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SENSE OF IT ALL: Rafu, Obon and the Cost of Community

Ormseth, Matthew_rgb_crop

(Published July 2, 2016)

Obon and The Rafu are inextricable in my mind. It was at my home temple’s Obon where I met Mikey Culross, sports editor at The Rafu, who ended up asking later that day if I wanted to do an informal internship at the paper. My first Rafu story was on Nishi’s Obon.

While covering the story, I met Susan Yokoyama, who would later land me a columnist gig at The Pacific Citizen.

Obon and The Rafu have more in common than you may think. They both bring together an increasingly far-flung JA community. We’ve drifted up into the Valley, down into the South Bay and Orange County, and eastward into the San Gabriel Valley. But at Obon, we get to see each other — even if it’s only for a night or two out of the year. We’re brought up to speed on our friends’ lives, and then it’s goodbye for another year.

The Rafu does something similar. When you read The Rafu, it doesn’t matter if you live 30 miles north of Little Tokyo or 30 miles south — The Rafu will bring you the news from every corner of the community. Just like at Obon, when you catch up on all that’s transpired in your friends’ lives over the past year, you can read in The Rafu about that kid you played basketball with, or the people you went to church or temple with, and who are now doing amazing things with their lives.

It knits us together, each Rafu subscription a thread beginning in Little Tokyo and terminating in Gardena, Anaheim, Pasadena — wherever JAs have decided to make their homes.

Obons depend on a kind of economic X-factor from the JA community to raise money for the temples sponsoring the festivals. This X-factor is why we’re willing to pay near-restaurant prices for to-go plates of chicken teriyaki; it’s why we’re cool with buying six-dollar bottles of Kirin. We’re willing to pay a little more, willing to put up with temperatures a little too warm for comfort, willing to volunteer at these events and set up and take down, because they are our own. And we realize that if we didn’t pay a little more or put up with some inconveniences, they would cease to exist.

And if they did, we could still get chicken teriyaki at a restaurant. We could still probably find dance classes similar to Bon-odori if we looked hard enough. But we would never again have that combination of food, dance and games found at Obon. We’d never be able to replicate the atmosphere of togetherness that is, for me, the best part of Obon, and so important for a dissipating community like our own.

Matthew Ormseth and Rafu   Japanese section reporter Junko Yoshida staffing the Rafu booth at Nishi Hongwanji's Obon Festival on July 10. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Matthew Ormseth and Rafu Japanese section reporter Junko Yoshida staffing the Rafu booth at Nishi Hongwanji’s Obon Festival on July 10. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

The Rafu is no different. Subscriptions aren’t cheap — I know that. We distribute through the USPS, and sometimes the paper gets there late. But just like at Obon, when you shell out a little more than you’re used to and put up with some inconveniences that might have otherwise turned you off, The Rafu is worth it.

If The Rafu goes under, you’ll still be able to get the big-picture news from The L.A. Times. You’ll still be able to get the smaller, local stuff from papers like **The Daily Breeze or The Pasadena Star-News. And you’ll get it for less than the cost of a Rafu subscription. But just as restaurant chicken teriyaki and Bon-odori classes are no substitute for Obon, these papers are no substitute for The Rafu.

The Times and the local papers would bring you some news from the JA community, but not all of it. And how can they, when they have the Latino, black, white and other Asian American communities to cover, too? It’s true that The Rafu can’t compete with these papers in terms of price. It’s also true that The Times will always provide more comprehensive coverage of the area. It’s a huge paper, with personnel and resources that The Rafu doesn’t have. So in those two fields, The Rafu can’t really compete.

But there are some things these papers can’t or won’t do. Papers like The Times are committed to providing even coverage across the board, which means they can’t cover a particular ethnic community on a daily basis. They won’t publish in-depth coverage of Nisei Week or Obon every summer, or print scores from Hollywood Dodger tournaments. And they can’t compile profiles of JA high school graduates from across the Southland without being called biased.

The Rafu is biased — fundamentally so. The Rafu was never intended to be The Times. JAs in Los Angeles needed a publication that would bring them news from their own ethnic community, and the paper has filled that need for the past 113 years. It’s filled it through times of war and peace, prosperity and austerity, good and bad. It’s filled it for so long, we might have even forgotten that need still exists.

Matthew Ormseth writes from New York. He can be contacted at Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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