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Inaka: Moving from Scorn to Pride

I sometimes refer to the Imperial Valley as my little inaka corner of the world. Literally translated, inaka (田舎) means “the countryside” or “one’s native village.” And in adjectival form, it means “rural,” “rustic,” or “provincial.” The Imperial Valley is definitely that; it is farm country in California’s southern desert bordering Mexico and Arizona. Approximately two hundred miles southeast of Los Angeles and one hundred twenty miles due east of San Diego, it is undeniably out in the boondocks.

A typical Issei farmstead, circa 1910. Farms in the Imperial Valley were remote and desolate. Courtesy of Japanese American Gallery, Imperial Valley Pioneers Museum.

The Issei pioneers played a key role in building the Imperial Valley’s agricultural industry. But after being forcibly removed from the area during the Second World War most Nikkei families resettled in cities when they were released from camp. My family was one of only a handful of Nikkei that came back.

When I was growing up and I heard the word inaka being used it was usually uttered with a touch of scorn, especially when it came from relatives who were visiting from the city. It was like calling somebody a country bumpkin or a hick from the sticks. If we were not quite up to speed on the latest fashions, trends, or gadgets it was because we were inaka. Being inaka could also mean unsophisticated and uncouth.

A few years ago, I was a speaker at one of the Imperial Valley Nisei reunions, which are periodically held in Los Angeles. More and more Sansei and Yonsei are starting to attend the reunions because their parents and grandparents need help getting to those functions now. Few among the younger generations were born in the Imperial Valley, and most had never even been there. From the podium I asked, “By a show of hands, how many of you know what the word inaka means?” Just one or two hands went up and somebody shouted, “I do.” So I gave the rest of them an example. I told them that on our local television station there is a commercial for a business that rents portable toilets to farmers. The company slogan goes, “We’re Number One with your Number Two!” And that, I said, is inaka!

The Sansei and Yonsei laughed. But for most of the Nisei, the reunions represent a wistful longing for days gone by. To them, inaka can be nostalgic. It is a feeling inside.

It was at a reunion that a Nisei, Edna (Shiomichi) Yoshida, told me a funny story about visiting my grandmother after the war. Edna grew up on a farm not far from ours and the Shiomichis had been close family friends. During a trip to the Imperial Valley to show her young daughters where she had grown up, Edna wanted to pop in to see my grandmother. My grandmother was so excited to have company that she insisted they stay for dinner, whereupon she rushed outside to kill a chicken for the special occasion. Edna laughed as she said that her daughters were horrified and could not bring themselves to eat the inaka fare!

Oftentimes when I asked my mother what certain Japanese words meant she would say, “Well, that’s hard to translate; it is like saying [such-and-such] but so much more.” Such words are deep; they have profound meaning. Furusato is one of those words. And we have to understand furusato in order to appreciate what inaka is becoming.

On the surface, furusato simply means “one’s birthplace” or “hometown.” But it means so much more. It’s like saying, “where your roots are;” it is a place of emotional significance. And on an even deeper level it can refer to a pilgrimage-like journey to get there. Furusato is profound in that it conveys the feeling (kimochi) of the journey to return and remember—or discover and celebrate—where you came from. And the emotion is not always one of pure joy. In fact, more often than not the experience is bittersweet, which adds to the word’s great depth.

The theme for the grand opening of the Japanese American exhibition in the Imperial Valley Pioneers Museum in 1994 was Furusato ni kaeru (kaeru meaning “to return”). George Kakiuchi, a Kibei-Nisei, put his fist to his chest and said of our theme, “It just hits me right here.” Over three hundred people attended the opening ceremony. Among them were Nikkei who returned to the Imperial Valley for the first time since their World War II exclusion fifty-two years earlier. There was a sense of vindication in the air. It truly was an emotional homecoming.

I am not hearing the word furusato used much among Japanese Americans. For some Sansei, furusato’s profound meaning is being taken on by inaka. The meaning of inaka is changing. It is, as Columbia University professor of linguistics John McWhorter would say, a word on the move. It is metamorphosing from rural and uncouth into bucolic and pastoral. It is no coincidence that it was two Sansei, Steve Hirose and Kurtis Nakagawa—from their vantage point of being city kids—who pointed out this change to me, which was right under my nose.

I always poked fun at my own inaka backwardness. As a Sansei who grew up and still lives on my grandparents’ farm, I felt that I was entitled to do so because I owned to it. But not so, according to Steve Hirose from San Jose who is an admirer of my simpler, less complicated, non-rat race way of life:

Please don’t refer even in jest that you’re inaka out there in Imperial Valley. I think that you’re [more] in tune with life’s natural, critical rhythms and sophisticated beauties than urban- and suburbanites “think” (if they do at all).

It was actually my friend Kurtis Nakagawa who taught me the depth of what inaka means now. He grew up in Gardena, but his words and thoughts come from spending summers working on his uncle’s farm in Kingsburg in California’s Central Valley. He loved the farm food, “everything pickled” he recalled, and bologna with rice. He savored his grandmother’s tsukemono—green plums preserved in gin.

What he called “inaka memories of my grandmother” included the outdoor furoba (bathhouse), about having to be on the lookout while bathing for those damn wasps that made their nests in the roof line, and the two shiso (perilla herb) plants outside the wooden bathhouse that were fertilized by the dirty bath water. But here again, these memories merely scratch the surface of something much deeper.

Kurtis sometimes closes his letters with “Stay Inaka Strong.” I learned that being “inaka strong” is not only the perception of physical strength (needed in working the farm), but “understanding the nature of living—observing, cultivating, and resonating.” Certain concepts, if deemed worthy, are described by Kurtis as being “deep inaka.” This includes his philosophy of stoicism. “There is something elegant about being inaka,” he says, “be proud to be inaka.”

A painting by Yonsei artist Kevin Yoshioka hangs in Kurtis’ office. It was created based only on a conversation between Kurtis and the artist. “Thus the painting is conceptual in the eyes of a Yonsei,” Kurtis explained. It features the legendary samurai swordsman and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi (1584–1645) encountering Kurtis’ Issei grandmother, Chizuya Matsuoka. Kurtis interprets the piece as “an affirmation and a reminder of our inaka ways.”

Musashi vs. Grandma Permission granted by Kevin Yoshioka. Courtesy of Kurtis Nakagawa.

Musashi spent his last days as a hermit in a cave in Kumamoto where he wrote The Book of Five Rings. As for so many Nikkei, Kumamoto is the land of Kurtis’ ancestors. In the painting the grandmother wears an Issei’s bonnet, her face is weathered, and her frail body is hunched from years of stoop labor. Her basket is filled with a watermelon and other produce representing the crops she had grown in Kingsburg. And of course, she supports herself with the all-important shovel clutched under her arm. The enlightened samurai is bowing in deep obeisance to the Issei farmwoman. “Musashi [famous for his duels] understood that he was no match for such a person who had lived [an inaka] virtuous life.”

A scant twelve miles from Kingsburg, Sansei author and farmer David Mas Masumoto grows organic peaches and grapes in Del Rey, California. His writings are soaked with the essence of inaka, just read Epitaph for a Peach (1996) or Harvest Son (1999). In Country Voices, one of his earliest books (published in 1987), he writes:

Country folks had always understood these different rhythms, a tempo dictated by seasons and not time clocks or paid vacation…“We were inaka,” folks explain and say that with pride…Others who still have family in the inaka may come home to the place that connects them with their past, sometimes with a sense of wonder and joy and other times with a depression as they see decay and deterioration.

Back in 1987 David wondered if his own Sansei generation has been “lured away” from the “slow, quiet pace of the inaka.” And he asked, “What of their children, will the Yonsei come to know the meaning of ‘Del Rey’ or for that matter even care?” His question is answered twenty-nine years later in his most recent book Changing Season: A Father, A Daughter, A Family Farm, co-written with his daughter Nikiko.

Yes, Yonsei will know the meaning of inaka and care about it. But it is a word on the move. To them it will not mean rural, uncouth, or bucolic. For them, inaka may come to mean natural, organic, real. And they, too, will be proud to be inaka.


© 2017 Tim Asamen

agriculture california David Mas Masumoto farming furusato identity Imperial Valley Imperial Valley Pioneers Museum inaka issei language nisei sansei Tim Asamen values yonsei