Memorial Day

Evergreen Cemetery, Boyle Heights

Evergreen Cemetery, Boyle Heights

The official and American observance of Memorial Day is to honor people who died while in the military service. In the Japanese American community, Memorial Day was adapted to be a way to honor the ancestors. Those who know some Japanese call it “haka mairi” which means “visiting graves”.

At least this seems to be the case in Los Angeles, because if you go to Evergreen Cemetery this weekend, you’ll find all these J-A families making their annual (or for some semiannual) visit to their dead ancestors. Lately, some people have made this event into a little family reunion, and I’ve seen people show up at different cemeteries with food and lawn chairs.

Everyone brings flowers. Some leave food or drinks. If they have vets who died in combat, they might bring flags. For whatever reason, my family never brought out a flag, but in the community the veterans are a big deal because the 442nd and the veterans groups are significant. My family and the families familiar with the Japanese rituals clean off the headstone, pour water over it, and trim the grass.

After visiting all the relatives’ graves we’ll go and eat lunch at a restaurant.

This is pre-theistic ancestor worship, where you believe that the spirits of the dead are in the sky, and are looking down at what you’re doing. Maybe they’re laughing at you, or upset, or just hanging out with the other dead. So you’d better clean up that headstone really good and pray.

If all this hakamairi wasn’t enough ancestor worship, it’s only a few months until the Obon festival, when you honor your dead ancestors again, and make another visit to the cemetery. People with religion can wait until Rosh Hashanah or Day of the Virgin, or start early with Easter and make another visit. If you have a dual- or tri-religion family, you can visit three or four times a year.  Ancestor worship is on the decline in Japan due to its being outlawed, but still going strong in parts of America.

(The Ancient Cult, was by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904.)

6 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. Thanks for this bit of cultural history. These are the kind of things that are often overlooked when remembering the history of our city.

  2. I was there, but ancestor worship was never big in my fam, or for anyone I knew. We go every Memorial Day to say hello to grandfolks, mom, all the uncles and aunts, family friends, and most import, for me at least, two brave uncles who served and died.

    Uncle Tets,, Korea, and uncle Ted, 442nd, Go For Broke boys, KIA 5 November, 1944, after the rescue of the Lost Batallion in France.

    What’s sad is how the crowd dwindles each and every year — greatest generation, and their families. And the JA community, once huge from East Los to Crenshaw, scattered, out-married, having few kids.

  3. As a Chicana growing up in Boyle Heights and South San Gabriel, I’ve always had a great admiration and affinity with the JA community. I’ve talked with friends and other folks, who like you Darrell, are wistful for the days when the JA community was much more visible and less scattered. Do you think this “scattered-ness” is due to assimilation or the decrease in Japanese immigration to the US?

  4. Yes, assimilation.

    I mentioned out-marriage, we’re breeding ourselves out of existence, no joke. JAs, of all the APIs, marry out at an incredible rate. And now there’s a new generation of Asian women who refuse to date Asian men. Now, that’s weird. It’s one thing to pref others, I’m fine with that as my own dating pattern is a mixed one — the prob is excluding your own.

    I’ll put it one more way and get off the sub quick: if someone excludes another as a possible partner, someone to love, who looks like them, who looks like their family and relations, well, I think that’s wack.

    Imagine a black woman who doesn’t date black men. Whoa. A Chicana who does same. Ai y whoa, chica.

    Japanese immigration is an odd duck, as far as mixing we couldn’t relate, couldn’t speak the lingo or get the behavior. Japanese women and JA men are a rare combo, really.

    One prof said we have “out-whited the Whites.” Prob true. And it happened so fast — I’m the last of five kids who grew up in the city, who still lives in the city. Everyone split, and we went suburban, to Diamond Bar, OC, La Cres, Irvine, Upland, Vista, ‘Vegas, etc. I have cousins in Montreal, NC, Ore, NY and Detroit. Rest of imme fam is is Gardena, Torr., Camarillo, me in Echo Parque.

    It had to happen, the diaspora. It was WW II. Community came out of the camps and went white. Joined, studied, purchased, certified and fit in. From gardeners and fishermen to dentists and teachers, in one generation. Blue collar to white in a few short years.

    Fam out of camp in 1945, and in 20 years by 1965 at UCLA and USC. From yanking beets to yanking teeth. Hey, that’s funny, have to remember to use it in a play.

    Proud of my community and family, sad the community is disappearing. The camera store in Little Tokyo, Kimura Photomart on 2nd, has announced its closing. I see for sale and for lease signs on the historic buildings. Koreans move in — I’m okay with that, don’t go to war with me Korean readers — and others.

    Time has marched. Did the JA community peak from about 1960 to 1980 and begin a steep decline? never to recover? I think so.

    Sigh. See you at Manuel’s or Langer’s or Phillipe’s. Last of the JAs in town.

  5. I think the internment destroyed the ethnic communities – not “the community” but it destroyed Little Tokyo as an ethnic community. So you have this large community but it’s dispersed and de-centered.

    I’m not the typical JA because my mom’s from Japan and my father was from the east coast. So I learned most of this from reading. But, anyway, LT was huge. 30,000 people living roughly from where the “arts district” is and down into skid row and the produce area.

    And that’s just the people in LT. There were thousands more living in agricultural communites like Venice, San Gabriel, Santa Ana, Pacoima, etc. (Funny to think of those areas as farms.)

    White ethnics could assimilate, but Asians could not, in various ways, due to laws.

    Also, unlike other large ethnic groups, there’s been relatively little immigration since 1907 (the Gentleman’s Agreement).

    So you have this situation where there is almost no immigration, an ethnic ghetto that’s destroyed a generation later so there’s no central “home base”, and assimilation is quasi-illegal until the 1960s.

    What’s impressive is that there is an idea of community at all, that there are institutions, and some political power.

    anyway, maybe more on this later

    btw- this is alienation. writing from some other machine.

  6. Agree, this is the theme of “Nihonmachi, The Place to Be,” a drama-musical I’ve directed for the Grateful Crane Ensemble.

    There were once 40 Japantowns up and down the West Coast, three remain in SF, LA and San Jose. The war has a terrible effect on them. LA’s became a black neighborhood, and was called Bronzeville. San Jose’s is a cool little enclave. SF and LA are under the gun.

    Actually, the post-war years saw LT flourish. Nisei Week was monster, Sam Fuller shot Crimson Kimono, thousands attended shows, carnival, exhibits, parade. It really blossomed in the 50s-70s, and began a decline in the late 70s.

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