THROUGH THE FIRE: Man on a Mission

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By Sharon Yamato

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on July 22, 2010.)

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Bruce Kaji

Meeting Bruce Kaji, you might not imagine that this easygoing and affable guy was the hard-driving force behind the redevelopment of Little Tokyo back in the 60s and 70s and the founding president of the Japanese American National Museum. Even his new memoir (scheduled to be released at the museum on August 14, appropriately during Nisei Week) presents a modest portrait of a self-effacing Nisei who somehow managed to change the face of Little Tokyo by just being a quiet presence on the scene.

Having had the pleasure of working with Bruce on his soon-to-be-released autobiography, I found that there’s much more to this nice man than meets the eye. I think it would be safe to say that without his belief in creating an institution that would preserve the history of Japanese Americans, especially the story of their travails during World War II, the corner of First and Central wouldn’t look the same today. Granted he had a lot of help along the way, including that of a band of veterans who were on the same mission along with the museum stalwart Nancy Araki, but Bruce took on the leadership of this project like he did so many others–with a smile on his face and a sword in his hand.

Back in the day when Nisei were struggling to gain their foothold back in a town that was left to others during the war, Kaji had to figure out what he could do just to make a living. Having returned from camp and the military as a MIS interpreter in the Philippines, he had to give up on his dream to become a doctor simply because the war had taken away the valuable years he needed to complete medical school. He decided to go into a profession that was more accepting of Japanese Americans in a country that still held contempt for them. Using GI Bill money to go to USC, Kaji first tried his hand at teaching before deciding that accounting was the best way to go. He soon set up a small private practice on East First Street in an area that he knew well, having grown up in nearby Boyle Heights. He and partner Kiyo Maruyama had their share of struggles with finding clients when suddenly their luck would change. Thanks to attorney Kenji Ito, they landed an account that was to bring solvency to their little practice. At the time, that client was a little known automobile company called Toyota.

Before Toyota grew too big to be handled by a small two-person accounting firm, Kaji would balance their books and advise them on executives to hire. He helped them market the Toyopet, the first car to hit America’s streets, and was in on the beginning when the Toyota Corolla took the country by storm.

The rest is history, as they say, as Kaji moved to Gardena and followed up with other business ventures, joining hands with brother-in-law Taul Watanabe to build the Town & Country Shopping Center, followed soon thereafter by a business that became synonymous with the Kaji name in Little Tokyo: Merit Savings & Loan.

Kaji credits the board of Merit Savings in recognizing the need to preserve the unique ethnic community known as Little Tokyo from city interests who wanted to expand the civic center to the area once occupied by Japanese American businesses. As president of Merit, Kaji was among the first to gather together Little Tokyo businessmen and community leaders to fight the city’s expansion. As chairman of the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Association, Kaji worked closely with city officials and local JA property owners, as well as encouraged investment from Japan, to save the nine-block area from First to Third and Los Angeles to Alameda.

The board of Merit Savings also came up with the plan for a commercial business/condominium center in which a museum could be housed. Unfortunately, because the real estate market in Little Tokyo could not support such a complex, the plan for Merit Court Plaza would eventually die—but the concept of a museum would not. Skeptics of such a plan were many, but Kaji persisted. The result was a State Senate bill, thanks to State Senator Art Torres, allocating $750,000 toward the development of a museum, boosted by an additional million from the Los Angeles City Community Redevelopment Agency. Bruce and company then secured the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple property from the City, and the Japanese American National Museum was born.

It took vision and determination to see this plan through, and Kaji gave it his all. It was clear from the start that he wanted to make sure Issei and Nisei stories were preserved. Ironically, it took Kaji 25 years from the inception of the Museum to tell his own. Using his love of music and his role as a trumpet player in Manzanar’s Jive Bombers band as a theme, Kaji’s memoir, “Jive Bombers: A Sentimental Journey,” tells his life story with characteristic understatement, humor, and optimism. Because music was a constant source of joy to Kaji during both good and bad times, he reminds us that we can all use it to move our dreams along.  In fact, no doubt some of you have heard him sing “Over the Rainbow” at museum functions. Not surprisingly, it’s one of this resolute dreamer’s favorite tunes.

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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