“So how long does it usually take?” I ask.
“Maybe, three and half to four hours. Depends on the size of the body.” replies Gerry Fukui as he stands just out of eye shot of my grandmother, Chris Naito, in her oversized IKEA cardboard box. He said she wouldn’t have wanted him to see her this way. Even after death her reputation is respected.
I take one last look at my grandmother before we roll her into the Evergreen easy bake oven. So many thoughts traveled through my mind as I looked down at the corpse of the person who made me who I am. I want to stay here all day and roll through the pensieve of memories, but in my mind I can hear her saying “Don’t you have things to tend to in Little Tokyo?”
She’s right. I pressed the button and the furnaces ignited like the Challenger’s rocket boosters. Back to stardust she goes.
My Grandma Chris knew Ellison Onizuka personally. She knew a lot of people personally. We even found a handwritten letter from him telling her to tune in to the launch that came attached to a few NASA patches as we were going through all her heirlooms. It’s an interesting feeling going through all her documents and photos. I always knew her as “grandma,” but never knew the young Japanese American businesswoman she was. Looking at old memories as new moments, pondering the multiverse of narratives of how these photos came to be. I just wish I discovered these giant sized meal prep tupperwares of Kodaks and Fujifilms sooner. Funny how things like this happen that way. As Jay-Z says, “They never really miss you ‘til you dead or you gone”
*Record Scratch* You’re probably wondering where this is going by now. The title and this creative exercise aren’t adding up just yet. Well let me clarify, I was supposed to write about what I do for the community, how I got here, and why I created “The Shinsei Movement,” a community bulletin board for all things JA, Little Tokyo and AAPI related events. After thinking about it for a while, and writing it a few times over, I had some drafts but it just seemed like a generic interview of myself. Just too “Banana bread plain” for me. So I finally figured out the best way to explain who I am is by telling you why I am. No one wants to hear my answers to the same lame small talk question of “What do you do?” I’m here to tell you my purpose in life and what powers my soul. That “Why” is because of my Grandmother, Fumiko Christine Naito. Let me give you a quick summary of who she is.
In the 80’s & 90’s, my Grandma Chris would carry a .357 Magnum in her purse because Little Tokyo wasn’t as gentrified as it is now. She and my uncle, Michael Ishikawa, had a car broker company called Little Tokyo Leasing & Sales for 25 years on the 2nd floor above where Millet Crepe is now. Her 6 foot iguana Iggy would sunbathe all day eating fresh produce looking out towards the Isamu Noguchi plaza. All sorts of people would stop by after hours just to hang out to avoid the eastbound traffic. She always loved to entertain and this is probably how she got to know everyone.
During her time as a local business, she saw the JACCC be built and Bill Watanabe establish LTSC. She was good friends with Frances Hashitmoto and served on many Nisei Week boards along with being the General Chairman of Nisei Week in 1994, the same year Frances invented mochi ice cream under the Mikawaya brand. My Grandma Chris was for the people and for the businesses. She taught Carol Tanita of the Rafu Bussan how to put on makeup when she was 17. She encouraged Bill Watanabe to charge $1 for the Tofu Festival which turned into a $20,000 donation for LTSC. She was the one who took me to see the Godzilla triple feature at the Japan America Theatre, renamed the Aratani Theatre in 2001, which was a program developed by Hirokazu Kosaka, the artist in residence at the JACCC for the last 40 years—this memory is what inspired Budokan Cinema and my Ghibli series at the Aratani. Hirokazu couldn’t help but smile when he found out in a pitch meeting I was giving him that his program is what inspired me. It was a serendipitous full circle moment. If there was an organization that had to do with Japanese culture and business, she was there. She was everything, everywhere, all at once before the Daniels were born.
However, the crazy part is that she accomplished all of this after divorcing my grandfather at 40 years old in a time where that was unheard of, and starting her own business as a woman. She would often brag about how his jaw hit the floor when she rolled up in a mink coat and Mercedes the next time he saw her. This was after she saw her second child, my uncle Neal, die from polio which only created a great fissure between my mother and herself. The only reason they ever talked again was because I was born. She grew up in Gila River and was forced to spend 3 years of her childhood wondering why she was considered the enemy, only to go back home and face the hardships of intense racism. This was my Grandma, my mentor and my role model. This was the person that defined for me what being Japanese American meant.
“So what do we call you? Is it Kevin? Do you prefer Charles Keizuchi? Like who the heck is Atticus?”
Call me anything you like, baby.
Kevin is my most common name, Celtic for gentle and I’m still not sure how Asian Americans all decided in a generation to name their kids that. I blame Macauley Culkin from Home Alone. It was easy to yell and recognizable.
Charles is the name of my Great Grandfather, the father of Chris Naito. Keizuchi is the name of my Great Grandfather on my Naito side. I just figured I’d pull a play from David Ono and throw my Japanese name into the mix.
Now Atticus, I’m not really sure where it comes from. Well I know where it's from since it stems from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but I don’t know why I chose that persona and name. Guess I just like the way it sounded, and the way it made me feel when people said my handles IRL. Most people who have met me first through instagram say I move like an Atticus, and not like a Kevin.
“So where did you come from? Like you just kind of appeared out of nowhere. What’s your origin story?” Throughout the years I would pop in and out of events like the Tofu Festival and Nisei Week, but it wasn’t till around 2017 when I first got involved with the Go For Broke Torchbearers via my cousin Nicole Cherry, the 2003 Nisei Week Queen. The inaugural group hosted people like Roy from Japangeles, Randy Masada, Philip Hirose, Andy Kimura, Kent Marume, Alan Hino plus a few others were in the ranks. I was just being a brighteyed, cheery volunteer ready to make change in the community. In our initial efforts we held an event to help launch the Japangeles x GFBNEC collab in parallel with the eating contest “The Last Spamurai.” I even convinced Mitch Maki to do an LT pub crawl instead of a “Summit Talk” that I designed the poster for. However shortly after, meetings dwindled and we didn’t see each other for months on end so we just kind of disbanded because all that was left on the calendar was Evening of Aloha. I felt under-utilized and neglected at that time, so I went in a different direction. The current model of Torchbearers has since changed and is much more consistent with meetings. They are also constantly pushing the envelope with their events and recruitment especially with Emiko Krantz at the the helm of the Torchbearers and Maya Hernandez as their committee liaison from the GFBNEC team.
When COVID became a thing and everyone was masked up like bandits, stealing toilet paper from any bathroom stall that wasn’t under lock and key, we couldn’t meet up in person or execute any events. I really wish we did the GFB podcast that I suggested in 2019, but once again that was met with resistance and generational misunderstanding. I should have told them it’s like when War of the Worlds was on the HAM radios. After all, what’s a bigger audience than the internet? Then after 2 years of COVID and people getting their vaccines, I decided to get back into the fray and help Little Tokyo out since places had been closing left and right and started looking like a ghost town. However, I knew the time would come when things would be back in full force and Little Tokyo would rise again, just like Godzilla from the briny depths after laying dormant for so many years...
It all started with this idea of just having more than just one Nisei Week a year to drive traffic to the businesses and help incorporate all the volunteers and organizations. The first Nisei Week, held on August 13, 1934 by the JACL, was developed to help support Little Tokyo business by the Issei— so why couldn’t that same formula be used again and replicated multiple times a year? However, after speaking with a lot of the elders they all agreed that Nisei Week is like a “Bonsai Tree” that has already been shaped by the copper wires of tradition, and trying to bend and twist it to my own will would take years of growth to make happen. In the end they seemed a lot more excited about the new ideas I had. Think of it as a fresh juniper, malleable to my own creative ideas and forms. Thus, Budokan Cinema was born and shortly thereafter I screened Seven Samurai, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away at the Aratani. I also gave the JACCC a blueprint for a summer matsuri which led to things like Kodomo No Hi, Children’s Day, and JAnime, which had a panel at Anime Expo that bridge the importance of Beef in Japanese American culture. It felt good to have the community interested in my ideas, but I chalked it up to all of us realizing mortality and the uncertain future in those past few years. They finally wanted a change, and not just talk about change, but action to do so. It’s like Mike Jones said “Back then they didn’t want me, now I’m hot they all on me.”
This brings me to the “The Shinsei Movement.” My Grandma Chris always said that the businesses and people are what make Little Tokyo; hey are the backbone of the space and cultural organizations, always so generous in donating goods and services to help with silent auctions or relevancy to a younger audience. My idea for the Shinsei Movement was to just highlight that and to support everyone in this space by being a loudmouth kid with a bull horn on a soap box yelling out “EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!” That's just who I am. In Japanese American culture it’s rude to brag about yourself, but if I can be the personal “Hype Man” of my community, then why not. Let’s face it we are all struggling with social media on some level, no one gave us a manual on how to play this game.
This bulletin board started off as a way for me to just organize all the events I was going to or promoting. There’s always so much noise of events and things to do in Little Tokyo and in the AAPI community, I just felt they needed to be in the same place instead of across 15 instagrams, a dozen non-profit e-newsletters and a monthly calendar on an antiquated 90’s website that still runs on a gateway computer at a Buddhist temple. So mooooove over Mr. Roboto, the future is now. I just wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world, to make something simple that Boomers and Zoomers could use to figure out the event schedules and parade routes for things like Nisei Week. If information is power, then shouldn’t we all strive for all the people in our community to feel powerful?
I think one of the easiest ways to contribute to the community in a consistent way is just by using your voice in a public manner. I know a lot of people out there have the feeling like they’re not important and no one wants to hear their opinions, but you can be that champion for something people just overlook. Even if it’s just reposting things like me, you can be that conduit for your favorite business or organization. You can be the person who shares with the world what is going on in that special corner of the universe you love or inside your own unique mind. You are the main character of your own video game, just remember to check your privilege, but also know when to cash it in.
I understand there is some resistance and timidness to putting yourself out there like that but I’m always reminded of the quote, “Those that mind don’t matter, and those that matter don’t mind.” Living up to someone else’s definition of “what a true Japanese American is” will always lead to disappointment, after all the definition is only two or three generations old and is fluid because we all have different paths. I know I’ll never be American, nor will I be Japanese, so in a way I get this special lane to define myself based on my history and I hope other leaders in this space can see that too. I’m all about helping push things forward and not standing in the way of progress because of my own ego.
George Takei in his Japan House event said “The time for enryo is over and we need to be more assertive and confident as Japanese Americans,” which struck me as his call to action for the younger generation to make waves and change the tides like a Hokusai painting. I mean most of us are probably reading this on our phones anyways, why not use this little black mirror of anything you want in the world to help build the Japanese American future together? For me, It’s like every time I’m thumbing away at a post, I’m getting closer to my Grandma and the community she loved in the hopes I’m building her a future that she would be proud of.
Anyways I’ve been rambling on long enough. I could segue into talking about the other projects I’m doing , but I think I’ll keep those to myself. If anything follow me on Instagram @atticuswarhol & @the_shinsei_movement for more content and events. Special thanks to Yo! magazine for allowing me to contribute to their mission. It was an honor to be a writer for your platform.
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