Next Gen Nikkeis You Should Know: Sean Paul Takeo Miura
Co-founders of the Yonsei Memory Project, Brynn Saito and Nikiko Masumoto, got to have a fascinating conversation with Sean Paul Takeo Miura. We learned about Sean’s extraordinary breadth of work. As a self-described writer/organizer, he has created through diverse mediums such as producing art gatherings, poetry, and making digital content (film, writing). Sean shared intimate stories about his coming into consciousness about Japanese American history and also about the arts/organizing project he’s a volunteer staff member with: Tuesday Night Cafe. Our conversation with Sean was like an abridged lesson in Japanese American activism and Asian American art history of Los Angeles. Here are just a few excerpts from our longer and inspiring conversation.
Name: Sean Paul Takeo Miura
What’s your superpower? The superpower I would like to have is the ability to speak any language.
What’s your official title? I am the Tuesday Night Cafe producer/lead curator and Tuesday Night Project senior staffer.
What’s the title you’d give yourself? I generally say writer/organizer.
Brynn: What have been powerful vehicles for learning about your identity or Japanese American history?
Sean: When I was learning to read, I was learning to read through Asian American literature, as my mom had an extensive collection. I read a young adult novel called “Journey to Topaz” by Yoshiko Uchida, a story of a young girl whose family is sent to Topaz concentration camp and remember getting this weird feeling in the back of my neck as I got through the book. That was my first indication of inherited trauma tied to the camps. I had grown up knowing about the camps and about my family’s tie to the WWII incarceration story but it wasn’t until later that I fully started to understand their impact on my own life.
I was born in Seattle, grew up in Vancouver, and moved to New Jersey for my dad’s work when I was 12 years old. I moved to New Jersey in the August of 2011—a month later was 9/11. We were in a bedroom town for New York which meant that many of my peers had family who commuted to the city every day for work. Accordingly, our town was very deeply impacted by 9/11.
Immediately afterward there was a period of mourning coupled with the blossoming of American flags everywhere and then an outpouring of hyper-nationalism. Being in this particular town (and new to America from Canada) I found myself getting swept up in it.
It was a week later when I read that a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi had been killed in Arizona because he was wearing a turban. In that same week, a random man yelled at my dad on his way to work for what my dad “did to America.” My best friend at the time, a girl from a Muslim family, had someone come up to her at school and tell her to “stop crashing planes into our buildings.”
I had understood all these things in silos previously and suddenly it all clicked together. Suddenly, I could see for myself how racism works in concert with so many other social structures and how easily something like the WWII camps could happen.
That was when things kicked off for me and when I started going online, reading, and growing a hunger for community building.
Brynn: Who are some of the Japanese American artists who were influential for you?
Sean: traci kato-kitiyama for sure. I ended up at the Manzanar pilgrimage after 9/11 as a 13-year-old. I was full of righteous, young, Asian American toxic masculine rage that I was trying to sort through. I didn’t know her name was traci yet but I saw her perform this piece about waking up on September 11th. She was performing with this guy named Kennedy Kabasares and I would later learn that the two of them were in a group called Zero 3 with another guy named Edren Sumagaysay.
So I saw them perform and this was the first time I saw spoken word. I started writing right after that. It started me on a journey with poetry and had me learning how to make things with words.
Five years later, I was in a rally in Little Tokyo in support of Ehren Watada who was a soldier who refused deployment to Iraq. There was a march organized by Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress in support of him. At the end of it, there was a woman who read this poem that was really familiar, and as I was listening to it I was like “Oh, I’ve heard this poem—this is that woman who read [at Manzanar].”
That’s where we met for real for the first time. She eventually organized me into Tuesday Night Project/Tuesday Night Cafe, which I’m now curator for. She has really been an influence throughout as a mentor.
Another person who has influenced how I think about Japanese America is Tad Nakamura. He’s a documentarian; he has this film called “Pilgrimage” about the first pilgrimage up to Manzanar told through a Sansei lens. This is a story you don’t hear very often: the Sansei who first uplited the conversation around the camp experience. The story is told to a soundtrack that is a mix of the “A Grain of Sand” album by Nobuko Miyamoto, Chris Iijima, and Charlie Chin and these Filipino American hip hop artists like the Blue Scholars.
I had seen camp documentaries before but this one [Pilgrimage] felt more culturally resonant to me and it told the story in a different way. It re-centered the story on resilience and power as opposed to victimization and loss of agency. The documentary was about a community that had a lot taken away from it, but had, ultimately, retained its resilience and its strength. That film really impacted me. He’s also personally been an influence on me as a friend and we’ve worked on a few projects together.
Nikiko: One of the things Brynn & I were struck by in your body of work is the spectrum: from digital media-making and the digital world to the ephemeral, community, and physical-in-place gathering work. Would you talk about the overlap between digital and ephemeral modes, and also what distinguishes between the two? How do you decide which end of the spectrum to use?
Sean: The question I’m hearing is how I view the real world in terms of conversation production versus the digital world in terms of conversation production.
Nikiko: Yes! I’m really curious about how you move between. I’m so fascinated by the question: as art producers, when and how do we decide which medium to use and why, especially when our goal is art and activism together?
Sean: I don’t see the digital and the physical as that different. I see the digital as one tool that you can use. We’re in an era where the internet isn’t the internet anymore, it’s just part of the air.
We’re in this era where it’s not even about inevitability or the imperative that you have to be online. Digital connective-ness is a reality and a constant in the world that I personally inhabit—which in my case is Los Angeles, which is a specific context. For me, it’s part of the everyday.
In terms of art production, the “irl” (in real life, if you want to put it that way) conversation or performance is always going to have a stronger impact because you have real time feedback. There is little about a Facebook post that is conversational. There’s little about a Twitter post that is conversational. They’re broadcast media. But let’s say you need to spread information really quickly. Let’s say you want to get something broadcast, that’s where the digital works very well.
I think the internet, for me, is just another avenue of communication and sharing. You can sing your song live, you can write your song lyrics on paper, you can stream your song on the internet. It happens to have a larger reach and a higher possibility that an anonymous person is going to see it.
To me the distinction comes down to your intent: is this a song that you only want to be heard in the room? Is this a song that you want to keep restricted by only writing in a book? Or do you want this to just be out there so you can point people to it? I’m still working out what I mean by “the internet is part of the air,” because it’s not quite right. The internet is not the air.
Nikiko: I think it’s a really provocative statement.
Sean: There isn’t really a word for the digital reality. I see the internet as an extension of what is real, not as an alternate.
Nikiko: I have to ask, you’re just so full of amazing lines. Sean, how do you know when you’re having a conversation? What is the essence of a conversation for you?
Sean: I think it’s taking something in and allowing it to ferment into something different. That to me, is a conversation.
For example, you can say the sky is blue, and then I might look at the sky and I ask, is the sky blue? And then I think about the color spectrum and I think about the color blue and then I think about how it’s actually a little bit golden right now. What that’s done is that it hasn’t erased your thought, I’ve just taken it in and I’ve added something to it and then I could say that out loud and you could, in your head, think, “Well, it’s still blue, Sean. It’s a little golden, but it’s still blue.” [laughter]
And then it becomes an exchange. I don’t think it’s a conversation if you say the sky is blue, and then I say, yes, and then full stop. I also don’t think we have to disagree. I think you can say the sky is blue, and I can say, yes, it’s a really nice robin’s egg blue. And then you can take that in and think, wow, “There are not many robins in Los Angeles, that’s strange,” which takes the conversation somewhere else entirely. The fermentation is really important.
Nikiko: That’s a super fascinating metaphor for conversation. (I’m a farmer so I love that we’re talking food.) Fermentation, especially in an American dietary context, fermented foods are kind of gross to a lot of American palettes. (Well, except for beer, but that’s a whole other culture of gender and sexuality.) [laughter] But the idea of fermentation is so fascinating because it literally is transforming. The ingredients that are started with are transformed molecularly through fermentation and then offered back as something new. It’s a really amazing metaphor. Now I’m thinking about miso and shoyu which are all fermented!
Sean: I know that you could really go down a hole on fermentation. But just as a concept, it is fascinating to think about what is produced and released and what remains. How would you define a conversation?
Nikiko: It’s a really hard question, that’s why I asked you! [laughter]
Brynn: I know, I can’t think of anything better than fermentation! That kind of takes the cake!
Nikiko: The immediate thing I thought of was the writer/poet David Whyte who has this list of “10 Questions that have no right to go away.” One of the questions is: Do I know how to have a conversation? The list is amazing, another question is: Do I know where the temple of my adult aloneness is? It’s amazing!
I think that the immediate things that come to my mind are: presence. In order to have a conversation you have to be present with another being. I will say another being, not necessarily human. I think the word that comes to me is some level of vulnerability. Not that every conversation has to entail a traumatic sharing, but I think it’s similar to fermentation. In order to have an actual conversation, I have to present in a way that allows something to change, otherwise, I’m just saying whatever I believe or whatever I think at you without any requisite of you hearing it and without me caring about if you’re actually hearing.
Of course, because I’m a farmer, I spend a lot of time thinking about conversation with plants. While plants don’t speak; although arguments could be made for sonic response. But the peach trees I work with are living creatures that respond to my interaction with them. If I can silence my ego enough to listen, they are totally telling us things about the air, about the soil, about the water, about temperatures, about climate changing. It is so clear, it’s right there. Thank you for the invitation to share.
Sean: In some ways, if you’re not talking to the peaches, you’re talking to the land, and the peaches are the response. Where the peaches are able to tell you how things are or are not growing or how things are or are not responding. So if you can’t silence yourself to receive the message, then you can’t continue your charge as a farmer.
Brynn: One of my faculty colleagues says that he tries to listen as if his life depended on it. He’s such a great listener. We often do these dyad listening exercises with the students and he confessed that to me that during those exercises, that’s what he’s doing. I can feel that when we’re talking, he is sitting there and listening and repeating back what he’s hearing. “Listen as if your life depended on it.” I thought, that is what I’m feeling as he’s listening, it feels so genuine. How many of us do that? I wish that I could do that more in all spaces. I like the piece about being willing to learn something new and being vulnerable enough to do that. To be that open and anticipate that I might learn something new about the world through a tiny moment with somebody. How can I prime myself for that?
Sean: That openness is really important. I really like that. “Listen like your life depends on it.”
Nikiko: More conversation to be had, but for now, we need to wrap up. Last question: what is your favorite form of self-care?
Sean: I like taking really long drives. Last summer, I drove to Gila River by myself. Once, I meant to drive to Santa Barbara, and I instead drove to San Francisco. There’s something about a long which allows me to be with myself, and I really like that.
We wish you happy driving, Sean! We're deeply grateful for your time and thoughts.