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L.A.'s Little Tokyo looks to save struggling newspaper

Mickey Komai opens one of the leather-bound books stored in his Little Tokyo office and delicately turns the yellowed pages filled with Japanese and English script. Here in the pages of the bilingual newspaper his family has run for most of a century is the tumultuous story of Japanese Americans in Southern California.

The Rafu Shimpo covered acts to ban Japanese from owning land, bringing over brides and eventually immigrating at all. “Why do people hate the Japanese?” the paper plaintively asked in one 1926 issue.

The Rafu declared its “100%" allegiance to America after Japan’s 1941 Pearl Harbor attack even after its publisher, H.T. Komai, was one of the first Los Angeles Japanese leaders taken into custody by the FBI.

Through recession and war, struggles over assimilation and identity and an ever-shifting relationship with Japan, the Rafu became the nation’s largest and most important newspaper to chronicle Japanese American community life.

But even as Japanese Americans have become one of the nation’s most educated and affluent ethnic groups, their sole remaining daily newspaper is in crisis.

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Circulation is down to 11,000, half its peak in the late 1980s. The paper is hemorrhaging red ink with more than $500,000 in debt and a monthly deficit of $7,000, said Komai, the family’s third Rafu publisher.

Komai said the paper is in its greatest peril since World War II shut it down for four years starting in 1942.

“If we don’t improve, either someone else will have to take it over or we’ll have to close,” said Komai, 57. “You can’t keep running a money-losing operation.”

As word of the paper’s mounting problems circulate, the community has launched its first-ever campaign to sound the alarm and drum up support. Nearly 100 people recently flocked to Gardena for a “Save the Rafu” town hall meeting to brainstorm ways to improve content, stabilize finances and attract younger readers.

“If the Rafu were to disappear, the connections to all parts of the community will be lost,” said Iku Kiriyama, who organized the forum. “The Rafu is more than a business, it’s a community treasure.”

The Rafu’s problems reflect struggles in the general newspaper industry but also challenges peculiar to Japanese Americans. Ethnic media serving largely immigrant Asian communities in the U.S. are thriving, according to Sandip Roy, an editor with New American Media, an ethnic media consortium in San Francisco.

The Chinese and Korean communities, for instance, each have about 100 publications, Roy said.

But nearly three-fourths of the 400,000 ethnic Japanese in California are U.S. natives -- the only major Asian American group with a native-born majority, according to 2000 census data. Most are third- or fourth-generation Americans who seemingly don’t support ethnic newspapers. San Francisco’s last two Japanese American newspapers, for instance, closed their daily operations last year.

Despite the demographics, backers still see an irreplaceable role for the paper.

Kiriyama said her local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, would never give her the coverage the Rafu does for community dinners and forums. Tatsushi Paul Nakamura, an Arcadia property manager, said the Rafu is the only place he can read obituaries and profiles of so many community figures.

Gwen Muranaka, the paper’s English editor, said close coverage of Little Tokyo has helped amplify community opposition to such projects as a jail and aboveground light-rail line proposed for the neighborhood.

And who else would cover the recent orchid show by the Gardena Cymbidium Club, a hobbyist group founded by Japanese Americans in the South Bay? The article tapped a cultural touchstone of Japanese American gardening and used a famous Japanese song for the headline, “Haru ga Kita” (Spring has Come).

Started in 1903 as a mimeographed sheet by three Japanese students, the early paper dealt in salacious scandal and personal attacks -- including running an obituary of a competitor who had not died after he claimed the Rafu publisher slept with prostitutes, according to Katie Kaori Hayashi, whose 1997 book detailed the newspaper’s prewar history.

In 1922, Toyosaku “H.T.” Komai became publisher and launched the family’s newspaper dynasty. A hard drinker who spent generously on friends, Komai invested in a new press, wire services and better-trained journalists. In 1926, two years after the U.S. government banned immigration from Japan, Komai launched the paper’s first English section to ensure the Rafu’s survival.

His son, Akira, took over the paper after it resumed publication in 1946. He expanded sports coverage and even started a league called the Nisei Athletic Union, which survives today.

Mickey Komai became publisher after his father’s death in 1983. His management choices have at times sparked controversy, including layoffs of several press operators in the late 1990s and a style perceived by some as aloof and even disengaged. But supporters say that his tough business decisions helped slow the red ink and that his new projects will position the paper to attract more readers.

The biggest hope for revival lies in the community’s enormous appetite for Asian sports leagues -- the single largest way that scattered families still stay connected. As many as 10,000 girls, boys and adults play in primarily Japanese American basketball leagues, with thousands more in volleyball, bowling, fishing and other sports leagues.

To snare at least some of them, the Rafu plans to launch a new sports website this year. Sports editor Jordan Ikeda and Web project manager Randy Masada, both 27, aim to create an online community gathering spot by featuring league standings, scores, features, forums, blogs, photos, videos and eventually profiles of every athlete.

“Because I played sports, the paper caught my eye,” Masada said. “I wanted to know, am I in the paper? Who won? Who got MVP? I wouldn’t have cared about the Rafu otherwise.”

Masada is also leading efforts to lure younger readers with expanded coverage of fashion, cars, food and entertainment, such as the upcoming and hugely popular annual Asian American talent show known as Kollaboration.

The paper plans to charge a monthly fee of $5.50 for website access, which would be free for print subscribers.

But Japanese section editor Takashi Ishihara and others said the key need was an aggressive sales staff, which the paper has lacked for decades.

When Japanese corporations flooded Los Angeles in the 1980s, they bought so many ads that the paper did not need to actively solicit any.

Those days are long gone. The surplus amassed during the Japanese boom years was spent down by 2000, and the paper has been running a deficit ever since. But it still has no sales manager.

Komai says the paper needs to retire $350,000 of its current debt and increase monthly revenue by $12,000 to cover the deficit and rising costs, including pay hikes.

Despite the challenges, Komai and community members say that letting the century-old institution die is simply not an option.

“The Rafu is not going to give up so easily,” said former Editor Ellen Endo. “It’s more than a newspaper to most people; it’s like a family member.”

teresa.watanabe@ latimes.com


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