In order to make stories fit in Nikkei Heritage, we sometimes have to cut them down in word count. This is the uncut version of Ben Hamamoto's profile of Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu.
This year, performance artist Brenda Wong Aoki and Emmy Award-winning jazz musician Mark Izu plan to take back Halloween with the “Ghosts and Jazz” concert series.
The first couple of the Nikkei arts scene, husband and wife Aoki and Izu have been working together since 1979 when, inspired by jazz as an expression of African American culture, they studied Japanese traditional arts such as Noh theater and Gagaku music, hoping to create an authentic contemporary Asian American art form.
Their Halloween event teams them with a number of Nikkei artists, including Dr. Anthony Brown on multiple percussion, Janet Koike and Kathryn Cabunoc on taiko, Shoko Hikage on koto and Masaru Koga on shakuhachi and saxophone.
“We’re adapting symphonic and theatrical work we’ve done in the past and weaving in some real ghost stories from San Francisco,” Aoki explains. “We’re putting them in a new context in a jazz club.”
“Ghosts and Jazz” is a special event timed to coincide with Halloween, but the spiritual and supernatural are an integral part of Aoki and Izu’s art.
“Gagaku is much slower than Western music… so in order to keep time you have to sync your breathing with the other players,” Izu explains. “It’s a spiritual experience, learning to breathe together. As in meditation, you feel as if you are in a different realm, but once you become conscious of that, it disappears.”
In Gagaku, there is a Buddhist piece called “Bairo” which, it is said, will open your third eye if you play it seven times in a row.
“We’ve been trying to play it seven times,” Izu said, “but we’ve only made it to four, max.”
“In the theatre of Yugen, you move very slowly,” Aoki adds. “this is out of respect for the spirits who surround you when you perform.”
She also emphasizes the importance of Ma, negative space in Japanese art and philosophy.
“There is great power in silence, in stillness,” Aoki says. “Like when you have upset a lover and [they] do not say anything… There is eloquence in that silence.”
Ghosts can also be looked at as a sort of ma.
“In Noh, the dead are more important than the living,” Aoki explains, “because the actions of these dead are what brought us to where we are today.”
The spiritual and supernatural are part of the nature of Aoki and Izu’s work, but they are frequently the subject of their work as well. In fact, Aoki has been telling ghost stories since the beginning of her career.
In the mid-’80s, she received one of her first gigs when a UC Berkeley museum was having an exhibit on Japanese ghosts and demons. They commissioned her to write a piece and perform it; however, she was only given a short time before the piece was to be performed.
Without time to do stage rehearsals or choreography, Aoki simply read her work out-loud — adapted versions of Japanese ghost stories, “Dojoji” and “Black hair.”
Both stories concern vengeful women ghosts, a popular motif in Japanese horror.
“I love the fact the ghosts are always women,” Aoki says. “They’re so filled with love or jealousy or rage that they won't just go peacefully into the night.”
Though her stories are rooted in folklore, Aoki gives them her own twist.
“I always did them from my point of view,” she explains. “The original [Dojoji] had the poor innocent monk as the victim of the evil woman spirit… I wanted to do it my way.”
One of her best-known stories is “Mermaid Meat,” based on a legend that eating the flesh of a mermaid grants one immortality. In Aoki’s version, which was performed with Izu, Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra as a symphonic work, a mermaid falls in love with a fisherman but is betrayed by a human seeking eternal life.
“I had heard of the legend and later I read that amniotic fluid has the same chemical makeup as seawater, as do tears,” Aoki explains. “This inspired me to write the story.”
The extent of Aoki’s creativity is sometimes lost on American audiences who assume she is faithfully retelling ancient tales.
“When I go to Japan, my retellings are seen as much more avant garde,” she says. “I make the ghost the hero — the men are tentative sometimes, but the women love it!”
To some older Japanese, the stories are bold not just in terms of creativity, but in that Aoki talks directly about ghosts. At a performance in Houston, an old Japanese woman came up to her and asked, “Are you Nikkei?”
When Aoki answered in the affirmative, the obaasan said, “Only a stupid Sansei would do obake stories.”
Aoki got chills upon hearing this, as she generally treats the supernatural with caution.
“Ever since I can remember, ghost stories were a part of my life,” she explains. “I grew up next to a Polynesian housing project and many of the kids there had stories of summoning Bloody Mary [by saying her name three times in a dark room in front of a mirror].
“Kids would run out of the bathroom crying,” Aoki remembers. “Even today I can’t look in a mirror at night.”
She exercises similar caution when choosing her own stories.
“There are some stories I won’t do because they are too frightening,” she explains. “And I don’t do ones that involve me wearing masks.”
In Noh, one must ask the spirit of the mask to vacate and allow one to use it. If not done properly, one can become stuck inside the mask, unable to take it off.
But despite such precautions, Aoki has still seen her share of strange phenomenon.
Once, during a rehearsal for a performance at Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum, the lights suddenly went out. The only source of illumination in the room was from the small lights pointed at photos on exhibit.
“It was eerie. All you could see was headless people in glass coffins,” Aoki explains. “I could hear, unmistakably, the sound of children crying coming from the other side of the wall.”
A janitor, the only other person in the room, began diligently chanting Hail Mary’s. Aoki would later find out that this was not the first time the janitor had experienced such things in the museum. When the lights came back on, Aoki, concerned for the safety of the children she had heard, went to tell Nancy Araki, director of community affairs at the museum, what had happened. Araki assured her there were no imperiled children on the other side of the wall. She explained that the staging area was where Nikkei had to assemble to be sent to the concentration camps. [E1]
The ghosts of Aoki’s family history in particular and Japanese American history in general came out both literally and figuratively in the process of creating “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” — the true story of Aoki’s family history.
Aoki had always known her family had a “shameful” secret, but it wasn’t until the late ‘90s[E2] when her 106-year-old cousin Sadae revealed to her what it was. Aoki’s great uncle, Gunjiro, married a white woman in 1909, becoming California’s first interracial couple. Scorned by both the white and Nikkei communities, Gunjiro and Gladys were chased out of town and lost contact with the rest of the family.
Aoki was fascinated by this hidden chapter of her family history and went about researching the controversy it caused. She was commissioned by the Montalvo Arts Center, a South Bay nonprofit, to develop a performance piece based on her family history and she was invited to work on it at the center’s 175-acre, Mediterranean-style villa, which James D. Phelan, the state’s first elected senator, left to the people of California for the encouragement of art, music, literature, and architecture.
Soon after Aoki began her work there, strange things started happening. The phone would ring at odd times with no one on the other end. She heard noises in her cabin when she was alone.
After some time of this, she approached the groundskeeper and asked him point blank, “Is this place haunted?”
“Oh yes,” he answered without hesitation. “Particularly around your cabin.”
“You should watch out,” he added, “the ghost seems particularly hostile towards [people of color].”
As her research continued, Aoki learned that there was an unlikely connection between her family history and the place she was staying. Piecing together news articles spanning more than a decade, a narrative was emerging. Helen and Gunjiro’s union was condemned by all sectors of society. However, one man stood above the others in his hatred for the interracial couple: Senator James D. Phelan, the previous owner of the villa.
“Phelan made his platform on hating people of color in general,” Aoki explains. “He hounded Helen and Gunjiro wherever they went — he made it his personal crusade.”
Within minutes of reading the article, Aoki said, the lights began to flicker. The presence on the grounds, which had previously been a curiosity, suddenly seemed like a menacing, malevolent force. She continued to experience problems right up until the first staging of the show.
The whole night Aoki and her crew, comprised entirely of people of color, experienced difficulties. Her printer would not work that night, so Aoki had to read from her laptop and a light, heavy enough to have killed a person, fell within inches of a member of her crew.
In the midst of the panic created by the falling light, a Native American man in full medicine man regalia approached the stage.
“I’m your cousin Michael,” he told Aoki and, without elaborating any further, then said, “We need to do a ‘sing’[E3] right now.”
The man performed a ritual meant to rid the hall of angry spirits, and immediately after, the lights went out.
Michael later explained that he was Gunjiro’s grandson. Gladys and Gunjiro settled in Washington State, while the rest of the Aoki family, ostracized from San Francisco’s Nikkei community, fled to Utah to become sharecroppers. Because they were residing on the West Coast during the war, Gladys and her five children (Gunjiro had passed away by that time), were supposed to go to camp, but Gladys decided, instead, to flee with them into the mountains.
“She knew those camps were not going to be no picnic,” Aoki says. They lived among a Native American tribe and Gunjiro’s son, Michael’s father, married the daughter of a medicine man.
Michael learned of Aoki’s performance from the local paper, in which he saw an announcement accompanied by a picture of his grandparents.
“It feels like everything came full circle… what happened to Gunjiro and Gladys set the precedent for the mass incarceration,” Aoki reflects. “I got the grant to do the show from the last of the redress money.”
The pioneering Nikkei performer doesn’t see her historical piece “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” as being a total departure from her works that deal with ghosts and spirits.
“Ghost stories remind us that what remains after we are dead are the consequences of our actions,” Aoki says. “What starts to happen with time is that stories become parables…. talking in parable and symbol is a quicker and more abstract way to enter the mind and soul.”
The “Ghosts & Jazz” performances will include some real life ghost stories, along with the folk legends.
“Weaving more personal stories in and around the ghost stories,” Aoki says, “puts them in a context that explains why they are relevant today.”Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu performed Ghosts and Jazz at 142 Throckmorton in