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On the inside

Welcome to another special edition of Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column. Two staff I work closely with at the Japanese American National Museum, public programs extraordinaire Joy Yamaguchi and digital guru Vicky Murakami-Tsuda, allowed me to facilitate a process with them to write poetry grounded in this particular era of Covid-19, lockdowns, missing and finding family, and the overall unknown of now. They took a risk, trusted the process, and ran with it and crafted some really lovely work. We thought it would be fun to try something new, especially since the day this publishes we will also have our first ever Discover Nikkei/Nikkei Uncovered poetry reading (online). As much as this is a time for pause and reflection, it is also a time for recalibration, experimentation, discovery, and deep dives. Enjoy…

—traci kato-kiriyama

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Joy Yamaguchi (she/they) is the Public Programs Coordinator at JANM. Joy is also a queer, mixed race, Yonsei community organizer with Nikkei Progressives in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles and a coordinator for Summer Activist Training. She is a descendant of survivors of the Santa Anita Assembly Center and Rohwer, Jerome, and Gila River concentration camps. Joy’s activism and work is grounded in this family history and they are committed to carrying on a legacy of building resilient communities through transformative justice and abolitionist practices. She graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with a focus on public humanities and representations of WWII Nikkei incarceration.


inch by inch, row by row

I will admit I have not worn pants in weeks
but i have been going outside 
to sink my hands into the dirt
learning not to flinch when the bees fly by
because I am not the blossoms they seek

I got a sunburn the other day on my back
but it’s faded now to a soft brown

I cry often for my mother
who is across several oceans

Some nights I reach up for her lotion
and wrap myself in her robe
because the scent makes this place feel like home

I thought it was selfish to call this grief
when it feels like my loss was only trips to the dog beach
and drinking coffee in public 

But perhaps I need to grieve
the loss of touch
          the loss of one world
and I hope that we see a new one at the end of this

I have no interest in normal
but I love what is being birthed from this
          fire this

that from my grief grows:
my compost that begins to smell like the earth again
the group texts brought together by mutual aid
a nest built on my back porch by two lovers
the community feeding and holding community

          holding myself tender
          and prying open a garden out of hard clay

I say to my mother
          I will see you soon
I have learned from you
how to hold down home until
you return

* This poem is copyrighted by Joy Yamaguchi (2020)


* * * * * 

Vicky K. Murakami-Tsuda is the Communications Production Manager at the Japanese American National Museum. She loves working on the Discover Nikkei project, because it gives her the opportunity to read so many new and interesting stories, and connect with people around the world who share similar interests. She is a “self-proclaimed” Yonsei from Southern California who comes from a large extended family. A long time ago (when she had more free time and energy), she was also an artist who explored Japanese American culture and history through her artwork.

During this time of Safer at Home, she spends most of her time working from home, reading, playing games on her phone, binge-watching movies and shows, snacking all day long, connecting weekly with her family via Zoom, enjoying not having to drive in traffic, and dreaming of when she can get back to her normal life of eating out, bowling, Dodger games, and having fun with family and friends in person.


Mother’s Day 2020
A special day in strange times

no bowling, no golfing, miss eating out
one month is nice to rest, but now so bored 

Working in the garden every day for hours
Determined to get it cleaned up this summer
Doctor said can take walks wearing masks, but too busy working in the garden

Ordered food to pick up from my parents’ favorite restaurant
Wiped everything down, including lottery scratchers, but no winners
My dad inhaled his usual order of spaghetti and meatballs
Sopped up every last bit of sauce with garlic bread
Stopped just short of licking his container clean

Mom making masks using things saved for just in case...
   —old handkerchiefs she never used
   —filters for a coffee pot long ago replaced
   —extra stirrer straws from my art project over 20 years ago
   —stretchy bands from an old package of paper masks

2-hour Omoto Zoom calls every Sunday
Catching up with cousins that live far away in Seattle and Japan
Catching up with those that live close but still rarely see
Seeing my cousin’s daughter’s new baby and her young son
Seeing what people are eating

Zoom backgrounds of ducks, mountains, Miyajima torii
Mom showing her pictures of the flowers in her garden
Pat helping her share them on our family group chat

Discussions about COVID-19 restrictions in California, Washington, and Japan
Zoom bombings, Toto toilets and shortages of toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectant wipes
Cousin’s daughter’s classes have resumed in Japan and that’s scary

Shikata ga nai
Cousin postponing wedding planning because they can’t check out venues
Cousin feeling like parents are being held hostage because she can’t visit their ashes inside the temple now
It can’t be helped, so we continue the best that we can

We will use this time to connect more with each other even while apart
We will endure this and be stronger for it

We hope that things will be better soon
We hope we will be together for the holidays
We hope…

: father, Okāsan: mother, Takara: treasure, Mottainai: (don’t be) wasteful, Kazoku: family, Shinpai: worry, Shikata ga nai: it can’t be helped, Gaman: perseverance, Kibō: hope

*This poem is copyrighted by Vicky Murakami-Tsuda (2020)


© 2020 Vicky K. Murakami Tsuda; Joy Yamaguchi

covid 19 Joy Yamaguchi lockdowns Nikkei Uncovered poetry vicky murakami-tsuda