Paul Kusuda’s column
Chanto: A Japanese word with many meanings
By Paul Kusuda
January used to be a big thing when I was growing up in Los Angeles, not for gift exchanging but for eating. The
Japanese community in L.A. in the 1900s celebrated New Year’s Day by serving all kinds of Japanese dishes (many
unusual to me) and a lot of which I didn’t care to eat. The centerpiece was almost always a huge red boiled lobster.
All kinds of Japanese dishes were set out, and friends and relatives visited from household to household, eating at
each stop. I later figured out how families were able to visit and yet be able to be at home to entertain their guests. I
didn’t care to go around visiting and eating foods, many of which were foreign to my taste. I was, however, constantly
conscious of being on best behavior.
In our household, my mother’s mother stayed with our family when she became older. I thought she was real, real
old. She was in her early sixties, and that was real old to me when I was younger than 10. (She returned to Japan in
1939 to live with her relatives in the prefecture from which my folks came in the early 1900s). My grandmother stayed
at home presiding over and serving visitors while my parents made their requisite visits. Probably, that was the way
other families did it. Anyway, at the time, I didn’t give it a thought.
My grandmother used to run a grocery in downtown L.A. when Japanese Town was centered around East First
Street, practically in the shadow of City Hall. She sold her business about the time my parents sold their small hotel
and moved from downtown L.A. to the Uptown area. This enabled their three children (including me) to have better
educational opportunities than those available in the economically-depressed downtown area.
Operating a grocery store after years of being in the hotel business was not easy for my parents, but they learned
quickly. At first, both my parents put in many hours of work, the store being open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. almost every day
of the year, although the hours were reduced on Sundays and holidays. After learning how to handle everything, my
father was able to deal with the minutiae involved in running a grocery store; such as estimating how much to order,
what to order, dealing with suppliers, timing, etc. My mother was relieved of some responsibilities related to
storekeeping, so she was able to turn to other tasks.
Taking responsibility for raising three children became one of the ways my grandmother helped out. She’s the one
who instilled in us the concept of “chanto” (chahn toe). Since my grandmother preferred speaking Japanese, we got
along speaking a mixture of Japanese and English. Her English was worse than my mother, whose English skills were
not equal to my father’s. She was the primary disciplinarian in the household; then my father.
Chanto has many meanings. Our dictionary defines it as “just, right, properly, neatly, tidily, in good order.” My
grandmother used the word often. I remember some of them even though I didn’t obey her as much as she would have
Chanto suwari nasai – sit nicely, straighten your back, keep your feet on the floor.
Chanto bankyo shinasai – study well, read your books, do your homework.
Chanto hanashi nasai – speak nicely, don’t use foul language, be courteous, remember your social status when
you speak with others.
Chanto tabe nasai – eat your food politely, don’t stuff your mouth, don’t talk with your mouth full of food, don’t
chew food with your mouth open.
Chanto aruki nasai – walk nicely, don’t slouch when you walk, don’t shuffle your feet when you can pick them up,
walk straight without wandering about.
Chanto – what a convenient word parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts use when kids don’t meet their
expectations. One thing I was never told was “Chanto asubi nasai – play nicely, be gentlemanly.” That would have
been too much. However, the fact is, I guess some of the admonishments rubbed off on me. I can use a knife and fork
properly. Also, I know how to use chopsticks and what to do when I’m not using them to put food into my mouth.
Moreover, I don’t jab food with chopsticks because that isn’t polite when chanto sitting and chanto eating.