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Windy City Nikkei: Bite-sized glimpses of Japanese American Chicago

With a family of six and a full-time job, researching and writing full-length articles about family and community was becoming exceedingly difficult. However, the thirst to research our Chicago Nikkei community's past and present had not fizzled, as I feel it important to leave these stories for my kids, the Gosei generation, so they know how the greater community's history intersects with that of our post-WWII resettled family. These stories are the whys and hows of our existence.

Instagram, a photo and video sharing service accessible by both web browser and phone app, proved an interesting outlet for someone like me with limited time. With a 2200 character limit to its captions, including spaces, hard returns, and hashtags, telling the story of a someone, someplace, something, or a something that happened to someone someplace in roughly 250-300 words really challenges one to cut the fat. The sparseness of it felt really attractive. Writing is in the editing, as they say.

Windy City Nikkei (@windycitynikkei) on Instagram is positioned as "Bite-sized glimpses of Japanese American Chicago." Portioned hors d'oeuvres to pick at on the run. One reader called it, "amuse-bouche history!" People who have neither the time nor inclination to read longer form stories have expressed appreciation for the accessibility of easy, cut-to-the-chase reading.

Features have included Nikkei related neighborhoods, stores, restaurants, bars, sports, artists, businesspeople, churches, temples, recipes, news clippings, anything that sparks an interest or that I can pull my phone out quick enough to snap a photo of.

For instance, I was once rolling down Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood and came across HONORARY MARION KONISHI WAY on the corner of Schiller. I pulled over, got out, took a picture, got back in, and went on my way. Over the course of the following week, I learned all kinds of things about the late, great Marion Konishi and her restaurant, Kamehachi:

Windy City Nikkei
@windycitynikkei

Sushi-loving Chicagoans need pay a debt of gratitude to the late Marion Konishi, a pioneer of the city’s sushi scene.
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A California-born Nisei, in 1942 Marion and her husband were forcibly removed from their West Coast home and, without due process, incarcerated at Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, one of ten American concentration camps built to imprison some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during WWII.
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Resettled in Chicago by the mid-1940s, an unfortunate divorce left her single with two daughters to feed. After years of making it happen through secretarial work, in 1967 a Japanese restauranteur uncle approached her about managing a new U.S. branch of his Tokyo-based sushi restaurant, Kamehachi. The 50-year old Marion accepted his invitation and jumped head first into her new career.
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Kamehachi of Tokyo opened at 1617 N. Wells, across from The Second City comedy club in the Old Town neighborhood. While other Japanese restaurants in the city had served sushi for decades, the concept of an eatery focused solely on the fare with a specialty chef preparing it in front the guest had not yet been introduced; and so was born Chicago’s first sushi bar.
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After a decade's labor, Marion was able to buy the restaurant from her uncle. She continued building its reputation as the city’s premier destination for sushi until her passing in 1990 at the age of 74. Her daughter, Sharon, and granddaughter, Giulia, subsequently took the reins, becoming second & third generation owner-operators. They moved two blocks south to 1400 N. Wells, and in 2011 again upgraded to a larger space a block north at 1531 N. Wells.
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In 2008 Marion Konishi was honored by the City of Chicago with an honorary street sign at the corner of Schiller and Wells. Now with multiple Chicagoland locations, Kamehachi remains a 3-generation woman-owned family business, and a testament to the gaman spirit.
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@kamehachisushi #oldtownchicago #japaneseamerican #eo9066 #resettlement #womanownedbusiness #familybusiness #windycitynikkei

 

Even at a 2200 character limit, or perhaps because of a 2200 character limit, stories may take days to weeks to suss out—part-time, of course. During lunchtime at work. While watching the kids at judo. A couple minutes in bed before konking out. Constantly saving drafts in e-mails for ease of access. How do you get to the thick of it, yet write attractively, when you have to cut 3,000 characters out of a first draft and maybe another 1,000 out of the second? It can be frustrating, but really carves out the essentials, what can and can't go into the story, smaller words for larger meaning, and disposing of the accoutrements.

Ultimately, each piece of history in the Windy City Nikkei feed is a glimpse. A peripheral glance. Scanning, out of the corner of your eye, while driving, the boarded-up windows of a long since closed café and remembering a first date you had there in high school. Instantaneous recall through feeling. You may reminisce in full later, but the glimpse took a half-a-second to recall an entire evening of something that may have happened years ago. Natsukashii, ne?

Windy City Nikkei
@windycitynikkei

“A citizen who is concededly loyal presents no problem of espionage or sabotage. Loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not of race, creed, or color. He who is loyal is by definition not a spy or a saboteur. When the power to detain is derived from the power to protect the war effort against espionage and sabotage, detention which has no relationship to that objective is unauthorized.” - Ex Parte Endo / United States Supreme Court / December 18, 1944
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Mitsuye (Mee-tsoo-eh) Endo was a Nisei native of Sacramento, CA. Prior to WWII, she was a clerk with the State of California until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to her firing, along with all other Japanese American state employees. She was later subjected to the mass incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, first at Tule Lake and later Topaz.
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On her behalf, in 1942 attorney James Purcell filed a writ of habeas corpus stating “she is a loyal and law-abiding citizen of the United States, that no charge has been made against her, that she is being unlawfully detained, and that she is confined in the Relocation Center under armed guard and held there against her will.” Upon denial and appeal, the case was ultimately sent to the Supreme Court where the first denial was reversed and her release led to the eventual closing of the camps.
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In 1945 she resettled in Chicago and took a job with the Mayor’s Commission of Human Relations. She married Kenneth Tsutsumi, whom she had met in camp, and raised three children. Typical Nisei that she was, her own kids didn’t know of her important role in history until they were adults. She passed a quiet hero in 2006, a month shy of her 86th birthday.
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Oh, so the Metropolitan Building, pictured. 134 N. LaSalle, across from Chicago’s City Hall. That’s where the Mayor’s Commission of Human Relations was located in mid-1940s. Picture Miss Endo walking out those doors after a long day of work.
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#nisei #eo9066 #resettlement #mitsuyeendo #exparteendo #womeninhistory #japaneseamerican #chicago #windycitynikkei

 

History portioned to whet the appetite. An invitation to find out more. The essence of flavor minus the full course. A flight of beers. An introduction. Windy City Nikkei is a little taste of this, a morsel of that, up to the reader to make of it what they will and dig deeper if they would. Satisfying are comments such as, “I never knew that,” or “I used to love going there with my family,” or “Thanks for the info, I’m going to check that out!” More satisfying is when a topic sparks someone to share their own story.

It was once asked of me if I considered myself a “rogue historian,” due to my informal and conversational approach to thematically whimsical history. I don’t. I don’t consider myself a historian at all, in an academic sense. What I do is tell stories. The stories I wanted to hear but never did because they hadn’t been told. In a way that I would have liked to have heard them. With sentence fragments and run-ons, the way my Nisei grandmother would talk story at the kitchen table over a coffee and cigarette, the dog snoring at her feet and birds chirping from the back room. While research and accuracy is certainly inherent in the data and fact gathering process, Windy City Nikkei is about engaging our community’s history from an approachable posture, an accessible voice, a welcoming tone.

Please follow us on Instagram, and invite us to follow you. Let’s share our respective communities’ stories together, in 2200 characters or less.

Windy City Nikkei
@windycitynikkei

Founded in the mid-1940s by Hiroto "Kaunch" Hirabayashi at 1238 N. Clark in the Japanese American enclave of Clark & Division, by the 1950s urban renewal and the shift of the community three miles up Clark Street into the Lakeview neighborhood prompted a move of Nisei Lounge to its current location at 3439 N. Sheffield.
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The bar originally catered to Japanese Americans who, as resettlers from US incarceration camps during WWII, needed a safe place to unwind as they remained unsure of their acceptance in mainstream society. After a decade of ownership, Kaunch sold the bar to his brother, Kazuo "Zoke" Hirabayashi, who later effected the move into Chicago's new unofficial Japantown near Wrigley Field and ran it until his passing in 1987.
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After a few owners and some rumors of closing, in 2010 the current owners saved the Nisei Lounge and have embraced its history and culture as the last real neighborhood bar in Wrigleyville. Since then, they’ve supported the local community through fundraisers of various causes, in addition to updating some of their technology into the 21st century while maintaining its historic provenance.
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Although it remains as a vestige of Chicago's last unofficial Japantown, today Nisei Lounge caters to everyone alike, but particularly those who enjoy the camaraderie of a true neighborhood establishment in a sea of gentrified and impersonal sports bars. If you’re looking for a casual after work drink or nightcap along the Red Line in Lakeview, check out The Nisei.
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#nisei #niseilounge #japantownchicago #lakeviewchicago #wrigleyville #cornertavern #windycitynikkei

 

© 2019 Erik Matsunaga

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