By NAOMI HIRAHARA
Why did I invite George Yoshinaga to continue his colorful and controversial column, “The Horse’s Mouth,” for The Rafu Shimpo in the fall of 1991?
I was only 29 and the editor of the English Section. We had a strong, excellent staff of writers, including associate editor Takeshi Nakayama, the only true Nisei. (I describe myself as a 2.5, with a Japanese postwar immigrant mother and Kibei Nisei father.) Our cumulative political slant definitely tipped left and while I knew Japanese American Democrats outnumbered Republicans, I was also very conscious that our job at the newspaper was to serve our entire community, not just one segment.
The English section had been started in the 1920s for the Nisei generation and I was not fooling myself – in the 1990s, the Nisei still were the anchor of our English Section, almost 70 years later.
So when our only competitor, Kashu Mainichi, closed its doors as a daily newspaper, my editorial antennae extended. George Yoshinaga, the Nisei conservative, was now a man without a newspaper home.
In my mind, the Kashu English Section was equivalent to “Horse’s Mouth.” Indeed, some days his column took over most of the few pages that were in the English language. Some topics were his favorite standards: horse racing, boxing and gambling in Vegas. But the thing was, even in those columns in which he repeated and recycled those same topics, I still relished reading them with the anticipation, “What is George going to write next?”
George was certainly bigger than life. He was a big man, mustachioed and usually wearing a suit and tie. He strolled around Gardena, his neighborhood, and Little Tokyo with an unlit cigar protruding from the side of his mouth. While his public persona on paper was combative and brash, if you happened to catch him face to face, he was definitely more pussycat than tiger.
His faithful wife was usually by his side, and I sometimes wondered what it was like to be married to a personality like George. There was some public event and one of George’s sons, who had served with the military, was in attendance, tall and handsome, and I got a flash of how George may have looked in his young prime. (I later saw what he looked like as Willy Hidaka, a character in Sam Fuller’s black-and-white noir classic film “The Crimson Kimono.”)
George Yoshinaga (left) and James Shigeta in a scene from the 1959 film “The Crimson Kimono.”
What I liked the most about George was that he took ownership of his opinions, at least on paper. He didn’t spread rumors behind people’s backs; he did it openly under the banner of his column headline. And while he did have a soapbox, he forever characterized himself as the underdog, the man on the curb watching the parade with its dignitaries going past. Many other readers, especially certain Nisei, felt the same way and gravitated toward his columns. Even Eric Nakamura, who had recently launched his popular zine, Giant Robot, with Martin Wong in the 1990s, told then Rafu reporter Julie Ha that his favorite feature of the newspaper was the “Horse’s Mouth.”
One of the more contentious editorial battles during my tenure was between George and another formidable Nisei man, Frank Emi, a black-belt judoist. Frank had been part of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee and in the 1990s, the story of the marginalized World War II draft resisters, who had fought military conscription on constitutional grounds, was just being exposed. Released at this time was the Lim Report, commissioned by the Japanese American Citizens League to examine the organization’s wartime role in cooperating with government authorities and suppressing dissidents.
George, who had been incarcerated in Heart Mountain himself, considered the members of the Fair Play Committee draft dodgers and “chickens” who may have had allegiances to Japan. As soon as he expressed that in his column, Frank Emi was on his typewriter, refuting George’s allegations.
In this era before emails and attachments, these men took turns running into our offices, then on Los Angeles Street, with their responses to one another.
Soon all of us were witnessing a prize fight, blow by blow – only this match would not end in 12 rounds. As an editor barely in her thirties, I could not contain it, and in fact, I believe that this heated exchange was important. Redress and reparations was won for most internees. This was the time to extricate our old grudges, misunderstandings and differences and lay them down on the table.
Their battle was so ferocious that it even captured the attention of the mainstream. On March 12, 1993, their fight over the patriotism of the draft resisters ended up as a Column One story on the front page of The Los Angeles Times under the headline, “Draft Rift Lingers 50 Years Later.”
Frank Emi was media-savvy and at least expressed no real animus towards George, at least to me. He knew that George, whether he realized it or not, was allowing the story of the Heart Mountain resisters to get more exposure.
I was less patient with George’s take on other topics, such as the comfort women, the euphemism for the women were used by Japanese soldiers for sex during World War II. As we always had “news hole,” space for stories, dissenters could always write in their opinions – sometimes very lengthy – in the same space where we published George’s column. Those without access or a voice, however, could not express themselves, and I was mindful of that.
George did play fast and loose with facts. I saw him as a columnist and storyteller and not as a journalist. One day my boyfriend at the time (who later became my husband) called me to tell me that Vin Scully had mentioned The Rafu Shimpo in connection with an anecdote that Horse had written about pitcher Hideo Nomo. The story was that someone was calling out to another Dodger pitcher, Antonio Osuna, and Nomo mistakenly thought that it was the phrase osu na, Japanese for “don’t push me.”
Excited, I called George. “Vin Scully mentioned us on TV,” I said.
George was uncharacteristically quiet. Then the truth came out. He had made the story up. I should have chided him – I guess maybe even suspended his column for a week or two. But I knew from George’s sheepish voice that he was supremely embarrassed to be found out and via a telecast of a Dodger game, no less.
At one point, I wanted to go through his columns and pull together a collection of his writings. I know that many of my Sansei contemporaries didn’t understand my enthusiasm for his work. For me, he was part of the fraternity of the ethnic press. He didn’t write an occasional “Vox Populi,” but a column regularly multiple times a week. He did this while incarcerated in Heart Mountain, and later for various different outlets.
While working as a boxing promoter or whatever he did for real money, he always came through with his columns. One of my predecessors, Henry Mori, had a column called “Making the Deadline,” and that’s what George did. He made his deadlines for 70 years.
But even more than that, he shared with his readers a quintessential voice, an extremely readable voice that was both self-deprecating and arrogant and always entertaining. He sometimes wrote without thinking but never without feeling – and he gave voice to the feelings that other people like him had.
He was not a writer of enryo or gaman, classic Japanese values we sometimes extol and romanticize. No, he just put it all out there – how he felt about being a Nisei and his personal observations – thereby providing a platform for others to provide a different viewpoint and sometimes correction. Without George, there wouldn’t be as many arguments, debate or conversation. The things that divide us would be unspoken, ignored, not communicated.
George helped us to define where we stood. In the years to come, scholars will better understand who we were as Japanese Americans in the 20th and early 21st centuries from a man who penned the “Horse’s Mouth.”
Naomi Hirahara is former English editor of The Rafu Shimpo and is the author and creator of modern crime fighter Ellie Rush of the LAPD and reluctant sleuth Mas Arai. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.