By Phyllis Hayashibara
Kinya Aota, head sushi chef at Hama Sushi in Venice, had planned to return to his home on the northern island of Hokkaido in February, 2014 to spend some time with his elderly parents and his brothers and their families. Aota has been living in the U. S. for some twenty-five years, and has been working at Hama Sushi for nine and a half years. He missed his country, and he missed his family.
Esther Chaing, proprietor of Hama Sushi, understood and agreed with her head chef’s decision to return to Japan. She let him know that Hama Sushi would certainly miss Aota, but they would somehow survive when he left in February. The increasing popularity of Hama Sushi’s new lunchtime hours expanded the business so much, however, that Esther asked Aota to stay on at Hama Sushi for a little while longer. Kinya didn’t want to leave his long-time boss, Esther, but he also didn’t want to disappoint his parents, whom he had already told of his plans to return home. Aota didn’t know exactly how to approach his parents about his change of plans.
Then Aota’s brother, Tomofumi, emailed from Japan, saying that he bumped into the Free Venice Beachhead article on Hama Sushi and Esther Chaing, published in the April 2012 edition, when he searched online for “Kinya Aota Hama Sushi.” Tomofumi translated the article into Japanese and told his family about Kinya’s life at Hama Sushi, and of Esther Chaing’s contributions to the Venice community, particularly her fundraising efforts on behalf of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker. Tomofumi advised Kinya to call their father. The senior Mr. Aota told Kinya that he was proud of Kinya’s work with Esther at Hama, and proud of their contributions to the community and for the VJAMM. Mr. Aota told Kinya he should stay as long as Esther needed him to help at Hama Sushi.
So Hama Sushi head chef Kinya Aota will be staying on a little while longer, organizing the kitchen staff and the lunch and dinner menus. The Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker Committee is grateful that Kinya will be on hand to lend his support to the VJAMM fundraiser at Hama Sushi on Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Program begins at 11 am, and lunch will be served to eat-in or take-out between noon and 2 pm. Bento box lunches may be reserved in advance by contacting Phyllis Hayashibara at 310-390-1576 or email@example.com before Monday, April 21. Corporate orders may be reserved by contacting Esther Chaing at 310-308-6347 or firstname.lastname@example.org before Monday, April 21. The $20 bento box lunch will include chicken teriyaki, cucumber and potato salads, spicy tuna and California rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, plus water or soda. A vegetarian option is also available. Esther will generously donate 100% of the lunch profits to the VJAMM, and 10% of dinner sales to the VJAMM. For dinner reservations between 6 pm and 11 pm, call Hama Sushi at 310-396-8783.
Kinya says everybody in Japan knows about the tragedy of the Issei (first generation to immigrate to the U. S.) in America during World War II. There is no animosity on the part of the Japanese from Japan towards the Japanese in America, he said. “The Japanese respect the Issei, and though the Japanese of course fought for Japan, they know about and respect the 442nd,” the all-Nisei (second generation, U. S.-born) Regimental Combat Team. “The Japanese,” said Kinya, “believe the Japanese Americans to have been so brave, and they understand the Japanese Americans’ position during the war.” The Japanese also know of Daniel Inouye, long-time U. S. Senator from Hawaii, who lost his right arm in battle in Tuscany, Italy, while leading a platoon in the 442nd. Kinya considers these soldiers his “heroes.” In April 2012, Kinya first volunteered his services for the VJAMM fundraiser at Hama Sushi, as a way of showing his appreciation and respect for what the Issei and Nise had endured and overcome. “The Japanese Americans,” said Kinya, “blazed the trail for the newcomers,” the shin-issei (new first generation).
Kinya did visit his family in February for two weeks. His furusato, or hometown, lies in central Hokkaido, a small town called Biei-cho, between Furano and Asahikawa, about 100 miles northeast of the capital of Hokkaido, Sapporo. “Look up the MAC laptop wallpaper called ‘Blue Pond,” said Kinya, “it’s taken at Biei-cho.” The town has become increasingly popular with tourists mainly from countries in Asia such as Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan, who come for the beautiful scenery of fields of flowers and vast, rolling hills. “I consider myself a country boy,” says Kinya. The senior Mr. and Mrs. Yoshimasa Aota run Giovanni Stained Glass Studio in Biei, to teach the craft of stained glass and to sell small works of art. They have been operating the studio for the last twenty years, after they closed their handicrafts shop of yarns and embroidery. But this is Mr. Aota’s retirement occupation, assisting Mrs. Aota with the studio. He retired from public office, having served as the town’s number three elected official, the Treasurer of Biei, after the Mayor and Vice Mayor.
Mrs. Aota grew up in Nara on Honshu island, near Kyoto, nee Akemi Sasaki. She met Yoshimasa when he visited Nara on a school trip. They met at a gift shop at the deer park in Nara. They corresponded for three years, and then Akemi moved to Hokkaido and married Yoshimasa. Yoshimasa’s father had a general store in Biei and also worked as a carpenter. The new Mr. and Mrs. Aota raised three sons, Kinya, Kazuyuki, and Tomofumi.
When Kinya told his family of his plans to move back to Japan in February, 2014, his youngest brother, Tomofumi took it upon himself to “rehabilitate” his oldest brother to ease his return to Japanese society after twenty-five years in the U. S. Kinya said he appreciated his younger brother’s advice to show respect for their father. Kinya realized he would have to temper his highly independent ways, and communicate more with his father rather than doing just as he pleased, for example, riding his motorcycle wherever and whenever he wished. As Tomofumi sought to learn more about Kinya’s life in America, the younger brother happened upon the Free Venice Beachhead article of April 2012. “Miracles happen,”says Kinya, of his younger brother’s finding the Beachhead article online just at the right time. “This saved my family.”Kinya considers another “amazing, great thing”: his father had changed. The senior Mr. Aota had been a typical Japanese father: very strict, not emotive, a man of few words unless he was being very critical, which was often. Kinya used to confide in his mother, who always encouraged her son. Kinya remembers always being afraid of his father’s disapproval. Now, Kinya said his father seemed like a different person after he’d read of Kinya’s accomplishments in the Free Venice Beachhead. The senior Mr. Aota was very complimentary, saying he was proud of Kinya. His father was so touched and overcome with emotion, he uncharacteristically wept as he told his son how proud he was. His father was also friendly and talkative, and he and even expressed a desire to visit Esther Chaing at Hama Sushi in Venice. November 1st will mark Kinya’s ten-year anniversary working with the Hama Sushi family. Kinya feels happy he doesn’t have to worry about his parents, who are healthy, fine, and active. And thanks to the Free Venice Beachhead article, his parents don’t have to worry about Kinya, either.
Above: Kinya Aota and Esther Chaing at Hama Sushi