Jerry Large / Times staff columnist
Author sets 'Beacon Hill Boys' in racially diverse halls of his school days
Ken Mochizuki is a missionary bringing his audience stories they wouldn't otherwise hear.
He thought he'd have a career as a musician, lending his trombone to a group that would sound something like Tower of Power. But instead he spent several years after graduating from the University of Washington working as a reporter and editor, writing about issues of importance to Asian Americans.
For the past decade he's been doing something else close to his heart. Mochizuki writes and lectures about Asian-American history.
He's been honored for his three children's books, including the popular "Baseball Saved Us," about a child dealing with life in a Japanese-American internment camp.
His most recent book, "Beacon Hill Boys" (Scholastic Press, $16.95), is aimed at young adults, but it isn't kid stuff. Race is a major topic, and Mochizuki deals with its complexities honestly. The book is set at Herbert Hoover High School, really Seattle's Cleveland High School, the place that awoke Mochizuki's awareness of Asian-American history and gave birth to his zeal for spreading the word.
We met at Cleveland one morning recently to talk about the experiences that shaped the book and its author.
One of the most noticeable changes from Mochizuki's day is that the students in the hallways and classrooms of Cleveland High School are mostly either African-American or Asian-American, and many are recent immigrants. Out of 736 students who started this academic year at Cleveland, only 71 were white.
Mochizuki remembers a school made up of equal parts black, white and Asian-American students, 'fros, bell-bottoms, and Motown rhythms. It was the perfect place and time for a teenager figuring out who he was in the midst of a country figuring itself out.
"You walked into this school on Beacon Hill and your multicultural education began. We were there at the right time. Everything was just forming."
It is a perfect setting for a book about groups, belonging and self-discovery.
Mochizuki, who graduated from Cleveland in 1972, wrote about a small group of Japanese-American teens who don't fit into any of the school's cliques. They're finding their own way, and also figuring out what it means to be Japanese-American.
All the usual high-school social trauma is present, but it is deepened by the role that race plays.
The main character, Dan Inagaki, is overshadowed by his perfect older brother, Brad, who is a star academically and athletically and who has a white girlfriend from the North End.
He is everything Dan and his friends aren't.
"We have this stereotype of the model minority," Mochizuki said, "but what does that mean for Asian Americans who don't fit that mold?"
Dan's desire to know something about Japanese-American history is kindled gradually, but his parents don't want to talk about that. He follows the example of black students and asks for a class that would deal with that history. His family thinks he's being a troublemaker.
"All the social changes were going on, in race relations," Mochizuki said. "The African Americans were the ones who had it going on. They had black pride, black power. You could be proud of who you were and your history and try to find out about your history. So then all the other groups wanted to get in on the act."
But race is not just about dealing with the white majority.
In the book, a black girl keeps sending signals that she likes Dan, but the idea of a relationship with her doesn't even occur to him. It's too foreign.
A mover and shaker in the black student movement that inspires Asian-American students says in class that he thinks the internment was necessary.
Some of the guys go to a restaurant in the North End, and the waitress forgets to place their order. Did she forget, or did she just not want to deal with Japanese kids? The uncertainty is one of the most uncomfortable parts of having to live with racism.
The morning Mochizuki showed me around the building was his first time inside since he graduated 31 years ago.
Cleveland High School faces a hill overlooking the freeway and shows its monolithic backside to the street. It looks very much like a prison.
Mochizuki said his editor didn't think readers would believe the school was designed that way, so he had to reverse the layout for his "Herbert Hoover High School" in the book.
Small tables float around the lunchroom like islands. Back in the day, there were a few long rows. Black students sat against one wall, Asian Americans on the opposite side of the room and white students scattered between, though he remembers white students often ate off campus at a nearby mom-and-pop restaurant.
Kids were separate at lunchtime, but they also shared some things, including a love of '70s rhythm and blues. Mochizuki's black characters talk black and listen to black music.
The old student activities center has been turned into the student services center. Kids used to hang out there divided, not by race, but by clique, the cool people, jocks, you know, the usual social order, with nonconformists on the fringes.
The library looked the same, he said, except that students sat at rows of computers. A librarian asked Mochizuki to say a few words about his book. He told them it's about the main character's search to find self-esteem.
The story borrows a lot from his own life, he told me later. He didn't know anything about Asian-American history. He's still learning, but one of the early eye-openers happened in a room at Cleveland.
A young teacher, Bill Nesmith, put together a course he called Comparative American Cultures, and he taught the students parts of American history that had been lacking from their other classes.
"It was just astounding. It was such a discovery, even on my own history," Mochizuki says. He remembers looking in the school library to see how many books there were on the internment. There weren't any.
"The Dan character in the book has a struggle to get more books in the library — that was something I was actually a part of."
In that class he learned that there was a long history of exclusion before the internment.
He's still learning stuff. Mochizuki says he was doing research recently and found there were two Asian-American Medal of Honor winners in Vietnam.
"This was in '69. Why didn't I know that? I think I and my friends would have a whole different view of ourselves. We had heroes, part of everyday business, fighting in Vietnam."
"Sometimes students say, 'Why do you write this stuff?' and I ask them, 'Have you heard these stories before?' "
Mochizuki recounts the history of the 100th Infantry Battalion in WWII. In one battle, the outgunned 100th repeatedly refused German demands that they surrender. The Japanese-American soldiers found a cache of enemy weapons and used them to defeat the Germans.
"This is as legendary as the Alamo. How come we've never heard about it?"
He tells his audiences that what he does is not politically correct, but historically accurate.
He keeps doing it for the same reason he gave himself in the beginning: "Somebody has to do it. If you don't, who will?"
Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.