rocket scientist

rocket scientist
a poem by Yuri Kageyama

people sometimes laugh when they learn
my father was a rocket scientist
my father was also a child-beater
this is not a laughing matter
people think abusers are alcoholic degenerates,
unemployed high-school dropouts or drug addicts
who swing their wives around the room
clutching their hair and beating them
and beat the kid while at it
but my father needed to get violent because
he was under stress on his job
he worked for the Apollo program
you know the one when Armstrong the astronaut talks about
the one giant leap for mankind
he was one of the first Japanese who got to work for NASA
that’s why I have a bit of a Southern accent
when I say words like: “you all” or “Alabama” or “NASA”
his office was at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama
everyone in my school worked for the military or for NASA
we still have an autographed photo of von Braun
when we got back to Japan,
he was on TV to talk about our trip to the moon
I wasn’t that proud but my mother was proud
I was more scared about saying the wrong thing and setting him off
it was mysterious _ I never figured it out
one moment, he was joking, so witty and sharp
just like a rocket scientist
a jolly roly-poly guy
but he would change
and I would feel a fat whack against my head
it would get so infinitely dark before my eyes
inside my cavernous buzzing head
like I was swimming and spinning into outer space
and I would see tiny sparkling stars
he didn’t drink or do drugs
he was a rocket scientist
when I got older and got the nerve
I asked him why he had done that
what was he thinking?
I wanted to know
and he said he didn’t know
he helped us get to the moon but
the rocket scientist didn’t know
he couldn’t remember why he hit me at all

Isaku gets interviewed

Photo by Naokazu Oinuma.

Isaku gets interviewed on his views on music, identity and the art of AMANOJAKU taiko in Isao Tokuhashi’s “My Eyes Tokyo.” A Podcast is in the works.

Amanojaku LIVE at Harajuku Astro Hall

AMANOJAKU Tokyo’s Top-Level Taiko
Harajuku ASTRO Hall
THU Aug. 20 7:30 p.m. (Admision starts 7 p.m.)
Advance tickets (includes one drink)
4,000 yen; at door 4,500 yen.
For more information, please call Amanojaku: 03-3904-1745.
Ticket Pia P-code: 330-019
Lawson Ticket L-code: 79754.

Amanojaku, led by master drummer Yoichi Watanabe, concocts an emotional and explosive experience of sound, pitting the best of taiko tradition with global ethnic rhythms and modern composition for a distinct World Music narrative that explores Japanese soul.
Amanojaku teaches taiko in the U.S., Brazil, Asia and Europe, and leads workshops and performs in festivals throughout Japan.
Last year, it led the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Brazil in a performance of 1,000 drummers at the samba venue.
Hiromi Ogawa and Mayumi Kawana are founding members of Amanojaku and the best women’s duet taiko drummers in the world. They debunk any old-fashioned stereotypes the West may have about Japanese women, inspiring awe with their sheer brute strength and creative integrity.
Also appearing are Daisuke Watanabe, Hiromi Sekine, Chris Holland (from Denver Taiko) and Isaku Kageyama.

Isaku gets taiko rocking with Hybrid Soul

HYBRID SOUL brings together the West and the East/minyo tunes with rock/jazz fusion with Isaku Kageyama on taiko, Pat Glynn on bass and Chris Young on guitar.
And their music keeps getting better and better as evident at Roppongi Edge in Tokyo May 29, 2009.
They play again at the Daikanyama Loop June 4, 2009 _ their last performance for this series that began in April.
They will be starting up another round of concerts later this year, where they will present their further evolution.
Among the songs they play: “Yagi Bushi,” “Tanko Bushi,” “Soran Bushi,” “Nikata Bushi,” “Hachijo” _ and “Dear Prudence.”
It’s moving to see how these men, who happen to be living in Tokyo and love music, have come together.
Meeting one another halfway, they have created something that’s positive _ a new sound that’s fun, intelligent, tasteful.
It is moving because everyone knows that kind of understanding is what this divided world needs.
The music isn’t smug or insular. It is sincere and unafraid. It doesn’t pander. And it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it is not, or even really know what it is yet.

Yoshiaki Tago Film-maker

Film-maker Yoshiaki Tago in his Tokyo office.
Tago and I are working on a film together.
Surprisingly, it’s only recently (after reminding from an email from writer and choreographer Carla Blank) that I’ve realized this is another cross-cultural collaboration that’s always been my life/work/identity.
I have a very good feeling about our work in progress.
I love Tago’s sensibilities. He is a Japanese film-maker. And that means a certain language, a way of seeing and telling a story.
But we are struggling to connect a divide (gender, generation, genre, cultural reference).
Sometimes we are frustrated because we don’t understand what’s so obvious to the other.
By being forced to articulate what my poetry is for me, I am learning how my works connect to the past, to music, to the marginality of being caught in between the U.S. and Japan, to sexuality, to my son and his music _ all the things that are so close to me I sometimes forget or choose to forget what they mean.
Certainly, I don’t want to talk about them _ in conversational prose.
After all, that’s why the scars and tears and shame are all so carefully packaged _ and over so many years since my childhood in my poetry and stories.
To put it another way: If I had become someone who wrote in the Japanese language, I would certainly have become a different kind of person.
I write in English. I am an American minority writer.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression.
Tago and I get along great: We both don’t like “Elephant Man,” or even “The Ballad of Narayama” (though Tago was educated in the school of director Shohei Imamura).
And we both love Kihachi Okamoto.
If that’s not enough to keep us going, nothing is.

Film-maker Yoshiaki Tago in his Tokyo office.

The Empty Library (from Motherhood Notes)

Photo (today) by Annette Dorfman. My column (from way back) in the Hokubei Mainichi:

“I’m Christopher Robin, and you’re Pooh, OK, Mommy?”
Most likely, other 3-year-olds besides ours have the same fantasies. But it is the solitary plight of the non-white in America that the mother must experience a tinge of anxiety about ethnic self-hate. Perhaps she comforts herself that the illustrations of the blond blue-eyed hero in the A.A. Milne classic are black and white ink drawings.
Fortunately I am bilingual, so I can at least resort to Japanese books. Children’s books in English that deal with Asian or Asian American themes are few.
The recent “Wings for Lai Ho” by Genny Lim and “Pie Biter” by Ruthanne Lum McCunn _ both well-written and enjoyable _ are set in historical immigration days. The drawings by Andrea Ja in the former contrast favorably to the more typical and stereotypical versions of Asian features _ not only by Caucasian artists, including Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, but also Asian Americans such as Chester Yoshida for Mei Nakano’s slant-eyed “Riko Rabbit.”
Some works by Yoshiko Uchida take place in Japan, and a rural out-dated Japan at that. For a San Francisco boy of the 80s, whose primary interests range from break-dancing to comic book superheroes, all the above-mentioned stories are as exotic as they are to average “hakujin.”
Gyo Fujikawa is an exception in depicting children in regular modern-day activities such as brushing teeth or climbing the jungle gym, and he draws them with Caucasian, black or Asian physical features. However, aimed for very young “readers,” his picture books do not go beyond the visual impact of UNICEF cards that show multiracial children in harmony.
Taro Yashima’s tender “Umbrella” is another rare example of a modern Asian American story that does not rest on an exotic “foreign” or historical (sociological) theme.
Yashima and Uchida are both award-winning creators of children’s books. Nevertheless, a weakness of language can be sensed in both, that is, in contrast to the power of feeling in the classics of E.B. White (“Charlotte’s Web”), Kenneth Graham (“The Wind in the Willows”), Hugh Lofting (“Dr. Doolittle”), Beatrix Potter (“Peter Rabbit”), L. Frank Baum (“The Wizard of Oz”) and even the sparse, more poetic styles of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silversein or Margaret Wise Brown.
As a so-called “model minority” that has produced its share of coroners, astronauts and senators, Japanese Americans have never boasted cultural sophistication as their strong point. Who are our equivalents of Miles Davis, Martha Graham, Jasper Johns, or even Prince? Our cultural output is low, both in terms of quantity and quality. Never has the tragedy of our cultural vacuum struck me more profoundly than in thinking of our son’s future.
Of course, we struggle. We take him to hear Russel Baba blow his Asian soul out to us through his saxophone. Isaku has already attended concerts by the Nohbuddies, the Asian American Dance Collective, Kei Takei, the Kalilang Ensemble and many others. We are still hoping for a local revival of Philip Gotanda’s “Avocado Kid.”
Asian American culture exists. But not enough to make it easy to teach a growing child that being an artist is exciting, dignified and meaningful. Particularly as an Asian in a country that is not overly cultured to begin with.
Japanese Americans are rapidly assimilating. We are rapidly losing our cultural ties with our ancestral roots. And loss of a unique language is lethal for a poet. (The potency of black English in poetry, drama and prose proves that “language ” here does not necessarily have to be Japanese.) But, instead of weeping over our culture’s diluting into the mainstream, we cheer it on as a sign of our success in blending into a smug oneness with monolithic America.
The poet Ronald Tanaka was one of the first to deal with the problem of audience and the resultant isolation of the Sansei artist. Now a father of two daughters, he is busily writing poems and stories for them to read because, as previously stated, there just isn’t much that really speaks to them.
It comes to this: If the culture to which we wish to expose our daughters and sons doesn’t exist, we have to create it ourselves. Part of my responsibility as a parent is to try to see that my child survives, not only economically, but also as a full human being who is proud of what he is.
The crimes of racism include unequal wealth distribution, askewed employment patterns, disproportionate alcoholism and infant mortality; but the crime of racism is also that it makes us less than human _ not quite human _ for a community without poets (read: painters, musicians, dancers, etc.) is dead.
I am not advocating Japanese American cultural fascism or ethnocentric fanaticism. (Actually such concepts are absurd, given the material reality.) I have not forgotten that America _ the beautiful America _ is multicultural, where each culture enriches the other.
What I want to teach my Nikkei son is the Japanese rhythm of language, the Japanese psyche or spirit, the way we feel, the way we breathe and live. Though I have no easy answers as to what that entails, I believe in my responsibility as an artist and parent because I have to. To me, cultural survival is life or death.

More Motherhood Notes

“Oya Baka” means “doting parent” in Japanese. Since it’s Mother’s Day today, here’s another from my column:

Black and Yellow

My 3-year-old son wants to be black. All the people he admires _ from Golden Gate Park roller skaters and football stars to break dancers, jazz musicians and even bus drivers _ often happen to be black.
“When I get older, my face is going to get black,” he says proudly.
“What color are you now?” I ask.
“Yellow,” he says in a meek, almost apologetic tone.
“Your daddy is Asian,” I suggest, though he doesn’t appear impressed. “Daddy, you and I are Asian, and we’re proud we’re Asian.” I’ve ben repeating similar propaganda since his infancy.
He looks up with an idea. “Can I pretend my face is black?”
It doesn’t take many years in American society _ 3 years and 3 months to be precise in the case of our Isaku _ to figure out racial myths, which are, in part, based on or are exaggerations of reality.
For the Asian in America, the low cultural energy and absence of positive images make it difficult, if not impossible, for a child to think that we are: cool, creative, sexy, attractive, musical, vivacious, outgoing, etc.
It’s more like we are: academic, responsible, straight, proper, quiet, modest, subdued, etc.
From the above two lists, guess which one Isaku would pick to emulate.
To give an illustration, aside form the pidgin in Hawaii, or the Cantonese-English of the recent Hong Kong immigrants, Asian Americans lack their own vernacular.
The “hip” Asians who talk “street” basically talk black English. They don’t throw in “ne?” or “honto?”
Using Japanese except for names of food (“sushi” is “in” these days) would only destroy their style. And much of Asian American art _ poetry, music, visual art _ remains imitative _ mostly of black or Latin forms, but also of white forms.
Asian Americans have yet to produce an artist on the calibre of Duke Ellington or a media figure with the impact of Prince.
My son recognizes Miles Davis tunes on the radio, strums his plastic guitar wailing “ROCK ‘n’ roooooll music, if you wanna dance with me,” and beats on his drums, claiming he’s Elvin Jones. (And all this despite the unusual fact that we do have Asian American friends who play music.)
I point out Brue Lee posters, whenever they are encountered, which isn’t that often these days. But I’m being unreasonable to expect a martial artist-actor, no matter how dramatic and handsome, to be relevant to a 3 year old. Many years lie ahead before he’ll be taken to those violent films.
With the intention of alleviating _ but perhaps ultimately intensifying _ my son’s identity crisis, I’ve been taking him to a Congolese dance class for children his age. Being of a contrary nature, anyway, he refused to participate. Then I made the worst parental mistake. I praised another student, a little girl, who was performing fantastically, and he muttered with a horrible hatred in his voice, “She’s black.”
“Don’t say anything like that,” I hissed, controlling an urge to strangle him while praying that no one else had overheard. “It doesn’t matter what you are _ black or Asian. We’re all friends.”
We had never taught him to be conscious of race that so-and-so was this race while someone else was something else.
But after the class, I had to lecture to my son, “J.J. is black, and Seiji is black, and they’re your friends. Wain is black and Dorothy is black …” I felt like an idiot. But that was the only way he’d have understood.
“But I like black, mama,” he protested, tears brimming in his eyes.
I wished that we didn’t have to live in world that divided people by the color of skin. I wished that skin color didn’t matter to Isaku, someone so young and innocent, but it did, and I was powerless to change it.

Oya Baka Notes in the Hokubei Mainichi

Transcribed below is one piece from a column on motherhood that I had in the Hokubei Mainichi, an iconic ghetto paper that still exists in San Francisco:

The House That Isaku Built

“Here’s a diamond necklace for you.” Often he holds up nothing in his delicately poised little fingers. He may have a rubber band or a rock _ both parts of his extensive collection of street finds. His voice is usually timid if I have just scolded him.
“For me? Oh, THANK you, Isaku.” I hug him.
“Happy now?” he asks, not just to ask, but really wanting to know.
I don’t have to yell for him to know. Sometimes it is the way I close a door or put my books or a plate down.
I make tut-tut noises with my tongue against my front upper teeth, when I discover still another pair of Daddy’s dirty socks or a toothpaste cap left on the sink.
“Is Daddy stupid sometimes?” he offers as though reading my mind. Or he cries out vehemently, “Daddy is too NOI-SY with his shakere!”
The shakere is an African Yoruba percussion instrument, which has been my husband’s recent passion. He spends hours pondering over what he believes is a “hip” design, then stringing colored wooden beads around a gourd rubbed with palm oil.
He spends more hours shaking the shakere in our one-bedroom apartment, driving me crazy with the rattling rhythms, the volume of which, unlike radios or amplifiers, can never be turned down. The only thing louder I can recall is traps drums, which can literally shake the walls of an entire house.
Anyway, people have comforted me by pointing out, better music as your man’s mistress than a real woman.
There are men who gamble at the race tracks; there are men who play golf all weekend long. The pursuit of Afro-Cuban rhythms seems rather dignified in comparison, I admit.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel, bullshit, what’s all this music, like it’s a gift from God or something when Isaku and I are living human beings who happen to be a wife and a kid with needs, too?
I swear, the man worships Coltrane. What about me? I could use some husbandly reverence.
“If Daddy’s insulted,” Isaku tells me, “you can marry me, OK?”
I don’t know if he knows what “insulted” means, but he probably heard his father remark how insulted he was by something I had said.
In the past, every time Isaku wanted to marry me, I told him I was sorry but I was already married to Daddy. Maybe he figures that, if Dad and I break up, then he’s got a chance.
It’s wonderful. Isaku adores me. Right now, I am the Woman in his life.
“Isaku-chan Mama no koto, daaaaai suki!” he tells me, climbing on to my lap and kissing my nose.
The way he fits, his solid smallness against my chest, his arms around my neck, he can fill an emptiness with an incredible certainty, with total negation of any loneliness ever experienced.
“You look cute, sitting there.” The 3-year-old already knows the way to a woman’s heart.
“When I’m older, I’m going to build a house,” Isaku promises. “It’s going to be painted white and pink. And we’re all going to live in it _ with my two cats and two dogs and five penguins.”
He has this all planned out.
“For you, mama, the house is going to have books and clothes. Lots of clothes.” I start to laugh. “And flowers,” he adds with conviction.
“What are you going to have for Daddy?” I ask.
“A radio,” he replies immediately. “And earphones.”
He can be so smart.

Trailer for our movie in the works "Talking Taiko"

Trailer of a work in progress “Talking Taiko,” a movie by director Yoshiaki Tago, starring poet Yuri Kageyama and percussionist Winchester Nii Tete with Yumi Miyagisihima on violin, Keiji Kubo on didgeridoo, Isaku Kageyama on taiko drums and the other artists and poetry-lovers of Tokyo. April 2009.