All week long, Matao Uwate fiddles with recording equipment in the back of his cluttered shop on San Pedro Street in downtown Los Angeles, readying tapes for a one-hour radio program that for decades has been a precious link to the homeland for Japanese-Americans living in Southern California.
Before he turns on his tape machine, Uwate often lingers in front of towering shelves in his improvised recording studio. He gingerly sifts through rows of ancient 45 and 78 rpm records, sheathed in crumbling paper sleeves, for the one appropriate tune to match his mood.
For 35 years, Uwate, the host of "Radio Li'l Tokyo," has spun rare recordings of Japanese classical and popular music and provided local news and announcements about weekly activities in Little Tokyo. At nights, he now has competition from local Japanese-language television programs. But for an hour on Sunday mornings on station KTYM (1460 AM), there is only Uwate to remind Japanese-Americans of life before America.
On Sunday, as he does every year, Uwate, 65, marked the anniversary of the birth of "Radio Li'l Tokyo" with a banquet for several hundred of his devoted fans and a singing contest for those who still remember the words and melodies of decades-old songs.
Inevitably, as the anniversaries pass, there are fewer who remember. Uwate's audience is aging along with its host, a fate that eventually befalls any popular program. "We all grew up with the same songs and the same favorite movie stars," Uwate says. "That generation is almost gone."
But not completely. At the Little Tokyo Towers, an apartment house for Japanese-American senior citizens in the 400 block of East 3rd Street, devoted fans in their 70s and 80s still wake up early to turn on their radios by 7:30 a.m. At that moment, in dozens of apartments, "Radio Li'l Tokyo" comes to life with the opening strains of Uwate's theme, "Genroqu," a stirring 18th-Century song written to accompany Kabuki dancers.
Mary Matsura, 73, a Towers resident, has been listening to the program since the mid-1950s. She appreciates the five-minute sermons that Uwate tapes from Buddhist and Roman Catholic priests and the Japanese cooking recipes that he reads each week. But it is the music that transports her back to memories of her youth.
Uwate describes most of the records he plays as "Japanese blues songs--lots of rain, tears, drinking sake, love lost."
"It's music you haven't heard for years and years," Matsura said.
Some of the songs she remembers from the record collection her parents played during her childhood years in Portland, Ore. Her family was forced to abandon the records when they were transported to a detention camp in Idaho at the beginning of World War II.
"We weren't supposed to take along anything Japanese," recalls Matsura. Hundreds of treasured record collections vanished in those years, presumably burned or discarded for trash, she said.
A few Japanese-American families managed to save their recordings. Uwate, who was born in Seattle but was sent by his parents to live in Japan during the war, returned with his own records.
After the young Japanese Chamber of Commerce official moved to Los Angeles and started his radio program in 1952, fans began donating vintage records to his library, which has grown to more than 10,000 discs.
Since then, Uwate, who lives in East Los Angeles and also writes about and teaches cooking, has done more than just provide a brief hour of nostalgia and a room for old records, say leaders of the Japanese-American community.
"He has played an important role," said Bruce T. Kaji, president of the Merit Savings Bank and the Japanese American National Museum. "He gave first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans a sense of what was happening in the world around them and catered to their artistic and cultural needs."
Kaji said he hopes that Uwate may find a new audience among the thousands of Japanese businessmen who have moved with their families to Southern California in recent years. Because "Radio Li'l Tokyo" has bounced around from radio station to radio station over the last three decades, Uwate is uncertain of the real numbers or composition of his audience.
All he can really be sure of is the emotional response that his scratchy old records deliver.
"It's not very complicated," he said, removing an ancient disc from the shelf. The record was encased by a sleeve printed with the fading pictures of smiling 1940s Japanese singers.
"These are songs about going to school or losing your girlfriend or going back to your hometown," he said. "Songs that anyone can relate to, whether you come from Japan or not."