By ELLEN ENDO
Rafu Contributing Writer
From the streets of Little Tokyo to government offices, friends and colleagues are reacting with shock and sadness to news of the passing of community leader and businesswoman Frances K. Hashimoto, who lost her battle with lung cancer on Sunday. She was 69.
“She was a strong spirit, a fierce advocate … always on behalf of the community,” commented Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry. Long before Perry was elected to the Ninth District council seat, she and Hashimoto had become close friends.
Perry remembers Hashimoto as “a role model who loved to teach anyone who wanted to learn about her community and Japanese culture.” In addition to addressing issues that impacted Little Tokyo, Hashimoto encouraged Perry to become involved in local cultural events. As a result, Perry became a familiar figure in Little Tokyo.
“She was my big sister and a big sister to many,” remembers Perry, who planned to introduce a motion on Tuesday to adjourn the City Council meeting in Hashimoto’s memory.
“I don’t think people knew just how much she did for the community and for Little Tokyo. Often, she would do things without getting credit or recognition,” said Joanne Kumamoto, a community leader and family friend. “She was a major influence in the Japanese American community, and we will miss her.”
“We have lost a valuable individual who has made significant contributions to our community,” commented Yuriko Mary Shikai, an attorney and member of the Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA) Board of Directors.
At the outbreak of World War II, Hashimoto’s parents, Koroku and Haru, were forced to close the family’s wagashi (Japanese confectionery) store, Mikawaya, a business that had been operating in Little Tokyo since 1910. The Hashimoto family was sent to Poston, Ariz., where Frances was born.
After the war, on Dec. 23, 1945, Mikawaya reopened at 244 E. First Street in Little Tokyo.
Hashimoto attended Hollenbeck Junior High School and Roosevelt High School, then went on earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California. She worked as an elementary school teacher for four years, but due to family needs, she began helping out at Mikawaya and soon was working there full-time.
In 1970, Hashimoto became Mikawaya’s chief executive officer and embarked on a plan to expand the business. She encountered resistance to the notion that a young woman could actually achieve the dream of growing the family store into a major enterprise. Undaunted, she planned and built a new bakery on Fourth St., which was completed in 1974. Eventually, she added new retail locations in Little Tokyo, Torrance, Gardena, and Honolulu.
In the early 1990s, expanding on her husband Joel Friedman’s idea of putting the popular American dessert, ice cream, inside a traditional Japanese rice cake, the two led Mikawaya’s growth. Mochi ice cream quickly became part of the American lexicon
Hashimoto’s passion for her community led her to become active in local organizations. She served as LTBA president from 1994-2008 and sat on the boards of Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California and the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center. In 1982, she became the first female general chairperson of the Nisei Week Japanese Festival.
She worked to strengthen ties between Little Tokyo and Minami Otsu Dori Shotengai in Nagoya (L.A.’s sister city) by delegation exchanges, organizing fundraising for Nisei Week, arranging business seminars, and lobbying the city governments of both countries.
Last spring, the Japanese government awarded her the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, for her accomplishments in U.S.-Japan relations.
On Sept. 18, in recognition of her career and service to the cultural life of Los Angeles, the City Council voted unanimously to name the intersection at Azusa and Second streets. “Frances Hashimoto Plaza.” The motion was jointly sponsored by Councilmembers Perry and Jose Huizar and passed unanimously.
The plaza dedication ceremony set for Thursday, Nov. 15 at 10 a.m. will proceed as planned.
An interviewer once asked Hashimoto how she would like to be remembered. She answered, “I want people to think of me and say, “She made Little Tokyo a little better.” And so, her legacy lives on in the thriving Los Angeles cultural enclave she helped to build.
Hashimoto is survived by her husband, Joel Friedman; and sons, Bryan and Ryan. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 10 a.m. at the Aratani Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo, under the direction of Fukui Mortuary.