J-TOWN BEAT: A Community’s Trust and the Role of Boards



There have been few issues that have ignited the passion in this community like the sale of Keiro’s facilities. The last time was in 2012 with the abrupt resignation of JACCC CEO Greg Willis, who was later revealed to have an international arrest warrant in France

I think the way JACCC handled the aftermath is instructive for the issue at hand: the board listened and signaled very clearly that they understood the community’s concerns.

They did this in a number of ways. Immediately hiring Debbie Ching and Bill Watanabe, whose years as leaders of the Chinatown Service Center and Little Tokyo Service Center, respectively, gave them considerable credibility in the community. The board held an open meeting where aggrieved staff and community members shared their concerns, and they announced the process for hiring the next CEO, which included ample opportunities for community and staff input. They also publicly apologized to staff for the problems caused by the hiring of Willis.

The JA community is so small and interconnected that many of the principals involved in the JACCC issue are now engaged in the Keiro struggle. Mo Nishida stood up to question whether JACCC leaders understood that it was a matter of shinyo (trust). JACCC board members Tom Iino and Jeff Folick, who are also Keiro board members, were key players in restoring the community’s trust in the cultural center. Folick, a retired healthcare executive, led the search for a new CEO, which culminated with the hiring of Leslie Ito.

Sandy Sakamoto, then JACCC board chair, said that the open forum was the organization’s attempt to “strengthen our community in totality and to move forward.”

It will be interesting to see how the Keiro board responds to this challenge at the public meeting set for Thursday. And while everyone agreed that the hiring of Willis was a bad idea, the gulf between Keiro and Pacifica, and the people who would like to halt the sale is a chasm.

The fiduciary and legal responsibilities of board members are many. It’s often a thankless job, requiring hours of volunteer work and also fundraising. But it is ultimately the board that is in charge and its decisions dictate the direction of an organization.

At this point, it is hard to imagine the community moving forward in its support for Keiro without sincere and open discussion, and without the community’s support, it will be hard for Keiro to move ahead with its future plans.

* * *

The role of The Rafu Shimpo, as always, is to chronicle the events in the Japanese American community and provide an outlet for discussion and dissemination of information. It is humbling to know that the work we do is pretty much the same as the reporters whose work has filled the pages of the newspaper for more than 100 years.

If I can be indulged, I am proud of the work that staff writers Mia Nakaji Monnier and Nao Nakanishi have put into the Keiro story. It has been a team effort by a small staff with limited resources.

One of the many criticisms we hear is that readers would like to see more cooperation between the English and Japanese sections, so the fact that the stories are appearing in both languages is critically important.

Mia and Nao have approached covering Keiro with an even-handedness, which is appropriate. Commentaries published have been rather more heated, reflecting the feelings of concerned community members.

How would this issue have played out without The Rafu? The Eaton auction issue shows that the JA community can mobilize via social media, particularly if it can garner the attention of the broader mainstream. But for issues that are closer to home, more within the JA community, I’m not sure how the message would get out there without an independent news entity like The Rafu Shimpo.

The Rafu unfortunately still struggles with the same problems of all newspapers, coupled with the problems affecting our Nikkei institutions that have relied on the Nisei for much of their financial support.

In a few years, will the community be asking, “What could we have done to save The Rafu?’ I sure hope not, but in the meantime, if you want to encourage your “pass-along” friends to buy a subscription (print or online), it couldn’t hurt.

* * *

One of the most striking aspects of the movement to halt the sale of Keiro’s senior care facilities is that among those leading the charge are the primary-care physicians of J-Town.

Besides Little Tokyo’s nonprofit sector and small businesses, the professional class (doctors, dentists, accountants, etc.) is an important draw for Japanese Americans coming to the neighborhood. For those of us who work or live in Little Tokyo, it’s nice to be able to walk to visit the doctor or get an eye check-up. The Professional Building might not show up on any tourist map of Little Tokyo but it is an important center of JA life.

The physicians minister to the seniors in the Little Tokyo Towers and Keiro along with working folks like myself, and they do it with real care for the community. I found my doctor volunteering at one of the Taisho Health Fairs.

Many of those doctors (Kenji Irie, Sumi Kawaratani, Ron Shigematsu) were there last Tuesday to express the feelings of their patients who reside in Keiro. Dr. Takeshi Matsumoto, looking weary in his scrubs, was most eloquent when he said he wasn’t there speaking for himself, but simply for the elderly men and women whom he cared for.

Japanese American physicians have long felt a strong duty that goes beyond their duties to provide individual medical care. Dr. James Yamazaki took his experiences as a physician treating children in Nagasaki to tell the larger story of the devastating effects of radiation on the human body. Physicians like Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi provided vital support to organizations like the SFV JACC and the Asia America Symphony Association.

My stepdad, Dr. Masashi Uriu, an MIS veteran who served during the U.S. Occupation, was among the generation of Nisei to bring down barriers to Japanese American physicians in the local hospitals. Mas was a mentor for young physicians to follow and a skilled surgeon who performed thousands of surgeries, working nearly until the day he died.

When I was in college, I would help out at the office when Mas would see patients. I got to see first-hand how important it is for a patient to be able to speak to their doctor in their own language. It’s a matter of trust built over the aches, pains and fears of our fragile all-too-human bodies. The trust built between a doctor and patient is inviolate, so when these doctors say they are there because of their patients, I believe them.


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.



Leave A Reply