifth Avenue parsonage were the center around which our early lives radiated.
The surrounding neighborhood was home to mostly African American and Japanese American families. It was part of a midriff swath of L.A. that extended from Boyle Heights through downtown and Little Tokyo, crossing USC, traveling down Jefferson Boulevard and abutting itself against the Baldwin Hills; it was where we were allowed to live and to buy homes. It was where the Japanese community and young Nisei families returned to jumpstart their lives. Of this racial geography, my sister and I had no idea.
The house on Fifth Avenue was a small two-bedroom craftsman bungalow with dark hardwood floors, built-in cabinets and shelves with cut-glass and mirrors, a working fireplace and crafted mantel. A heavy dining table covered in a lace tablecloth sat at the center of the dining room, supported by its fat curving trunk-like pedestal, surrounded by heavy matching chairs. Rarely dining at this table except at Thanksgiving or with visitors, we ate over a chrome and Formica table in the sunny breakfast nook to the side of the kitchen that opened onto a carport porch.
I have a recollection of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom being some sort of creeping ivy; the furniture, varnished red cherry. My sister and I shared bunkbeds, and she always slept on top. At one end of the living room sofa, below the great window facing the front porch, a large furry brown stuffed dog with closed eyes named Sleepy always dozed. Sleepy was my dad’s pillow where he often snored into deep naps, exhausted by the daily demands of his parishioners.
My parents’ work never stopped; committee and club meetings, Bible studies, prayer meetings, bake sales, weddings and funerals, lay members, visits to sick and elderly, Issei, Nisei, Sansei, at the church or the house, daily, nightly — folks came in and out, brought omiyage, homemade baked goods, See’s candies, sembei, fruits and flowers.
The weekends, when everyone else rested, were the busiest: Sunday services with appropriate ceremonial fanfare, choir and sermon, dress-up and church school. Typically, my sister and I wore matching dresses that our aunts bought or grandma Tomi sewed. (There are dozens of photos that prove this; we were really cute.) The weeks and years went around and around like that. My sister and I never thought about any of it, never questioned why our folks were so invested in their work, what it really meant. We basked in the attentions of a tight-knit community.
A block away, down Jefferson, was our elementary school, Sixth Avenue. Like all other children, we walked together to school, passing the candy shop, the cleaners, the pharmacy, Japanese American businesses. Jefferson was lined with grocery stores, butchers, restaurants, pastry shops, furniture stores; accounting, insurance, and real estate businesses, many owned by Nisei.
My mom could send me around the corner to buy a small tub of tofu. I might walk over with my friend Esther Noguchi to her house on Third Avenue, or my sister played at the Yonemotos a couple houses over. Next door to our house lived the Thydens, an elderly white couple; in their front yard was an old tree with a low curving trunk that we climbed to play “horse.” The driveway between was lined with white calla lilies that my mother cut and gathered for church services.
On the other side, in a stucco duplex, lived an African American family, the Greenes, with their daughter Cookie. Cookie and I talked to each other through a hole in our backyard fence, or opened our bedroom windows and spoke across the narrow path between our houses. During the day, Cookie’s dad must have constantly watched TV, gun battles of cowboys and Indians sputtering across our divide, but drifting to sleep nightly, I heard Cookie’s mother, a tall elegant woman, singing operatic scales, higher and higher.
My mom never played with us. When she could get a moment to herself, she liked to read. She expected us to occupy ourselves, alone in playpens or together. If we got into altercations, she’d come and warn us: Don’t fight. She’s your only sister. My mom never liked to cook, but she had standards about balanced nutrition: protein, vegetable, starch. In those years, dinner might be a pork chop, green beans, and rice. The chop was dried out; the green beans were stringy; the rice was always there. I must have left chewed portions of everything on the plate. Dessert was always Jell-o with half-and-half.
When my sister was maybe two years old, she sat up in her own little table, and every night for many nights I watched this kid from my perch at the Formica table. My mom placed a melamine bowl of red Jell-o and cream on the little table, and my sister, laughing joyously, turned the bowl like a hat over her head, Jell-o and cream oozing over hair and face. This happened every night. We never questioned it. Years later, I asked my mom why. She shrugged. It must have felt good, and besides, it was bath time. Maybe it was Dr. Spock; I inherited her ratty paperback copy.
One day, I arrived from school to find a police car parked in front of the house and my mom’s hand wrapped in a bandage. A young man with a knife had come through the backdoor. My sister, hearing the commotion, woke from her nap and stood at the kitchen door, watching the young man struggling with my mom on the linoleum floor and yelled: Do unto others! Do unto others! startling the man, who fled into the alley. Several years later, the laymen of the church would find another parsonage in a “better” neighborhood.
Virginia Road, L.A.
A better neighborhood turned out to be a mile-and-a-half further west down Jefferson toward Crenshaw, where a new enclave of Japanese Americans gathered around the Crenshaw Square shopping mall. Crenshaw Square housed assorted JA businesses, shops, restaurants, and a bowling alley, hosted festivals and community events. The new parsonage was a larger ranch-style home with curving decorative plaster ceilings.
But what I first noticed were the shady trees that lined Virginia Road. Fifth Avenue and all the avenues crossing Jefferson were lined with tall palm trees that punched the sidewalks and reached high into the sky, providing no shade. For me, a better neighborhood was all about dappled shade.
If our Jefferson neighbors were mostly working class, our Crenshaw neighbors were slightly better off, perhaps white-collar and professional, business owners, a mix of Asians, Blacks, Jews, and disappearing white folks. As the new decade became the sixties, my sister and I attended nearby Audubon Junior High School, in those days, a model of racial diversity. Not that we understood this; we were pretty clueless about differences of race and class, but the radius from the church’s centrality in our lives had definitely widened.
Though not confined to the church, we were still embedded in a mostly JA community. I might wait for Akemi Yoshimura to walk down Virginia to my house; we then walked to Elaine Wong’s house on the corner of Somerset, proceeded on to Teresa Yokoyama’s house, gathering classmates for the one-mile walk down Crenshaw to Audubon.
My friends were a huddle of Asians. We exchanged long letters at school, then returned home to talk on the phone for hours. Of what we had to say to each other, I have no memory. I do remember that Teresa Yokoyama was crowned Miss Teen Sansei at Crenshaw Square.
For me, two events imposed their reality on this bubble. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. There was a nation out there. And in the summer of 1965, Watts exploded in violence. Watts was far to the southeast of the city, but we could hear the sirens and see the smoke rising in the distance. I began to understand that my parents had political preferences, that they were Democrats, that my dad supported the merging of the segregated Japanese Methodist mission into the larger institution. He knew what it felt to be segregated; he believed in integration.
I also began to understand that my folks were different, my dad always cajoling his Republican parishioners, tugging at their conservatism, their fears and racism.
My dad always had high blood pressure, and he’d been warned that he was a likely candidate for a stroke. He worked too hard; his stroke shouldn’t have been a surprise. By the mid-sixties, he took leave of the church, and we left Virginia Road.
Catalina Avenue, Gardena
Our mom replaced Dad as breadwinner, going to work as an elementary school teacher for the L.A. Unified School District. For a while, she taught at Florence Avenue School near Watts, but the rest of her nineteen years of teaching were at 232nd Place School in Carson.
Eventually it made sense that our parents chose to buy a house in Gardena, a twenty-minute drive south down Vermont Avenue to my mom’s work. My mother never drove the freeways and always turned right instead of left. Dad settled in to be househusband. He was pretty good at it; he liked to shop, collect coupons, decorate the house. He created bonsai and cultivated orchids; he hooked rugs, all part of his post-stroke therapy. And best of all, he was a great cook. We all got fatter.
The switch was fortuitous; my mom loved to teach, and my dad finally found time to read and philosophize. He enjoyed making extravagant meals and inviting folks to dinner to engage in what he called scintillating conversation.
The Catalina Avenue house was a Merit three-bedroom tract home on a cul-de-sac a few blocks away from Gardena High School. The kitchen plan was an open space with a counter and stools, but the best thing, I thought, was that there were two bathrooms. We’d moved thirteen miles south into what had been rural farms of strawberry, vegetables, and flowers, farmed by Japanese. The urban grid had moved south, displacing the old landscape, churning the land into tract housing and shopping malls. Nisei real estate folks took this opportunity to sell these tracts to other Nisei families.
It was probably true that many of these families had fled central L.A. They might say they wanted a better school for their kids, but the underlying message was that their old neighborhood was turning Black.
So at the end of the sixties, my sister and I went on to graduate from Gardena High School. I thought at the time that our school population was majority or half-Japanese American, but it was probably only 25 percent. The rest were a smattering of white, Black, and Latinos. Maybe it was my imagination or my poor social affinities. I can remember having only one Black friend and one Jewish friend; the rest were JA.
The mayor of Gardena was Nisei as were many of the councilmen, and businesses along Gardena Boulevard all seemed to be run by Nisei. Japanese markets and restaurants dotted the neighborhood. There were Nisei doctors, pharmacists, optometrists, dentists. Nisei accountants and bankers. Nisei tackle shops, sporting goods, mechanics, bowling alley, swim school, garden and photography shops. And there were JA churches and Buddhist temples, cultural and pioneer centers. Eventually Datsun, Toyota, and Honda established their multinational corporations nearby.
So we lived in a JA bubble again, but by this time we knew the stories of our parents, where they came from and why. We’d figured out that “camp” hadn’t been a summer retreat. The bubble was a kind of reorganized camp. We discerned that what had happened — internment camps, postwar segregation, racial inequalities, inner-city flight — was connected to events in 1968: the war in Vietnam; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; police violence in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.
This was our coming of age, understanding that our parents’ incarceration was part of a continuing history of war and racial discrimination. In the next years, my sister and I graduated Gardena High School. We did what our parents had worked and planned for. We left for college. I went to school in the Midwest, to Carleton College in Minnesota. My sister tried the same at Cornell College in Iowa. We both studied in Tokyo as part of student foreign exchange programs.
From there, I left for a fellowship in Brazil, where I would live for almost a decade, and my sister returned to California to finish college at Pitzer in Claremont. We were a small part of what happened in the following years — Yellow Power, the Asian American movement, the movement for redress — but that is another story.
Years later my mom told me that those years of their empty nest were the happiest years of her married life with Dad. I laughed, but when I told this to my sister, she cried. Maybe she missed the old bubble, but I always wanted out. There was a world out there, and it wasn’t all JA. Now I think back, admittedly with some nostalgia and regret, recognizing our particular privilege. I miss my folks and their Nisei generation. I miss the positive innocence of those days and their hopefulness for our future.
When I returned to L.A. from Brazil with my immigrant family in 1984, I realized that we were a part of a new Latino L.A., the predicted statistical population shift to “Hispanic.” My sister had moved with her husband to San Dimas, in the San Gabriel Valley, but my parents continued to live in Gardena. My Brazilian family found a house a few blocks from my parents’ place in Gardena. I had one last chance to reconnect with the old bubble, but everything had, of course, changed, moved on.
The vestiges and residue of our old JA communities remain here and there in the L.A. landscape, but you have to know where to find them. In one generation, three decades really, these communities emerged and disappeared. You might think that our community continues to exist in Little Tokyo, but that place, for me, has become a kind of historic chimera.
Don’t get me wrong: Little Tokyo’s original businesses, and cultural, social support, and housing institutions continue to be active and significant at this historic center, but our extended community is dispersed and fragmented across the metropolis, across Southern California and beyond. We are more apt to live at archival, social, and political websites. How we are organized and how we find each other has changed.
Now, you can Google our old homes and their surrounding neighborhoods. The houses still stand much as they were. The new occupants could be Latino, Vietnamese, Korean. African Americans and JAs have moved and scattered away. A wrought-iron fence and tall bushes now surround the front of the Fifth Avenue house. Someone on Virginia Road still trims the front bushes into lollipops. And my dad’s Japanese stone temple continues to stand between drought-resistant clumps of agave and fescue grass on Catalina Avenue.
Karen Tei Yamashita is the author of seven books, including “I Hotel,” finalist for the National Book Award, “Letters to Memory,” and the just-released “Sansei and Sensibility,” all published by Coffee House Press. Recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature and a U.S. Artists’ Ford Foundation Fellowship, she is professor emerita of literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz. This article was originally published in Guernica.