By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
The end of 2011 will also mark the end of Chris Aihara’s tenure as executive director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, but her community involvement will continue.
In addition to being executive director for five years, she has served in various capacities at the JACCC for most of its 31-year existence. In a recent “exit interview,” she reflected on what she has accomplished and what remains to be done.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Aihara (then known as Chris Iwanaga) worked at CSU Long Beach’s Asian American Studies Department. She helped start an Asian American literary publication called “Echoes from Gold Mountain” and supported the activities of CSULB’s Asian American Student Association.
Lloyd Inui, head of the Asian American Studies Department, introduced her to Jerry Yoshitomi, JACCC’s first executive director. “I came on board in 1982 … At that time it was a very small staff and I was Jerry’s admin assistant,” Aihara said. “The theater hadn’t opened, the plaza was not installed. So I came close to the beginning.”
Meeting the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi as he oversaw construction of the JACCC Plaza was a memorable experience. “He was truly one of those guys with presence,” she recalled, describing how he gave precise directions as two huge stones from Japan were lowered into place with a crane. The sculpture, titled “To the Issei,” is now a part of the Little Tokyo landscape.
One of her first projects was to organize the Oshogatsu Festival, now an annual event. “That certainly coincided with all of the interests that I had before in Japanese American community and continuation of culture. So I always considered myself really fortunate that I was getting paid to do something that I probably would have done anyway.”
It was also a time of personal milestones. She met her husband Doug through the JACCC and they have raised four children, who spent much of their time in Little Tokyo.
Many of her most memorable moments as a staffer are connected to the center’s Japan America Theatre. “I have seen first-rate performances from Japan … Bando Tamasaburo came here years ago. He’s a famous onnagata (male kabuki actor who plays female roles). It was like a ‘wow’ moment. We also had Kazuo Ohno, who’s in butoh, which I didn’t get when I would see it … Then I saw him. Wow, I don’t know if I get it, but that was pretty amazing. There’s just no substitute for live performance.”
Aihara left the JACCC briefly in 2005. “I was working at Cal State Long Beach as a development officer for the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden. But I was still connected to the JACCC. There was a garden grant from the state for enhancement of the (JACCC’s) garden, so I was working as a consultant.”
When she became executive director in November 2006, she said, she did not intend to stay long. “With all the changes the organization had gone through, I felt at that time that the senior staff at the center were equipped to be able to move the organization forward to the next step … It was me coming on as executive director, but … it was very much a collaborative effort. We had some priorities and things that we wanted to see addressed, and that’s what we focused on.”
She worked closely with such staff members as Hirokazu Kosaka, artistic director, and Robert Hori, director of advancement.
“I had not come into that saying that I was going to be there for an extensive period of time,” Aihara said. “I really saw myself as a transitional person and I wanted to try to put it in a position for the next leader, the next generation of leaders.”
Changes at the Center
Although the James Irvine Garden had won the National Landscape Award in 1981, Aihara felt that it needed to be developed. “It had been very neglected … It was also an underutilized part of the center. People still don’t know it’s here … We needed to figure out new and creative ways about sustaining ourselves and developing new audiences and utilizing smartly all of our assets.”
The goal of the garden redesign was to make it more usable and more efficient, she said. “Now we have a level area where we can put a stage, and there’s sound there now, and there’s light capacity. Then we made great effort to connect the Garden Room with the garden … so we can use it for programs. We use it a lot more now for classes and workshops and lectures. Then we also rent it for weddings and receptions and special events. We’ve seen increasing use, and I think the garden pays for its maintenance now.”
Aihara has worked on upgrading the building, including new elevators, as well as increasing the tenancy.
The tenants have changed over the years, Aihara observed. When the center first opened, it housed cultural teachers who had been displaced by the demolition of the Sun Building. They received a rental subsidy for 10 years. “You could learn Japanese dance, calligraphy, ikebana. There were a lot of nonprofit cultural teachers. There are still some of those here, but that group has experienced its own attrition as they are aging and people are moving further away, so there just are not as many of them.
“So it has changed … The Colburn School (on the first floor) is a big arts institution. We have the (Los Angeles) Junior Chamber of Commerce here on the second floor, and we have Asians for (Miracle) Marrow Matches. So it’s diverse. Some of them are bigger entities than the community-based nonprofits.”
Some former tenants, like Visual Communications and Little Tokyo Service Center, outgrew the space and have moved. LTSC, now a multimillion-dollar organization, used to consist of an office on JACCC’s fourth floor.
Little Tokyo has changed a lot over the years, with many more residents than before. Aihara noted that cultural programs like JACCC’s “On the Veranda” series have attracted residents, Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
“I wanted to really rev up the programs,” she added. “In the five years we did three major tours — we did the bunraku tour, we did the Jero tour, and then we did the last kabuki tour … Kudos to the staff because it takes great skill and energy to do a successful tour, especially these days with costs of everything being so high. But this whole thing of expanding audience and believing that people outside of L.A. are interested in Japanese culture was another area that we really wanted to focus on.”
At the same time, she said, “there have been some major community issues that impact the future and the vitality of Little Tokyo and so of the JACCC — the transit projects, the Regional Connector, cultural preservation and community design overlay. All of those initiatives or projects we are trying to be proactive in. Maintaining the cultural character of Little Tokyo is another area that I think is really important.”
Regarding the status of the Japan America Theatre, which is currently closed, Aihara reported, “There are still funds to raise for the repairs. We have addressed some of the first level of repairs … It’s not going to be a renovation. It’s really a repair and upgrade. A lot of it is infrastructure things like heating and air conditioning, and we really would like to upgrade the equipment … We have sort of a short list, priority things, and there’s another longer list of things that we would like to do if we can.
“We’re also looking into sharing or leasing or renting more of the facility. We’re exploring organizations or entities that can help us to keep the space more active … to make it a sustainable entity … We’re hopeful that we can still accomplish all of that and open next year in summer.”
With the theater unavailable, events have been held in the plaza and at the Armstrong Theatre in Torrance. “Having the theater not open makes things more difficult,” Aihara commented. “At the same time, I think the Armstrong collaboration was a good thing, and I would like to also do more things outside Little Tokyo. In many ways, even though more and more people are coming to Los Angeles, there are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily know about the JACCC.”
The JACCC is also becoming known outside of Southern California through the North American Taiko Conference. The center hosted the first one in 1997, and it is now held every other year, alternating between Northern and Southern California. This year’s was at Stanford and the 2013 NATC will be in Los Angeles.
“It just keeps on building in terms of participation, all of these people, new groups. It’s becoming more dispersed,” Aihara said, recalling that 30 years ago “you could have counted them all, 10 maybe. I think there are now hundreds (of groups) … It really speaks to a lot of people.”
Children and Youth
Working with children and young adults has been a rewarding experience for Aihara. “One of the projects I started was Children’s Day … We were getting very small crowds. We had cultural performances, we had workshops, we had crafts and things. So we sat down and said we really need to do something to get the kids out here …
“We started the Chibi-K (Fun Run), and the runs were really a big deal … The first year I think was relatively successful, maybe a couple of hundred kids, but there were some peak years when we had to turn people away … When you stand out on that street and there are like 500 kids and then a thousand parents … and all these cameras and then the excitement and the energy … that was pretty fun.”
When interest started to die down, Aihara and other Sansei organizers had to find ways to reach the Yonsei. “There was, I think, so much competition for what kids do these days, basketball and all this stuff. So the run had gotten really small. Then they didn’t do it one year … Nikkei Student Union kids came to me the first year I was E.D. and said the Chibi-K is a cultural community tradition, and they remembered running it when they were kids … They said, ‘We’ll do it. We want to bring it back and we’re going to make this a project of UCLA NSU.’”
For the last five years, the Chibi-K has involved “hundreds of college students who really feel that Little Tokyo is important to them,” Aihara said. “They want to establish this connection with the community. So the energy of all of these college students was another significant moment for me, kind of a high.”
In addition, JACCC participates every year in the Nikkei Community Internship, in which students work during the summer at nonprofits in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose Japantowns. Also, Kizuna, a new youth leadership organization, is now a tenant at the center.
“I was involved with the ‘Nikkei 2000’ conference, and I remember what we identified as the priorities for the community … One was youth leadership development, engagement with youth,” Aihara said. “I have really seen small but strong and enthusiastic groups of young people coming back to Little Tokyo, participating in organizations and now running organizations, and I think that’s a very good thing.”
In the past year, two other nonprofit executive directors in Little Tokyo have announced their departure. Akemi Kikumura Yano of the Japanese American National Museum has already left, and Bill Watanabe of LTSC will step down next year. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, J.D. Hokoyama has resigned as president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP). “The leadership’s changing, and I think everyone has their own specific story and circumstances, but I think too maybe there’s a big generational shift happening to a lot of organizations,” Aihara said.
Whoever takes her place will have a lot to deal with, she said. “The challenges for nonprofits are big right now …. There are challenges for raising money, running programs … so it’s going to take someone with skill and great energy and vision.”
Aihara is already working on the transition with an interim director, Patti Koltnow, who will stay on until a permanent director is chosen.
“I’m retiring from the responsibility of running an organization, but I intend to stay in the community,” Aihara emphasized. “I’ll continue to hold a position on the Little Tokyo Community Council and I’m likely to stay on the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council. So it’s kind of full circle. My interest in this didn’t start with the JACCC and it doesn’t end with the JACCC.
“I’m really interested in doing some projects that are challenging, focus on some writing, development of programs … I’m looking forward to taking on some new work. I’m willing to work hard and be busy, but probably not with the full set of responsibilities I had being here …
“It was a very challenging time, the last five years, but a lot of personal growth because I learned a lot and it put me in a position where I really had to be creative, try different things … It was very fulfilling. But I think too at this time in my life I’m really looking to be a little freer with my time.”