Tireless Kuniko Terasawa Is the Force Behind a Newspaper Almost No One Can Read

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Enter the cramped, cluttered office of Salt Lake City's Utah Nippo, and time seems to stand still. At one end of the newsroom is a wall clock that reads 2:37—as it has for months. At the other end is the Japanese language newspaper's 93-year-old owner, Kuniko Terasawa, bent over a rackety, low-tech printing press. Magnifying glass to her eye, tweezers in her fingers, she's hand-setting type the old-fashioned way—in antique characters that even most Japanese cannot read. Her four-page paper, which in November will celebrate its 75th anniversary, started as a daily, then became a weekly and is now, finally, a "sometimes monthly." Explains Terasawa: "The paper is published when the stories are finished being typeset." Why is it still called Nippo, which translated means "daily"? She pulls herself to her full 4'7" height. "Because," she says, "I work on it every day."

Indeed. Terasawa is not merely the owner and publisher of Utah Nippo; she is the editor, the ace (and sole) reporter, typesetter and proofreader. Although she takes frequent rest breaks, she's still at the office up to eight hours a day, seven days a week. "I never thought I'd be doing this for so long, but I really enjoy it," she says, while composing a story about the discovery of an ancient Japanese castle. "My food tastes better each night if I put in a hard day's work and keep moving."

Utah Nippo is the only remaining Japanese-language newspaper in the U.S. that served the first wave of immigrants from Japan, the Issei. Founded in 1914 by Terasawa's husband, Uneo, who died of pneumonia in 1939, the paper once boasted more than 10,000 subscribers around the country. These days there are only about 700 readers, mostly in Utah and adjacent states. A subscription still costs $7 a year—the same as it did when the Utah Nippo was started. But then Terasawa is not in the communications business mainly for profit. "Money is not important," she says. "People are."

Terasawa gets to work about 10 A.M. every morning—as she did even on the day after her husband's death. "I had to take care of the employees," she says, "or they'd lose their jobs." Although she is now helped by her family, in her cinder-block office and print shop, "Mother does most of the work herself," says her daughter Kazuko, 63, who lives with the older woman and who has never married. (Terasawa's other daughter, Haruko Moriyasu, 57, who's widowed and has a 20-year-old son, teaches at the University of Utah.) Kazuko edits an English page and translates for her mother, who professes to know only one phrase in English: "That is a cat."

Except for Kazuko's page, all copy appears in pre-World War II characters, disused elsewhere since Japanese ideograms were modernized starting in the late 1940s. Terasawa is the only person at the paper who can still compose with the 3,600 or so old-style characters, which few but the older Issei can read. No longer able to report community events herself, she depends on her network of friends to bring her news of weddings, bonsai plant exhibits and Buddhist temple events.

A sewing and fine embroidery teacher back in Japan, Terasawa left her hometown of Iida at 26, when Uneo, a vegetable farmer-turned-publisher, came looking for a bride to join him in Utah. "Until he passed away," she says, "I didn't have much to do with the paper. I was too busy being a housewife."

She and Kazuko now share a simple brick home six blocks from the print shop. They live frugally and often use their Social Security checks to help keep the paper going. But Terasawa insists that her needs are few, and she doesn't mind working slowly. "Doing things the old way takes more time," she says, smiling and stooping amid the clutter of metal plates, walls of stored type and her ancient, clanking press. "Old things bring much joy. As long as I'm breathing, this is what I want to do."

—Ron Arias, Cathy Free in Salt Lake City

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