2016 President’s Award

2016 Nisei Week President’s Award: The Rafu Shimpo

When the Japanese section of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper changed over to Mac computers from handset type in the 1990s, I grabbed a pile of lead letters, a random assortment of katakana and hiragana phonetic Japanese symbols with kanji characters. The shelves of type, considered dangerous because of its lead content if left unattended, would later be donated to a printing museum. As a result, I felt that my handful would not be missed. As someone who had worked at the newspaper first as a reporter and later as an editor of the English section for a total of 10 years, I needed some kind of physical memento of the history of the newspaper as it went through this transition.

The paper, which literally means “Los Angeles Newspaper,” has been an institution in both the Japanese American community and Southern California region for 113 years. When it was established in 1903, it was among a family of many Japanese-language news competitors. Today, it remains the only bilingual Japanese American newspaper in the whole nation published more than once a week. Sadly, its very survival is now in question as announced by the publisher, Michael Komai, earlier this year.

The Rafu Shimpo has remained the glue that connects the disparate pockets of Japanese Americans. Whether carefully read by Nisei in their 80s and 90s today or passed around in stacks to younger generations every few months, the newspaper has been an important record of community life, in the form of: obituaries, photographs of events, features on prominent leaders, crime stories with Japanese Americans as either victim or perpetrator, coverage of controversies and movements, personal essays, creative writing and historic lessons.

The English section was established in 1926, 23 years from its founding year, “for the Nisei, about the Nisei and by the Nisei.” I had the pleasure of meeting the first English editor, a Nisei woman named Louise Suski. Henry Toyosaku (H.T.) Komai, who acquired the newspaper in 1922, hired the then 20-year-old Suski, the daughter of his doctor, to launch stories in English. The first English section, published on February 21, 1926, was only a quarter of a page in size. From the English section’s very inception, the newspaper started a tradition of hiring very young adults who would both sharpen their editorial skills and expand their contacts with community leaders.

Later joining Suski as co-editor was another young ambitious Nisei, Togo Tanaka, who was also 20 years old at the time of his hiring. A brilliant student who graduated from Hollywood High School at age 16, he studied political science at UCLA and graduated with honors, but still was unable to land a civil servant job because of his Japanese ancestry. As he had some journalistic experience on UCLA’s Daily Bruin and Rafu’s competitor, Sei Fujii’s Kashu Mainichi, Tanaka was hired by The Rafu Shimpo, then the most popular Japanese American newspaper. He was assigned to translate articles from Japanese to English, which was a challenge because he never became fully bilingual. The other mandate given to him by H.T., “to give the newspaper American character,” was a more attainable goal.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Tanaka was one of the few Nisei who was picked up and arrested. The newspaper ceased wartime publication on April 4, 1942 with a parting editorial titled, Itsuka mata omemoji no hi made (Until we meet again), and signed, “Before long, we will be ‘your Rafu Shimpo’ again.” H.T., in his prescience, hid all the type and printing equipment underneath the floorboards of the newspaper offices. Once staff members like Henry Mori, who took on editorial duties, returned from camp, they were ready to restart the newspaper on January 1, 1946.

After Mori came Ellen Endo, a mixed-race Japanese American who had grown up in Little Tokyo, as her parents ran a Skid Row residential hotel. She was only 19 years old when she assumed leadership of the English section. Endo’s battles in print with George “Horse” Yoshinaga, then the editor of the competing Kashu Mainichi, ensued at the time, captivating readers of both papers.

(Ironically, during my tenure, The Rafu Shimpo took on the “Horse’s Mouth” column after the Kashu Mainichi closed its doors in the 1990s. Later, when Endo returned to the Rafu as editor-in-chief, both former sparring partners worked under the same masthead.)

During a pivotal time in the 1970s and 80s, Dwight Chuman brought his strong idiosyncratic voice and progressive leanings to the pages of the newspaper as editor. In addition to general mainstream cultural shifts, this time period gave birth to deep explorations of Japanese American identity and civil rights.

Professor emeritus Don Hata described Chuman as “a gutsy Gardena Sansei who thrived on publishing stories that made the Nisei establishment uncomfortable.” Certainly, whether it was a series on Japanese American lesbians published as early as 1979 or investigation of resistance to the camp experience, Chuman seemed to relish in poking at prevailing conservative beliefs. In 1981, he helped co-found the Asian American Journalists Association in Los Angeles.

The Rafu Shimpo was especially important in the developing movement to gain redress and reparation for those incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II. From early debates to final payments to eligible incarcerees, the paper played a vital and necessary role, perhaps its most significant legacy.

Due to language barriers, the Nisei and subsequent generations have been unaware of the contributions of the Japanese section. Recently, however, English-language readers, through Andrew Leong’s translated work of the Rafu serial in Lament in the Night, can gain insight on what life was for immigrants in the 1920s.

As in other special events, the Nisei Week Japanese Festival has always been faithfully chronicled in the pages of The Rafu Shimpo. It is difficult to imagine a future festival without the photographers and reporters of The Rafu Shimpo covering it, from the most mundane exhibit to the coronation and the parade.

As the Japanese American community has evolved, it still remains vibrant, just as Nisei Week has continued. The community needs a story-gatherer. My hope, and the hope of the Nisei Week Foundation in honoring the newspaper with a very special President’s Award, is that it continues to be our Rafu Shimpo.

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This story was written by Naomi Hirahara, who was a reporter from 1984-1987 and then editor of The Rafu Shimpo from 1990-1996. Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of two mystery series. Her Mas Arai novels have been translated in Japanese, Korean and French, and the first one, Summer of the Big Bachi, is currently being developed as an independent feature film. For more information, go to www.naomihirahara.com.