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Revisiting Little Tokyo / Japanese American National Museum

On my recent trip to Little Tokyo branch library in Los Angeles, notices for two fund-raising campaigns were posted—one to build a Ryoma Sakamoto statute and the other to save Bunichi Kagawa’s poem epitaph.

Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867), a legendary Meiji Restoration icon, who attempted to organize a peaceful revolution, but instead was assassinated, is one of the best loved historical figures of Japan today. Ryoma, a visionary Samurai, who deserted Tosa-Clan, conceived the first trading company and ocean support fleet, and believed all men are created equal (he was most likely familiar with the U.S. Declaration of Independence). Some people may think Ryoma’s statue in Little Tokyo is not necessary. However, the planning committee sent its mission to Japan and toured cities where Ryoma’s statues currently stand, including Sapporo, Kyoto, Nagasaki, and, of course, Kochi, where Ryoma was born. The mission returned with the tour report and had a meeting in late February. My guess is that the Association of Immigrants from Kochi Prefecture is deeply involved.

Bunichi Kagawa (1904 -1981) was a poet, essayist, and critic who started concentration camp magazines in the Japanese language during World War II. His friends, supporters, and Nanka Bungei (Southern California literature publishers) collectively, raised $20,000 and built the poem epitaph on his behalf in one corner of Honda Plaza in January 2006, but is now in danger of removal by the death of the land owner, leading to a possible title transfer. On March 11, a multi-faceted meeting was held, which included Bunichi’s poem recitation, local Japanese American children’s poems encouraging 311 Tohoku Quake/Tsunami victims, lecture by Prof. Kumei of Shirayuri University in Chofu, Tokyo who stressed the pioneering role of Kagawa in Japanese immigrant’s literature.

Little Tokyo has another rare statue we Japanese can no longer see in Japan, of Kinjiro Ninomiya as a teen, carrying firewood on this back and reading a book, symbolizing the virtue of diligence. Ninomiya later became a prominent 19th century agricultural leader. There are also World War ll and Korean War Memorials in the San Pedro street Memorial Court.

I read that the Community Redevelopment Agency and the CC&R requires developers to assign and fulfill 1.25% for public art and statues like Kinjiro, Isamu Noguchi’s stone sculpture, Friendship Knot, Astrononaut Onizuka’s Memorial, which should fall within the guidelines and they should include maintenance costs. I heard Bunichi Kagawa’s poem epitaph costs $100 per month for maintenance.

My daughter accompanied me to the Japanese American National Museum. We walked to Honda Plaza to see the Bunichi Kagawa’s poem epitaph.

We found Kagawa’s poem “The Sea Shines” printed on both sides – Japanese in front and the English translation by Masayuki Arai in the back.

The translation reads:

“My poverty saddens me at times
but at home they increase in number,
bit by bit.
(sung by Shizu Aida, aka Mrs. Kagawa)

Seen from the Hills, the sea is green
A color like the cucumbers we grew in the summer
Running so bitterness
All day long, the sea stabs
At my dry pupils

I have lived here for four years already.
Poverty, too, belongs to me
I have come to tell myself
Facing straight toward the bitter sea

My wife!
The sea shines today also
Embracing the land in which man lives
The sea shines keenly”

Bunichi arrived at Palo Alto in 1918 to join his father from Eastern Yamaguchi facing the Seto Inland Sea. He studied English and poetry on his own while living and working at Stanford University dorm. By age 25, he published his first anthology “Hidden Flame” with the foreword by Yvor Winters (poet, critic and scholar at Stanford University). Apparently this anthology was lost and possibly no longer exists. While thumbing through another Kagawa anthology republished in Japanese in 2006 in Oakland, I found Bunichi poems which were sung at the camp in Manzanar and at Tule Lake. Seemingly he spent time in both camps.

I have visited JANM many times, but it was my daughter’s first visit and she was enthused to see the exhibits. While touring the library camp exhibits, we were lucky to encounter Roy Kakuda, a volunteer docent. Roy had spent his youth at Poston Camp 1 in Arizona. Camp Poston, at its fullest, imprisoned a population of 17,814. The internees who corresponded with Miss Breed were in Camp 111. Roy Kakuda gave us a true-to-life graphic story using his brand new iPad. We intently listened to him, totally mesmerized.

* This article was originally published on his blog, Riosloggers, on April 9, 2012.

© 2012 Rio Imamura

bunichi kagawa honda plaza janm Japanese American National Museum little tokyo Ryoma Sakamoto