COMMENTARY: A Challenge for the Future

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By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor in Chief

Published in The Rafu Shimpo on Jan. 1, 2013

If there was any doubt, the sudden passing of Sen. Daniel Inouye last month only underscored a sobering fact: the bedrock of leadership that has sustained the Japanese American community for so long is disappearing. This has been talked about for so many years, to the point of cliché, but now that moment is here, and the challenge is set before us to respond.

Participants in the 2012 Tanoshii Fun Camp, a yearly event designed to foster learning about Japanese and Japanese American cultural traditions in fun and creative ways. The camp is held for one week in July at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, and is co-sponsored by the South Bay Chapter JACL.

2012 was a year that saw issues of leadership move to the forefront, most strikingly in the changeovers at Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Community Center and the Japanese American National Museum. But talk about the need for leadership transition and training is being repeated over and over, in social clubs, kenjinkai, community centers and businesses.

No story was more talked about this past year than the debacle of Greg Willis and what will happen next at the JACCC. Shortly, we will know who has been selected as the new executive director of the JACCC. That man or woman will face many difficulties in rebuilding trust, and helping the community face the tough decisions that will be necessary to keep the institution afloat. And there will be tough, unpopular decisions. Will the JACCC building be sold in 2013? And if so, how will it affect the staff, tenants and the Japanese American community as a whole? Hopefully, there will be many opportunities for meaningful discussion and people-to-people engagement before major changes take place.

This community was built on a sense of generosity and community spirit: pitching in, giving what you can, thinking of others first. That spirit was the essence of folks like Frances Hashimoto, who passed away in November after a brave fight against cancer. When JACCC experienced its troubles after the departure of its CEO, Greg Willis, under a cloud of controversy, I wondered how Frances would have reacted if she had been healthy. She was a rare leader who moved effortlessly in Japanese and Japanese American social circles, and had earned the respect of both. I would imagine she would want to cut the crap and demand accountability, good governance and responsible leadership.

A moment like this represents opportunity as well as challenge. It’s a chance to form new partnerships, update mission statements and remove the clutter of old rivalries. Maybe alliances forged of struggling organizations can create something sustainable, but also vibrant, forward-thinking and even fun. Or perhaps new organizations for groups such as the shin-Nisei, will be formed that are not tethered to the old guard.

Even as we mourn Sen. Inouye, there is a new generation of Japanese Americans who entered the political arena in 2012 – although to call Senator-elect Mazie Hirono, Representative-elect Mark Takano and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi newcomers is to ignore the many years of hard work they have put in to get to where they are now. It is truly disappointing that Colleen Hanabusa was not elevated to senator, against the last wishes of Hawaii’s senior senator.

But Japanese Americans continue to be represented in Washington and Sacramento, and maybe 2013 will see that streak extended to L.A. City Hall. Terry Hara is running a strong campaign for Council District 9 and has emerged as a forceful, credible candidate. Sen. Inouye’s legacy may be in these young leaders. Let’s hope they also follow his lead and are passionate advocates for the Japanese American and Asian Pacific American communities and their interests, and not just seen as reliable sources to tap come campaign season.

The new year will see the beginning of construction of the Regional Connector that will bring many thousands more to Little Tokyo when it is completed. Little Tokyo stakeholders, who have toiled for so many years, will have to now be even more vigilant, as the final decisions are made for the station at First and Central, and as the impacts are felt by residents and businesses. Metro has set the completion date at 2019. The decisions made now will determine the kind of Little Tokyo that will be here for the ribbon-cutting six years from now.

The challenges are there, but who will step up? The Nisei were united by their shared experiences of prejudice and war, but many have noted that the Sansei and Yonsei simply don’t give as much back to the community and less is to be expected from them. In their defense, I think the Sansei and Yonsei, like others of this era, are over-extended and stressed out, taking care of young children and older parents, dealing with a bad economy, and overwhelming pressures at work. Of course, the Nisei had these issues too, but somehow found time to also think of the larger community, the greater good.

I am heartened by the efforts of Kizuna and Rising Stars to find and foster young leaders who understand this community and are developing the skills to take the reins. I think it’s up to those of us in the prime of our working years to step up now, to ensure that there is a strong foundation for the future. Of course, in the Nikkei community, you can be well into your 60s and still be considered one of the “young guns,” as Richard Fukuhara once told me during a kenjinkai event.

But that generational shift we’ve talked about for so long is happening. In fact, it’s already here.

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