By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
How should Japanese American organizations respond to changing demographics within the community? A panel of community leaders shared their suggestions at the opening session of “The State of Japanese America,” a conference held July 9 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.
The conference was jointly presented by the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and the National JACL, which was holding its annual convention at the hotel.
Melany De La Cruz of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center gave a presentation on U.S. Census data showing that Japanese Americans as a whole are aging, are more multiracial, and are more dispersed geographically compared to 10 years ago, and that people from Japan make up a significant portion of that population. Three panelists responded.
Craig Ishii, former JACL Pacific Southwest District regional director and co-founder of a new youth organization called Kizuna, gave a PowerPoint presentation titled “Generating the Next Generation.”
Orange County Buddhist Church, where he is a member, is “in a very healthy state right now,” Ishii said. “We have a lot of different activities for young people. We have taiko teams, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Junior Young Buddhist Association. It is a very prosperous center. I truly believe that for a lot of community centers and a lot of churches, this is going to be the case for a while.
“But what’s going to happen is that … there is a window. And if that window is missed, if that torch is not passed, and that mentorship does not occur within that period, I believe that a lot of organizations are going to miss the boat … When we look at the next 10 years, it’s exciting but at the same time it’s a warning of something that we have to keep into account.”
Ishii — who also led a leadership development workshop later in the day with Jon Osaki, executive director of the San Francisco-based Japanese Community Youth Council — suggested a new model of youth engagement. “A lot of folks in the community have a very specific perspective that there is one way to engage young people, and then there’s a new, different, more integrated way of approaching youth.”
In many community organizations, he said, “usually the typical response is ‘Hey, let’s get more young people,’ ‘Let’s create a youth committee,’ or ‘Let’s create two youth slots on the board.’ It’s a very old school.”
JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori deserves credit for hiring an “immature” 22-year-old as Pacific Southwest District director, Ishii said. “Taking that leap of faith showed that JACL is willing to integrate … younger folks into our board of directors, not as youth positions but actual, bona fide board positions. To me, this is a new-school approach to how organizations need to incorporate the younger generation …
“There’s a huge population of people ready to pick up that torch and run with it. It may not be in the direction that you would pick to run, but that’s also the thing that you have to embrace. At the end of the day, if you build a passion amongst those folks for community service, then you’ll be around for a long time.”
Regarding the growing number of mixed families, Ishii said, “The Nikkei community is shrinking if you very narrowly define it by 100 percent blood … If you look at it with that lens, yes, it is shrinking … But if you really embrace a more multiethnic, multicultural diversity and if we also alter the culture that we have, our community is actually growing.”
Showing a photo of himself with two participants in JACL’s Bridging Communities program — a Chinese American and an American Muslim — he stated, “I consider them part of the JA community. The reason for that is they really connect with me, we have shared experiences in terms of what we went through in this program, and also we have shared perspectives on civil rights … Those who associate themselves as part of our community should be included …
“It doesn’t mean you have to play basketball, you have to be part of Boy Scouts, you have to be Japanese by blood or have a spiky Asian haircut to be part of the JA community. Anybody who wants to be part of it can be part of it.”
In response to the geographic dispersal of the community, Ishii recommended that community centers and churches take a new approach to outreach. “An interesting thing that a lot of nonprofit organizations are doing … very businesslike models. Organizations are using strategic planning to look to the future, and this is where you really start to look five to 10 years in the future, but you don’t just say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ You look at your own strengths and weaknesses … then you plan according to that.”
He suggested that all-volunteer organizations are at a disadvantage. “Organizations who are embracing a staff-supported effort are starting to see results, again because this is a businesslike activity. Every organization and community center is going to be different, but this is just something to think about.”
Another important tool, according to Ishii, is community assessment. “A lot of times we assume that we know what the JA community wants … but that’s not always the case. We assume that the Yonsei generation is not interested in being engaged, but that’s really not the case … ‘Marketing’ a lot of times is a dirty word … but it is okay to market an organization to bring new constituents, to bring new clients in, and of course membership cultivation.”
Simply setting up a Facebook page is “not a silver-bullet answer,” he warned. “I think engaging in new forms of … communication is important, but at the end of the day it’s about relationships.”
Another of Ishii’s goals is building a relationship with those from Japan and those with Japanese immigrant parents. “There is a whole new population of Japanese Americans who are entering the United States, and they’re not Yonsei, they’re not Gosei, they don’t even use those terms. They’re second generation and first generation. I think that with regard to those two distinct cultures, there’s a huge dichotomy. They don’t share the same experience with us … The activities of the Sansei-Yonsei-Gosei community may not be applicable to the first- and second-generation community.”
The JACL could play an important role, he continued. “If there are a number of Japanese Americans (for whom) English is not their first language, there are going to be a number of public policy issues … for example, cultural competency in health care … These are issues that the community will need an organization like JACL to represent.”
At his own church, Ishii said, “we actually have those populations, first and second generation. We have kendo, aikido, Japanese school on Saturday. But we also have a Yonsei-Gosei population … They go to church on Sunday, they play basketball. These communities don’t interact with each other. Maybe we interact because I buy Imagawayaki from their booth … Other than that, there’s not widespread integration of these two groups even within a single geographic small, small, small space at one church. So this is an example how we really need to integrate both groups.”
The community needs to “broaden the definition of ‘Japanese American’ ” and ask itself, “What is Japanese American culture?” he said.
The conference included nine workshops on such topics as historic preservation, art and culture, civil rights, and serving seniors; informal lunchtime discussions; and a closing session.
Last of three parts.