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LITTLE TOKYO, INC.: Back to Big Tokyo

By JONATHAN KAJI

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 1, 2010.)

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Tokyo.—I landed in Tokyo, Japan for a week-long business trip and attended the Japan America Society of Southern California Centennial Closing Ceremony held at the historic American Ambassador’s residence.

While I do travel to Tokyo a number of times each year, being back “in the neighborhood” always brings back some great memories.

The former State of California Office of Trade and Investment was located just up the street from the American Embassy, across from the South Wing of the Hotel Okura. Opened by the State of California in 1987, what is little known is the Nikkei involvement in opening the State’s 15 foreign offices, before the agency was closed in 2002.

It was 1983 and I was having breakfast at the old Kappa Restaurant in the Kyoto Plaza Shopping Center in Gardena.  My Nikkei friends included Norman Arikawa from the Port of Los Angeles and Kyle Maetani, staffer for Assemblymember Gwen Moore.

I had just returned from a Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City annual visit to Nagoya along with the Nisei Week Festival Committee. While in Tokyo, I had a chance to glance at the Yellow Pages at the Akasaka Prince Hotel and noted a number of American state trade offices, but no California representation.

Norman was very familiar with the role of Japanese steamship companies such as NYK and Mitsui, along with Nissan’s use of the Port of Los Angeles as its primary port of entry.  Gardena, Torrance and the South Bay area of Los Angeles was the center of Japanese commercial activity on the West Coast.

I thought it would be a great idea if the State opened a trade office in Tokyo. Then again, what did I know about introducing a legislative bill?  However, Kyle suggested that I draft a bill that he would modify, and run it by his boss.

As Assembly Bill #3313 was introduced in the Assembly, other business interests in the State pushed for a European office based in London.  A study was ordered, resulting in the opening of the State’s initial offices in Tokyo, Japan and London, England.

Fast forward to August, 1993.

Japan’s “Bubble Economy” had imploded, vaporizing billions of dollars of investor equity in the American marketplace.  Professor Ezra Vogel‘s thesis of “Japan as Number One,” seemed like a cruel joke in the wake of Japanese purchases of Rockefeller Center, Arco Plaza and Pebble Beach, which tanked in value during the economic downturn of the early 1990’s.

I received a call from my old friend, Greg Mignano, in the State’s Trade and Commerce Agency.  He and I had become friends since the opening of the Trade offices and now, with the change in administrations in Sacramento, the Tokyo Office Director’s position was vacant.

After exchanging pleasantries, Greg dropped the question. “Jon, would you be interested in being the Tokyo office director?”  I asked how long I would have to think about it.
“Well, I think I need to know by tomorrow.”  I agreed to give him a return call the next day.

I hung up the phone and thought about the opportunity. The first thought that crossed my mind was wishing I had been a more diligent student of Nihongo. Then, I wondered what sort of opposition there might be from various special interest groups in the State by having a Nikkei represent the interests of California.

I took the job.

As I walked down the long driveway to the entrance of the Ambassador’s residence, I thought back on the first time I arrived in Tokyo as the State’s representative. What I thought would be a three-year stint turned into almost seven years.

As I entered into the residence and met Ambassador Roos, I was quickly surrounded by members of the “LA Kai” or Los Angeles “club” of former Japanese diplomats and business executives who served in Southern California during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It turned out to be a great reunion, including both Japanese and Nikkei who have dedicated their professional careers to diplomacy and business through groups such as the Japan America Society, Japan Business Association, California and Los Angeles Chambers of Commerce and supporting many Nikkei organizations.

The Prime Minister’s Press Secretary Kodama (former Consul General in Los Angeles) was present, as well as former Ambassador Taizo Watanabe, Arafune and Okawara.

One key and significant asset of Little Tokyo Inc. is the broad-based support through the Nikkei community’s network of relationships.  How can Little Tokyo best leverage these relationships in creative and meaningful ways that will not only benefit our local community, but Japanese society?

Each of the individuals I spoke with has fond memories of Little Tokyo, but is very interested in the future of our community.  At the same time, I asked them about the state of affairs in Japan and how a collaborative effort might impact Japan.

Take for example “corporate social responsibility.” Many of the executives were on the front lines in Los Angeles, having been exposed to new concepts such as diversity, social justice and investing, and the “glass ceiling,” concepts which, at the time, were completely incomprehensible in Japan.

Surprisingly, many of the executives and diplomats view of diversity was through the prism of Little Tokyo. The Herculean effort to bring about Redress left a lasting impact on how Nikkei created coalitions and affected a historic apology from the American Government.  Interaction with Nikkei executives and staff members in their companies helped them to understand the challenges of being an ethnic minority, a “Diversity 1.0” in helping their companies integrate and work with other ethnic minorities and women employees.

One topic of discussion that came up was the period of history from the end of the Allied Occupation of Japan through the period of Japan’s rebuilding efforts, the creation of key industrial policies that led to Japanese growth in auto’s, consumer electronics, textiles, steel, and shipbuilding.

The West Coast, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, became the staging grounds for Japanese market entry into the American market. The role that Nikkei played in the Japanese commercial successes still remains a relatively unknown and lightly-researched section of history.

But it was clear to all that the Nikkei community provided a unique and valuable social and business infrastructure, opening doors to the first waves of Japanese executives and their families. All I spoke to agreed that without the infrastructure of the stores, restaurants, cultural and religious organizations, and Nikkei employees, attorneys, doctors, accountants and other professionals, Japanese success would have taken a much longer time.

The night before his untimely stroke, SONY CEO Akio Morita had hosted a reception at the Imperial Hotel for Governor Pete Wilson and his delegation in November, 1993. Morita-san acknowledged the invaluable role that the Nikkei community played in establishing “Made in Japan,” as a symbol of unrivaled quality.

However, as I stood with the hundreds of Americans and Japanese that night, in the historic American Ambassador’s residence, a room that has witnessed both war and peace, I thought of how many Nikkei had played significant but unsung roles in the bilateral relationship.

It’s my own opinion that the documentation of this history, like that of the Evacuation, the exploits of the Nisei soldier and the rebuilding of our community, will help both the Nikkei community and Japan recognize the importance of continued cooperation and collaboration.

As the reception came to an end, we left the Residence and walked down the long, cypress-lined driveway, into the rainy Tokyo night.  Time for the “Niji-kai” or the “2 AM Club,” a smoky yakitori-ya or an izakaya, beer and sake, reminiscing of days past, of friends who have passed on, and of the days to come.  A perfect evening in Tokyo.

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Jonathan Kaji is president of Kaji and Associates, a real estate development firm. The opinions and ideas expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.

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