Panel Offers Ideas on Future of JA Community

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Suggestions on future directions for the Nikkei community were given by three leaders at the Ties That Bind conference held Oct. 1 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.

This year’s conference addressed the following questions: “What does it mean to be Japanese American and what is the future of the Nikkei community?” “What needs to be done to preserve our Nikkei communities, who will do it, and what are the next steps?”

Following a presentation on the results of an online survey, the participants heard from Terry Hara, deputy chief of the LAPD and past chair of the Nisei Week Festival; Tamlyn Tomita, actress and frequent emcee at community events; and Craig Ishii, formerly of JACL’s Pacific Southwest District and currently of Kizuna.

“You Can Make the Time”

Terry Hara (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Hara, a Sansei, stressed the importance of both continuity and change. “I remember the days when …  through the Japanese American Citizens League, baseball was very popular. Today it’s basketball. Why? Not sure. I think the youth … enjoy playing someplace that’s cooler and not outside in the sun … So things change. But like anything else, whether it’s baseball or other sports activities, there’s one thing I’ve noticed when I have gone to a number of different events — a sense of community, a sense of coming together. Friends, family, and doing things together.”

In the area of culture, Hara said, “Ikebana, odori, things that we’ve come to appreciate, we should not take for granted because if we don’t continue those traditions … the ones behind us coming up are not going to learn it, are not going to be exposed to it.” At the same time, he said it’s important to incorporate “new ideas” from Japan and the U.S. “to keep the interest alive.”

While acknowledging that community involvement by the younger generations seems to have lessened compared to 20 or 30 years ago, Hara said, “I hope through efforts like this (conference) they will see more young adults and the youth get engaged in their community, learn more, contribute and add to the value of an important community.”

He took issue with survey respondents who said they don’t volunteer because they don’t have the time. “Everybody says, ‘I’m too busy.’ We are all busy. We have a lot of things to do. We have a lot of things to take care of — families, friends, work. But it is choices. People make the choice not to get involved. They may not know it, but it’s choices. If you want to get involved, you can make the time.”

Hara called on community leaders “to create that sense of people wanting to get involved and learn. Because once you get the bug … it’s human nature to gravitate toward things that you enjoy … We have to create that synergy. We have to create that opportunity.”

His son Mark, who spent many hours volunteering at Nisei Week, came to understand “why I do more than just police work, why I’m out there in the community … It’s family. You don’t have to be related by blood. You come down here for a purpose.”

Hara added that over the past few years, Nisei Week has been “creating and embracing new ideas,” such as including activities that appeal to the Japanese-speaking community. “You can’t continue to do the same things. You have to reinvent yourself, retool and embrace ideas from everyone, say ‘Okay, let’s try it and see if it works.’ And more (often) than not, it will …

“When someone tells you, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ it is the wrong answer. It’s the wrong answer for even an organization that’s as conservative and straightforward as the Los Angeles Police Department … We can always do it another way, we can always do it better, and we can always do it and ensure that we’re contemporary in thought of whatever we do.”

What We Decide to Pass Along

Tamlyn Tomita (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Tomita shared her thoughts on what it means to be Japanese American. In the area of language, she noticed that Japanese Americans often use Japanese words like “hashi” (chopsticks) but make the words plural (“hashis”) even though Japanese nouns do not have singular and plural forms. “Japanese Americans … automatically Americanize it, and we do that unconsciously … There are so many items in our daily lives that we refer to in an American way using Japanese words, and we pass it along to our nieces and nephews, our sons and daughters.”

Regarding the popularity of basketball in the community compared to baseball, Tomita observed, “The reason why basketball is so important is because it’s a quicker game, it’s indoors and it’s cooler, and we’re so good at it. Because it’s faster, we get to score points, American style … We want to score 60 points, 70 points as a team.”

Tomita also found a baseball game last year between Japanese and Japanese American business people to be revealing. “The Nikkei … they were all coming to bat, they just all individually wanted ‘Home run, home run!’ They didn’t score very much. The Japanese, on the other hand, knew what it meant to be part of the team. ‘Single, single, single, single!’ … They scored probably 14 to 7.  This year… (the Nikkei team) knew this was about team effort …. Our mentality had changed because of the experience a year ago.”

Another example involved a video, shown at the beginning of the conference, that contained a couple of spelling errors. The Japanese American response, Tomita said, would be to ask why the words were misspelled, while the Japanese response would less direct, such as asking who made the video.

Regarding the survey, in which many respondents said that the community is diminishing or dying, Tomita commented, “Those kind of answers are a little sorrowful for me, because it means … the Japanese American community of my baachan, the Japanese American community of my father, the Japanese American community that I have now, will all be different for my nieces and nephews.

“What that means is that this community here in this room … what we decide to pass along is going to be important. What is it? … Is it our stories concerning our jiichans and baachans, our fathers and mothers growing up in America and coming from the internment camps? Are those stories going to be as pertinent, as accessible, as impactful as it was for me, for a lot of other Sansei? These are questions that we really need to ask ourselves.”

Community’s Activist Heritage

Craig Ishii (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Ishii offered his own anecdote about Nikkei behavior. When he stepped down as JACL PSW director, he was taken out to lunch a number of times. “Right when the bill would come, I would reach for my wallet and they were like, ‘No, no, no … We’ll take care of it for you.’ Part of me said, ‘Oh, I should be paying,’ but I realized as long as I put my hand in my back pocket and grab my wallet and make it look like I’m paying, and the more convicted I am about it, everybody will just pay anyway, so that became my new strategy … But sometimes they call your bluff.”

When Ishii was a 17-year-old counselor at a Buddhist church camp, he got to know Mark Hara, then 12, and the rest of the Hara family. “I started working with JACL after I finished college. We started a project called Project Community and the idea was to build a passion among young people to get involved in Little Tokyo. Mark was part of our first class … Now he was like 16, 17 … He was more mature. He was also very interested in getting involved in more Little Tokyo activities. He had also been volunteering for Nisei Week a lot at that point too.”

Mark later became president of Tomo no Kai, a Nikkei student group at UC Irvine, and returned to Little Tokyo as a supervisor for a program for high school students. He is an example of “an individual who has gone through sort of like a pipeline, or a path, to be involved,” Ishii said.

Ishii co-founded Kizuna, a nonprofit group seeking to get youth more involved in the community. “Our organization’s not going to be the only one that pops up,” he said. “They’re going to be on college campuses, they’re going to be NSUs (Nikkei Student Unions), but they’re not just going to be college organizations. They’re going to be legitimate, bona fide nonprofit organizations, and it’s the same thing that happened when Sanseis were starting to become community activists.

“You have Asian American Drug Abuse Program, you have Little Tokyo Service Center, you have all these organizations that popped up because there was a legitimate need to do something. I have a feeling that Yonseis and hopefully fifth-generation folks are also going to be doing that, and hopefully these organizations are also not just going to be Japanese American-centered, but … be sort of a cross-cultural thing where we’re really going to bring in the Japanese-speaking community.”

He continued, “Are we really providing opportunities for the next generation to be involved? I would argue that some organizations are, some organizations think that they are, and some organizations just aren’t. That’s a question that we have to look at when we go back to whatever organization that we’re representing, or when we look at creating new organizations … If Mark had no Project Community or no high school program to attend, he would still be volunteering for Nisei Week, but maybe not necessarily understanding why he was doing it.”

While preserving culture and history is important, Ishii said, “I think our heritage is also very political … The JA community has a really activist heritage as well, a community that stood together with a lot of other Asian Americans during the civil rights period, a community that achieved redress and reparations, a community that’s still doing a lot of great work in things like education reform, access to health care … That’s also part of our heritage that we need to recognize and embrace.”

Programs like Camp Musubi and the Nikkei Community Internship, both of which resulted from previous conferences, “sometimes bring in people that have no idea what they’re getting into … and then when they leave the internship, they’re really, really passionate about doing community work because they were taught to be passionate,” Ishii said.

He recalled that he and Ties That Bind organizer Christy Sakamoto grew up in Orange County, attending the Buddhist church and playing basketball. “We were not politicized there. We didn’t really know what it meant to be Japanese American. We just did these activities … We went to UCLA, we joined NSU, and I went in because I wanted to meet girls. Then I took a Manzanar trip and then I realized, ‘Oh my God, this history is important to me.’ …

“A lot of mentors had to school me. I think the same thing with Christy, she learned a lot of different things when we were going through this experience … So I think that we shouldn’t get discouraged by that term (in the survey), ‘diminishing’ or ‘not interested.’ When we think about opportunities, we have to create them to educate … I think that really is a solution to a brighter, more prosperous future for the community.”

Conference chair Bill Watanabe, closed the morning session by saying, “A lot of people that I meet and talk to, even though they’ve grown up here in Los Angeles, they don’t know that there used to be a Little Italy right here, just north of Chinatown. It’s part of Chinatown now. But there’s really nothing left … It doesn’t really tell the story of the Italian American community that was very strong and vibrant here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s gone.

“I think if we don’t do what can be done and needs to be done, I would hate to see Little Tokyo disappear like that … That could happen. Just like today no one knows that there was a Little Italy. This is our history and heritage, and we need to be able to show that the Chinatowns and the Little Tokyos are a part of our place and a part of this history and heritage.”

Inspired by the Jewish community, which has preserved its history and culture for centuries despite being scattered around the world, Watanabe said, “It can be done. We just have to know what needs to be done and who will be able to do it.”

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1 Comment

  1. The comparison between the old “Little Italy” and the current Little Tokyo is flawed.

    After all, there still is a vibrant and thriving Italian-American community … in San Pedro. San Pedro was for Italian fishermen what Terminal Island was for Japanese fishermen, except that Terminal Island is just a memorial and San Pedro lives on (with Italians living side-by-side with Croatians and Greeks — sort of like the Japanese and Koreans in Little Tokyo).

    I want to see Little Tokyo remain vibrant, and I think it will. It has some strong roots and it just has to stay relevant to the modern Japanese American community and also reach out to the “others” who have been moving in.

    I am not a “typical” Japanese American: my mother is white and my father was “Japanese-from-Japan” who worked for Honda. I’m hapa, with no personal connections to the 442nd and Manzanar.

    Bring in the Japanese speakers like my father. Bring in the anime and manga fans like me (I liked the Stan Sakai exhibition at JANM, by the way).

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