J-TOWN BEAT: Sayonaras and Succession

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new gwenBy GWEN MURANAKA

“Everything!” was the exuberant denomination on the large check written out on March 1 by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California to the receivers of their assets, the Little Tokyo Historical Society.

I loved the wit and good humor behind the symbolic check. Can you imagine receiving a check that said “Everything!” from, say, Warren Buffet or Steve Ballmer or the Aratani Foundation?

By comparison, an “Everything!” check from myself would be meager indeed, but no small thing to me since it would represent the sum total of my possessions.

Behind it are some serious issues of IRS compliance. One of the conditions of dissolving a nonprofit 501(c)3 is that the assets go to an organization that has a similar mission, so the JAHSSC-to-LTHS transfer is a natural fit. I also appreciate that the two groups are truly grassroots at their core, where meetings are held not in boardrooms but on dining room tables over munchies, and the money raised by the organizations are used for programs that they are truly passionate about.

Iku and George Kiriyama’s table was that vital meeting place over the decades, as John Esaki and Evan Kodani’s excellent documentary on the history of the historical society showed. Every organization has that core leader or group of leaders who make everything happen. When that leadership decides it’s time to stop, it triggers a moment of decision: soldier on or sayonara?

Ties That Bind at one of their meetings a couple years ago asked community leaders what the biggest issue facing their organization was and inevitably “succession” was one of the top answers. I think that question has only become more urgent as the years go by.

Alas, I’ve been witness now to several sayonaras and each fills me with both gratitude and melancholy at the void left behind.

In December, the Nikkei Widowed Association held its final party after 35 years of offering friendship and comfort to the widowed community. I’ve been so privileged over the years to get to know Lillian Matsumoto, Harry Inao, Mas Matoi, Paul and Kathy Saito and the others who made the group click. Their parties were also occasions where folks who never see each other could say hello and catch up. I suppose Facebook serves that function to some extent, but it’s just not the same as face-to-face contact.

On Feb. 28, Cathy Tanaka announced that the Military Intelligence Service of Southern California would be dissolving. This was perhaps inevitable given the passing of stalwart leader Hitoshi Sameshima last year and the age of the veterans. But more than 200 people crowded Almansor Court, and I think there is still a yearning for connection. Hopefully there will still be more occasions for MISers and their families to gather.

I’m glad that JAHSSC, led by Iku Kiriyama and Lloyd Inui, has found a worthy successor in the Little Tokyo Historical Society. Though representing a 131-year-old neighborhood, LTHS is a relatively new organization. This year I’ve been helping out a bit with their second annual short story contest and it’s been fun to get to see the creativity of writers looking at our little corner of downtown.

With the backing of JAHSSC, LTHS can only grow stronger, and I do hope that that also means adding the talents and vision of the JAHSSC members as well. As folks did at the conclusion of the JAHSSC sayonara luncheon, I think these organizations deserve standing ovations for all they have done for our community.

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I didn’t get a chance to say hello and congratulate Dr. Jack Fujimoto last Sunday on the recent City Council vote to officially designate Sawtelle as “Sawtelle Japantown.” It will be a day to rejoice when the signs are finally placed in the West L.A. neighborhood.

For all that Little Tokyo is J-Town, in truth, there are still a few “J-Towns” here in Southern California and now Sawtelle will make it official.

Sawtelle is one of those neighborhoods that I’ve never really explored, beyond a few of the restaurants and the markets. It’s interesting how some of the more popular Japanese restaurants now have Sawtelle and Little Tokyo branches, including Shin Sen Gumi and Daikokuya.

One place that hasn’t made it to Little Tokyo is Kimukatsu, a tonkatsu restaurant from Japan, which opened up on Sawtelle in 2013.

Tonkatsu and oroshi at Kimukatsu on Sawtelle. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

Tonkatsu and oroshi at Kimukatsu on Sawtelle. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

Their specialty is a deep-fried pork cutlet that is made up of 25 thin layers of pork, slowly fried and accompanied by freshly steamed rice. I didn’t realize they were a chain from Japan until I saw their sign as we were driving on Lewers Street in Waikiki.

As a young JA, I grew up with the notion that a “Japanese restaurant” served the big beef teriyaki-shrimp tempura combinations, always accompanied with a huge spear of broccoli. In truth, that style seems to be Japanese American, since you won’t find those kinds of combos in Nihon.

Tempura bars, sushi restaurants, yakitori stands, tonkatsu restaurants — specialties done superbly are the style in Japan, and now, with the spread of Japanese culture, here as well in places like Sawtelle and Torrance.

I think we’re pretty lucky here in SoCal that we can enjoy both Japanese and Japanese American-style restaurants.

Itadakimasu!

Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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