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As we approach Independence Day for a nation of immigrants, a reflection on part of my family’s immigrant story

My father, Kiyoshi Sawano, was born in 1918 in the Shizuoka prefecture, part of the Japanese countryside. I don’t know too much about his childhood other than the he didn’t want to be a medical doctor like his father, his father’s father, and on up the family tree for many generations. He met my mother, who was of Japanese descent (but born in Hilo, Hawaii) at a dinner party in Tokyo. She also came from a long line of medical doctors. Her father, in fact, founded a small private hospital in Hilo catering to the Japanese plantation workers there. When her father died unexpectedly as a relatively young man, my grandmother brought the children back to Japan. My mother was only two so she had little memory of being an American kid, though Hawaii was only a territory at that time.

The second part of the family story is that Japan was struggling and very poor at the end of World War II. My father was an architecture student at Waseda University during the war, but his schooling was extended by a year due to a required stint in the military. He became a junior officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy. I never pressed him about that time, but he said he didn’t have to see military action, only serving as an instructor in the Imperial Naval Academy. After my parents were married, my father joined the large Japanese design-build contractor, Takenaka Corporation and, by most measures of the time in Japanese society, their lives were well set, my father having graduated from a top university and working for a top company at a time when lifetime employment was the norm. I suppose the only problem with that formula being that my father was a bit of a dreamer and a rebel, both parents were to varying degrees, and both felt constricted by the weight of what one should and shouldn’t do in Japanese society. While at the aforementioned top company, my father, assisted by a small band of other moonlighting apprentice architects entered into a national design competition for the design of a new NHK broadcasting headquarters building. Problem was, his team wound up winning second place and getting a fair amount of national recognition. Talented or no, the young rebel was not looked upon too keenly after this by his Takenaka bosses. I don’t know if he was fired or quit, but that’s when Sawano & Associates Architecture & Planning was born as a tiny practice in Tokyo.

Whether it was because of the difficulty of keeping a small, young architecture practice afloat or the allure of moving to America, my mother’s technical birthplace, the decision was eventually made to uproot from Japan. Like my mother when in Hilo, my sister was only a child of two, and everything about the family’s world was going to change permanently thereafter. I was yet to be born. In the 1950’s they became part of an early wave of Japanese immigrants, choosing to move to Los Angeles where my mother’s sister and her uncle were already living.

My family’s immigrant story, like many others, is one of starting from scratch in a new land. I was told my father landed a job as a busboy in a Van de Kamp’s Bakery restaurant, a popular coffee shop chain of the era, and was promptly fired because he was too slow a worker. When the family was down to something like their last few dollars, my father spent most of it to place an ad in the Los Angeles Times seeking work as a draftsperson. While there was no immediate response, now down to their last 15 dollars or so, he spent much of it to buy house paint, the purpose being to brighten up the interior walls of their rental house. He was inherently an optimist, which was a constant source of strain for my mother, who was much more of a pessimist. She was forever fearful of a punishing God and a dire future for the unworthy ones. My father instinctively abided by the Law of Attraction. Conversely, my mother abided by intense praying. Whether one approach worked, both worked, or one cancelled the other out, I’m not sure. My father did wind up landing a draftsperson’s job in the nick of time, thanks to that ad. Over the years, one thing led to another and eventually he was an associate in the office of George Vernon Russell, an eminent Pasadena-based modernist architect who, among other things, designed the Seeley G. Mudd building at Caltech, the U.C. Riverside campus master plan, and a wing of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum in Exposition Park.

During the early 1970’s an opportunity came up for my father to work on an architecture project directly for one of Russell’s clients, the upstart Swedish automaker Volvo, to do their Western U.S. distribution center. My father took this opportunity to commit to being the owner of his own architecture practice. I was now a child, born in Los Angeles, and taking this all in. Among other things, he later designed the large Sambi Restaurant in Downey, Okada Restaurant in Downtown LA, the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center in West Covina, and the Gardena Buddhist Church. His biggest break was the result of forming an alliance with two other Japanese American architects in Little Tokyo to seek award of the design of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) building. My father’s scheme was the winning design concept and, together with the other architects, the project was built and still stands today. He recalled working collaboratively with the Japanese American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, who designed the plaza opposite the JACCC building.

My father’s office was always small, hovering between just him and a small handful at the most. Mainly this was a product of him refusing to actively market his services. He thought it undignified. Between projects, I remember him setting up an easel in his office and creating an oil painting of the view out his office window. In this past era of practicing architecture, the fees were less cutthroat, and projects would magically still come, usually in the nick of time before complete financial calamity, or my mother having a breakdown from all the praying and psychic strain. His niche was serving Japanese companies who needed to set up shop in Southern California and local Japanese American businesses. At some point after finishing graduate school and working for a short while on the East Coast, I worked for my father, which was a great learning experience since I got to do everything from answering the phone, setting up our first office computers, and to designing my own projects. It eventually reached a point working for him during one of the economic downturns, where I had to lay myself off. This led to my working in very different sorts of firms on a very different scale of project for most of the rest of my career–perhaps a story for another time.

I remember my father loved to create things, no doubt starting in his childhood. When we travelled to Japan when I was in my early teens, we visited his relatives and ancestral home, where he searched for and recovered a fistful of tiny brass parts, part of an unfinished miniature steam engine. When we got back to Los Angeles, one of the first things he did was tinker on his garage workbench, bringing completion to that project started perhaps 30 years earlier. He loved to paint, created wood sculptures, made furniture and, probably most of all, loved crafting things, usually out of wood. One Christmas Eve, during my childhood, he made a mechanized robot for me out of discarded coffee cans and an old toy motor. These are things a child never forgets. Men, at least Japanese ones of the time, didn’t say “I love you” but actions like these speak louder than words.

My father died of cancer at age 87 in 2005. There were other stories, the time he served as a technical advisor for the film Midway and the famous actor Toshiro Mifune dined at Sambi with my parents and came to our modest house in Monterey Park. There was my mother’s aborted attempt to take her own life as a reaction to an instance of my father’s presumed infidelity. There is a lot to a life. It’s complex, it’s bittersweet, and then it’s over. There is no single sentence that adequately covers it, but perhaps there is a story and a moral to it: Be true to who you are and your passions. Somehow, it will all work out.

Albert Sawano

Albert Sawano has applied experience from over three decades working on major building projects to converge upon a design approach that sets aside traditional polarities such as functional vs. aesthetic, or architectural vs. structural, in favor of design that is holistically-approached, integrative, and synchronistic.

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