Tuesday, January 10, 2006

First Slow Dance

Jogging Memories of my First Dance

No, the title does not reflect my lunch--Burger King. It is the initials of a person from whom I recently received an email, an acquaintance from the past. It is somewhat fascinating and to a degree weird when someone you barely knew and had virtually forgotten about randomly contacts you. I guess the longer I'm online the greater the chance of this happening. This is what he wrote:

O-man, I recently stumbled on your blog while I was surfing the net. I must know you but I can't recognize your photo or the background info I have seen. I have only read a small portion of your blogs but it looks like you were born in 1955 and went to Maryknoll. I was born in 1955 and graduated from Maryknoll in 1969. So you should have graduated Maryknoll in 1968, 1969 or 1970. Looks like you also went to Loyola High (the only Jesuit high school in LA in the 70's). I went there from 1969 -1970. You write some funny stuff and bring back great memories for me. So who the hell are you?!!!!

It's good to know that my secret identity is still intact. Only those with an O-man secret decoder ring know the truth. In any event, I was surprised to learn that BK had found me. I had previously heard from another friend that he had become quite successful as an attorney and now enjoys influential standing in LA. I, of course, emailed him and he revealed how he found me. I can't believe anyone would be doing a Google search on the Roger Young Auditorium and JA dances. I didn't think ANYONE remembered it, let alone do a write up for some newsletter. I am absolutely flabbergasted. At first, I thought it was the entry on eating grass, but I later figured out it was about my days as a Glob (good little Oriental boy).

Anyway, I remember BK as one of the weststide guys in the class above me. Thoughts of him bring back memories of when he was in the 8th grade and I was in the 7th, specifically one memory when we had a joint Halloween event in the clubhouse at Maryknoll. It was, for us, a special event where the upper class (8th was the highest grade at our school) introduced the younger class to the intricacies of "mixers." I was only 12 years old and it was my first real taste of male-female group socialization. Or more simply put, my first dance party. It was held in the afternoon between 1 and 3 PM on Halloween; the windows were covered with black cloth to give it that evening look, making it even more exotic for me. I looke forward to dancing to songs I had heard on the radio and hoping to be as cool as the teens on shows like "9th Street West" and "Soul Train"--no one watched American Bandstand for dance tips, believe me.

As you might imagine, we were stuck in cliques, usually split between the cool and the uncool. I, of course, was inclined toward the uncool. I mean, how else could you explain my thoughts of desperately trying to figure out how to avoid embarrassment? Who should I ask to dance? Would she say yes? What if she turns me down? It all seemed like such momentous questions back then. Of course, this line of questioning took on special meaning when the topic of conversation turned to slow dancing. No one would dare say it, but I know that the only thought in my mind was: What would it feel like to have my body pressed up against another body distinctly different from mine? As you might imagine, I was pretty excited.

I was partial to Top 40 fare, such as "Midnight Confession" by the Grassroots and "People Gotta Free" by the Rascals, but the cool kids more or less controlled these affairs, and we were subjected to a heavy dose of soul music, which of course was not a bad thing. After listening to a few songs, I actually danced--I'm not sure if a simple side-step actually constitutes dancing these days--to "Tighten Up" by Achie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, and found it quite exhilarating. So this is what dancing is all about! I thought. Moving your body to the rhythm of music with a girl as a partner, exhibiting yourself before a group of your peers. Today, I might describe it as a tribal ritual that prepares the participants for some level of physical bonding. But back then, I'd just say it felt groovy. Suddenly, there was the crooning of Smokey Robinson.

I did you wrong, my heart went out to play And in the game I lost you What a price to pay, I'm cryin' Oooo Baby, Baby.

My friends and I glared at each other, silently gesturing with our chins, egging each other to go out and ask someone to dance. By the time one of us had gotten the nerve up, the song was over--I mean, tunes were only a little more than two minutes back then. But one of the cool guys came by, bragging about his little adventure. Oh man, those titties were so soft. Kinda small, but... Hahahaha. Who should I dance with next? Hey, put on another... And he faded away as he flitted off like the butterfly he was.

It didn't help when we saw someone in the corner making out. It was BK. There he was, facing the corner with someone's hands all over his back. Woah, are they, like, kissing? Here? When the voices around them rose to a loud murmur, he turned around quickly to reveal he was all by himself. All he had done was wrap his arms around himself, rubbing his own back passionately, giving the impression that he was making out. We howled in approval, even as Sister Patricia rushed over wondering what all the commotion was about. Of course, there was nothing, really.

As Jr. Walker and the All Stars sang "What Does it Take?" I was screwing up the courage to ask someone to dance the next slow song. When I heard the telltale strikes of the snare drum and the short strokes of violins of the introduction, I just had to ask someone to dance. I strode over to a group of girls sitting down in a row of chairs against the wall and asked one of them. She acquiesced. We got to the dance floor just as the Delfonics started to sing.

Many guys have come to you with a line that wasn't true and you passed them by. Now your in the center ring and their lines don't mean a thing why don't you let me try...

I didn't really know what I was doing. I mean, practicing regular dance steps in front of the TV was doable. You didn't need a partner since dancing didn't really involve touching, but to cuddle. I was lost. I put my arm around her waist and she put her arms around my neck, and we kinda rocked left and right as we took small steps that moved us--naturally it seemed--in small circles. As I imagine it now, I probably looked awkward, but that was the last thing on my mind. The butterfly was right. They ARE soft. That's all my little mind could think about.

Well, "La-La-Means I Love You" was another really short song--two minutes and eleven seconds?--so it was over all too soon, which was just as well for a guy with only primitive, tribal thoughts on his mind. Amazingly, and perhaps rudely, I can't for the life of me remember who I danced with. This was a signal moment in my life--the first time I actually held a girl in my arms--and I can't remember who it was. All that remains in my mind is the sensation of softness. I can almost recreate the situation in my mind right now, and this in itself allows me to imagine one particular girl. But this is just the idle imaginings of a old man.

I had the opportunity to dance one more slow dance, this time with an 8th grader--Patsy?--and this was a point of pride, as my friends later reminded me after school. Y'know, the older woman? Hahhahaha. Anyway, at home, a younger friend dropped by to ask me if I wanted to go trick-or-treating with him, but I declined. I suddenly felt too old, too worldly for such childish activities. I had touched a girl in a sexual way; not that we had sex, of course, but the sensations aroused could not be described in any other--albeit innocent--way.

I hadn't thought about my first dance in a long time, but the email from BK opened a floodgate of 38-year-old memories. BK wrote that he doesn't really remember the incident above, and I wouldn't be surprised if I have gotten the particulars wrong. But someone did act like he was making out, and in my addled 50-year-old mind, it is inexplicably linked with BK. Either way, it's just an innocuous memory that was amusing to recall. Dude, thanks for jogging it for me.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Owning a car

Originally posted on Xanga 2005.06.27

Took my car in for servicing today. Its nice to have a car; a rather inane but nonetheless honest comment from a boy born and raised in LA.

I couldn't wait to own a car as a teenager. I bought my mother's '73 Camaro--no, she didn't give it to me--I molded (not attached) a spoiler on to it, removed all the Camaro insignias to make the body look smoother, repainted it from red to midnight blue (making it look even darker, but not black), and changed the rims (cyclones). I left the engine stock. It was beautiful and my baby (the Camaro in the photo is not my car, but the resemblance is remarkable, right down to the absence of the front red Camaro insignia!). However, as driving became a necessity--going to work or school--and finding myself each day in the parking lot known as the LA freeway system--take your pick, Santa Monica, Pomona, San Bernadino--I soon dreaded driving. And of course, my eyes were progressively getting worse--see earlier post--which made driving an even scarier proposal.

Needless to say, when I went to Tokyo, I was very impressed with the fact one could get around quite easily sans kuruma. The trains and subways ran frequently and on time. Amazing. I subsequently lived in Japan for about 7 years and got completely used to the idea that I didn't need a car. Back in LA, where my Camaro was sitting in my parents driveway, my mom complained persistently about the hassles of having a car around that isn't being driven, and ultimately I was persuaded to give my baby up for adoption, which I did reluctantly.

Of course, as the gods of irony are wont to do, I got a job in DC six months later. Upset, I vowed to find a place to live near a Metro stop, so I could continue my Japanese lifestyle of not needing a vehicle. Unfortunately, unlike Japan, where there are always retail shops surrounding the station, suburban Metro stops--particularly beyond Ballston in Va--are surrounded by parking lots and condominiums. I was reduced to going shopping at "local" supermarkets on foot or by bus. Stubborn me. I lived like this for 6 years.

Last year, I inherited my mom's car (she lost her battle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma), and now am recalling the freedom a car brings. I don't drive to work--the traffic here is as bad, if not worse, than LA--but to go shopping in a car is sooooo much easier. The convenience it provides easily outweighs the cost of gas and insurance. Who woulda thunk it.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Misadventures of Stash: Epilogue

(Originally posted January 17, 2005)

The title, "Misadventure of Stash" is a bit misleading. I'm sure that none of my former bandmates would approve of such a title. But many of the things we did were reckless, stupid, but perhaps normal for guys in their late teens. anyway, let's set the record straight.

Fact or Fiction?
RachelsMommyIt's all bullshit. You were a straight-A dweeb who didn't even know what a doobie was!!! lolOkay, I admit it. I was a dweeb. But I knew what a doobie was, and I could even roll one, although not very well. And it ain't all bullshit.

enygma81Oh my gosh. Don't tell me you made all of this up.
No, I did not make it up. Indeed, it is almost entirely true, although some of the facts have been changed to protect the innocent.

lionneA little hard to swallow that the car was retrieved without more fuss, but I'll go for it. Ah, the misadventures of youth. My story is probably miles different than yours but, like you, I often think "if they only knew."
I know. If I didn't experience it, I wouldn't believe it myself. But the cars was retrieved uneventfully, thank God.
the_greatest_pipit could go either way, and i'm too much of a wuss to guess. i'm already wrong enough of the time--why would i want to be wrong again?Don't be a wuss; be a man. The three above you were even women enough to be men...
jerjonjilol.... there's no way you could make this up! i have a friend who says "why would i make up stuff when my own life has plenty of things happening in it?"Indeed, why would I make things up?
miket_the_kidIt all sounds pretty damn ridiculous, but you know.... why the hell not? I'm gonna go ahead and say it's truth, but man will I feel foolish if I'm wrong.
Don't feel foolish. It is the truth, well at least, my version of it.
CazzaCIt's so crazy it's gotta be true!!
Indeed. Fact is often stranger than fiction.
ChiisanaHoshiFact, or else you're a good story teller.
Thanks, but could I be telling the truth and still be a good story teller?
kizyrI think almost all of it's true, except one part. I think you're switching your and Bazooka's role.I didn't own a Duster. I owned a Camaro.
gokingsgohilarious! i say it's somewhat fiction based on loose facts. your friends had funny nicknames.They didn't have nicknames, really, I made them up. Bazooka? No one has a nickname like that unless you're a bubble gum character. But it rhymes with his real name. Diddly was the drummer. If you know anything about drums, you'd know that there are different rhythm patterns with names such as paradiddle and flamadiddle. Hence, Diddly. Our singer loved to get high, but he also had a voice like an angel. Also, he wasn't JA. He was of Mexican descent, but he had clse ties with Japanese American's in East L.A. Anyway, "voice" in Spanish is "vos." I chose Dragon's name because he has trained in the martial arts. I figure he had a degree of confidence when he went into that bar. Indeed, he has taken his abilities to Hollywood. I've seen him in movies such as Lethal Weapon 3 (the one with Jet Li), in The Crow. If you watch the Bourne Supremacy DVD, Matt Damon states in Special Feathures that Dragon instructed him in the moves for the apartment fight scene. If you see it, he's the guy with the long hair and fumanchu.
Anyway, the incident had its share of consequences. Bazooka could never forgive Vos and he ended up quitting his role as manager, which was too bad because its always nice to have a big, burly guy representing you.
Bazooka and Dragon were pretty close friends so when Bazooka quit, Dragon followed soon after. Dragon was kind of a lady killer back then and so when he left, half of our demographics went with him.
Vos had to drive around in his crunched up Beetle for quite awhile. The front trunk was bent out of shape and one of the headlights was facing upwards. We always knew whic car was his at night because when he went under a bridge, he lit up its underside.
As for me, I learned a number of things besides never to smoke and drive. The most important for me back then was that tough and macho does attract women. We guys hear about women who like the peaceful type, the introspective gentle kind of guy. But appears to be a myth. Women want men who can protect them. Or at least those are the vibes I get even today. How often have I seen women who claim to be liberated roll their eyes when hearing about a man who could not protect his interests or his woman. After I told M the story, she looked at me and asked me if I would have had the guts to do what Dragon did. I said in all honesty, No way. All she did was give me that I figured as much look. *sigh*


Not Living Up to Expectations

Originally posted on Xanga 2003, July through September--last edit July 23, 2008

I've read 3-4 posts lately by people who are feeling down about themselves, about how some earlier actions and past decisions have resulted in a life leading to nowheresville, where nothing seems to be working out. Well, some may be just ranting, to work out some stress. But if not, you guys still don't have to feel too down. There is always hope.

I realize that it sounds hokey, but its true. There really is hope. The only catch is that YOU have to make it happen. Been there, done that. Really. I don't want to bore you with the details, so let me be honest....

I was a total screw up in high school.

Bad grades, bad attendance. I'm surprised they didn't kick me out of school. Couldn't go to college like my friends so I went to work full time. Hey, all I wanted was money to put gas in my Camaro and go on hot dates. But I began to realize that maybe--just maybe--this wasn't the right path. But I thought, "Crapola, I'm 20 and going nowhere. I can't even get into school if I wanted to." So I started out at a junior college--took 5 years to graduate! hahahaha--and thanks to a professor who had a lot of faith in me, convinced me to apply to UCLA and the rest is history.

The point, of course, is that I could have given up: "Ah, its too late to change now." But I didn't. I made a conscious decision to act in the present and to dwell on the future, not the past, to finish school--time frame be damned--and see where it would take me. Now if this stupid-ass almost-high-school drop-out can earn a PhD from Stanford, then I'd bet that everyone who's read this far can work even greater miracles: cure cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, get Fox to cancel American Idol, y'know, the hard stuff, the long and heavy lifting. I'm serious...

Now How Narcissistic Can One Get?

Good question. In general, a blog is a log of one's thoughts; to wit, a journal. And a journal by any other name is still a journal: personal, self-absorbed, and free from constraint. So I will indulge myself. Will readership go down? Maybe. Doesn't matter. A weblog is an exercise in exhibitionism/voyeurism: I show, you watch; I write, you read. In a way, this is what autobiographies are like, and in many cases the first novel of new authors. Not that they intentionally write autobiographies, but many of the ideas in a "maiden novel" are taken from life experiences. Relax. I do not intend to write a novel here. But I will jot down the experiences of a Japanese American in LA in the late 60s, early 70s, something that some may find interesting to peruse, in that it is a "reflection" of the thoughts of one member of an invisible minority--y'know the one that doesn't complain, the model minority--at a time when civil rights were blossoming across the U.S. I wrote the following to qualify my above self-portrayal as a "total screw-up." I don't intend to justify it, just present some background in the hopes y'all will not think that a complete idiot got a PhD.

Now, some may be interested in who Ray Kanzaki is, what makes him click, what makes him write all these daily entries. He is, ahem, I mean, I am not interesting, per se; but my life has been different from yours, I'd bet, but I make no claims about my style or the worthiness of the content or my effectiveness as a writer, and I should warn you that I have been accused of writing boring stuff (then don't read it! I wanna say). Those of you not interested, change the channel now. (click, click)

Not Living Up to Expectation

I was raised in a modest home as the good, little Oriental boy--heretofore, Glob--of a model minority family--i.e. hard working, uncomplaining, compliant. In elementary school, I wasn't very bright, I had so-so grades, and my dreams were limited to what people around me believed: work hard, go to college, study economics or engineering or medicine. (In a very Oriental accent) "Oh, rearry? Okay, I try hawd!" But I didn't know how to try hard, or what it entailed, particularly as the son of parents who did not go to college (I'm not ragging on my parents; this is simply the way it was back in the day). I just watched "MyThree Sons" or "Leave it to Beaver" and wondered what I had to do to emulate such a "typical" American family.

I went to a private Catholic missionary elementary school and we were members of the church. We lived a rather isolated life. Actually most of the members did, I think. The school and church was exclusively Japanese American, and we, as kids, never had to deal with other races. We played with each other, and our parents socialized with church and school members.

However, that doesn't mean I was unaware of my difference. Once, when I was 5, Chuckles the Clown came by to East LA, to a nearby shopping center. As loyal viewers of his TV antics, my sister and I went to see him as many of the local kids did. We tried to arrive early to get a good seat and we were in the second row. Chuckles set up his show in the parking lot in front of Thrifty Drugs Store, and we eagerly watched his magic tricks and listened to his jokes. He then went into his balloon routine, you know, the one where he blows up long and skinny balloons and bends them into animals? He started making animal after animal and handing them out to the kids circling him. Moving clockwise, he finally reached us. Hands raised and screaming like everyone else, my heart was pounding in anticipation of getting a balloon from Chuckles himself. He hands over animal balloons to kids behind us, then to kids in front of us. Then he moves on... Didn't he see us? We were raising our hands like everyone else, crying out his name. Didn't he see us? My lasting image of Chuckles was his back, facing kids, white kids, to my left, handing them those stupid balloons.

Of course, my training taught me not to complain. I just accepted it, trying to understand what happened--he didn't see us, or maybe he reached for another balloon and forgot us--trying to justify it, as well as a 6-year-old kid could. As you might imagine, I developed a very real sense of security at school and at church where I was among people who looked like me.

From elementary school, I then went to a private Catholic high school run by Jesuits. "Ooooh." You're probably thinking, "That must have really screwed you up." Well, discipline can be good and bad, depending on how you look at it. The discipline administered by Jesuits is not violently brutal, but definitely limiting, and so usually has the effect of making one compliant or rebellious. As a Glob from a model minority family, I was expected to be compliant and uncomplaining, which I was, for the most part. But fortunately--the good--it planted the seeds for rebellion and festered within me until the most opportune moment: a part time job. "Huh? How can a part time job trigger rebellion?" Well, for a Glob from a very narrow world, getting a part-time job, meeting new and completely different people--including girls--was quite an experience. I should mention that I was kind of a dork up until then--maybe I still am--but the opportunity to meet people who had no preconceived idea as to my lot in life--or simply put, what a dork I was--was a relief, refreshing and even exciting. Here I was, with a brand new slate, ready to fill in whatever was necessary to create a new me: Anti-Glob, the embryo that was to grow into Onigiriman.

Well, as a new Anti-Glob I had to do what all the other anti-Globs were doing: hang out, smoke cigs, drink scotch, go to dances, talk to girls, and of course, NEVER study. "Wow, is this what everyone else does?" I was enraptured with this new, cool lifestyle....

Yes, it was a new, cool lifestyle, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I worked part-time at a Manju shop in LA's J-Town--officially known as Lil' Tokyo. It's there I first began learned to speak Japanese. I had heard it most of my life and even "studied" it in elementary school, but I never really understood it until I worked at the sweet shop, where both the full-time workers and the majority of the customers spoke nothing but Japanese. The first few weeks were a fiasco.

A customer would walk in, look at the sweets in the showcase, and say, "Eeto, kore to kore to kore wo kudasai." Give me this and this and this.With a face that begged for understanding, I stumbled over my own tongue as I tried to fulfill his request using my index finger.

"Uh, kore, ichi? Um, kore, ichi? Er, kore, ni?" Uh, this, one? Um, this, one? Er, this, two?

Whew! Fortunately for me, I understood more than I could speak and the owner did not fire me.

Even more fortunate, however was the weekend. I worked 5 to 10 on Friday and Saturdays and 5 to 8 on Sundays. I guess the hours weren't so fortunate. I was puzzled why the store was open so late. I mean, who would buy manju at 9pm? Well, J-Town was the place where many JAs gathered, especially on weekends, when they came to do their weekly shopping of Japanese goods. At night, however, it was the men who came to town to spend there money. First, there was Frank's pool hall in the basement of the Taul Building on the corner of 1st and San Pedro. It looked incredibly seedy... no, I take that back, it WAS incredibly seedy, with old men and young toughs shooting pool with cigarettes hanging out of there mouths at 45 degree angles. Weenies like me, who couldn't shoot straight, had to play short games, like nine-ball, so we could actually finish a game in decent time. But the regulars played straight pool, calling out numbers, "13 in the corner", then slide over the beads strung around the tables with each shot made. To these 17 year-old eyes, it was so cool to see these guys shooting for the money they had splayed on the table before each game. I would suck on a Coke as I watched the regulars play rack after rack of pool.

But pool wasn't the main form of entertainment then. What everyone did was drink and bullshit of hours. There were a number of places. Some of the tonier people would go to the bar in the Horikawa Restaurant for wine or Chivas Regal. The hard core drinkers went to a couple of the nameless bars on the north side 1st St. But the real action as at Eigiku Restaurant, where there was a form of entertainment that preceded karaoke: Namaoke, or a piano bar where the customers sat around and sang all night. My elder senpais would go and sit for hours.

"Hey, Ray, lets get a drink."

"Uh, I'm only 17," I would confess.

"Whatchu worried about, man. You with us. No one's gonna ask." And they were right, the confession was needless.

Well, all these men who went to shoot pool and drink for hours, had to go home to wives. But they couldn't go home empty handed. They had to take an omiage to appease the missus. So there actually was a demand for manju--or sushi--at 9 in the evening on weekends. These men, often slurring there words, would come in to purchase their peace offerings, as I struggled to complete there orders, all the while secretly wishing they would hurry up so I could close the store and go out.So the weekend hours were not ideal for a young, eager man like me, the presence of my weekend co-workers alleviated the situation: they were all girls from Roosevelt High School, a public high school... ooooh... lucky me. Why? Because all the hot girls who spoke Japanese worked in J-Town. And I got to chat with--and even stand next to--them... m(>_<)m. Of course, this was just my perception, which was actually blown out of proportion, because I was coming from a cloistered life in parochial school. I mean, for me--a dork--any girl was like a gift from God.

"Oh, thank you God, for giving me this opportunity before I die...."

Well, maybe I wasn't that hard up, but it was close....

Besides, I was soon to find out that Eastside girls looked hot, but Westside girls WERE hot. My metamorphoses began one New Years season, Shogatsu. In the sweet shop business, this period began the day after Christmas as everyone began to buy there stock of mochi, the rice cakes everyone eats on January 1....

I was hanging out with a new acquaintance who helped out during the Shogatsu rush. Dave (not his real name) was thinking of starting a band and he had a set of drums. I had a piano, and so he suggested we "jam". Well, I had pretended to be a musician, playing at church and boy scout functions ever so rarely--like once or twice. But of course, I had to say, "Uh, yeah, let's rock." How corny...

Well, one thing led to another and, voila, I was in a band. We were, to be sure, small time and very short lived, lasting nine months--three to get ready, and six to play gigs--in 1973. We played at Asian dances--dances sponsored by and advertised to Asians, mostly Japanese Americans. They were held at places like Roger Young's Auditorium, the Elks Club and miscellaneous restaurants. These dances were the places for the "in-crowd", to see and be seen, where guys came to show off their Camaros, Road Runners or Porches, where an Anti-glob could get an illegal drink without the help of "older" friends. I occasionally saw my high school classmates, which was cool, because it shocked them to see me in this kind of environment. But this was rare, which was also fine, for this meant there was a lesser chance of other finding out what a Glob I was.

This is where I also got my first real lesson in the demographics of JA women in LA. Before our band began playing at these dances, we would go out to scout what the other bands were playing. Bands with a brass section played songs like "You're Still a Young Man" by Tower of Power or "Beginnings" by Chicago. Brass-less groups played standard tunes that were so boring I can't even remember what they were. Of course, on these scouting trips, I was pretty incognito. Not a band member, just another Asian face in a sea of Asian faces. I hung with the other band members and met their group of friends, and soon learned the difference between Eastside and Westside. The Eastside chicks were hot looking, but the Westside girls were just plain hot. They could dance. They could talk. And they would NEVER tease. Eastsiders would act as though they were interested in you, but they'd be looking over your shoulder or at their watch waiting for something better to happen--which usually wasn't a long wait if they were talking to me. But Westsiders, what you saw was what you got. If they liked you, you were good to go. If they didn't, they let you know right from the start where you stood. It was easier and cooler to talk to Westside girls, because they didn't give you the business. It really was straight, and easy to handle, for a Glob like me.

But things changed when our band started getting gigs. At a dance, Eastside girls appeared out of nowhere:

"Aren't you in the band? Ooh, I like the way you played guitar."

"Uh, I'm on keyboard." I would try so hard not to roll my eyes. I mean, they WERE cute.

"Yeah, I know! You guys are so good. I really liked the first song you played. I just heard it for the first time on the radio yesterday. How did you guys learn it so fast?"

"'Free Ride'? By Edgar Winters? Well, we try to keep our fingertips on the pulse of music trends." (I still can't believe I used to say shit like that...) But as I would say this, I looked over her shoulder for something better to happen, because I knew what was coming next.

"Really? No one plays that song at dances. You guys are so good. Uh, I'm Kathy, do you think you could get me and my friends in free at your next gig?"

Yes, dear, even we had groupies.

Alas, fame was fleeting. We got top billing at an Asian dance once, when the other top Japanese/Asian bands--Free Flight, Heavy Nations, We the People--had the flu or something. Our fifteen minutes lasted from midsummer to the end of the year and then we broke up. But not before I got to meet a lot of people who were not Globs, who taught me to smoke, and drink, and partake in other pharmaceutically unsafe activities. But most importantly, they taught me that I didn't have to be compliant, that I could complain if I wanted to, that I could be what I wanted to be, that I didn't have to meet the expectations set by someone else. The downside, of course, was that this was all happening when I was a junior in high school, a Jesuit high school at that. I would be hung-over or exhausted from lack of sleep from band practice, and I would ditch school. On days I felt fine, I didn't want to waste it at school. Better to go to the mall or to the beach. Fortunately for me, I had myself a Westside girlfriend, Aileen (not her real name), whose handwriting was exactly the same as my mother's. What a break. As far as the school was concerned, I was suffering from some sort of incurable malady. And in a way, I was: self-discovery. But while I didn't get into trouble for my attendance, my grades suffered severely. I can't remember getting a single grade higher than a D+ in any of my courses. Of course, if you miss more than a third of school, it's not surprising.

But even after the band broke up, I still had my friends and we still hung out together. I never reverted to a Glob. In my senior year, my grades went up just enough to graduate, third from the bottom, with an overall GPA of 2.1. I was definitely not university material. While all my classmates applied and got into major universities, I was stuck in limbo.But that was okay. I didn't have to meet anyone's expectation except my own. And I decided to bum around. This is when my mother intervened and said: "Go to Japan"....

Working at the J-Town sweet shop, my Japanese language ability had improved steadily. It opened a whole new world to me. Going to Eigiku with Mitchan (his real nick-name), I slowly began to comprehend the Japanese world that was swirling around me. He thinks she's cute. She thinks he's sukebe (horny). Wages were too low. The microphone was too loud. Do you wanna sing?

"Me? Uh, no thanks. I don't know any of the songs..."

But regardless of my unwillingness to partake in singing at a piano bar, my interest in things Japanese grew significantly.

"Hey, Ray," said a worker at the sweet shop. "Why don't you go to Japan? Lots of beppin there."

Beppin, a colloquial term for beauty, immediately caught my attention. While playing in the band and partying into the wee hours, I had learned, among other things, why God created women. So when my mother arranged for me to go to Japan to stay with my grandmother in her Tokyo mansion, I was excited. It was my mother's intention to give me time and space to think about my future--have I ever mentioned that I really loved my mom?--but little did she know that that was the reason she didn't have to tell me twice to pack my bags.

I arrived at Haneda Airport in Tokyo to a deluge of Japanese faces. Man, will you look at this? I look like everyone else here. Confident in the Japanese ability I developed at the sweet shop, I made my way through immigration, dealt with the agricultural control agent--who promptly cut the only twine that held together the case of four honey dew melons my grandmother insisted I bring--and passed customs after having my suitcase thoroughly searched for contraband, I entered the main lobby and searched through the dizzying crowd, finally hearing my name being called by my grandparents. My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Hiroshima and was an atom bomb victim, as was my mother. My grandfather--my grandmother's second husband--was an executive for JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization. He had lived many years overseas in countries such as Iran, Australia and Switzerland, and spoke English very well. As we traveled to Suginami-ku by taxi, I conversed with them eager to show-off my Japanese. They seemed pleased enough, and I was excited to see my room in this new mansion they had bought near Nishi-Ogikubo station on the Chuo line. The car stopped in front of a white, non-descript structure that looked more like an apartment than a mansion.

"We're here," my grandfather said as he paid the driver.

Puzzled, I lugged my suitcase and the honey dew up to the third-floor of this elevator-less building. Entering in the small entrance, we took off our shoes and they directed me to a room where I was to leave my suitcase. It was, to me, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. "This is where you'll sleep," my grandmother told me. "And, this is where we sleep," she continued, pointing to the only other room with a small TV in it.

"Is this where you live? Mom told me you bought a mansion."

I found myself in a situation that exposed my inability to grasp the cultural abyss between Japan and the US. All my life, I thought I was Japanese. In 1970, when the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! came out, My friends and I--about twenty of us--went to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood with the intention of cheering the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. My friend brought his large Japanese navy flag and we ran around the theater waving it. Every time a Japanese bomb hit a U.S. battleship, we cheered. And with each cheer came hisses from the other people in the audience, some yelling to pipe down, but not much more when they realized what a big single group we were. It was, to be sure, childish, unproductive, and insensitive to the many who lost their lives in this war, but for a bunch of JA teenagers, it gave us a sense of pride. Images of buck-tooth Japs being drubbed by the likes of John Wayne were nowhere to be seen, and we felt empowered.

But now, in the fall of 1974, four months after I graduated high school, I was beginning to realize that maybe, I wasn't Japanese. Indeed, my first visit to Japan made it all too clear to me that I wasn't Japanese even in the eyes of the Japanese. I may have looked Japanese, but once anyone found out I was American, they treated me differently. Sometimes rudely, sometimes nicely, but always differently. I didn't think Japanese, and as it was pointed out to me by many, I couldn't speak Japanese either, at least not to their standard. And girls! Where were the girls? There were a lot of cute girls, but I was totally out of my element. I had a lot of time on my hands, but with no money and little knowledge of my surroundings, I was totally lost. I had hoped my second cousin, who was half a year older than me and a college student at Waseda, would help me out, but he was square. I mean four ninety-degree-angles square. Besides, I got the impression he didn't want to have anything to do with me, a borderline high school drop-out.

I ultimately spent four months in Japan getting acquainted with the many relatives I never knew, and returned to the U.S. with a whole new set of questions... Who am I? What am I? Where do I belong? I went to Japan thinking I was Japanese, but learned that I wasn't. I knew that in the U.S. I was not totally accepted or treated as an American either. So where do I belong? For the time being, no one could take away my birth place, and my passport said I was an American citizen, so I had to deal with my inner conflicts in LA, and go from there...

After my return from Japan, I had much to think about. How do I address this new realization that I am NOT JAPANESE. Looking back at this time with the clarity of years of experience, it was foolish of me to even think I was Japanese: I wasn't born there, I had never lived there, I didn't know the language as well as I thought I did, and my understanding of Japanese culture was anachronistic, a vestige of the Meiji/Taisho (late 19th/early 20th cen.) period. But in the winter and early spring of 1975, I did not have the benefit of hindsight, so I did what any confused 19 year-old would do: A little of this, a little of that, and a lot of bumming around...

As I sit here and try to recall the years between 1975 and 1980, I realize that they are not very clear in my mind. Many memories and the order in which they occurred before this five year period are stored in my mind in a clear and coherent fashion. My first major scolding: When I was 4, I managed to open a can of paint and proceeded to redo my red fire engine and my sisters bicycle; I was sent to my room where I think I threw everything I could get my hands on at the door in frustration... My first taste of scotch: 5 years old in our old house in East LA, given to me by my Uncle Frank, "Try it. It's adult apple juice"... The first time I realized that I might truly be different: The father of a friend down the block, Ricky Santa Maria (real name), used to call me tomodach, and I thought he was cursing me... Other times when I knew I was truly different: Getting beat up by local toughs when my friends and I at 12 rode our bikes past Belvedere Park on our way to the Library because we were japs and gooks and chinks (they couldn't make up their minds)... The first time I held hands: At Knott's Berry Farms on a field trip in 8th grade with a girl who today would probably even deny she knows me... My first cigarette: In the back yard, behind the garage at 14, with my mom's lighter and Kent's... My first real part-time job: At the sweet shop at 17, going downstairs with a girl two years my senior, who took me downstairs to get me an apron and had me carry up a case of boxes--it was my first serious crush... I remember all these events and the sequencing with a high degree of clarity...

Yet, the five-year period from the age 19 to 24 are blurred, jumbled together. I recall isolated incidents, miscellaneous dates, different jobs intertwined with each other. Perhaps all these are just proof of how really confused--if not just simply screwed up--I was. As I continue to log portions of my life on this public forum, it occurs to me that I am not here to provide fiction. Many write about current relationships (I argued with my boyfriend, I hate my boss, I love my dog) or about current incidents (I went to school, I saw a movie) or about dreams and goals (I wanna go to Japan, I want to meet the perfect guy or girl). Me, I am writing something that is just as personal--perhaps even more so, since it is something that has been a part of my life for that last 40+ years: my memories. It is something that I cherish and relive in my mind from time to time when I can't go to sleep, or when I'm sitting in the train exhausted, or when I'm feeling frustrated at work, or when I'm just feeling sad with a glass of scotch in my hand... So it really bothers me that I can't articulate this five year period coherently. I don't want to make anything up, so I've even gone back to look at old records and photos to see if they might jog my memory, but no luck. So I will instead provide a basic timeline and relate isolated incidents that I remember that might prove to be salient to this selected record of my life...

Back in LA, I did very little. I went back the sweet shop, but their new hire was competent and I worked only on the weekends. While all my high school buddies were going to universities, I led an aimless existence Monday through Friday. I wasn't sure what to do, and I still struggled to understand where I fit in the greater scheme of things: am I Japanese, or Japanese-American, or American? Compounding to my confusion was the absence of a parent. When I returned to my home in East L.A., I learned that my mother had decided to leave the house. The marriage between my parents had been strained for a variety of reasons--which I am not prepared to discuss on as a public forum as this--but I will say that she was in many ways frustrated by the limitations life placed on her as a wife and mother... or more specifically, as a Japanese wife and Japanese mother.

As a result, I had very little to do during the days except read a book or watch TV. I never reconnected with my band buddies--we had all sorta went our separate ways--except for one: our female lead singer, BA. She had kept in touch with me while I was in Japan, and we saw each other from time to time after I cam back. By the summer of 1975, we had committed to a relationship. Of course, a relationship, as defined by a 19 year-old with no direction, was a pretty shallow thing. But a relationship it was, and BA was just the person for me. She could sing, she could play the piano, she was a cute Westsider, she was an honor student, and went to the other major university in LA (UCLA, of course, being the premier post-secondary school in the city). She had looks and brains. She was kind and generous and thoughtful, and she could cook... Far too good for the likes of me... but she was mine.

Thanks to BA, I had a sense of where I wanted to go. The stability of her presence--her outlook, her attitude--gave me a sense of direction: Go to school, get a "regular" part-time job, and none of this J-Town, coolie-wages gig... Yes, BA was not into the JA scene. She became singer of our JA band almost by accident, through the introduction of a casual friend. She knew no Japanese, and little about its customs and history. I wouldn't mark her as a "banana"--yellow on the outside, white on the inside (Marja tells me that it's "Twinkie" now, but it would seem to me like the skin is too thick)--but she showed little interest in JA issues and things Japanese in general. But actually, we were a pretty good match. I introduced her to a few things Japanese which she liked, and she showed me how JAs coped in the "real" world, outside the insulated environment of J-Town. I went back to school--a local community college, because my grades in high school prevented me from matriculating into a four-year institute. I also got another job, working at a major bank--the one that consolidated with Nations Bank. I felt that I was beginning to understand what it was all about. Being JA was cool, but you had to temper it with a dose of reality. I got along with my fellow workers at the bank--I was the only Asian and that was a completely new experience for me. I could be a bit assertive, casting aside the yoke of the reserved Glob (good little oriental boy). There was a trade off, of course. There was no more running through theaters waving a Japanese flag. But that was okay. I felt like I could cope in this world now.

It sounds so obvious, its ridiculous, but for me and many of my friends it was not so. Going to an all Japanese American elementary school and church. Shopping and working in J-Town, where virtually every worker and certainly most visitors were of Japanese descent. Hanging out and going to dances where practically everyone I associated with was Japanese American. It was a comfortable world, a world where Chuckles the Clown would never invade. But it was also an isolated world, one where I would never grow up.

I owed a lot to BA. She was the best thing that could happen to me at a time when my family situation was rocky, and she and her family accepted me with open arms. But of course, young men at 19-20 years of age are boast a psychological age of a 13-year-old, or at least I did. After about 14 months, we broke up because I was selfish, narrow-minded and just plain stupid... and did what I had to do... find another girl...

Hindsight is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it allows you to see past mistakes in the context of subsequent--sometimes painful, hopefully, better--experience. The curse is that your selfishness, narrow mindedness, and stupidity stands out in relief, and has the potential to haunt you for an extended period of time. Looking back now, I think the main reason I broke up with BA was because she just wasn't "Japanese" enough. I had been going through an identity crisis of sorts, and I could not give up the notion that I was tied, in some shape or form, to "being Japanese."

After breaking up with BA, I sought--I suppose subconsciously--the other extreme, and found MM, a girl who was from Japan, whose English had not yet fully developed. She was a senior in high school and relatively cute, and in many ways, very Japanese. But--as I was to learn--perhaps too Japanese. I don't want to generalize and offend anyone, but at the time, MM seemed like the typical Japanese girl: spoiled and dependent. One Sunday afternoon in 1976, we spent strolling along the Redondo Beach pier.

"Oh look, cotton candy! How nostalgic! How nice..." "Want some?" I asked. "Sure!"

I got her the cotton candy and she started eating small bites of it when all of a sudden, she noticed apples dipped in red dye 39, lined up in short rows upside down...

"What's that?" "That's candied apple. I used to crave these when I was a kid." "Really? I want to try some too." "Uh, what about the cotton candy?" "This? It's too sweet anyway."

She handed me the cotton candy and told the guy at the counter she wanted one. The stick of the apple securely in hand, she headed down the pier again. The guy eyed me with a "She's with you, right?" look, and held his palm out.

I jog to catch up with her only to find her grimacing. Now what?

"This is too sweet. How could you have craved something like this?" "........." "I don't want this anymore." "You want the cotton candy then?" I asked hopefully. "No, I need something to get all this sweet taste out of my mouth."

She promptly dumped the candied apple into a trash can already overflowing with the wasted food other children had thrown away...


I had this image of a Biafra poster in my mind, but it was too difficult equate confections with food staples...

As I have learned, subsequently, her actions are not necessarily spoiled, but they reflect what Takeo Doi revealed in his book, An Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kōzō). Perhaps, had I read Doi's book first, I would have understood her behavior and accepted it... or maybe never have dated her in the first place. It's hard to say...

MM exhibited what I now recognize as amae 甘え, the Japanese trait that permeates the very fabric of many males and females in Japan. In a broad sense, it deals--as I see it--with two major issues: emotional dependency and security. A child receives unconditional love from a parent--primarily the mother; in return, the child offers complete loyalty to the parent. This act is often taken to the extreme when the child acts as selfishly as he or she wants. This in turn develops into a relationship of dependence: a child relies on a mother for everything--understanding, ; the child can act in any manner s/he wants, fully aware that the mother will always provide love, understanding, and security--have you ever seen a 5 year-old in a supermarket screaming for something--買って買って (buy it, buy it)--and the mother NEVER getting angry or even embarrassed? This relationship beginnings in infancy when a child sleeps nestled against mother who is willing to nurse the child at any moment. This turns into joint bathing, and whenever the child needs love and attention, carrying it in front (dakko) or piggy-back (onbu).

The single element common to all these behaviors is the physical contact between mother and child. I don't mean to suggest that there is an incestuous relationship--although some people suggest it, including a TV show from a few years back called 誰にも言えない (I can't tell anyone). The physical closeness is regarded as such a crucial element in the development of a strong parent-child relationship, that it even has a pseudo-English term, "skinship".

This relationship is neither good nor bad, it is simply the Japanese way of things. Many open-minded people in the West who subscribe to ideals of independence and self-reliance may find this strange, if not unhealthy... Indeed, I've heard of a story where a white female American gained custody of a child during a divorce because the Japanese father had taken baths with their daughter when she was a young child. The wife understood the Japanese practice, but used it to appeal to the court's western sense of "morality" vis-à-vis this case. In the Japanese mind, there is no sense of immorality. Indeed, public nudity with the same sex is not a major concern. Although many may exhibit varying degrees of modesty, nudity at public baths and hot springs is not viewed as abnormal. But still, it is linked to a sense of vulnerability, and so being naked with others fosters a sense of trust. Being naked with a parent--not the same sex, but perhaps more importantly, the same family--nurtures a similar sense of trust.

I'm no sociologist, so I should not go any deeper into this very complex Japanese trait. But I should say that I had a Japanese mother, and as such I too was a participant in this practice. My loyalty to my mother was total, and the amae I indulged in--the belief that my mother offered unconditional love and support--was, according to Musubi-chan, manifest... Which bring me back to MM. She seemed to manifest this desire to amae, to indulge in my unconditional love and support of her. Little did she realize that I was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to offer it... Am I being too honest, or what!?!

MM manifested a characteristic I was not familiar with... at least not on the giving end, which exposes me now as a selfish, self-centered brat. And I was, so I did what any selfish, self-centered brat would do, I broke it off... again. And I was so cool... uh, I mean, so uncool about it. I created a situation in which it made it seem like she was at fault... It was kind of a three-strikes-and-you're-out deal, and I made sure that the strikes were acts she was bound to perform: lies... Not that I have never told a lie, but she had a way of straying from the truth, much like children do when they don't want to be caught... Anyway, she ended up being too Japanese for me, and we did not last very long. Actually, she didn't last very long, for I had another already prepped.

Okay, before you go and judge me as a jerk, please note that I am already fully aware of that fact. Indeed, I was even aware of it back then, but it didn't stop me. I was young and rarin' to go. I won't bore you with the details, 'cuz the point of this story is to convey the idea that I had not lived my life like the Glob--good little oriental boy--I was supposed to be. I did things the way I wanted, and I was very selfish at that...

But I was also trying to find myself within my JA skin. I went back and forth with different girls: YI was from Japan but spent many years in NY and seemed pretty close to ideal, if not for her parents--she was the daughter of a shōsha-man (businessman in a large Japanese multinational corporation)--and they kept us apart very successfully. (Actually, I've always thought that they were pretty perceptive.) CN was a JA who was born in Japan but came to LA at a young age. Her Japanese was good, but her attitude toward life was similar to mine: defy the stereotype. We liked to dance, drink, sex, all party all the time. But I think we were too much alike and we basically got bored of each other.

I soon quit the bank job and school--again--to work full time at the sweet shop in 1978. I had been promoted to plant manager at the tender age of 22, and became a "semi" big-shot in J-Town. It was pretty much a joke, as I think back about it now. A 22 year-old punk planning and managing the plant that supplied sweets for three retail stores and a wholesale market for Japanese confections. I am embarrassed to discuss the details of the job, because I did so poorly, but my social life was active. Unfortunately it mostly involved drinking and drinking and more drinking. In fact, I had turned into an alcoholic. I can't believe some of the things I did. I went to my favorite bar with my buddies from J-Town 8 days a week. I drank Cutty and water, 6-8 double shots a night. I'd flirt with every girl in the bar--many were not so cute, but then, as I was gaining weight from all this drinking, I was no beauty either... After a couple of scuffles in the bar and blow outs at home--my mother had returned by then--I came to the realization that I was out of control. At first, I thought it was cool hangin' with my JA buds, being JA, talking Japanese, being cool. But this "cool" was not worth my sanity, my self-respect, my future, my life...

During this two-year "lost weekend", I met JI who was a tamer version of CN, and I thought it would work. By the end of summer 1979, I had removed myself from the manager's position, and decided to go back to school to see if I could still do something with my life. I came to realize that J-Town was not in my future, that being JA didn't necessarily mean that I had to associate with this particular segment of society. JI was a remnant of this J-Town legacy and she didn't seem to fit into the scheme of things, socially, intellectually... Intellectually? What a ridiculous notion. When the hell did that enter into the equation?

Well, actually, I can't tell you the exact date, but it was a process that began when I entered a singing contest in J-Town... and won...

In the summer of 1979, I was still hanging with my J-Town buddies at the bar we always went to in Monterey Park. There was a singing contest sponsored by Suntory held in J-Town, and the producers--a small, local Japanese TV production company--went to all the local piano bars--there was no Karaoke back in the day--to hold tryouts for the "Second Suntory Kayōkyoku Butsuke Honban Grand Champion Taikai" At the bar I frequented, Sanchō, I was considered--at the risk of sounding immodest--one of the better singers. When the tryouts were held at our hangout, I sang a song by Azusa Michiyo called "Futari de osake wo". The producers chose only two from each establishment they visited and I was not one of them. My buddies and even the owner of the bar were surprised.

"They should have chosen you," said James through his cigar.

"Yeah, who's that guy anyway? He's usually drinking at Eigiku. What's he doing here?" Tom stared at the intruder.

The owner, of course, was all business. After talking to the producers and congratulating the contestants for the contest. She came back to the bar where all the regulars sat. "Apparently, they had more than two singers at Eigiku that they want to compete, so they distributed them to other bars so they can eventually be chosen as contestants... at the expense of one 'legitimate' patron," she explained, looking at me sympathetically.

With my chin resting in my left palm, all I could do was stare at the cutty and water I stirred aimlessly with a swizzle stick. I was not especially surprised, but I was depressed.

"What am I doing here?" a recurring question in my life.

A bit bummed out, I began the process of reorganizing my life. One of the things I specifically pegged as a major problem to fix was my drinking. I had been drinking scotch and water everyday and I found myself uneasy, jittery when I didn't have a drink. I was also dissatisfied with the way my life was developing, the direction in which it was headed. So I forced myself to take stock, to figure out what I should do to resolve these issues. I concluded that life in a JA only world was to small, confining. Everyone knew each other, and everything you did and said was open to scrutiny... and gossip.

"Did you see Marumaru-san last night? He was so drunk."

"Yeah, I heard he went home with the girl from XYZ..."

"Her? That girl went to the doctor the other day because she's been sleeping around and caught something, y'know..."

"Well, if Marumaru-san catches something, he better not give it to his wife."

"Won't happen. I heard they sleep in different beds now..."

"Did you hear about Kanzaki?"

"Yeah, he got the shaft, but maybe he wasn't that good anyway."

"Maybe. Even if he was chosen second, its obvious that he wasn't as good as the other Sanchō singer..."

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And these were guys! Helping to manage a business was pressure enough, but to have your private life hung out like dirty laundry was beyond the pale. Recalling my time with BA, I decided to step away from this JA/J-Town life and the first step was to quit my job as manager of the sweet shop factory--not that I was any good at it anyway. This would lessen the number of times I came in contact with my J-Town "buddies", reduce undue stress, and allow me to clear my head. I have often wondered if I was running away, just because I wasn't chosen to participate in the contest... and I guess, in a way, it was. But there are times when you need to escape, need to retreat, to back up to a previous fork in the road and see where the other road takes you. Life does not always afford this luxury, but when it does I felt that I should take advantage of it. I stayed home, and thought about reapplying myself academically by going back to the local community college again. This was my start, as mundane as it was, going through the ELAC course catalog to figure out what classes I would take for the Fall semester, when I got a phone call.

"Hey! Whatcha doin'? We haven't seen you in a while! Why don't you come by Sanchōs anymore?" asked James.

"Uh, well," reaching desperately within myself to find an excuse. "I've been kinda busy."

"Man, you quit the sweetshop, and you don't come to Sanchō. We thought you committed suicide. Hehe..."


"Anyway," James continued, "T asked me to call you to tell you to come by. She has something important to tell you."

"I'm kinda busy, figuring out my future..."

"Well, T thinks this will affect your future, too."

"I doubt it."

"No really. The first round's on me."

"Make it the first three." I figured I may as well make him pay for pulling me away from my deliberations.

"We'll be waiting."

I get in my car--did I mention its a midnight blue '73 Chevy Camaro?--and drive the five minutes it takes for me to get there. I walk into the dark bar on this late-afternoon Sunday. The restaurant didn't open until 6, but James an T are sitting at the bar, as the employees run around getting ready for business.

"N-san is on a business trip and can't make it to the contest. I want you to represent the restaurant," T said matter-of-factly.

"Huh? What happened?"

"The TV people were going to replace N-san with someone else, but I told them the replacement had to come from this establishment. And I want you."

"Really." I said, not knowing what else to say. It took a few minutes before what she said actually sunk in. "So what am I supposed to do?"

"Practice," T replied.

And I did. Every night for two weeks. The pianist at the bar, K, suggested I forget "Futari de osake wo" and sing another Asuza Michiyo song called "Melancholy." I didn't know the song and was hesitant at first, but relented after she convinced me that a newer song sung by fewer people at piano bars would have a greater impact. I had to admit that "Futari" was a popular--and hence, tired--song at piano bars. But this also meant that I had to memorize the lyrics of a song a barely knew...

On the night of the contest, I was nervous as heck. I went to the contest with my sister, two high-school friends and one drinking buddy. My parents were somewhere in the Grand Canyon--"Do you think you really have a chance?" my dad chortled as he left the day before. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see my uncle and two aunts there in the audience, as well as two ladies from the retail shop of the sweet shop.

The contest was held in the hall of Koyasan Temple in the middle of J-Town. When I got there, I found out I was 29 out of 32 contestants. My friends and sister entered the hall and I went backstage to wait my turn. The first few singers were pretty good, nothing spectacular, but passable. The thing that got me though was the fact that each contestant was on stage for a long time. It took thirty minutes to get through the first 4 to 5 singers, meaning it would take another hour and a half before I was called on stage. Nervous to begin with, the waiting made me all the more so. I went out the side door and headed toward a local sushi bar in Japanese Village Plaza. It had a small service bar where maybe four people could sit. Jim, the bartender, served me a couple of Cuttys as I played the lyrics in my head over and over.

Mickey CurtisAfter three belts, I returned to Koyasan Hall, no less nervous, but perhaps a bit braver. I went on stage on cue and sang "Melancholy". I'm not sure if my experience with the band had anything to do with it, but once on stage I sang and walked around and always kept my eye on the audience, looking at the judges--which included Mickey Curtis, (fading) star of film and music--looking toward the back of the hall, to the sides, trying to make eye contact, even though I couldn't see anyone beyond the second row. It was like old times, sorta. I wasn't sitting at the piano, but I was center stage... What a ham, my friends would tell me later, but at that moment, I was totally relaxed and confident.

After the requisite interview--Yes, I'm sansei. Yes, I work at the M sweet shop where I learned Japanese--I went off stage. I found one of the producers who informed me that after the last contestant, the judges will deliberate for a while and then they will announce the winner. I stepped outside to grab a smoke and found some my friends out there, including JI. She told me that she thought I would win. The people she was with said the same thing. They thought I had a stage presence that the others lacked--yeah, Ray, you looked like you've been there before.

I became nervous all over again, but with a different sense of anticipation. Did I sing that well? Did I nail it?

They announced that the judges had made their decision and we were to gather on stage. With great anticipation, I waited eagerly as they announced the names of the winners in reverse order. 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd...

"And 1st place goes to Sam F."

I was at a loss. I mean, I felt pretty good on stage, but everyone else also said I performed so well. Shit! I didn't even place in the top five. I should have known better. I should have just ignored all these idiots and focused on selecting the proper courses to take at the community college. I mean, seriously, what am I doing here?!?

Photographic Evidence Yes, that's me in the center. Is this not the face of someone who is completely surprised?!?

I looked around the stage. Which is the fastest way off. I'm sure there's an exit behind that curtain... When suddenly everyone applauds and cheers. I hear my name and some one grabs my arm and pulls me to the front. What's happening?

"....plause for this year's Grand Champion, Ray Kanzaki, who sang...."

I was stunned. I thought I lost and was looking for a way off the stage. It never occurred to me that Grand Champion did not equal first place? What? Oh, yeah, the prize.

"...a round trip ticket to Tokyo, Japan..."

Will someone please pinch me?

Well, I learned that the prize wasn't all that great. I first had visions of grandeur. The Suntory Corporation would pick me up in a limousine at the airport and whisk me away to a posh Akasaka hotel. The reality was much different.

The ticket to Japan turned out to be a one-year open round trip ticket from LA to Tokyo on China Airline. Further, the only connection the sponsor, Suntory, had with the contest was providing money for the low-budget plane ticket. Indeed, the Suntory name was supplied by the local Suntory office, and the Tokyo headquarter had nothing to do with it and knew nothing of this contest. So all dreams of being "discovered" went up in smoke. As I think of it now, I was pretty naive.

But still, I got a free trip to Japan, so I wasn't complaining too loudly. I decided to go in my favorite season, Fall, and left LA around the beginning of October. In Japan, I stayed at my grandparents condo again in Nishi-Ogikubo, but they were not living there. My grandfather was sent to Australia by his trading organization for a few years, but they had my cousin Alvin--who was by then a Waseda student, and still reminded me of a chipmunk--house-sit the place while they were gone. So I had a room to myself, little of my grandparents house-cluttering items, and a cousin who usually spent time at school and with his friends, so I could spend my time as I pleased.

For a week, I puttered around local areas, going to Shinjuku a couple times to get my self oriented to Tokyo, again. I also went to visit my relatives in the boondocks of Fukushima for a week or so. It was kinda embarrassing. I told them that the contest was no big deal, that Suntory was only lending its name and had no real interest in the contest or its winner, but they would have no part in it. One look at the photo, and they figured they had a bona fide star in the making... or something. My cousin--Issei on my dad's side--got all the relatives and a couple of the local council members who were friends to come over for a party to celebrate my winning the contest. My family on that side will use any reason to hold a party. I wanted me to sing the song I won with, and Akio, my dad's cousin, searched the entire village for a karaoke tape of the song--Karaoke was in its infancy back then--but he couldn't find one, so I ended up singing at the party a cappella...

One thing I wanted to do while I was in Japan was meet up with YI, the girl I went out with for a few weeks after MM...

One thing I wanted to do while I was in Japan was me up with YI, the girl I went out with for a few weeks after MM. She was pretty cute and smart and spoke Japanese. Sorta like BA with Japanese and English skills. The only reason why we broke up was because at the time 1976 she was a senior in high school (18) and I was 21. Her parents were not amused. Anyway, I went to see her but she was out with her friends--stupid me, I didn't call before I stopped by--and left with her mother the omiyage I brought for her. Her parents' condo was near ICU, where she went, and I decided to visit the campus--who knows, I thought naively, maybe I'll run into her. Well, you've probably guessed that I ended up strolling the campus by myself, seeing a whole lot of nothing. I decided to head back to Nishi-Ogikubo and hopped on the bus back to Mitaka Station. As I gazed out the window, wondering if I would ever see YI again, some called out to me in English.

"Ray? Is that you?" "JU? What are you doing here?" "I'm a ryûgakusei. From UCLA" "Man, I haven't seen you since when? Boy scouts? Karate?" "About six years, I guess, huh." "Man, no shit." Kinda lonely about not being able to see YI, I thought it would be fun to hang with JU, who was a couple of years younger than me. He was in the same patrol--the Firebirds--in our Boy Scout troop and we also took Shotokan Karate together at our church. "So what you doing now? Got a date? Going to work?" "No, I was just going to go to the station and do some shopping." "Screw that. Let's go to Shinjuku and get a drink. My treat." "Yeah, okay."

Well, we went to Shinjuku, and found a small dive outside Nishiguchi west of the station on the main thoroughfare Omekaidô. We ate lightly but imbibed rather heavily in o-sake. I think we finished more than a bottle (one bottle = 1.8 liters)... I think. I don't really remember much after reaching the bottom of the first bottle. What I do recall is paying 18,000 yen--pretty hefty for 24 years ago--and helping my friend throw up onto the tracks from the platform of the Chuo line. I sorta recall being warned by someone to take care of him as he seemed pretty bad off. I was pretty drunk, but I guess I can "appear" more sober... Anyway, I couldn't send him back to school in this condition, so I brought him home... much to the displeasure of my cousin. Hahaha. He was really put out. Alvin is a really square dude; naive as naive gets--even in Tokyo--and he couldn't wait to call Australia to report to my grandparents. All i could do was put my friend in a futon and let him sleep it off. Next morning, I wake up to find my cousin gone to school. I wake up with JU and he's still groggy as hell, but he insisted that he had to go back to school, so I went with him as far as Mitaka Station to make sure he got on the right bus.

It was November 5, 1979. I remember the date rather distinctly. I returned home with with a headache and a woozy stomach. I laid down on top of the futon and turned on the TV, hoping the static of Japanese would lull me to sleep. News. Some kind of turmoil in some unnamed third-world country. I couldn't really tell, because while my Japanese was passable for everyday conversation, I still had problems with the more sophisticated language of news. I changed the channel and recognized the same footage. Damn, I need some stupid daytime drama to put me to sleep. I click a again and its still the news. What's going on? Something pretty big must have happened, so I tried to focus and understand what the newscaster was saying. Iran, American taishikan? That's "embassy", right. Hitojichi? I look it up in the dictionary: "hostage"... What the...? I wasn't really sure what happened, the newscasters spoke too fast for me in language I was too unfamiliar with. But I got the gist: Some Iranians entered the American embassy in Tehran, Iran and took hostages including marines. Late afternoon, I hurried to Nishi-Ogikubo station to buy the evening paper. I return home and try my best to read the newspaper with a dictionary. I was struggling but I understood more: So-called students stormed the embassy and took marines and embassy personnel hostage. They were crying for the death of the US. I was shocked. And angry. How could they do that to us... "Us"? Did I just say "us"?

I learned two things on this trip. One was the new form of entertainment, karaoke, where one could sing a favorite tune accompanied by music that was pretty close to the original. This was a revelation. This was, to the best of my recollection, the very first time I thought the Japanese were world leaders in "having fun". But, the other thing I learned was more revealing: I was an American.

And that I probably would never see YI again...

Should I finish this story?


A-bomb, Hiroshima and Mom

Originally posted August 6, 2003

Today is the 58th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Every August, this becomes an intense issue for many anti-nuclear groups and opponents. For me, it is just as intense, but for more personal reasons.

My mother is an A-bomb victim--hibakusha in Japanese. That makes me a second generation victim, and the research on how radiation effects second generations is still inconclusive--although a friend has told me that if I'm any indication, the research should lead to illnesses like Peter Pan syndrome. But this is not about me....

My mother--photographed in the early '50s next to Honkawa, a river in Hiroshima (I think the Atomic Dome is visible in the background)--rarely talked about her experience. I had asked her a couple of times, but she would only tell me it was terrible and offered virtually no detail. On my first trip to Japan, I visited my relatives in Hiroshima with her and learned that most victims indeed did not talk about the event... until they were talking to someone who went through the same experience. In my great-aunt's house just northwest of ground zero--the Atomic Dome--she talked very animately with her cousin's husband about their experience. I was mesmerized, and now kick myself in the butt for being so selfish, for not recording their conversation on tape or on paper to share with others. All I can offer you today is my memory--as suspect as it is.

I had interviewed my mother a few times and actually put some of it on audio tape before she passed on last year, but I have yet to transcribe them as it is still too painful even to listen to them. So I will not write about her fateful day--I will do that on some future date relying on her memories. Instead I will jot down some of the insights I have gained through her over the years...

Burns: They were shiny oval areas on her legs. They differed in size, from 4 inches to 6 inches in length. Each had what looked like veins in a leaf: a center vertical vein with several branches sprawling outward from there. I always stared at them and at times tried to run my fingers over them, but every time I tried, she would slap my hand away. These are the remnants of her burns she suffered from the atomic blast. Her burns were severe and promoted keloids--an excessive production of scar tissue. She later explained to me that these keloids would form, then become dead skin that turned black and then peeled away. After a time, as her wounds healed, they stopped forming, but they left these shiny reminders of August 6. Whenever she slapped my hand away, she would just say, "Stop it." But I wonder if it was because it hurt or because she didn't need anyone else to bring attention to her experience. These weren't her only reminders.

Physical Scars: She had an ear--the left one--that looked like a boxer's cauliflower ear. Whenever my siblings and I were horsing around and we accidentally brushed against this ear, she would freeze in pain. Causing the pain were minute shards of glass. They had been embedded inside this cauliflower ear when the windows of her office imploded from the blast. After the blast, she went to a hospital to have them removed, but she was sent away, told that she should count herself among the lucky; patients that demanded "real" care needed their attention first and foremost. My mother just let the wound heal-over as is. Amazingly, she still maintained some--albeit diminished--hearing in this ear.

Psychological scars: Whenever we went outside, particularly when she was driving, my mother wore excessively dark sunglasses. I thought she was just trying to be California cool, but I found out later that there was a reason related to Hiroshima. When she was speaking with her cousin's husband, he mentioned that even today he flinches when he sees a sudden flash of light--a reminder of the flash on August 6. My mother nodded in agreement. She went on to describe to him how sunny southern California is and that when she was driving, a glint of sunlight reflecting off a car's chrome bumper always made her catch her breath...

I was reluctant to reveal these things about my mother--she consistently avoided talk about her scars and she always tried to hide them. But towards the end of her life, she suggested that perhaps her experience might prove to be noteworthy to some. I hope that some might serve as a reminder of the horrors of war and the effects of a nuclear blast--as we all know, there are some who unfortunately still need it...


Friday, January 06, 2006

Growing up J-Town (Unfinished)

In the summer of 2004, Dad died. Mom had passed on two years earlier in 2002, and now, there is really no compelling reason for me to return to Los Angeles. My brother still lives in LA and works at a museum dedicated to Japanese American history, but I am reluctant to disturb his seikatsu (activities of everyday life) rhythm. He has his own life, and I don't want to just "drop in" as I used to when I visited my parents. Our collective home is not the same as our individual ones.

In any event, I was conscious of the fact that I would no longer be returning to LA with any great frequency and spent time visiting places I used to frequent: Atlantic Square, Santa Monica beach, the UCLA campus. However, the one place I wanted to spend quality time was an area near the LA Civic Center, Lil' Tokyo.

In its heyday, the Japanese Americans--JAs or Buddha-heads, as we used to call ourselves--referred to the area as J-Town. The only one's who called it Lil' Tokyo were the Chamber of Commerce and the tourists that it relentlessly tried to attract. For us JAs, it was always J-Town, an abbreviation of Japanese Town, the term referring to our heritage and nothing else. Monikers such as Lil' Tokyo or Japan Town, as the Japanese community is called in San Francisco, sounded too much like an attempt to recreate Japan. This was not where we hung out. J-Town was a community created by immigrant Japanese for themselves and for their descendants. It was our own little subculture in which we could feel safe, empowered. It was our place.

So I walked around the streets with my family, and visited some stores that have been in business since my own youth. But they were few and far between. I visited Bunkado--a shop filled with Japanese trinkets that also sold Japanese CDs--back in the day, it was 45s and LPs. I said "Hello" to the owner, Mrs. T, but she no longer recognized me and it seemed too much trouble to try to jog her memory for a mere thirty seconds of satisfaction. We also went to the former Yaohan--now called Mitsuwa, I think--but the entire second floor was closed and it was only a shell of its former self. I even visited the Japanese confection store where I had worked for so many years, but was chagrined to find not a single recognizable face. (It was later that I learned that Mrs. H had been feeling ill and visited her for the last time at her home.)

While it was a bit sad that there was little of the J-Town I remembered, I would be the first to recognize that things change, that nothing stays the same. However, it was distressing that the feel of the place had changed drastically. It seemed to have actually changed into "Lil' Tokyo". Virtually every store was owned by Japanese nationals who were obviously new to LA. There were few signs of Japanese Americans, of a presence that suggested that this place was a center for the Japanese American community.

There are, of course, the cosmetic signs: The Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Cultural Center. But these are relatively new structures created in a place that was historically Japanese American, and not necessarily populated by them now.


-Town is now an empty shell of what it once was. Portions of the area reek of decline. On the north side of First Street between Central and San Pedro, there is a row of make-shift video rental shops with videos of pirated Japanese TV shows. Most of the retail stores are geared toward tourist traffic--key chains, post cards, t-shirts of Nomo or Ichiro, or worse, with the Chinese character for samurai or love emblazoned in front. Indeed, the decline of J-Town is such that the Japanese Consulate, which used to occupy two floors of the Sumitomo Building on the corner of First and San Pedro, has moved out to the resurgent downtown area of LA. Where it once wanted to be a part of the Japanese American community, the Consulate has now divorced itself from the withering remains of a once vibrant JA center.

It is hard to believe that Japanese Americans living in and around the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area used to gravitate here. This may sound like an exaggeration to many these days, but I assure you it is not. People I know used to come on the weekends from Santa Barbara to the north, Chino to the east and Del Mar to the south, just to feel connected with the community. However, Southern California JAs have gone through a diaspora of sorts, and they have all gone their own way, pursuing the dreams of the middle class, or whatever class they feel they belong to.

I am no historian and certainly no sociologist, and perhaps I should do some digging before I offer any pseudo-socio-psycho-babble. But you know me: I can't keep my mouth shut. In my experience--and this is admittedly a microscopic niche in the entirety of the Japanese American experience--JAs have led, like the ancestors of their heritage, a paradoxical, and at time contradictory life. As I am so quick to say, Japan is a nation that suggests ambiguity itself. It is a nation proud of its traditions and yet so willing to adapt to new and foreign ways. It is always adopting new foreign loan words into its vernacular, and yet vertical writing--anachronistic in today's world of the Internet--still dominates its print publication--newspapers, magazines, novels--unlike Korea or even China. So the Japanese cling to much of their tradition, but adapt to the world, playing the hadn it was dealt.

Japanese Americans have also had to play the hand they were dealt. As a minority, many of us recognize the traditions of our parents and grandparents, and proudly follow those we still remember or understand. I still take off my shoes before I enter my home. I still eat mochi in soup on New Year's day. And no matter how old I got, I woudl always listen to my mother and father. (Okay, there's a gap between the ages of 17 and 22 when I didn't listen at all...) However, I am two generations removed from the Alien Land Law passed in California in 1913, legislation created to prevent Japanese from owning land. In 1922, in Ozawa v. US, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the Naturalization Act of 1790 that restricted naturalization to free white people. As a person of Japanese descent, Ozawa could not become a US citizen. Anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting marriage between Whites and Asians were in the books in California as late as 1948. I am also a direct descendent of a community that was sent to internment camps during World War II, simply because they were of Japanese heritage, never mind that fact that many were born in the US and were de facto US citizens.

Circumstances such as this compelled many JAs to prove their Americanism over the years by mingling with their non-Asian counterparts, by denying their heritage by discouraging their children from speaking Japanese. Many people I have met of Chinese, Korean and Hispanic descent speak the tongue of their heritage at least into the third generation, but not so for most Japanese Americans I know. While being proud of their heritage, they are also victim of circumstances that caused them to lose a part of it. In an attempt to blend into the American landscape, we had to lose a part of our identity.

I'm not sure if I'm making sense...

The point is that Japan tries its best to maintain its traditions, but at the same time it adapts and adopts things foreign to its heritage in an effort to advance or to fit in with the world at large. Japanese Americans show this same trait by being proud of their identity as JAs but forgoing the maintenance of certain aspects of their heritage in a similar effort to fit in with society at large. I have previously wondered if this was part of our genetic code, but this idea was easily dismissed after I'd met Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent whose attitude resembled our Chinese and Korean counterparts rather than my own. While there is room for individual differences, to a greater or lesser degree mainland JAs, as are most people I suppose, are a product of their circumstances.


y Dad's death and funeral coincided with Nisei Week, the signature festival for Japanese American's in the LA. Every August since 1934, except for a few years in the 40s during the war, the community of Lil' Tokyo sponsored a summer festival called Nisei Week. It is a week during which Japanese Americans put on display its heritage with exhibits on a variety of things from calligraphy to flower arrangement to karate. The festivities started with a Nisei week pageant at which one nubile young Japanese American lady would be crowned Miss Nisei Week, and ended with a parade and carnival.

This year, I was with my family. We visited my brother at the JA National Museum and had lunch together, after which we walked around town as we waited for the parade to begin. One of my sons, Chip--for chipmunk--wanted to get some CDs and so we went to some music stores. We headed toward Mitsuwa in which there is an Asahiya Bookstore. Or I should say, was. It had closed it doors for more than a few months. M wanted to eat some Soba and I told her of a place in Weller Court Called Daisuke. While it was there, it was under new management and the menu had been drastically altered. I was hoping for a yamakake soba--soba noodles with grated tororo potatoes. But I had to settle for regular cold soba.

As three o'clock approached we headed out to the street to see the parade on this last Sunday of the festival. It was the first time I had seen the parade since the early 1980s when I worked at the confectionary store. Since the mid-80s, I had lived elsewhere and had not seen it in twenty years and so was quite curious. When I lived in Japan during the early 90s, my father was actually in the parade as a Lil' Tokyo Pioneer as a cultural leader through his Senryu poetry and as a recipient of the Japanese National Cultural Medal of Honor. However, as the parade began, I was struck by the crowd. Or I should say, the lack thereof. There was a time when the crowds stood six to seven people deep from the curbside, but that day, you could easily park your butt on the curb and watch the parade go by. And reflecting this withering J-Town, the parade looked tired and shabby.

One group of Japanese dancers had to stop in the middle of their Bon Odori routine when the generator running the loud speaker died. One young man in his official Nisei Week happi--the colorful buttonless cotton shirt worn my sushi chefs--tried to revive it by slapping it and cursing at it, while the dancers from five-year olds to retirees stood helpless in the hot August sun. Another float broke down and again young men in their official Nisei Week garb rushed to help, if only to push it to the side of the road. These events only confirmed my opinion of a community in decline. And for me it was indeed a sad sight, for I remember when Nisei Week was truly an event. When any and all JAs came to J-Town to hang, to see and be seen.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The death of my father and my last visit to Nisei Week has triggered intermittent memories over the past few months. And when I lied in bed with a fever last week, these memories reconstituted themselves in a deluge of images in my feverish brain. And so, while the images are still fresh in my mind, I thought I would indulge myself by a jotting down these memories before they fade away forever.


y first memories of J-Town are indeed of Nisei Week. Well, they aren't really memories or recollections. They are more like flashes of memories interwoven with old photos and the conversations I have had with my mom. She would dress my sister and me in yukata, the cotton, summer, casual version of a kimono, and took us to Nisei Week to see the parade. We were about four and five and all I remember are the feet and the sticky pavement. We were small, and wearing unfamiliar geta (wooden clogs), I had to concentrate on my steps, so I walked along looking down at the concrete sidewalk stained black from all the spilled soft drinks and snow cones. My dad lifted me up once to see over the crowd but I still could see much, and my dad--not the strongest man--didn't hold me up for more than three minutes. But there were a lot of people at the festival. J-Town got this crowded during Nisei Week because most JAs felt it was their community. It was a place to visit on a regular basis, not just special occasions.

Our family usually went on Sundays after church. We were members of Maryknoll Church, a Catholic mission operating a K-8 elementary school for children of Japanese descent. They stipulated--if I remember correctly--that a child had to be at least one-quarter Japanese to be eligible for admission. I don't remember if there was any specific law passed, but sometime in the 80s it became clear that the school could no longer discriminate based on race and they began accepting all races. As a Catholic Mission, Maryknoll attracted Hispanics from nearby areas, but as the enrollment of non-Japanese went up, the number of Japanese American families went down. In the end, it closed its doors as an elementary school in the mid 90s due to lack of enrollment. It continues today as a community center, the Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center.

But back then, Maryknoll was segregated. It sounds awful by today's social standards, but it was also a blessing of sorts for Japanese in the beginning. It was established in the early 20th century when racism and the "yellow peril" mentality was still a part of mainstream society. It provided a place where Japanese nationals in America could worship in peace in a language they understood and study without fear of prejudice. The Catholic mission is located about three blocks from J-Town, and unlike the current Lil' Tokyo, J-Town back then was a place where many of the Japanese community lived. There were a few houses, but most rented long-term hotel rooms--some are still there above the stores and restaurants on the north side of 1st Street across from JVP and Koyasan Temple. (My dad used to live there as well.) The kids could then walk to Maryknoll for their education. During my time, the school was still a haven for me. I was born ten years after WWII, a couple of years after the Korean War and was a student there for nine years during the Vietnam War. On the street, away from Maryknoll, I was called a Jap, a Chink, and a Gook. Maryknoll provided me with a place I could study and play without fear of random and malicious harassment, and sometimes violence--I have been beaten up for being "Japanese". While I wouldn't go so far as to claim that Maryknoll empowered me, it did allow me to grow without restraint and, in a way, innocently. Unfortunately, it also cultivated that attitude of being special to the detriment of others; by segregating others, we ultimately segregated ourselves.

In any event, every Sunday after Mass, we went to J-Town to do our weekly shopping of Japanese goods. Back then, soy sauce or short grain rice was not available at the local supermarket, so we went to J-Town to do our shopping. We usually went to Modern Food on San Pedro, and when my dad felt especially philanthropic, he would by a pound of maguro tuna for sashimi dinner that night.

We would also make a number of other stops. As one of the founders of the senryu salon, it was his responsibility to provide some of the refreshments. And he did so with what looked to me to be a scam of sorts. He published a monthly magazine that he distributed amongst those interested in senryu poetry. He had somehow talked the proprietors of the local Japanese confectionaries to donate a couple dozen rice cakes a month in exchange for advertising in his magazine, which had a circulation that included the salon members and whoever would accept the magazine he handed out for free at church and other community functions.

Anyway, he held his senryu-kai once a month and it was a treat to tag along with him on those Sundays. These confectionaries not only sold Japanese sweets, but an assortment of American candies as well, and I would get the chance to "guilt" my dad into buying me something. He was so into "face" that there was no way he could say "no" in front of other people to a kid who was asking for a measly 5-cent pack of baseball cards or five penny strips of candied dots. While there were two stores he visited, it was an unwritten code that I could only do this at one store, and I usually did it at Mikawaya since they had a better selection of candies than Fugetsudo. But I guess it must have frustrated him at times. I was so good at this "poor me" routine that my dad would try to send me to another store with mom.

"Go to Ueda Department with your mother."


"Don't you want to look at the toys?"

"Yeah, but..."

"Maybe there'll be something good."

"Okay!" I said, hoping that he would actually buy me something.

Of course, it was merely a ploy, and so when he showed up at Ueda's and I led him to the toy I wanted, he simply said, "Maybe, Christmas."

Try as he might, this ploy never worked on me again. In fact, I distinctly remember finagling a pack of baseball cards AND five strips of the candied dots on our next visit to Mikawaya and Fugetsudo.


onfections were not the only thing Dad got for his meetings. On special occasions, he would get box lunches, usually sushi at a small place called Matsuno Sushi. It was nothing like today's sushi shops--raw fish was not easily had back them. There was a short counter, which I suppose might resemble today's sushi bar, but there was no refrigerated case on top. The sushi was standard fare, at least by JA standards: inari-zushi, futomaki, shime saba. Of course, we had our own names.

Inari-zushi is fried tofu skin stuff with sushi rice, but we called them "footballs" because of their shape and the fox-brown color. An ex-girlfriend once referred to them as "pillows" because of the way they were stuffed. Futomaki was sushi rice and fillings of kanpyo (re-hydrated gourd), egg, spinach, and this sweet pink stuff that I still haven't figured out, spread out onto a large sheet of nori (dried seaweed) and rolled up into a long roll. This was then cut into three-quarter inch pieces. We referred to these as "tires". But Mom could make these two types of sushi at home so they were no big deal to me. What I really enjoyed was the shime saba. This is a pickled mackerel very similar to the pickled herring eaten by northern Europeans. A filet of mackerel was pickled then placed on top of a long mound of sushi rice then pressed into a bar shape. Man, I could eat this everyday and never get tired of it. Dad had a name for it that sounded like "batter up" so that's what I used to call it. I later learned the word was battera, another name for the same thing. I guess this would be similar to a sandwich called a poor boy, hero, or grinder, depending on where you're from. Of course, despite my love for "batter up", I could not eat more than one at his senryu meetings as they were reserved for the adults. I swore that I would buy my own when I could afford it, but unfortunately Matsuno Sushi closed shop by the time I was old enough to earn my own bread.

One place that was open since my childhood and closed only after the last major earthquake in LA was Far East Cafe. After special occasions at church--like First Communion or someone's birthday--Dad would take us there for lunch after church. It was a Chinese restaurant right in the middle of J-Town. The front glass was painted a pale green so no one could look in. When you entered the front door, a juke box greeted you in the small waiting area. On the right were the cash register and a glass counter filled with sweet and salted dried plums--something I always begged Dad to buy, but never got. Behind the juke box was a wooden partition, with seating down two aisles on either side. Indeed, the entire restaurant was separated by partitions about six feet high making small enclosed eating spaces. Some had two tables for two small parties, but if you had five or more in your party you usually got your own space.

Now, Far East Cafe was not a fancy place by any means. They did not serve some of the food that I have come to expect from the newer Chinese restaurants. Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Milpitas and NBC in Monterey Park serve some of the best sea food I have ever had. I love the sun-dried abalone--it's so much better than fresh abalone to me--sauteed with Chinese greens like chingensai. Steamed any-kind-of fish is as good as it gets. But Far East Cafe was a modest place that offered old-school fare like pi-chayu (sauteed snow peas with chicken, water chestnuts and bean sprouts), pakkai (subuta or sweet and sour pork), char shu (barbeque pork), fried wonton and the best pan fried chow mein.

While we waited for our food, I often went to the back of the restaurant. I'd tell the folks that I needed to go to the bathroom, which was an adventure in itself. The place was not necessarily dirty, but it was dingy, dark and dank. You walked in and had to turn the light on by pulling a string hanging from the ceiling. After taking care of business and washing my hands, I got to wipe my hands on the cloth towels that dangled from a dispenser that you had to pull for a fresh swatch of linen. I used to think that it was a short strip of cloth that was used over and over but somehow ironed straight inside the dispenser. After leaving the bathroom which was right next to the kitchen, I would stop to breathe in the smell of the kitchen. they would usually tell me to go back to my table, that I was in the way. Or at least I think that's what they said because I didn't understand a word they were saying--I always assumed that they were speaking Cantonese--but it always seemed to me that they were angry. Why were they always yelling? I thought. But it didn't matter. They always made the best Chinese food I could imagine back then.

Far East Cafe was perhaps the most popular non-Japanese restaurant in J-Town, but for me, the best place was the Sugar Bowl Cafe...


he Sugar Bowl Cafe was on San Pedro inside the Taul Building. It was owned and operated by Japanese but the fare was mostly American. I only went there a couple of times so my memory may not be that accurate, but I have recalled this place in my dreams and daydreams more than just a few times. In my memories, it was a place that resembled what I would see on TV, a place where girls wore bobby socks and ribbons in their hair, and boys with crew cuts sported two-tone bowling shirts. And there was the occasional guy with his hair slicked back. In other words, it was a place where Japanese Americans didn't belong.

Yet it was full of JAs. Young JAs.

And Dad was pretty old. He had married late and had me when he was 42 years old. So by the time I first went to The Sugar Bowl when I was around eight or nine, he was already 50--not too different from my current age when I think about it. We went there with some of his friends from church, members of Maryknoll's Kibei Club. Kibei (kee-bay) were Japanese born in America but raised and educated in Japan. Except for their citizenship, there was very little that distinguished them from first generation Japanese. Since they grew up in Japan, they followed Japanese customs and their language of choice was Japanese; most of them spoke very little English, Dad among them. There was, however, one major distinction between Dad and the others. The club members were born in the 1930s and were sent to Japan mostly because of the start of WWII. I guess their parents figured they'd be safer in Japan. In any case, they were in their late twenties in the early 1960s, a good twenty years--one generation--younger than Dad.

So when any of them went with us to J-Town, he or she would sometimes suggest that we go to a place where the younger crowd hung out. At 8 years old, I considered myself part of the younger crowd too, so when John, one of the younger Kibei club members, recommended we eat lunch at the Sugar Bowl, I agreed enthusiastically. I figured he would know all the cool places, unlike Dad.

My first visit inspired awe. On the walls around the restaurant were renderings of the available fare: hamburgers with the burger and lettuce protruding out, French fries spilling over the plate, shakes in colors to that aroused the flavors of strawberry and chocolate, and an ice cold Coca Cola in a glass sweating beads of dew. Each picture was designed to make you want to taste it and I couldn't wait to order. As we walked toward our booth, we walked by a long lunch counter, with soda dispensers and rows of Coca Cola glasses and sundae dishes in front of a mirror.

Just like in American places, I thought.

There were six of us--Dad, Mom, little sister and brother, John and me. As we reached our booth, I noticed the red vinyl benches with white trim and a red Formica table. There was a mini juke box against the wall. Well, it really wasn't a juke box. It was connected to the juke box near the entrance, but you could put in your money and choose what songs you wanted to hear with out leaving the table! I marveled at technology. I looked around and saw and even larger table in the back corner. The bench was huge and curved to fit in the corner. I had never seen anything like it, even on TV.

"Can't we sit over there?" I asked.

"You have to have at least seven or eight people to sit there," John said. He knew this, I was convinced, because he was young and came to places like this on a regular basis.

Oh well, they don't have one of those mini juke boxes anyway, I thought. The machine had staggered nibs protruding from the top. I fiddled with one and was surprised when a page inside the glass case of the machine moved. I push these to flip through the pages of lists of song, I realized. Look at all these songs! I wonder how much it cost to play one.

Dad must have sensed something as he told me to pay attention to the menu.

Oh yeah, food...


ad suggested a hamburger but my eye caught something I had never heard of before.

"What's a clubhouse sandwich?" I asked. Menus back then rarely gave a description of an item.

Dad ignored me, and Mom just shrugged her shoulders, since she came from Japan and wouldn't know anything about real American food. So I looked expectantly at John.

"It's a sandwich with turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato on three slices of toast," he explained.

"Three slices? Why three? And why on toast?" I asked incredulously.

John just laughed. "There's too much stuff to keep on just two slices, so they use three. And the best thing is that they put avocado in the club sandwiches here."

"Avocado?" I knew what avocados were. My friend Rickey lived down the block and he had an avocado tree in his back yard. His mom would occasionally let us eat them when I played over there. I knew that anything with avocado in it had to be good.

"Mom, I wanna clubhouse sandwich," I declared, half wondering if Dad would just flat out say, No, too expensive. I didn't know if it was expensive, but it had to cost more than the hamburger. It had avocados in it. But surprisingly, Dad didn't say anything to me. He said something in Japanese to Mom and John that I didn't understand, but the net result was that I got to eat a clubhouse if I was willing to share a bite with my sister.

"Okay," I said rather reluctantly. "Can I get some French fries, too?"

But Dad ignored me again. John told me that the sandwich came with potato chips, and for me that was just as good. We never had potato chips at home.

John ordered for everyone, as I turned my attention back to the juke box. A nickel for one play. A dime for three plays. A quarter for eight plays.

"Isn't two nickels the same as a dime? Why are the prices different?" This must have been my thirty-seventh question since entering the restaurant.

"They're trying to give you a bargain," John explained. "You get more songs if you pay more at once.

"Oh," I said, feigning comprehension.

"It's a way to make you spend more money," Dad said succinctly, an explanation I understood more readily.

I knew a quarter was out of the question, so I asked for a dime.

"To hear a song? We have records and a hi-fi. You can listen to music at home."

"But... but..." I stammered.

"What do you want to listen to?" asked John.

I didn't know what to say. I had heard a bunch of songs on TV, but I didn't no any of the titles.

"See, he doesn't know any songs anyway," said Dad.

"I like the song I hear on TV. Something like, 'run, run, run, run'?"

"Oh, I know that one," John said and he proceeded to flip through the pages. "Here it is. 'Runaway', right?" He put a nickel in the machine and pushed some random numbers and letters. A few seconds later, the familiar intro of the song started playing, and Del Shannon started singing.

"As I walk along I wonder, what went wrong with our love, a love that was so strong."

At which point the waitress brought out food. My eyes bugged out, but probably not as much as Dad's.

"Are you going to eat all of that?"

"Uh-huh," I smiled.

In front of me was a plate of four triangles, a triple deck club house sandwich cut into quarters. It was completely different from what I had imagined. When John explained that they needed three slices of bread to hold all the contents, I thought there were two slices at the bottom--a firm foundation--upon which was layered the turkey and bacon and tomato and lettuce, and then all this was topped with a single slice. I had no idea that the turkey and lettuce would be on one layer, and the bacon and tomato and avocado would be on a different layer. It looked like two sandwiches stacked on top of each other. I had never seen such an awesome site.

"And I wonder, I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder..."

Indeed, it was truly a wonder. But, of course, as I had been made to promise, I shared my sandwich with the others, although I must admit that I tried to eat the potato chips quickly in an attempt to share as little as possible. I was such a selfish kid.

Having eaten something wonderful and new like a clubhouse sandwich, and listening to a song I wanted to hear, I had never felt so satisfied. Unfortunately, I went to the Sugar Bowl Cafe only once or twice more before it closed shop. It was replaced by Ichiban Cafe, which served standard Japanese fare--noodles, rice bowls, tempura. I would not longer get to taste the other world, the world that was more American than Japanese. The world for which I would long for most of my pre-adult life.


y the 8th grade, I was old enough to be trusted to roam the city on my own. During the previous summer, a few classmates like Tatts and Rhubarb went to Disneyland on their own. They got bus fare and admission from their parents and they took the Greyhound bus to Anaheim. I told Mom about this, and she just shook her head. She couldn't believe that there were parents who would let their child go to D-Land on their own without supervision. She had certainly learned her lesson over the years.

Now I wouldn't call myself a wild kid. I didn't throw rocks at cars or peak under girls' dresses--at least not openly. And I certainly didn't talk with a filthy mouth. But I did enjoy doing new and different things and making friends. Sometimes the friends around the block weren't always upright citizens.

One summer day, John and Rickey and I went to a house that was partially burnt down and was scheduled for demolition soon, so my buddies thought it would be cool to rummage through the place. It was hazardous and Mom told me not to go near the place, but I couldn't tell that to my friends. I didn't know the word then, but peer pressure was in full force already. And like an idiot, I went in my rubber Jap-slaps. While walking through the ruble, I step full force on a nail. It didn't hurt right away, but I screamed bloody murder. The mere thought of a three inch nail in my foot--even partially--made me go hysterical. I limped home and my mother took me immediately to the doctor where I got a shot with a needle that looked as big as the nail I stepped on.

Of course, there were those incidents that escaped Mom's attention. Once, when I was about five years old, I went with C and a few of the other JA hoods from the neighborhood to the local supermarket called McDonald's. We went just to hang out and fool around in the air conditioned store. We went through the turnstile and entered the produce section. But besides the vegetable stands was a cart of Brach's candy in bulk.

"Let's take one," C told us.

"I don't have any money," we said in unison."Just swipe it," insisted C. And I did as I was told. I took a butterscotch and held it in my hand for a while. A couple of other kids took one as well, while C's brother refused. He just shook his head in disapproval. We went carousing around a few more aisles when I finally thought it was safe to eat the candy I was warming up in my hand. Besides, my palms began to feel sticky. As slickly as I could manage, I unwrapped the golden-yellow cellophane and slipped the butterscotch candy into my mouth. It was sweet and good and illicit.

After a few more rounds around the store, C said it was time to go and we went running out of the store into the parking lot. As we slowed down to a walk, we heard someone yelling at us to stop. It was a store person. I could tell by the apron.

"So you kids gonna pay for the candy you ate?"

I froze in fear. Was he going to call the police? Was I going to jail?

C patted his shirt and pants pockets with his hands, then flipped them over palms up to show the store man that he had nothing on him that belonged to the store, or that he had no money. I wasn't sure which but I followed suit in the universal what he said gesture. C's brother insisted that he didn't take one. Great, I thought. That's as good as saying that we did take one.

The store man glared at us for a few seconds one at a time, then said, "Next time bring money and pay for it like you should." He then turned around and returned to the store.

"Woah, that was a close one," C whispered with a grin. All I could do was listen silently to my heart beating.

For a few weeks, I would refuse to go to the store with Mom for fear of being seen by the same man. I didn't need him to tell Mom what I had done.


ut I think that my classmates going to D-Land obliged Mom to trust me a bit more than she would have wanted. She couldn't deprive her son completely from tasting some level of independence. So by the 8th grade, I was allowed to stay after school on Fridays until the Boy Scout meeting at 7:30PM. I had finally become a peer.

School let out at 3:20PM. As an Eastsider, I usually went home on second trip, meaning that I rode one of the school buses on its second route, the first route being the Westside. The second trip of my bus was around 4:30, so for an hour we would usually play basketball or touch football on the asphalt playground. The last second trip bus was around 5pm and usually left the playground with the stragglers--those who didn't take the bus and waited for their parents to come pick them up after work. For me and my peers, it was time to go for dinner in J-Town.

From Maryknoll, J-Town was just a few short blocks away. We walked passed the warehouses and medium-sized factories that lined 2nd Street, stepped over the railroad tracks on Alameda, then crossed Central in front of the old brick Goodwill building, and we were in Japanese Town.

Friday around 5PM, everyone was heading home and the roads were crowded with cars, especially on 1st street. But for pedestrians, it wasn't too bad, especially for me, a fourteen-year old walking around unsupervised. (I'm sure this sounds quaint to many of you today.) Before eating we would go into stores and check out the merchandise. First on the agenda for us was to walk into any store, often one of the many bookstores--you know how the Japanese love to read. We'd walk into one and look for the nasty magazines. I learned later that they were not really pornographic--especially after I saw real pornography. These magazines--like Gendai and Takarajima--had mostly short stories, serials and essays. But for some reason, the first few color pages had photos of nude women. Back in the 60s the photos were mostly boobs and butts, but it was enough to excite me. The after a few jokes and playful punches, the proprietor would chase us out of the store.

Other times we would go to some of the souvenir shops that dot J-Town. We'd pick up a plastic sword and play samurai a bit and again get chased out by a store employee. Once we went into the sporting goods on the corner of 2nd and San Pedro.

"Hey, Scratch," Rhubarb called to me. Scratch was a nickname based on my Japanese name. "Take a look at this."

He handed me an pen with a picture of a blonde girl wearing a bathing suit, but when you held it upside down--or was it right side up?--the bathing suit flowed away and the girl became naked. I remember asking why they would have such a novelty in a sporting goods store, but my friend just said, "tourists." He meant, of course, Japanese tourists. They'd buy a handful and hand out naked blonde girls as souvenirs to their workmates in Japan.

Next he picked up a small red toy about the size of a pack of gum. It was shaped like a television, but on the back side, it had a small viewer into which my friend peaked. He immediately pulled his face away in embarrassment and almost threw the toy back into the pile from which he picked it up.

"Don't look in there," he cautioned. "Do not look in there."

Well, being the type of person I am, I had to look in it now. So I picked it up and peaked in to see... yes, you guessed it, another naked lady. But this time it wasn't an illustrated image like the bathing beauty on the pen. It was a photo of a real woman. She was again a blonde with large breasts, sitting with her legs beneath her as she gave me that "come hither" look. I was reluctant to put the toy down, but I was too embarrassed to be caught drooling by a store clerk, so I too returned it to the pile, all the while wondering if the girl in the blue toy was different. Well, Rhubarb cleared that one up for me when we left the store.

"This one has brown hair," he said as he handed me the blue toy.

"How..." I didn't finish the sentence. I just held the toy to my eye and indeed saw another naked girl, and indeed she was a brunette.

"So why do you have this. Did you buy it?" I asked naively.

"You gotta be slick, man," he said, and proceed to tell me how it was easy to grabbed two of these small toys in one grab, look into one, feign embarrassment, and toss back only one of the toys back, stuffing the other one into his pocket.

"Ooooh." How ingenious, I thought. There were a number of subsequent occasions when I had thought about taking something from a store--a baseball, a deck of cards, a pack of gum. But I would never be able to bring myself to take this five finger discount. Getting caught pilfering candy from McDonald's supermarket when I was five set me straight for life.