Katsumi “Kats” Kunitsugu, a longtime volunteer and leader in Little Tokyo, passed away on Aug. 25 following a brief illness. She was 84.
Whether at Nisei Week or the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Kunitsugu was a fixture in Little Tokyo, offering her time, writing skills and bilingual abilities to countless organizations. Nisei Week honored her as a grand marshal in 1995 and a pioneer in 2004.
“All these things we took for granted because she was always there,” said Frances Hashimoto, who worked with Kunitsugu on the Little Tokyo Business Association and Nisei Week.
Hashimoto noted that she had worked with the LTBA as recently as this summer.
“She would write the bios in Japanese for the Nisei Week pioneers, as well as do the introductions at the Pioneer Luncheon. This year we thought we would let her have a rest, because she would be here next year,” Hashimoto said.
A Nisei, Kunitsugu was born in Little Tokyo on March 19, 1925 and taken by her parents to Japan when she was 8 years old. She attended elementary school to the sixth grade in Hiroshima Prefecture, returning to the United States in 1937.
She was attending Roosevelt High School in 1941 when World War II began, and was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyo. She graduated from Heart Mountain High School in 1944, ranking second, serving as salutatorian of her graduating class.
Kunitsugu enrolled as a journalism major at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1948. Not being able to find a job in the Midwest, she returned to Los Angeles and became a reporter for Crossroads, the Nisei weekly, where she met her future husband, Kango. They married in 1950 and had three children. When the children were in school full time, Kunitsugu went to work for the Kashu Mainichi, where she eventually became editor of the English section.
George Yoshinaga, columnist for The Rafu, who worked many years with Kunitsugu, first at Crossroads and later at Kashu Mainichi, said that Kats was an important influence in his journalism career.
“She was such a pleasant person with a smile etched on her face and I never saw her get upset, no matter what the situation,” Yoshinaga said. “The one thing that helped me last this long as a newspaper person was when she once told me, ‘Horse, don’t take your self too seriously.’ That piece of advice carried me through these over 60 years as a writer and I shall forever remember her for her wisdom. Being her friend was an important facet in my life.”
Chris Aihara, JACCC executive director, noted that both Kats and Kango were instrumental in Little Tokyo’s development. Kango, who passed away in 1997, was Little Tokyo’s first project manager appointed by the Community Redevelopment Authority.
“When Little Tokyo became a CRA project, the first project identified was Little Tokyo Towers and the second was JACCC. Kats and Kango took such an important part of realization of JACCC,” Aihara said.
In 1973, Kunitsugu resigned from Kashu and went to work for Horikawa Restaurant as secretary to Mike Horikawa. Aihara said she first met Kunitsugu at that time and later she would sit next to her at the JACCC.
“You learned a lot from her. She was very tactful, she believed in consensus and never said a harsh critical word about anyone,” said Aihara. “She was very old school— she was about bringing people together.”
Kunitsugu was persuaded to take over as executive secretary of the JACCC in 1975, just as fundraising began for the center. She retired as executive secretary in May 2000.
Community organizations Kunitsugu was involved with include the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, the Little Tokyo Service Center, the Nisei Week Japanese Festival Board of Directors and the Little Tokyo Business Association.
Honors bestowed to Kunitsugu include the Order of the Precious Crown from the Japanese government in 1994, the JACCC President’s Award in 1993, and “Women of the Year” from the Downtown Chapter of the JACL and the Southern California Japanese Women’s Society in 2000.
Most recently, she volunteered for Keiro and served as a charter member of the Friends of the Keiro Retirement Home. Shawn Miyake, president and chief executive officer of Keiro Senior Healthcare, said when Kunitsugu became a resident at Keiro, she emceed events and served a couple terms as president of the resident council. She was also the first resident to sit on the Keiro Retirement Home Board of Directors.
“She had such a positive outlook on things and was always trying to think of what’s in the best interest of the residents and the organization and find the perfect balance point,” Miyake observed.
“Where she was so beneficial was being a bridge to two sides of the community. Sometimes to really be a part of the community and work within it is a challenge that a lot of people don’t understand. She was a realist and at the same time kept a positive outlook on things.”
A funeral service will be held on Saturday, Sept. 12 at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Little Tokyo, at 10:30 a.m. She is survived by her daughter, Claire Emiko (Steve) Fant; sons, John Takashi and Kent Hiroshi Kunitsugu; grandchildren, Jennifer and Alexa Kunitsugu, Dylan, Tae and Adrian Fant, Hayden Coldwells; sister, Helen Miyeko Tsuyuki; brother, Bill Shinjiro Hirooka; also survived by many nephews, nieces and other relatives.