Kristin Fukushima has been working in the community for nearly a decade in a number of capacities. Before coming to her position as managing director at the Little Tokyo Community Council, she was the project manager for Sustainable Little Tokyo, a neighborhood-based, community-driven initiative to sustain Little Tokyo for future generations as a cultural eco-district. She is a member of LTroots, a young adult organization in Little Tokyo, and a co-founder of Kizuna.
Fukushima answered some questions about her new position and the issues impacting Little Tokyo.
Rafu: Can you explain the mission of the Little Tokyo Community Council and your role as the managing director?
Kristin Fukushima: The Little Tokyo Community Council is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit community coalition, made up of businesses, residents, cultural, religious, and community institutions, and other vested stakeholders, representing the interests of the Little Tokyo community. The Community Council was founded in 2000 with the intention to bring together the many various stakeholders in Little Tokyo for stronger communication and coordination so that the Little Tokyo community can speak with one voice on the issues impacting our neighborhood.
This work has been done more or less on the backs of volunteers for the last 16 or so years, most of whom are already busy running their own business, religious institution, or community organization in Little Tokyo. But as Little Tokyo has come under increasing pressure from all sides, LTCC decided it was necessary to hire a full-time director to try to address the multitude of issues.
I’m grateful for the opportunity that LTCC has given me to fill this role, since it allows me to put all my efforts into fighting for a place I truly love, within an organization I wholeheartedly believe in. What is powerful about the Community Council is that we are able to bring together the many different stakeholders in Little Tokyo to be in discussion together about what is best for our community on a level playing field, while centering and uplifting the voices of those most impacted. LTCC helps Little Tokyo be organized, and speak with one voice so that we are listened to, when individually we’d be easier to ignore.
While I may have to spend a good amount of time this year on fundraising and other organization development projects, this role is also about amplifying the work of LTCC. That means continuing to build relationships with, among, and across the community, our neighbors, and the city. We do this to build a stronger Little Tokyo, and so that we are already organized and educated when various issues come up, whether it is a potential new development, businesses in threat of being displaced, or making sure the city’s plans are helping rather than hurting the neighborhood.
I also want to raise the visibility of LTCC – most people outside of Little Tokyo haven’t heard of us, and don’t know the work that we do. LTCC is one of the only organizations dedicated to promoting and protecting Little Tokyo and our interests, and hopefully people find that work important.
Rafu: What are some of your first memories of Little Tokyo? Where do you find your passion for working in the Japanese American community?
KF: My earliest memories of Little Tokyo are pretty blurred. Being from La Habra, any trip into L.A. was pretty exciting, and I don’t think I was always fully aware I was in Little Tokyo. I was not the most observant child! I do have a very distinct memory though, from elementary school in the ’90s – my dad drove us to Little Tokyo after church on a whim or maybe some errand. He did a quick driving tour around the area, and I think that more overt approach to introducing us to the neighborhood really stuck with me in a way that other outings didn’t.
I had such a strong feeling of attachment to the neighborhood at that moment – like I just uncovered a place with this connection to family and community histories I didn’t know anything about, but felt the urge to know more and explore my own identity. It felt like I had found this unknown home – a place that connected to something I was interested in but totally ignorant about.
I think about this moment that has stayed with me often, because I do think that was the seed for my passion in working in the Japanese American and Little Tokyo community. When I think about what is important about community, it’s really the sense of family, connection, and feeling at home – be it tied to a physical place or not. I have always felt a sense of homecoming to Little Tokyo that never really made sense to me.
But somehow, even before really knowing and engaging with Little Tokyo, I had tied up and wrapped my sense of self and identity to the history of the neighborhood. Being younger and mixed-race, it was hard to feel a sense of belonging in a lot of Asian American spaces. But in Little Tokyo, I felt that I had found a place with an answer, and a home.
Self-determining my identity, and really embracing what it means for me to be Japanese American has been an important part of my life. It might not be for everyone, but I strongly ascribe to the idea of “no history, no self; know history, know self.” And part of my path of figuring out my identity has been this deep dive into the community, and it really is a wonderful, hilarious, quirky, loving, and unique space.
Our community’s history and narrative is also important for the country, and I think a lot about how what my generation and I have today is because of those who have come before us. As we stand on the shoulders of our elders and ancestors, I think there is an obligation to pay that back, and continue the work.
Rafu: What do you see is the biggest issue facing Little Tokyo in the next five years and how does LTCC address them?
KF: It’s unfortunately hard to narrow to just one, and of course everything is related – from the impacts of ongoing gentrification in Little Tokyo and surrounding neighborhoods, to the currently under construction Metro Regional Connector that will eventually result in a new, very busy train station in Little Tokyo. But I think the issue in which we are able to most assert ourselves and actually tangibly do something about is establishing community control and self-determination for the three remaining parcels left in Little Tokyo.
This, of course, was the impetus behind Sustainable Little Tokyo, which created a community-generated vision for these three parcels of what we want to see developed there that will ground and enhance our community. The hard part now is making sure these visions are realized, and making the moral argument that although they are technically city-owned, these parcels of land – the rest of the block behind Historic First Street, the Mangrove property next to Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, and the future Regional Connector station site – are and have always been part of the Little Tokyo community. And therefore, these parcels must fall under community control, and Little Tokyo be given the opportunity to determine for ourselves the future of the community.
The problem is, of course, that we don’t actually own these pieces of land, and they are highly coveted by developers. LTCC has been focusing on organizing the block stakeholders who are most immediately impacted, so that we have a unified voice to push for our shared community vision. In addition to working with Councilmember [Jose] Huizar and his Council District 14 staff on how to best achieve this.
What’s scary is that this is kind of a last stand for Little Tokyo. We are at a crossroads for our future, where we’re already seeing rapid changes, and this is still a few years out before the Regional Connector opens. Unless it is owned by someone in the community who is willing to forgo a major payout, there is always the chance any of these buildings and lands can be sold to a new owner or developer looking to make money off our rising real estate and neighborhood profile. These three parcels are where we can anchor Little Tokyo, and build something lasting that will help sustain Little Tokyo into the future. It is going to be a hard fight to achieve this, so we will need anyone and everyone who cares about Little Tokyo.
Rafu: What are some of the ways your generation is different from previous generations of leaders in Little Tokyo?
KF: I think there is a lot more diversity in our generation – in all of the ways! Demographically, we’re definitely a lot more diverse. We have a lot more mixed-race Nikkei, or multiethnic Nikkei with another Asian parent, and of course, Shin-Nikkei folks. I think this diversity is really healthy for us, as it pushes us to acknowledge the many differences in our community. We’re also diverse in terms of geography – many Sansei grew up in specific Japanese American enclaves like in Boyle Heights, Silver Lake, Gardena, and so on, but as they moved out of these neighborhoods, Yonsei and other next generation Nikkei grew up without a lot of other Japanese Americans around.
This also is reflective of how many in the Sansei and Shin-Issei community worked hard to enter more professional sectors. I feel like – while definitely not everyone, but many in my generation are much more privileged than our parents were growing up, due to this hustling. This privilege has then allowed many of us to be able to come back and do things like work in the community. It’s both an acknowledgement of what we owe to our parents and communities that have supported us and built up our communities, but also that we have less urgency to achieve the “American Dream” so as to support our families.
Rafu: Describe how you would spend your perfect day in Little Tokyo.
KF: Coming up with a perfect day is so hard! Can I say the perfect day would be when I finally achieve my LT bucket list item of a Little Tokyo block party? Also, a lot of my favorite things are event-specific, so it seems absurd to try to stack all these events into one day. Like could the LTSC sake fundraiser really be on the same day as an Obon?? Seems unrealistic.
Either way, the perfect day would definitely include a kale salad from Café Dulce, oxtail stew from Mitsuru Grill, a few hours at Max Karaoke, and hanging out at Wolf & Crane with friends. Although there is something magical about the Far Bar window seats that gives the perfect Little Tokyo experience of interacting with people you know passing by on the street.