Ms. Geek Speaks: What Was Wrong at the Rafu (circa 1990s)

The Rafu Shimpo is hanging on by a thread, calling out for community, but the problem is: The Rafu Shimpo hasn’t always served its community with respect.

I worked at the Rafu Shimpo part-time over a decade ago. It was my first job in journalism and I was hired not because of my journalism background (totally lacking except for Daily Bruin published opinion pieces), but because I was bilingual Japanese and English and liked sports. At the Rafu,  I was encouraged to become more serious about photography. Not coming from the Los Angeles area, I did not find the Rafu Shimpo, Nisei Week nor the athletic leagues started for and maintained by Asian Americans of particular interest, then or now.

I left the Rafu Shimpo and became decidedly disinterested in sports, including the Olympics, which I had by then attended twice. I did not like sports writers because I had worked with them on a community, national and international level as a fellow sports writer. I found most of the male sports writers unpleasant.

During my time at the Rafu Shimpo, the offices had what the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) would have classified as a hostile work environment for women. The attitudes were apparent in the people and visible to anyone who entered the English office, photo department and the back rooms. I specifically mention the LAUSD because I asked a friend to give me a copy of the LAUSD handbook and later sent it to the Rafu publisher without telling my immediate supervisor, the sports editor, or his supervisor, the editor in chief of the English section.

That was after I was able to get the sports editor, a journalist who eventually became the editor for the English section, to admit that he resented how I spoke because I was in my words, “a girl instead of a guy.” He admitted it within hearing of the entire English staff. The editor in chief knew that the man was in trouble. I had already made complaints about how he was treating me. Finally I had proof and witnesses.

By the time I sent the editor the LAUSD handbook, other female employees had already shown displeasure at the pinups, butt shots and partial and full nude pictures of women casually displayed in the workplace. We aren’t talking about the Mad Men era newsroom or the newsroom of the cigar-chomping Clark Gable editor in “Teacher’s Pet.” We are talking the 1990s–after the Women’s Liberation Movement and long after the term “sexual harassment” was coined in the 1970s. It was the era of Anita Hill who testified in 1991.

By the time I sent the publisher the LAUSD handbook, one male supervisor made threatening physical gestures  to me in private and another male administrator took a swing at my face at a company party.

By the time I sent the publisher the LAUSD handbook, my immediate manager, the sports editor, decided to put a title that went something like “What next, Olympic Oil Changing” in reference to a woman I interviewed about synchronized swimming. My article was respectful. The title used by the sports editor was not. I called the interviewee and apologized. The editor was not fired nor was the layout person. If the woman I interviewed doesn’t remember that specific article, she probably does recall an unpleasant feeling about the Rafu Shimpo. For those who do not know, synchronized swimming is very popular in Japan and not the subject to ridicule in Japan and some other countries.

Synchronized swimming was first included in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics (1984). The U.S. (gold) and Japan (bronze) both medalled. The US went silver  in Seoul with Japan bronze. In Barcelona, the US was gold, Canada silver and Japan bronze. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the US team won a gold, Canada silver and Japan bronze.

If you’ve ever tried treading water, try treading water and rising to your waist. I have. It isn’t easy. I can’t do it. Synchronized swimmers are real athletes. In high school, I knew a national level synchronized swimmer who also competed in gymnastics (varsity) and water polo (varsity).  Yet you don’t have to personally know an athlete in the sport to give the sport respect. I wrote respectfully about the the administrator in the synchronized swimming organization. My editor undermined all that when he titled my article.

Synchronized swimming had already gained the respect of the Olympic Committee in the 1980s. Women were already in the newsroom. The federal court ruling on nude or pornographic pictures in the workplace was the result of a case filed in 1986 and the ruling by U.S. District Judge Howell Melton came in early 1991. How could the Rafu Shimpo have been so behind the times?

For most ethnic newspapers, issues of civil rights have a prominent place in their coverage. Asian Americans have been leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, protesting and bringing court cases against anti-Asian legislation before Martin Luther King Jr. participated in protests. King was inspired by two Asians–Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi. Women are half of the human population. Race and sex are both mentioned in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet the Rafu only focused on race as if gender wasn’t also an issue in the workplace.

While one might mourn the loss of an ethnic press publication for what it did for Asian American awareness, should women mourn the loss of a sexist publication? One can conjecture that the Rafu turned away readers and potential subscribers because of its disrespectful and even hostile attitude toward women and its demise might be a consequence of falling behind the times. At the Rafu, I learned more about Asian American history, but I also learned how to be strong and independently resist prejudice in the workplace.

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