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.


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