J. A. Community
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Susan interviews Julie Azuma at the Midtown Manhattan office of the non-profit organization Japanese American Association of New York (JAANY). By day, Julie is Founder and President of Different Roads to Learning, a company that provides educational resources for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). By night, you can find her opening the doors to her apartment and bringing people in the Japanese and Japanese American communities together. Serving on the boards of multiple organizations and as a Vice President of JAANY, she welcomed Susan to the New York Japanese American community ten years ago and shares her story about growing up in Chicago as a child of issei who were incarcerated during World War II, participating in the Redress Movement alongside people like Michi Weglyn and Yuri Kochiyama, and playing an important role in establishing social groups like Japanese-Americans, Japanese in America (JAJA). Led by President Susan Onuma and Executive Director Michiyo Noda, JAANY provides numerous social services and cultural programs, and as a symbol of community gathering, it was a fitting setting for a podcast interview about community.
Clara Lemlich Awards for Social Activism 2015 (LaborArts)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Michiyo Noda for hosting us and for answering questions about JAANY.
Toshiki Nakashige: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
Susan McCormac: Welcome to The Big Root.
TN: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
SM: Hey Toshiki.
TN: What's up?
SM: We’re back for our second episode of the podcast!
TN: Yeah, what are we going to talk about today?
SM: I had the chance to interview a really special guest for today’s episode, but... before I go into the interview, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to give a little background about my involvement in the Japanese American community in New York as a way to give context for the upcoming interview. As Japanese Americans, we talk a lot about how we are connected through Japanese influence, which is kind of the purpose of this podcast. But you and I have a lot of things that are different about our Japanese heritage, and therefore, we think about our ethnic identities differently. Even though you’re from Texas, you were born and raised in a pretty traditional Japanese family.
TN: Uh huh.
SM: I didn’t grow up with Japanese culture, and when I was around 30, I started to explore my Okinawan heritage. It coincided with my experience of moving to New York. I started taking Japanese language lessons and started JapanCulture-NYC, and in the past decade, I’ve really tried to engage in the New York Japanese American community as best I could. I’ve been involved in a number of organizations. I was involved in the Okinawan kenjinkai, or prefectural association. I was also part of a non-profit organization that teaches non-Japanese chefs about Japan’s rich culinary history, called The Gohan Society. I’m currently a member of the U.S.-Japan Council. I also serve on the board of the JET Alumni Association of New York, where JET is the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. Whenever I can, I also attend gatherings of a social networking group known as Japanese-Americans, Japanese in America, affectionately called JAJA.
TN: You do a lot.
SM: Yeah, but it’s great. I think to an outsider, all of these organizations sound similar, and I’ll admit that there is a lot of overlap in their mission statements and members. But to me, they’ve really contributed a lot to the different types of Japanese and Japanese American people I’ve met and the opportunities I now have. When I was thinking about who I wanted to interview for this episode, I wanted to introduce someone who has been a mentor to me and really a central figure in the Japanese American community, as a COMMUNITY. And Julie Azuma is that person.
Julie Azuma is Founder and President of Different Roads to Learning, a company that develops and sells learning products for children on the autism spectrum. As involved as she is with running her business, she still finds time to serve New York’s Japanese American community and to connect people to various organizations. Because of Julie, I am on the Board of the Japanese American Association of New York, or JAA.
JAA is a non-profit that was established 112 years ago by Dr. Toyohiko Takami, who purchased a plot of land at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Queens to memorialize Japanese ex-pats and immigrants who died in New York without any family members here. Essentially, JAA had its beginnings in serving deceased Japanese, but it has expanded in the subsequent years to serve the entire Japanese and Japanese American community in a number of ways.
So, there wasn’t a more appropriate setting in which to talk to Julie but at JAA. Their offices are in Midtown Manhattan on 45th Street, so JAA is also the literal center of the community. Other organizations like Japanese American Citizens League hold meetings there, and they host a lot of cultural events as well. The office has meeting rooms, where they offer consultations for legal and financial issues, and there’s even a library with Japanese books and movies available to members.
The President of JAA is Susan Onuma, and the Executive Director is Michiyo Noda, who has tirelessly served the Japanese and Japanese American community for more than 25 years.
Michiyo Noda: JAA’s mission is social welfare, social service, and lunch for the senior or something, and education for the all-ages. And culture program; we show the culture program to the American people, or Japanese Americans. Also, promoting the relationship with Japan and USA. JAA is the root of the Japanese community, right? Nihonjinkai, or something. Sot that’s why, you know, Japanese people know JAA before the Japanese community. So you know I am a member of the Safety Network at the Consul General, also I am a board member of the Japanese American Supporting Network, so I have a network in the Japanese community. Also, we are doing the Health Fair twice a year at JAA. Over 50 programs we did in one Health Fair, so I connected to 50 organizations, so I have a network.
SM: When I was there for the interview with Julie, I asked Mrs. Noda to speak a little about the mission of JAA and the important issues that the organization addresses. As you can hear from her answer, JAA does a lot of different things, but essentially Mrs. Noda emphasized that JAA provides social services for the community, including care for the elderly through programs like keirokai and help with visa and other immigration issues for people who recently moved to New York from Japan. Mrs. Noda was busy that day, so she couldn’t speak long, but she was gracious in spending some time with me.
There was a taichi class happening in the main activity room (background audio of taichi class over this line), so I set up my interview with Julie in the library.
I’ve heard Julie’s story on a several occasions before. I interviewed her for an oral history project, but one thing that stands out to me about her is that her ideas were really informed by a lifetime of identifying as Japanese American. Although she is Nisei like you and I are, her upbringing was quite different in that her parents were incarcerated during World War II for being Japanese.
Julie’s originally from Chicago, and she was surrounded by her entire family and a large Japanese American community when she was growing up.
TN: I’ve learned a lot about Japanese American communities forming along the West Coast, but I don’t know much about the history of Japanese Americans in Chicago.
SM: Like many Japanese and Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in camps during World War II, Julie’s parents had the opportunity to leave camp before the war ended to work in factories and farms or to attend schools in the Midwest. Her parents were incarcerated at the camp in Tule Lake in Northern California, but both sides of her family were scattered in Heart Mountain in Wyoming, as well as Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas.
Julie Azuma: So I was born in Chicago in 1943. My parents had gotten out of camp early so that I could be born outside of camp without the stigma. What I remember is our my entire family—my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family—all lived in this one building with one bathroom. So my mother’s family lived on the third floor, my father’s family lived on the second floor, and we were on the first floor. And eventually my father brought his other children, who were in their twenties. He brought them over in the 1950s from Japan; they had been stranded there during the war. So, it was a really intense building with one bathroom.
Slowly in the ‘40s and into the ‘50s everyone started to move out on their own. The families had like $25 per person and a ticket to Chicago. So they were one of the first families to come to Chicago. And all their relatives didn’t know what else to do but to show up and be with us.
SM: Her family lived in a full house in the South Side of Chicago, which has a reputation as being dangerous. Although I don’t personally know a lot about it, Julie painted an image of the South Side being underserved and “at risk,” where the schools weren’t that great. Even though she wasn’t religious, the church was the center of Julie’s childhood experiences.
JA: So, back then, the entire community was either Black or Japanese American. There was a Buddhist church, and there was a Christian church, and I was part of the Christian church. And a wooden station wagon would pick us up as kids, and take us to nursery school, Bible school, summer camp, Bluebirds, Brownies, Japanese school—everything happened at this church. And so I was never religious, but this church served as our community; it was an enormous community.
And I was thinking the other day while I was walking around in New York City, how when I was a kid I could wave to everybody because I knew everybody in the street who wasn’t Black. And sometimes I knew all the Black people, too. Even in New York in the early days in the ‘70s, you would know a lot of people who were Asian.
So back then we would go to the Japanese grocery store. I was raised by my grandmother, who spoke Meiji period Japanese. My father is Issei—was Issei—so he spoke English, but his primary language was Meiji period Japanese as well. And so we went to Japanese school, and we did all kinds of things, and it was always a large community in my head, from my point of view, whether it was Obon or some kind of re-settlers’ picnic where all the people who came out of camp would meet together for a picnic, and it was just a wonderful time as a little kid to be in a community.
SM: Julie fondly remembers her childhood with her family doing Japanese activities, but she felt it was taboo to talk about camp. “Camp” sounded like some fun summer activity to her, but obviously it wasn’t a pleasant experience for the people who actually lived it.
JA: The only secret that they had was that word “camp.” So nobody ever said what camp was. Sometimes somebody in the family would stack a piece of furniture on another piece of furniture, and somebody else in the family would say, “Take that down! It looks like camp!” And so there was this undercurrent, and as a two-, three-, and four-year-old—and older—I would say, “How come you were at camp without me?” And I couldn’t understand how they could be in camp and have this great experience, and I wasn’t there! And they never told me. They never told me what happened or where it went.
SM: I thought you were a teenager when you found out, though.
JA: Yes, through the library…
SM: Oh, so not directly from them.
JA: They didn’t tell me. It was during the Korean War. So I kept saying, “There was a war with Japan,” and they kept saying, “No! That’s the Korean War!” They never even told me there was a war with Japan! It was all those World War II movies on television that they didn’t they didn’t expect, right? ‘Cause we’re talking about so long ago very few people had televisions, right?
SM: Julie also didn’t know about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and she remembers finding out when she around 15. She was scared and never wanted to ask about her family’s history because she knew it was such a horrible experience for them. She grew up in the South Side of Chicago, and after 8th grade, which must have been around the mid-’50s, her family moved to the North Side of Chicago. She remembers that the African American community around her changed to Jewish, Italian, and Latino. Even though she was surrounded by a big Japanese family, Julie recalls that the only real Japanese part of her heritage that she learned was community.
JA: You know, having all that Japaneseness, the only thing that stuck with me is community. The idea of being surrounded in a safe space with a lot of people. All the other stuff about learning Japanese? It didn’t adhere. The cultural things didn’t adhere. They would take me to Japanese movies, and I was terrified. They would…
SM: Why were you terrified of Japanese movies?
JA: They had swords! Right? It was all “cham cham bara bara” films, right? And there was cutting and stuff, so I was terrified. So I didn’t see a Japanese film from the time I was little until, unfortunately, Yojimbo. But, you know. Well, there were some.
TN: Julie’s story about Japanese American identity is kind of almost the opposite of my experience. Growing up in a Japanese family in Dallas for me felt like it was all about Japanese language and like NHK shows playing on TV, more than it was about feeling like I was surrounded by a Japanese community. I have a pretty small family, so that might have been a part of it.
SM: Do you feel that way even after leaving Texas?
TN: Yeah, I guess with a name like Toshiki, people always expect me to be able to speak Japanese, so that part of my Japanese identity has never left me. But I definitely think that people like Julie make me feel like I’m in a Japanese American community regardless of my ability to speak the language.
SM: My mom kind of had the opposite experience because she’s from Okinawa and survived World War II there, so she basically distanced herself from Japaneseness after she married my dad and moved to North Carolina. When I moved to New York, it was a different world from what I knew down South, so I can identify with Julie’s struggles fitting in as she transitioned to college.
JA: I went to high school—not a very good high school—in Chicago. I had a few Japanese American friends, but far less than before. And then I went to Washington University in St. Louis in 1961, where there were six Asians.
SM: In the entire school?
JA: In the entire undergraduate school. There were lots of Hawaiians in dental school. I dated most of those. So it was really difficult to fit in. And I didn’t understand, I didn’t understand that people lived in houses. I came from a whole apartment, kind of, point of view, so when I went to Washington University—when I went to St. Louis—there were these enormous houses, and people lived in them! I mean, like, mansions! The concept was so outside of my frame of reference. And, they weren’t Jewish or Italian. Yeah, it really set me back. I had a hard time. And St. Louis is on the Mason Dixon line, so I never really quite had an idea of fitting in into “Are you Black or White?” I really didn’t understand Black or White. If I had been raised in Japan, I would’ve gone White. But being raised on the South Side of Chicago and having been part of that community, I didn’t understand when you went to Texas and it said, “Whites only” on a bathroom door, which way to go.
SM: Julie first moved to New York in the mid-60s, but she left soon after and lived in a couple of places—California and Connecticut. She finally returned to New York in 1971 to work in the fashion industry.
JA: So I was married for a number of years in Chicago, and it didn’t work out. So I was married for five years, and then I was on my own for a couple of years in Chicago; I was just miserable on my own. So I went back to my ex-husband in New York in 1971. And we owned a 3,000 square foot loft in Tribeca together. And so when we were together again, I was still kind of on the white side. I had two Japanese American women friends who were in fashion that I was friendly with, one from when I was two years old, and the other one from Peoria, Illinois. So I was friendly with them, and we, together, said, “Let’s go find the Japanese American community!”
SM: We already mentioned a number of other Japanese American organizations, but Julie actually first got involved in the Japanese American community through a group called Japanese American Citizens League. JACL is the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the US, and they have a chapter in New York.
JA: So I called the JACL—this was maybe ’74, ’75, something like that ’73, ‘74—I called them up, and a man answered and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you missed our annual meeting; it was just a month ago. Bye.” That was it! So I tried again a little while later. And they said, “Oh, we’re having a potluck. Come to the potluck.” And I made fried wontons and all kinds of stuff for this potluck, and I went down with my potluck dishes—which were a pretty interesting dish, you know, fried wontons—and I noticed that nobody was really nice to me.
SM: Why do you think that was?
JA: They’re just, you know, Japanese, Japanese Americans—or maybe Japanese—it takes them a little time to get used to your being with them. But there was one man named George Yuzawa, who looked like Mr. Monopoly in Japanese, just such a sweet man, and he took time out to ask me who I was, and where did I come from, and he made me feel really welcome. And the woman who ran the JACL at the time was a tyrant named Ruby Schaar, Ruby Yoshino Schaar, and she taught voice, and she was an amazing prima donna. You know, she just ruled beautifully—and scared a lot of people. But she liked me because I looked like fresh blood. And so she had me doing whatever errands for maybe two or three years as the JACL Program Director. So I would do theater parties and put together events, and I was really good at this stuff. But you couldn’t get a lot of people out. You couldn’t attract people to do things. If you could get 20 people in a room, that would be exciting.
SM: So Julie was starting to find her sense of community, but she still felt it wasn’t quite enough. At this point, she didn’t know about JAA, and in a way I think she was still searching more for something deeper within her family’s story. At that time a movement was beginning on the West Coast seeking reparations for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. This effort is referred to as the Redress and Reparations Movement and eventually culminated in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and the subsequent distribution of redress checks in the early ‘90s.
When this movement moved to the East Coast during the ‘70s, and to New York specifically, Julie began to find her purpose. Initially, she didn’t tell Ruby Schaar, the president of the JACL New York chapter, and the other members of the JACL because they were a little more conservative than the faction involved in the redress movement. Even within the Japanese American community, there was a divide between demanding justice and letting the past remain in the past.
Julie refers to the basement of a church. The Japanese American United Church on 7th Avenue in Chelsea served as a meeting place for JACL, and similar to the church in Chicago during Julie’s childhood, it became a symbol for the community. The church hosts the New York Day of Remembrance, an annual event that commemorates FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which effectively paved the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
JA: So interestingly in the ‘70s there was a movement in Seattle and on the West Coast for redress. My best friend from those Chicago days said there’s a movement to talk about camp and to get reparations, and she told me this in the late ‘70s, and so I went looking for it. It’s hard to explain this, but as you grow up in this the shame of having been incarcerated, a lot of people didn’t want to bring that up, they didn’t want to talk about it and so there was “Let’s leave it alone” on one side or “Let’s open that” on the other side. And for me, it was incredibly personal in that I wanted to know what happened. I just had no idea what happened to my family and what would create this shame. So I followed that path of the people who were much more liberal. Later they included George Yuzawa and Michi Weglyn—Michi and Walter Weglyn—and the Kochiyamas and some wonderful, wonderful leaders in the community that were much more liberal than the people I had fallen into before.
SM: George Yuzawa was a community activist who was involved in a number of social causes to help Asians and Asian Americans in New York.
Michi Weglyn was the author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. Her husband, Walter, was a German Jew who survived Nazi Germany.
Bill and Yuri Kochiyama were activists who met while incarcerated at Jerome, Arkansas, and advocated for civil rights for marginalized groups.
After a couple years of helping with redress, Julie finally told her colleagues at JACL.
JA: Eventually, after sneaking around I let them know that I was working with the redress people. It was many years later that JACL here wanted to be part of it and wanted to be part of the catharsis. It was two or three years before—maybe not that long, maybe two years—before everybody wanted to join this coming together. And when I talk about that coming together, it was in the basement of the church, and the coming together meant that all of these communities were together, all these disparate people were together with one thing—The thing that we wanted to do was not win reparations; we wanted to bring the hearing to New York. We wanted to bring the commission hearing to New York because the New York story was so different than Chicago or Denver or Los Angeles or San Francisco. The people who came to New York were very unusual people, and they didn’t want to go back to the West Coast, and they had lifestyles that were like Henry Sugimoto or Miné Okubo, or great artists. They are people with great experience in history who were in New York. So that was our goal was to get the hearing in New York, and we won it. It was really magical.
SM: Henry Sugimoto was a painter who moved to New York after being incarcerated at Jerome and Rohwer, and he became posthumously famous for his paintings of his experiences in camp.
TN: I actually learned about Miné Okubo when I was studying art history in college. She was known for her drawings depicting daily life at the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah, and among other achievements, her art was published in a book called Citizen 13660.
Also, when I was in college, JACL was my introduction to Japanese American issues, and from what I can remember, the narrative that’s told is that JACL was instrumental in leading the redress and reparations movement. Maybe there’s a difference between the history of involvement between the West Coast and the East Coast, but hearing about Julie’s experience makes me appreciate that it was complicated and that, even within the Japanese American population, people had differing opinions about how to deal with the aftermath of the war and incarceration.
SM: Julie wasn’t born in an internment camp, and even though she never really talked to her family about their experience in the camps, she spent several years during her time in New York fighting for her family. She believes that Japanese American incarceration not only affects the people who were physically there, but also their descendants for multiple generations that follow.
SM: But going through redress reparations, did it make you feel more in touch with your Japanese American roots? Did you feel like you were getting some kind of closure out of your family’s story, even though you didn’t directly know what that was?
JA: Yes, I think the catharsis is set, was set. And I felt pretty good about my mother getting reparations. I got reparations because I was born before 1945.
SM: Even though you didn’t spend a second in camp?
JA: Right. But what’s the difference between me and somebody who, you know, was two months old? Right? No, apparently if you were born before 1945, you were entitled. When you think about the incarceration and you think about—not you—but other people like yonseis and people in my family from generation to generation to generation, there’s still some psychological hold back. There’s some psychological issue of being afraid to speak out. Of being afraid to succeed. Being hesitant. There’s a hesitancy. And I think that the a psychological damage that happened to our community back then it still seeps through through generations. And we married out, so many of us married out, because, because we were kind of told to. And many of the successes are people who married out, right? Because they had a partner who had a different sensibility and not this incarceration sensibility. So I think that the damage is continual.
SM: Julie sees parallels between what happened during World War II and what’s happening now along the US Southern border, where migrant children are being detained. Obviously it’s heartbreaking to hear the news of children getting separated from their families, but because she herself experienced the aftermath of her family’s incarceration, Julie worries about what’s going to happen long-term to the descendants of the families today.
TN: In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a movement for ethnic solidarity where Japanese Americans wanted to stop the US government from detaining Muslim Americans.
SM: Right. Their scars are reminders for them to be socially active. After Julie and her first husband divorced, she eventually went on to meet her second husband through the Japanese American community. She married Tamio Spiegel, and they adopted two daughters, Miranda and Sophie. Tamio himself is mixed race and of Japanese descent, and his mother, Julie’s mother-in-law, Motoko Ikeda Spiegel, was incarcerated at Heart Mountain.
JA: It was stunning to me to see. Tamio Spiegel’s mother, who was my mother-in-law, spoke about her experience in camp that was unforgettable. Unforgettable. She wrote a paper at SUNY—she wanted to be the first one to graduate from college in her family—and she wrote a sociology paper about her camp experience. And two weeks later all her hair fell out of her head. That was stunning! First of all that she would talk about it, and it’s just an amazing story because the impact on her was so harsh, so harsh. But back then—I guess I want to make a reminder here—that all this stuff that we were doing about redress reparations, it was all Japanese Americans. It was not the Japanese. And back, and it’s hard for you to remember or to know, but there was a separation of community between the Japanese and the Japanese Americans. And I can’t put my finger on what happened there, but there was disdain one side or the other, and we couldn’t come together as a community. Although around that time I joined JAA’s Board, but I didn’t speak Japanese, and the meetings were held in Japanese at the Board. I was there to bring young blood or, you know, young people, and I was in my thirties back then. So to be part of this JA community was really wonderful because we really did have a shared experience.
SM: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. I created this website to share the different Japanese-related events and stories with anyone who is interested in Japanese culture. Whether you like food, music, movies, or art, you’ll find it here. My favorite Japanese thing right now is The Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m fascinated by how the book, believed to be the first novel ever written, inspired the gorgeous artwork on display and connects New Yorkers to a romantic period in Japanese history. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
SM: Even though the redress and reparations movement was successful, Julie mentioned there was still a division between Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. Julie spoke of her time in JACL throughout the ‘70s to the ‘90s, but she eventually discovered JAA and USJC, and she was instrumental in the formation of a social networking group known as JAJA, Japanese-Americans, Japanese in America, which was founded in 2004.
JA: The merging of the two communities started only about a decade ago. To me, I think it started maybe ten or fifteen years ago. On one level it was Irene Hirano Inouye, who created U.S.-Japan Council, which was an outreach between Japanese and Japanese Americans. At the Japanese American Association of New York, there was suddenly a better merge between the Japanese and Japanese Americans. There’s a certain welcoming of both sides, which I didn’t sense before so much, but that could’ve been an age thing back then. But those people who started JAJA are the best ones at it. It’s Stann Nakazono, Jennifer Takaki, and Donna Tsufura, who didn’t know there was any community in New York and decided they should get together. Since they didn’t know me, or anybody else, Corky Lee introduced me to them and said, “Oh, they need a place to meet.” And so I gave them a place to meet. And the first meeting was so raucous and so exciting that I decided that I would stay with them. Although at the beginning, I told them they could have the apartment, and I’ll see you later. And Tamio and Sophie and I would take off somewhere. But they said, “Oh, please stay,” and it was really a shocking series of events that made me think that I love them.
SM: After redress and realizing that there was a bit of division between Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, I think she felt a little left out because she didn’t speak Japanese. She started joining other Asian American organizations, like Asian Women in Business, Asian CineVision, Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, and Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans. Lots of Coalitions! She says that her experience was incredible, like the time she got to meet the Chinese actor Jet Li.
SM: Did it make you feel like Chicago again? Being surrounded by so many people?
JA: It’s so much cooler than Chicago, you know? Because, let’s say, back in I don’t know when, but there’s a picture of Jet Li in our house because Asian CineVision used to have their directors’ party at our house.Or the Heritage Festival after their wrap-up they would have all their sponsors come, and we would have a big party. And back then I could cook more. I come from a long line of partying. So this thing with JAJA, I thought it would be momentary. And the characters, especially Kenji and Jennifer and Stann, they’re so interesting. I just thought that it was fun. So there were only six or eight people back then when we first started. And I think it’s almost 14, 15 years ago that we started having these monthly events. Tamio really loved to cook, and he would make these really fancy dishes. I like volume. So we used to be the hosts, and eventually we thought, “There’s so many people; we can’t host this,” and so it became more of a potluck. I think it gradually became a potluck. And we have a baseline of food always so that the potluck looks like a potluck.
SM: From the inception of JAJA in 2004, Julie continued to open up her apartment to guests and strangers, and every month they have social events at her house. Julie’s legacy really has been to open her doors and to cook.
JA: Literally, I’m a worker bee who cooks. So I spent a lot of my time at lots of those meetings in the kitchen. And after, after we won redress and we did Day of Remembrance, I stayed in the kitchen for another 20 years. And I think that my community success is really dependent on cooking, you know, because I think that the food thing is what brings people together. And if you can create food that reminds them of something from home, that’s sort of my personal mantra about community and food.
SM: Julie is humble about her role in the redress movement and the development of community organizations in New York, but she did it all while being a serious businesswoman. As I mentioned earlier, Julie founded a company that provides educational tools for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I wanted to give her a chance to talk about her work, which, coincidentally, also started because of family. Julie and Tamio eventually divorced, but their shared experience with Miranda led to Different Roads to Learning.
JA: Because I was a clothing designer, nobody thought that I had ever wanted kids. Now I didn’t want to any of this stuff because, you know, a child of the sixties, I wanted to get married, have six kids, and coast. Didn’t happen. So in my forties I got pregnant, and I was so excited that I could be pregnant! And I had a miscarriage, and I was really saddened by the idea that I could’ve had a child, and didn’t have a child. So Tamio and I got married, and we looked for adoption. And I was over 40, and I appeared to be not a very good parent because my first child was autistic and had some real behavior issues. And a lot of people thought that it was because I didn’t know how to parent. That I didn’t have any, well actually I didn’t have any instructional control over this child, but that was true! But autism doesn’t become apparent until much later in life. So now they can diagnose it at 14 months, or 16 months, or two years. But back then she was six before she was diagnosed.
SM: Miranda was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and Julie realized that it was difficult for parents to find resources for autistic children, especially before the internet was widespread.
JA: Somebody told me about Applied Behavior Analysis, and that is a method of one-to-one teaching with kids with autism that will help them with language. At six it was pretty late for my daughter to learn language, but if you can catch a child at two-and-a-half or three and do this one-to-one teaching, you can almost neurologically re-wire their brain if they’re young enough, and they could present as mainstream, or neurotypical. So I really had challenges with raising Miranda. Again, I wanted other parents to have support. And so I started this company never dreaming, never, never dreaming that it would be a lifelong thing or that it would be successful. I just did a little, tiny thing online of about thirty products. And the first thing they said—somebody wrote—could you please send your postal catalogue? Well, I had heard that the internet would be everything. So we put together, with my Asian American friends, we put together a postal catalogue. John Ang and Ramon Gil—all my friends from the Heritage Festival. And so we put together a 32-page catalogue in 1995. Everybody came over and tried to teach me how to be on the internet because I was computer illiterate. You know, the modem, you had to dial up the modem, and you had to wait for this long thing to happen. I took credit cards on this modem. So I learned a whole lot, and I did it by myself for maybe about a year. And then I hired some people, and on the third year, I became profitable. It was stunning to be profitable! And I joined a lot of listservs of parents with autistic children. And those parents came to me and told me, “This works. This doesn’t work. Why don’t you try this? I think you should sell this.” From that whole community of parents, I developed a line of maybe a hundred products. Eventually my catalogue became about 96 pages. We have about 600 products. We have a volume of somewhere around two, two-and-a-half million dollars for the last six years. We don’t grow, we don’t shrink, we just sort of sit there. It affords me a lifestyle, and it certainly helps all these kids with autism gain language and gain skills. And our goal, I think, is to bring those kids to independence.
SM: I know that autism has really affected Julie’s family, and it’s inspiring that she was able to create something positive like her company.
We were kind of running out of time, so I wanted to address Julie’s current involvement in JAA. She initially joined during the ‘70s and now serves on the board. And since we were at their office, I wanted to get her perspective about the organization.
JA: So I blew off JAA a long time ago, but they made Susan Onuma the president! I thought that she would never be able to navigate this without women support. So I came back ten, I think it was twelve years ago, 13 years ago, when she became the first president, woman president. First woman president in 100 years, right? I don’t think she knows this, but I came around because I thought she needed that kind of support.
SM: Susan Onuma became JAA President in 2005, and she’s is currently serving her second term, which started in 2014.
JA: What I found out about JAA is that its members—and its Board—doesn’t know how much they do. And most of it’s led by Mrs. Noda and Naomi, but they take care of everybody. You know? It is the heart of the community here. But unless you itemize everything they do, you don’t really acknowledge what a great organization it is. And I really believe that even its Board of Directors doesn’t understand what enormous volumes of work come out of here.
SM: Julie has a 40-year perspective on how Japanese American organizations have evolved and served the community, and she mentioned that she wanted to see more events that gathered diverse groups of people.
I asked her what Japanese Americans can do now moving forward, and she brought up issues specific to the Japanese American community. For example, Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship, so many Japanese immigrants never become naturalized and therefore never exercise a right to vote in the US.
JA: I think that we’re overlooked by the politics of life and Asian American life. Japanese Americans and Japanese don’t have a place at the table. And many of our Japanese Green Card holders refuse to become citizens, right, because they think they’re going back to Japan. And I understand that they have that sensibility, but I also understand that we can’t be a voting block; we can’t be a power. And maybe in the Chinese and Korean community there’s the same thing happening. But it would be wonderful if we got a certain percentage of the money that goes to Asian communities. If we were able to speak up for our community, if we were advocates, really clear advocates. But sometimes, you know, I think our Japanese American history of incarceration keeps us from being the kind of advocates we should be, but we should be able to speak out for those people who are here. Who live here, who live under the radar. We should be able to be better advocates for the Japanese and the Japanese Americans here.
SM: But if you did it almost 40 years ago with reparations, why can’t we continue?
JA: I don’t think things are so horrible that they get it. I think they’re horrible, and we should get it. But I think it has to affect them.
SM: The rest of the community.
JA: The rest of the community. They have to see that racism is working against them. Or they have to see that their friends are not getting a Green Card. Or they have to see that nobody is getting a Visa to come here to live. I don’t think that it’s affecting us enough, so there’s not a, you know. Back in the ‘80s we all had a cause. I don’t sense that cause here. I think it’s coming. But I don’t sense it now.
SM: So Toshiki, as a young Japanese American person, do you feel like she’s calling you out?
TN: Yeah, I admit that I’m not as involved in social activism and advocacy as much as I want to. At the very least though, I hope this podcast is my way of promoting important causes.
SM: I call Julie my mentor because she has been instrumental in my involvement with the community. From the moment I met her, I felt like I had finally found the Japanese part of my life that had been missing.
SM: When I first met you, you were wearing a blue wig. But it was a Halloween party, so it wasn’t like you wear blue wigs on a regular basis. But you immediately started talking to me. We had actually communicated via email, and we didn’t even know what we looked like in person, and you were wearing a blue wig, so I still didn’t know what you looked like in person. But you were like, “So, wait a minute, you said you were half Japanese, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And you were like, “Oh, well I’m part of this community, this JAJA, Japanese-Americans, Japanese in America. Come to my house, we do these monthly parties.” And that’s how you kind of got me in, and I dipped my toe into the Japanese community. That was like, a decade ago, and you sucked me in forever.
JA: Do you know how many people I creep out when I say, “Why don’t you come to my house”? You can’t believe how many people say, “Well no, that’s okay,” and they back away from me!
SM: I felt instantly welcomed by you from the second I saw you and you said hello. So whenever I think of Julie Azuma, I think of community.
JA: You don’t think party?
JA: Community’s nice.
SM: Community parties.
JA: Well, thank you. I really wanted that legacy of the apartment being a community space, and I wanted the legacy of making people feel welcome or a sense of belonging. Somebody came to a JAJA last month, and she was in her, a middle-aged person, and she said, “I was gonna go and I was gonna say, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll talk to Julie if I don’t talk to anybody else.’” And she came in, and she met all these wonderful people, and she came back, and I had lunch with her right after, and she said she felt like she belonged. And that’s the sense that I want people to have when they come to my place for, whether it’s JAJA or CAPA, or so I always want that sense of belonging for all those people.
SM: Thank you so much, Julie Azuma, for spending some time with me today here at JAA. I appreciate it because I know you’re a busy woman. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us. And thank you for being you and the heart of the community.
JA: Thank you. Thank you so much for giving me the time.
SM: Julie Azuma has received numerous awards, including being honored by Hamilton-Madison House, a commendation from the Consul General of Japan to New York, and the Clara Lemlich Award for Social Activism, and award for which she is particularly proud because it’s given to seniors. Her legacy goes beyond these accolades and even beyond the home she so generously offers to everyone. Her younger daughter, Sophie, has become a fixture in the community, having been surrounded by so many people throughout the years.
TN: Last time I saw Julie, she told me that I was good-looking and that she’s always happy to see me.
SM: Yeah, on top of inviting strangers to her house, she’s always on the prowl for young and attractive Japanese Americans to join the Japanese American organizations.
TN: Hahaha. Next time, we should have an interview at her place.
SM: She actually offered it for this interview, saying that her apartment was prettier than the JAA library.
TN: Thanks for bringing such a nice story about community to the podcast. I kind of get mesmerized by the fancy cultural things that are happening in New York, and Julie’s a flattering reminder that Japanese Americans like me enjoy a lot of social rights because people before us fought to correct the social injustices that happened in the past. I’m definitely on board, and I hope her story inspires someone else to get more involved.
TN: OK. Listeners, please subscribe to The Big Root wherever you like to listen to podcasts, and please rate and review our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
SM: If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for us, please contact us on our website thebigrootpodcast.com or on social media.
TN: You know, I have a similar story about you when I was first getting involved in the Japanese American community in New York.
SM: Uh huh.
TN: It was like 3 months after I had moved to New York, I had been a part of USJC for a couple years in Boston at that point, but it was my first USJC event here. I had briefly exchanged emails with you and, I think, actually Julie and Susan Onuma beforehand, but I didn’t know anyone else at the event. When I was going around introducing myself, I met you, and you quickly were like, “Oh, you’re a Millennial.” I think you read something I wrote about myself online.
SM: And that got you hooked onto New York’s USJC?
TN: Well, you were the only one who was like, kind of rude to me. You know, it was mostly Japanese people, and I felt like I needed to bow my head a lot. But when I met you, I was thinking, “Oh yeah, this woman keeps it real.”
TN: So like, yeah, a year later, I asked you to do this podcast with me.
SM: It was fate.
SM: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
TN: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by me, Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige
SM: I’m Susan McCormac. Until next time.