The little shopping mall has been renamed Fort Lee Plaza. Back in the 1970s, when it was Cardinale Square, I first ate raw fish here, brought by a friend to what must have been one of the original sushi houses in the New York area.
That establishment, gone now, served its purpose as a toehold, catering to a trickle of corporate transients that has since turned into a substantial community of Japanese families and businesses. Some 6,000 Japanese now live in Fort Lee, another 14,000 elsewhere in Bergen County, across the Hudson River from New York City. While the executives still are rotated in and out, the community flourishes.
SWEEPING VIEWS. On Main Street, Vendetta's Deli is still there, a relic of the days when the town was so populated by working-class Italians that it was known jokingly as "Fort-a Lee." By the 1970s, the neighborhood began changing as affluent newcomers flooded into luxury high rises atop the Palisades, with spectacular views of the place they were deserting, Manhattan. Boutiques and trendy restaurants pushed out the corner grocery and cigar stores.
The second wave of wealth, the Japanese, followed. With them came dozens of businesses that cater to their needs. Down a steep hill, just over the town line in neighboring Edgewater, is a small but precise piece of Japan: the Yaohan Plaza. It's a sprawling shopping complex--a mecca for Japanese seeking the comforts of home. A supermarket carries all sorts of Japanese staples and delicacies, including fresh fruit shipped in by airfreight. The cashiers are American, but almost all the shoppers are Japanese. Their cars jam the parking lot on weekends, and buses bring in more shoppers from all over the metropolitan area. A food court offers an array of Japanese dishes, while satellite stores offer everything from golf gear to Japanese books to the latest electronic gadgets from Tokyo.
The Japanese settled here for the most practical reasons. Fort Lee, anchoring the west end of the George Washington Bridge, makes it a quick zip into Manhattan or out to dozens of Japanese corporate offices, including Hitachi, Toyota, Sanyo, Fuji, Sony, and Sharp, scattered about the north Jersey suburbs. With its large stock of luxury high rises, Fort Lee is perfect for well-paid executives who can expect to be called back to Japan on short notice. And the streets are free of Manhattan's street crime.
Not that northern Jersey doesn't have its criminals. Fort Lee has long been considered something of a company town for New York's Mafia families who, like today's Japanese executives, appreciate the proximity to both New York and suburban operations. A few years back, up in a swank, terraced high rise, a cocktail party held by some people I knew was interrupted when a dark object, later identified as one Carmine Consalvo, a small-time hood, passed by on its downward path. Within weeks, another Consalvo, a brother, was also thrown to his death, from a New York tenement. The tabloids later quoted a rival Mafioso's quip that he had created a circus act: the Flying Consalvo Brothers. These days, the old dons can still be seen in grandfatherly retirement, lunching at posh eateries with their young mistresses.
LITTLE FRICTION. By contrast, the Japanese try to remain invisible. After all, they explain, they are merely transients who will someday be transferred home. "They keep a very low profile," says Bob Boylan, a former Fort Lee cop. But the Japanese can't help but stand out, if for no other reason than their politeness in an area not noted for gentle manners.
Despite their numbers, the wives of the Japanese salarymen still find that venturing into American stores can be a humiliating and even terrifying experience. One of them tells of being shortchanged $20. Pointing out the error, she waited. "Aren't you going to apologize?" she asked. "For what?" snapped the salesgirl. The woman and her friends were dumbfounded. The lack of remorse would have been an unthinkable transgression in Japan. Little wonder that the Japanese women socialize among themselves and stick to Yaohan and other Japanese outposts.
Townsfolk are keenly aware of their new neighbors, but there seems to be little resentment. The Japanese stick to themselves and are elaborately polite. And, besides, the transient Japanese families are only part of the changing profile of Fort Lee. School officials have counted more than 70 ethnic groups in their classes. One of the largest and fastest-growing is the Koreans, who may soon outnumber the Japanese--a fact the Japanese aren't entirely happy with. Added to historical animosity, there are class differences. The Japanese are managers and executives, while the Koreans are shopkeepers--often displacing locals. That, the Japanese believe, creates whatever anti-Asian feeling does exist.
Yet you see no Japanese-Korean friction, either. The Japanese remain a world unto themselves. The corporations that bring them do little to help them embrace the American lifestyle. Few learn English. The men live just as they would in Tokyo. Returning from the office, they either go straight home or haunt the local Japanese sushi houses, playing mah-jongg and singing karaoke and talking business deep into the night. Weekends, they're on the links.
For children, life is school and little more. Some may attend local elementary schools, but by fifth grade almost all don uniforms and board a bus each morning for the hour-long ride to the Japanese School of New York in Queens. The school is funded in part by the Japanese Education Ministry in hopes that the kids won't fall hopelessly behind the tough regimen back in Japan.
WESTWARD HO? Still, the cultural curtain may be lifting a bit. "The difference today is that more Japanese try to communicate with Americans," says realtor Kenji Otsubo. One way they do this is by joining civic groups and other local organizations, says Otsubo, whose Otsubo Realty, with offices in Fort Lee, New York, and Tokyo, rents apartments--and increasingly sells homes--to Japanese coming over. The three- or four-year tour is now five and six years, and some expect to stay 15 years. Companies are lengthening the U.S. stays to cut expenses and to develop better expertise in the American market. Says Otsubo: "Now, they have to understand the American culture and language."
Longtime Japanese residents of Fort Lee such as Aioko Leeds, who is married to an American, advise newcomers to go farther inland and live among Americans. "Fort Lee is too comfortable," she says, "like living in Japan." Leeds teaches her countrywomen American-style charity work, such as fund-raising for the local ambulance corps. As they become more American, there is a sense of release from the strict conventions of their culture. Says Leeds: "In Japan you have to think of your next-door neighbor, brothers, and sisters. Here you don't have to face next door. What you wear is your business."
At least for some Japanese, then, the only problem with Fort Lee is that it's too Japanese.