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The Nichi Bei Times: Keeping the Ties That Bind

NCM Profile

NCM, Sandip Roy Posted: Nov 05, 2003

Japantown in San Francisco is built around a mall filled with Isamu Noguchi lamps and restaurant windows displaying plastic replicas of tempura and California rolls. A stones throw away from the mall, the Nichi Bei Times operates comfortably in this ambience. We are not just a newspaper, says Kenji Taguma, the papers English-section editor. Because we have a printing press, we also print sushi menus, business cards and raffle tickets for the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Japanese-to-English ratio in the Nichi Bei Times is usually 6:2, which changes to 5:3 on Fridays to attract a younger readership. It is an uphill struggle, but Taguma thinks it is worth it. The paper has a staff of 20 writers, editors and production workers.

An Energetic young man who came to journalism from a background in civil rights and ethnic studies, Taguma sees the bilingual daily (circulation 8,000) is a community institution. If these papers go, the community loses out, he says. He has reason to be anxious. The 2000 Census showed that the Japanese American population dropped six percent to under 800,000 in the last decade, while other Asian communities grew. Japanese American also has the highest median age of all Asian subgroups.

While sustained immigration has helped other major Asian groups maintain a strong sense of connection to their native countries, Japanese Americans are increasingly becoming assimilated. This means that the generations that started papers like the Nichi Bei Times have been replaced by their far more assimilated children and grandchildren who, says Taguma, have little interest in anything but a Mercedes, a house in the suburbs and 2.2 kids.

Taguma adds: There are a lot of people who say were dying. But the other side is we are also changing in ways that we have to recognize and adapt to. One way is to expand its coverage of youth issues and its English section. Nichi Bei Times has been publishing more articles on hip-hop and the youth culture in general, Taguma says.

Six Japanese Americans, whose mission was to reconnect a fragmented community after World War II, started the Nichi Bei Times. The horror of the internment had left the Japanese American community in chaos, scattered all over the country.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Nichi Bei Times, along with other Japanese American newspapers, took on a bigger role when the community waged what eventually became a successful campaign for redress for victims of the World War II internment.

They remembered how they were poor and how they were fired from their jobs and given a curfew, Taguma says. We gave them space to tell their stories and vent their frustration.

The newspaper also spearheaded the battle for the Japantown YWCA in San Francisco, which had been slated for closure. The facility was built by the Japanese American community before World War II, but was turned over to another party because of laws barring Japanese Americans from owning property. According to an old agreement, the community was supposed to have the first right to buy the building back. The case was settled after the San Francisco YWCA agreed to sell the building to Nihonmachi Little Friends, a multicultural day-care facility and longtime YWCA tenant.

The reparations campaign may be over, but now the Nichi Bei Times has responded to the aftermath of Sep. 11 by drawing parallels between their internment and the racial profiling and harassment that many Arabs and South Asians have been facing. In 1941 no one spoke out for us, says Taguma. This time we want to make sure that does not happen again.

Nichi Bei Times focuses on local news, but also became valuable as a source of basic family information: wedding and birth announcements and obituaries.

The future for the newspaper is unclear, he says, but he is being sustained by a healthy dose of idealism. Its just a passion for what the ethnic press stands for and what it has stood for all these years and what it could stand for, he says. Ive put all my blood and soul into this crazy idea, this crazy profession. But its a commitment thats real.

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