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ivoh | November 18, 2017

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The value of role models

Jon Funabiki

Jon Funabiki

By Jon Funabiki

It seemed like such a simple question, yet my brain stumbled.

“Was your uncle your role model,” the young reporter on the telephone from Los Angeles asked, “the reason you went into journalism?”

“I don’t know,” was all I could say.

I had set myself up for this embarrassment. Nalea J. Ko, the writer, had called to interview me for a story about the future of ethnic newspapers in the United States.

Th topic consumes a lot of my time as a journalism professor at San Francisco State University, and it is a matter of particular relevance to Ko and her newspaper, the Pacific Citizen. PC, as it is known by generations of Japanese Americans from Hawaii to New York, has been published since 1929 by the Japanese American Citizen’s League, our community’s NAACP. Like newspapers that serve African American, Italian or Jewish communities, PC covers news and issues usually bypassed by the mainstream press. And, like many other newspapers, it’s struggling through hard economic times.

“You know,” I told Ko when we met by phone, “my uncle was once the editor of Pacific Citizen.”

That was during World War II. The country had been shocked into war by Pearl Harbor, and anyone who was Japanese American was suddenly suspect as a spy or saboteur. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 ordered 110,000 Japanese Americans to evacuate the West Coast. Two thirds of them were second-generation “nisei” just like my Mom and Dad – citizens by birth, born in the U.S.A.

They were shipped by bus and train to 10 internment camps thrown up in desolate parts of the country. My parents, who had lived near San Francisco, wound up in a sprawling tract of wood-and-tarpaper barracks, surrounded by barbed-wire fences and tall guard towers, on rugged flatlands near Heart Mountain, Wyoming. My oldest brother was born in this camp, which became home for more than 10,000 men, women and children. They shared toilets and showers, ate in central mess halls and battled snowstorms, dust storms and spiders.

The government also shut down the PC, which was based in Los Angeles. That’s when my uncle, Larry Tajiri, and his wife, Marion (my mother’s older sister), stepped into history. Both had worked for other Japanese American newspapers. Larry was a self-taught journalist. Marion (known as Guyo, derived from her Japanese name Tsuguyo) was the first Asian American woman to attend the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, but financial reasons forced her to return to California, where she completed her education at San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The JACL wanted the PC reopened. They asked the Tajiris to move the operation to Salt Lake City, Utah, where, in the government’s logic, Japanese Americans posed no danger. Larry was the chief editor and a columnist. Guyo pitched in with the editing and contributed some of her own stories. From there they continued to cover community stories, the goings-on in the internment camps and the heroics of the all-Nisei 442nd Regiment on the European front.

I know this mainly from family stories and some historical accounts. I wasn’t born until after the war came to an end, when my parents returned to California.

I barely knew my Uncle Larry. My one childhood memory of him is when he visited our house and left a “Lawrence of Arabia” movie souvenir from one of his assignments. I never sought to make a connection, blinded as I was by circumstance, distance and a teenager’s inability to imagine any future arc with a relative’s past. I had not yet predicted the possibility that I would become a journalist, including a stint covering East and Southeast Asia and, later, a journalism professor.

Larry and Guyo moved to Denver, where he was a reporter and drama critic for the Denver Post. Larry died of a stroke in 1965 at the age of 50. I was only 15. Guyo passed away in 2007, and regretfully, I also never asked her to talk in detail about her years helping to publish the PC.

That’s why the reporter’s innocent question threw me into conflict. My heart wanted to say yes, but my brain retorted: You hardly knew Larry! How can you claim him as a role model? My thoughts echoed: I never got to know him as an uncle. I never asked how or why he got into the business. I never asked him for advice. I didn’t declare, at age 15, that I wanted to be a newsman like Larry.

After the interview, Nalea’s question gnawed at me. So, I began to search for an answer. I retrieved some odd notes and papers stashed around my office. I pulled a few old books from the shelves. I called Nalea back, confessed my dilemma, and asked if she could dig up some of Larry’s writings from the PC’s archives. She obliged. And, I did what we all do these days, I Googled “Larry Tajiri.”

I rediscovered a book that I had first read while studying journalism in college, Bill Hosokawa’s “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” a history of Japanese Americans published in 1969. I was excited when I came across references to Larry and Guyo on those pages. Hosokawa, a former editor and colleague of Larry’s at the Denver Post, gave the couple credit for turning the JACL’s haphazardly run publication into a professional weekly that “dared to be aggressive in the finest traditions of independent American journalism.”

Hosokawa wrote that the PC “gave the Nisei a strong, clear editorial voice when it seemed that most of the nation’s newspapers were against them, or at best, ignoring them.” He lauded Larry for using the PC as a bully pulpit to assail “the politicians, the racists, the professional hate- mongers” who fanned the flames of discrimination.

An example of Larry’s sharp writing came in one of the columns that Nalea sent to me. Published shortly after the war’s end, Larry ridiculed those who had clamored for the internment. Japanese Americans, he reminded America, remained loyal throughout the war and many fought valiantly, and died, with the 442nd.

Larry wrote: “It is apparent that the Army was misled in its appraisal of the possible loyalty of persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii and on the West Coast by the professional race-baiters and the spokesmen for special interests who long had preached, as the Hearst press had, of the menace of Japanese Americans and immigrant Japanese.”

Poking around more, I learned that Larry also wielded his typewriter to combat discrimination against African Americans, Jews and other minorities. Though many Japanese Americans of the time harbored their own racial stereotypes about others, he urged all minority groups to work together for civil rights, which drew the attention of the singer and activist Paul Robeson.

Sometimes a mention of the Tajiris in a book or old article jogged one of my childhood memories. Acquaintances knew Larry and Guyo for their love of literature, art and culture – hence his later job as a drama critic. I remember that my father visited their home once in Denver. He was astonished to find that the floor of their house was sagging under the weight of books, and he put in a floor jack to prop up the joists.

I learned that the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado named an annual award after Larry, and that in 1946, a Pasadena organization, Friends of the American Way, nominated Larry for the Pulitzer Prize.

A glowing article in The (Salt Lake City) Deseret News in 1948 treated the Tajiris like local celebrities. The profile praised them for running the PC and complimented Larry for leading the paper “with vigorous intelligence and incisive writing.”

The story also crystallized something I hadn’t quite understood very well until now. While history records Larry as the PC’s wartime editor, the two formed a team.

“Readers of the Pacific Citizen may have seen Larry Tajiri’s byline as the editor, but Guyo Tajiri anchored the efforts to turn the newspaper into a staple of the wartime reading diet of the Japanese Americans. An accomplished journalist in her own right, Guyo Tajiri played a pivotal if less visible role as part of the Tajiri team. Although assigned to the position of assistant editor and paid one-third the salary of her husband, Guyo Tajiri oversaw the day-to- day operations of the paper.”

By the way, Larry earned $75 a month; Guyo, $25.

A clue to my new awareness has been staring me in the face for years. It’s an old, 11 x 14-inch photograph that shows Larry and Guyo at work in their Salt Lake City office. The place is cluttered, and things are askew. The desk is crowded with paper – look closely and you can almost read the heavy pencil edits on a story. Larry, wearing a fedora and holding a cigarette to his pursed lips, is working at a typewriter. Guyo, wearing a dress and necklace, leans in, as if to offer Larry advice. The photograph’s sepia tones cast a dramatic note, as if a scene from an old detective movie.

I acquired this photograph when Guyo passed away, and it’s been tacked up on the bulletin board above my desk at home ever since. It’s become my touchstone to my family’s connection to that period of history. And now, I realize, it symbolizes how closely my uncle and aunt worked together to keep the PC alive during World War II.

It’s a picture of my aunt and my uncle. In a time of crisis, they gave voice to people who were powerless to speak for themselves. They are my role models.

Jon Funabiki’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.