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El Dorado: The Japanese Community in New York City

Richard Miguel and James Veluya

In Search of El Dorado

     We probably see a thousand faces a day in New York City, each one bearing certain characteristics of their respective ethnic backgrounds, many of them carrying another language other than English in their lingo. Most of the time it is easy to get a general idea of where someone's cultural roots are embedded by looking at their features, listening for their native tongue or accent, or simply by knowing that you are in a certain neighborhood, such as Chinatown or Spanish Harlem. And if one wanted to learn more about a certain language, one would simply go to the community that is most populated by the speakers of that language - seemed simple enough at the time.

     The task ahead of us was to research the use of the Japanese language in New York City. It did not seem like such a difficult mission, what, with such words as konnichiwa, sushi, and anime being extremely familiar to us and to most people's vernaculars - especially New Yorkers. We, being Filipino, were already used to trying to distinguish one Asian race from another; determining if one was Japanese or not would be a walk in the park for us. It's too bad the Japanese park was not in New York City...

     This is the story of two Filipinos sent out on a mission to find information on the Japanese language and its use in the land where the lingua franca is "non-standard" English (i.e., New Yawk) and the native delicacy is a toss up between pizza and Mickey D's. Our search for the mysterious Japanese community begins on 42nd Street, the Theater District...

Where do you hide your Japanese people?

     According to the demographic census presented to us before we set off to find where Japanese New Yorkers live, the most populated "Japanese" area on the list was Clinton, the Theatre District. Once we stepped out of the subway on 42nd Street our eagerness turned into confusion. Nothing seemed to be self-evidently Japanese. We walked North, South, East, and West for a good two hours finding absolutely nothing useful to us. We did not see anyone who looked Japanese either. The one sushi bar that we saw wasn't even Japanese, it was run by Koreans.

     Eventually we stumbled across a Tourist Information Center in the area. "Here? There's no Japanese community here. Maybe a couple stores or sushi bars, but no real community," the employee said. Our confusion turned into frustration.

     Before we left for the Theater District, we made a quick stop at the library to see if we could find any other Japanese areas in the city. We came across the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, housing the Nippon Club. Since we were about a ten-minute walk away, we decided to head over there. To our dismay the offices were closed and a Japanese lady walking out of the building was very reluctant to speak to us. With our spirits crushed and our four dollars of Fun Pass down the drain, we were off to a great start. (On a side note, we stopped by the Chamber of Commerce at another time, only to find out that the offices were closed again due to the American offensive retaliations on Afghanistan. The security guard told us that they did not want to have any Japanese Diplomats in the building while such an event was going on.)

Miss Y's Video Rentals

     After our first search went bust, we randomly asked a friend if she knew of any Japanese communities in the area. She called up a Japanese friend of hers and told us to check out 3rd Avenue and Stuyvesant Street in Manhattan. Thankfully, the result was success. This became our main area of study although, honestly, one can't really describe it as a community in the essence of a Chinatown, but more of an elevated concentration of Japanese people. Nonetheless, we followed the lead and learned some interesting things.

     One of our better sources of information about Japanese language use in our area of study was a woman (let's call her Miss Y) who runs a Japanese video store on Stuyvesant Street. Another lady, a friend of Miss Y's, was also at the store with a little girl, presumably her daughter. We asked for any information we could use for our project. Interestingly, as they spoke to us, once in a while they would concur with each other about the validity of the information they were providing to us in Japanese. In addition, they had, at first, thought that we (especially James) appeared to be Japanese. When we told them that we were Filipino, Miss Y's reaction was a long "ooooh..." At any rate they were quite helpful, although extremely shy (they did not want to be included in the photographs we were taking). They directed us to a Japanese Supermarket in the area and told us that we might be able to find more information there. It turns out that learning of this one supermarket was a huge lead in gaining exposure to the Japanese language in everyday use. It also looked to be the biggest (although relative to, say, Food Emporium it wasn't very big), and probably the only Japanese supermarket in the East Village. But what we found there is explained later. That first bit of information was so helpful that we decided to return to Miss Y a few days after our first visit to thank her, and to inquire about her view on Japanese people in America.


     Miss Y came to the United States ten years ago as a student of dance from Japan. She chose New York City in hopes of studying dance and to learn better English. We asked her about what purposes other Japanese immigrants had in mind when coming to the United States. She told us that for many Japanese, America was just a temporary stay. Some were traveling for a "long vacation" (she laughs), some were here to open up businesses and to make some money, some came here to get their green card, others were here for educational reasons (i.e. studying at NYU), and some were just "tired of Japan" and needed to get away.

The Japanese "Community"

     Miss Y told us that there was no real Japanese "community" in New York City per se. (Thus the difficulty in finding a "Little Tokyo" is slightly explained). It just so happened that where certain Japanese businesses (i.e. restaurants) sprung up, others followed. The people living in the city also tended to live in areas near these businesses for convenience. She did mention, however, that the East Village did have a slightly more noticeable concentration of Japanese people than in other areas of Manhattan. We found this to be true, especially along Stuyvesant Street and also on St. Mark's Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Miss Y said that the Japanese people living here were around age 18 and above, and that there were mostly 30 to 40-year olds living in the East Village.


     She did not know of any schools in the area that catered specifically to Japanese students, however Miss Y did give us a brief history of her schooling in Japan. She went to a Catholic Kindergarten and Elementary school and then went on to a Buddhist high school. They were taught English in school, but she also mentioned that one of her purposes for coming to the United States was to learn "better" English.


     The fact that Miss Y went to schools of two different religious denominations also says something about the religion of the Japanese people. Miss Y said that if you ask a Japanese person what his or her religion was, their response would likely be that "Japanese have no real religion." She said that there were some who followed Buddhism (which we found striking being that 99% of Japanese in Japan claim Buddhism and Shinto as their religion). She said that they also celebrate Christmas, but in a modernized/commercial type of way. She believed in Jesus "50/50" and noted that marriages occur in a mixed variety; some were traditional "Buddhist-style" held in temples and the others were "Christian-style" held in church. The notion that there is "no real religion" for the Japanese will be explained as we recount the visit to the church later on.

     Although trying not to make an overgeneralization, Miss Y does represent a younger generation (age 20-30) of Japanese living in America. Some of her notions of purpose, religion, etc. are likely to be shared by others of her generation. In the next section, the generation gaps are made distinct, the "Japanese purpose" is illustrated, and the heart of the Japanese can be understood.

Japanese-American Publications

     Along the many stops and steps in our voyage throughout the city, we picked up several Japanese publications here and there. Although they were written in hiragana and katakana (two different Japanese styles of writing), a couple of the newspapers and magazines had a lot of English advertisements and articles. Some of them were almost completely in English (a few even had some Spanish ads as well). This was leading us to believe that Japanese New York is extremely bilingual and very English capable. It seemed like we were well on our way to finding a solid Japanese community; if there were Japanese publications, there must be Japanese readers.

     An interesting note about a few of the newspapers was the current events and headlines sections. Although we could not understand any of the writing, we knew what the articles were talking about. They resembled the pages of our local newspapers: American flags everywhere, pictures of the towers that once were, and the three telltale letters that showed up in nearly every article - WTC. We are still not sure whether or not the newspapers and magazines are imported, but judging from the Pro-American propaganda seeping its way into Japanese media, it may be safe to assume that the printing press is a local one.

     And yet, there was still not much evidence of a Japanese "community". We definitely saw Japanese people around, and heard the language being spoken by a few passers-by on cellular phones, but the sense of community was not evident.

Visit to the Japanese Supermarket

     Our visit to the Japanese supermarket was one of the more productive trips around the city in our search for any signs of a Japanese community in New York. As mentioned earlier, Miss Y pointed us in the direction of the "Sunrise Mart". We did come from that direction before heading to the video rental shop, but did not see a supermarket of any kind, let alone a Japanese one. "It is on the second floor," she explained. It seemed pretty odd for a supermarket to be on the second floor of any building, so we decided to check it out.

     It was not so apparent as to where the entrance to the supermarket was until the wall opened up behind two glass doors revealing an economy-size elevator. A slew of Japanese people filed out, and we took their place on the way up to the "Sunrise Mart". Stepping out of the elevator was as if we were stepping out of a portal into another dimension. One could feel the culture-shift looking outside the window, out to familiar East Village, and then looking at all the hiragana and katakana symbols labeling chips, candy, and beverages as foreign items. We had lived in East Village for nearly an entire year and had no idea that this place existed. It was a little odd, and a little exciting as well; being tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming building gave the supermarket an exclusive feel, as if it were privileging to even hear of such a place. However, the longer we stayed, the more we started to notice familiarities: Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez sang softly in the background radio, a handful of non-Japanese customers were picking up some groceries, and Roman letters on food packaging glared out at us among the exotic hiragana brush strokes.

     The Japanese language was apparent all around us here. Nearly everyone in the store was speaking Japanese. And judging from the English all over the food packaging, Japanese Americans (in New York anyway) seem to be highly bilingual. What reinforced this notion was when we decided to pick up a couple things from the store. While waiting on line, the cashier yelled something in Japanese. Nothing happened. "Next please," and we realized it was our turn to pay. He used English to accommodate to us, his non-Japanese customers. A pattern began to arise in our research. So far, every Japanese American that we have come into contact with has initially spoken to us in Japanese. Considering Miss Y's mistaking us for being Japanese, perhaps the others have made the same mistake as well. Lucky for us we were able to see this mistake. Had we been another ethnicity other than Asian, perhaps we would have never come across this language switching and noticed just how bilingual Japanese New Yorkers are (or have to be, for that matter).

Rich Goes to Church on Sunday

     James was doing some research for the project one afternoon, making a few phone calls to the Nippon Club and Government Center and came up with an address to the Japanese-American United Church on 7th Avenue. We were planning on doing some more city searching because despite Miss Y's help, there was still a lot missing from the project. I had some free time on Sunday but unfortunately James was working the front desk at the Lafayette Street Residence Hall, so I decided I had to follow this lead on my own.

     I arrived at the church and was greeted by an old Japanese lady handing out flyers; a man named Ken, a graduate student of history at NYU; and a black man named Danny, who I later find out is married to a Japanese woman named Kazuko. I realized that the service was just about to end and asked if I could speak with the pastor afterwards. I expected to have to wait somewhere until the pastor could talk to me, but before I knew it I had a red ribbon pinned on the left side of my shirt (signifying my presence as a guest), had my named placed on a list to be called out and acknowledged in front of the congregation, and was seated among the congregation next to a man named Dean, a juvenile rights attorney in his late 20s, for the remainder of the service. I asked Dean what kind of church this was and he replied that it was a Methodist Reformed church. Upon hearing this surprise came over me in the back of my mind. In addition to that, the pastor was white, speaking both English and Japanese, interchanging one with the other, often translating what was said in the previous language to the other language. When they began to acknowledge guests of the church on that day, I stood up when my name was called and was moved to bow slightly in an act of solidarity. The closing hymn, "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace," was all too familiar to me. I prepared to meet some of the people of the congregation, and grew excited to speak to the pastor.


     The congregation welcomed me quite warmly as I sat down to a beef stew and bagels lunch with them in the social room in the basement. With the exception of the pastor and Danny (whom I will both speak of shortly), all members were of Japanese descent, with the majority claiming their ethnicity to be Japanese-American. Dean began to speak to me about how Japanese immigration and purposes could be separated into generations. The first Japanese, the issei, began coming here in the late 1800s but as a result of the Exclusion Period (1882-1943), immigration pretty much stopped as a whole. When limited immigration began again in 1943, the children of the issei, the nissei (second generation), started to arrive and others were born in America. This is the generation that experienced World War II; many were sent to internment camps, and some were even spies for the United States. Several survivors of the war were in the very room in which I sat. After the 1940s during reconstruction, there was less incentive in the Japanese people to immigrate. But new incentive was then provided as a result of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, and it was easier for the next generation, the sansei, to enter into the US. They are also called the shin issei, the new first generation. Finally, the yonsei, or the shin nissei (new second generation) are the children of the issei and the new immigrants from Japan. Recently, however, immigration has been dwindling again. Japan is the second largest economy in the world, and thus there is less incentive to immigrate once again. Most of the Japanese who come here are artists, students, transient businessmen, and those who are "tired of Japan."

The Japanese "Community"

     I then spoke to Pastor Nathan Brownell who told me that he was born in Vermont, his wife was Japanese, and his children were Japanese-American. I asked him what James and I have been asking each other throughout the time of our research, "Why isn't there a 'Little Tokyo'?" The wise pastor's reply was this: the reason that the Japanese-Americans don't really associate themselves with a particular locale dates back to World War II. They practiced dispersion to avoid discrimination; they intermingled and intermarried. This was done to overcome prejudices that occur when groups take over neighborhoods; they wanted to alleviate this problem. The people are limited in terms of a Japanese-American "community." In a way, they have "assimilated" to a great extent. In my observations of the "accents" of both the young and elderly Japanese-Americans, they spoke the stereotypical English vernacular as well as Japanese.


     When I asked, the pastor told me of three full-time Japanese schools in the tri-state area, one each in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Little Neck. There are, however weekend schools in the city. I was told that it is mostly the transient businessmen (here for five years or so), or the "salarymen" as they are called, who send their children to the weekend schools. I was told that one school that does this is Friends Seminary School.

Governmental Services/Organizations

     Aside from the Nippon Club and the Japan Society, I was told of other organizations in the New York City area such as JASSI (Japanese American Social Services Incorporated), which caters to Japanese senior citizens; JAA (Japanese American Association); and JAHFA (Japanese American Health for the Aging), of which I met the vice president. There are also Asian organizations that the Japanese can partake in such as Asian Outreach Center, which provides psychiatric services, and APICHA (Asian Pacific-Islander Coalition for HIV and AIDS).


     I finally asked the pastor about the religious situation in the US. He said that he knows of one Japanese Buddhist Temple on Riverside Dr., and six Christian Churches in the tri-state area. But he reinforced that this was only statistical. The truth is Buddhism and Shinto are definitely the major religions of Japan (Christianity and "cults" comprise of 1%), and that majority versus minority translates to the US. However, many Japanese-Americans have lived all their lives here and so they have adopted Christianity as their primary religion. This, he says, could be because some were disenchanted with Buddhism and Shinto; this is what they believed before the war in Japan - afterwards, they were traumatized and asked, "What do I believe?" These people were disenchanted by "Japanese religion" as a whole. Others have adopted Christianity for convenience, and some have a truly deep belief in it. On a side note, Dean mentioned to me how the Japanese have been historically "xenophobic." When Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in the 1860s, he says, the Japanese were killing the missionaries. He went so far as to say that they have a fear of religion and of Western influence - they're very skeptical. And perhaps this is why the Japanese people here are a part of the Methodist Reformed Church. Danny, originally from Montego Bay, Jamaica, who grew up as a Baptist told me that "The good thing about this church is that it is so open. There are no real restrictions, only that you be truly and honestly good to yourself, to others, and to God."

     Pastor Brownell mentioned to me an effort being made by this church to reach out to the Arab American community, seeing as how their present situation is all too familiar to the people of this congregation. I realized that the Japanese American "community"; their language use, their location, their religious affiliation, their identity; is still very much tied to their history of oppression, both in Japan with imperialism, and in the United States with the consequences of war.

     As I exited the church, I passed a group of senior citizens holding a small service. I recognized one of the many people I met leading the group in song. His name was Woody, a Japanese-American actor who has appeared in numerous advertisements. You might even be able to identify him; he played the prime minister of Malaysia in the recent movie "Zoolander." They were singing "America the Beautiful."

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