On the edge of Little Tokyo and the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles, reporters churn out the country’s longest-running Japanese bilingual daily newspaper. The names of every Japanese high school basketball player in the area are on the wall, old versions of multiple alphabets of Japanese typesets are on the shelf, and a news budget is scribbled on a dry erase board.
Rafu Shimpo was founded in Los Angeles in 1903. Early on, its creators recognized the importance of producing a bilingual edition, first launching it in 1926. The move was “a very conscious decision from the publisher,” said Gwen Muranaka, the English-language editor of Rafu Shimpo. The goal: “Americanize our second-generation kids.”
For the U.S. government, mastery of the English language was not enough. Publication suspended in April, 1942 as Japanese were forcibly moved to internment camps. The last headlind read, “Before long we will be your ‘Rafu Shimpo’ again.” Eiichiro Azuma, an associate professor of history at University of Pennsylvania, writes that the publisher “hid the rotary press, Japanese printing type, and other equipment under his building floorboards with an intention that he would come back to Los Angeles to resume the newspaper operation.” Indeed, after the war, in 1946, Rafu Shimpo was the first Japanese American publication to resume publishing.
The English-language editor, Muranaka says these are three key issues facing the community today:
- An aging population: “Transition of leadership in institutions, housing…. What happens to institutions when funding base is people in their sixties and seventies.”
- Legacy of internment and Trump’s immigration policies: “It’s very similar happening to them during the war. It’s very profound.”
- Gentrification: The transformation of Little Tokyo from a Japanese community to a gentrified one, and how to maintain cultural institutions amidst the shifts.
The biggest challenges facing Rafu Shimpo moving forward will likely involve finding an audience that can sustain it in a community with high rates of intermarriage and low levels of immigration compared with other Asian communities. “Other Japanese American print media — including all its local competitors — have ceased operations,” Azuma writes. One former competitor, Nichi Bei Times, reinvented itself as a non-profit weekly.
In 2016, the publication was almost forced to close, as Rafu had a print circulation of about 7,800, down from a peak of 23,000 subscribers in the late 1980s, the LA Times reported. After a subscription drive, those numbers increased enough to keep publishing— for now. Rafu Shimpo’s print circulation had fallen, but it has a growing social media presence and is working hard to reach a new generation. Still, Muranaka notes that obituaries remain some of the publication’s best-read elements.