Strengthening JA Community Centers

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Bryan Takeda, president of Nikkei Federation, facilitates a discussion on community centers, during a meeting at the San Fernando Japanese American Community Center on Feb. 22. He is joined by (from left) Akiko Manaka, Chuck Itagaki, Genevieve Lew and Leslie Ito.

Bryan Takeda, president of Nikkei Federation, facilitates a discussion on community centers, during a meeting at the San Fernando Japanese American Community Center on Feb. 22. He is joined by (from left) Akiko Manaka, Chuck Itagaki, Genevieve Lew and Leslie Ito.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor

PACOIMA — If you are shooting hoops, playing taiko or taking Japanese language classes, chances are that you are in one of the Japanese American community centers built throughout Southern California. The centers form vital gathering spaces for Japanese Americans, but like so many institutions are now at a crossroads with the changing demographics in the Nikkei community.

San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center on Feb. 22 hosted a forum where community center leaders could share ideas and build relationships. Nikkei Federation organized the meeting, the third in a series of roundtable discussions for the centers.

“Had it not been for this group, I wouldn’t have known so much about what your problems are, and that our problems are the same,” said Amy Tsubokawa, newly elected president of Long Beach Japanese Community Center. “Meeting some of you was the most important thing that I have encountered coming here.”

Leaders from East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, Hollywood Japanese Cultural Center, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Long Beach JCC, Orange County Buddhist Church, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute, Southeast Japanese Community Center and Valley Japanese Community Center were in attendance.

Bryan Takeda, president of Nikkei Federation and a member of the Pasadena JCI board, said the gathering was a chance to talk about what has worked and what hasn’t worked for the centers. He shared that the membership at Pasadena is still predominantly Nisei.

“All of us realize there’s a lot of changes going on in our community, especially the demographics. I recall a study that says most of our youth are marrying outside of their race, so we’re increasingly mixed heritage families. I can only speak for Pasadena, when you look at our membership roster, the majority are Nisei,” said Takeda. “So there’s a big challenge ahead to figure out how to sustain our membership.”

Kenji Watanabe explains improvements made to the gymnasium at SFVJACC, including painting the logo at center court, during a tour of the center’s facilities.

Kenji Watanabe explains improvements made to the gymnasium at SFVJACC, including painting the logo at center court, during a tour of the center’s facilities.

Genevieve Lew, a SFVJACC board member, noted that there is a large age gap in their center’s membership.

“There’s seniors and little kids and very few in between. So this year (SFVJCC President) Paul Jonokuchi had a great idea: this year we’re going to try a picnic on May 17. We are going to have activities for everyone.”

SFVJACC has created a junior board comprised of members who are 50 and under. Nancy Oda, past president, said the group was handpicked for their leadership abilities.

“The big idea was to nurture them first and groom them. They have benefited us greatly,” Oda said.

Danny Okazaki, a former junior board member who was elected to the board of directors, encouraged community centers to reach out to younger members who may be willing to take on more responsibilities.

“Everybody cares a lot about the community center, but not necessarily where they’re going to volunteer to be on the board because of our busy schedules,” Okazaki said. “The fact that someone was to come and ask us. You probably have those people in every one of your communities, you just need to take the chance and ask them, and then the mentoring part comes in.”

Diana Ono speaks on behalf of Orange County Buddhist Church.

Diana Ono speaks on behalf of Orange County Buddhist Church.

Diana Ono, a member of the OCBC board, reported that work is underway on a new social hall as part of a two-phase development project.

“Because Orange County doesn’t have a community center, a lot of the different organizations like OCO and VFW have their banquets at our church and the gym. When we have a social hall we’ll be able to accommodate other activities for the outside community,” said Ono.

The church is also planning to expand their hondo (main hall) in phase two of the expansion.

Among the common themes expressed during the 1 ½-hour discussion was the importance of leadership development, the fact that the Sansei and Yonsei generations do not donate as much as the Nisei and the difficulty to get participants in clubs within the community centers to give back to the centers.

Speaking as a Yonsei, Pearl Omiya, executive director of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, said Yonsei are often building their careers and have little money to donate.

“We’re not old enough yet to make a lot of money. But what I’ve seen is that giving back, whether it’s time or energy, is instilled in our youth,” said Omiya.

Derek Manaka, currently a member of this year’s class of Rising Stars youth leaders, said that as a high school student, it’s important for centers to reach out to potential members when they are young.

“The thing that has kept me in the Japanese American community is that my parents really pushed me to stay in the community this whole time,” said Manaka, whose mom, Akiko, is on the SFVJACC board of directors.

“Because once you get to high school, there are so many different things going on. We really have no more time to do anything. I started at a younger age and as I grew older I still had to be a part of the center and I’ve grown with the Japanese American community and it’s become another responsibility of mine.”

Photos by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo

Visitors viewed SFJACC's Memorial Garden.

Visitors viewed SFJACC’s Memorial Garden.

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