VOX POPULI: Little Tokyo and the JACCC Belong to All of Us

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By JIM MATSUOKA

Little Tokyo is my birthplace, having come into the world on Towne Avenue, a few blocks from the center of J-Town. It was a street crowded with other Japanese Americans and my sisters attended Maryknoll while I went to Ninth Street School. My father attended Nishi Hongwanji, which ironically turned out to be where we were gathered to begin our journey to imprisonment at Manzanar.

Jim Matsuoka (densho.org)

After the war, I remember a world of Nisei Week carnivals, the Far East Cafe and the wedding and funeral gatherings at San Kwo Low. The Sugar Bowl and the noodles at the Atomic Cafe and the “beef” between the “kotonks” and the “pineapples” are part of my file on Little Tokyo. I spent Saturdays working at Karl Kondo’s typewriter shop, located on what is now the entry to the JACCC on San Pedro Street.

I watched the zeal with which Kango Kunitsugu created a new community when redevelopment came to Little Tokyo. As the “public liaison officer,” my job was to explain the new vision of Little Tokyo to the community, one made difficult with the entry of the New Otani Hotel with Kajima as the developer. This hastened my departure from the CRA, but although we differed on many things, my respect and admiration for Kango remains strong because I know he cared about the community and had a vision for it, which he carried through.

I opposed the New Otani Hotel because of what it would do to Weller Street. The Sun Building held most of the social service organizations, like the JACL, JACS and the Pioneer Center. It also had many artists who were our cultural treasures. Joining groups in opposition to the destruction of Weller Street, like LTPRO, I voiced my discomfort with what I considered the excesses of redevelopment.

One grievous moment was when we had to abandon the Pioneer Center, a storefront that Mo Nishida and I cleaned and painted night and day for the grand opening. It was an event I missed because I went to sleep out of exhaustion in my car waiting for the program to begin.

My point in all of this is to remind everyone that our community paid a price for letting go of Weller Street. We were offered the new cultural center as a carrot on the stick that lured us away from an all-out struggle to save Weller Street. Our precious cultural artists were scattered to the wind and we lost track of them.

The Pioneer Center met with a bulldozer and never again played the vital role it held in the lives of the Issei even though it was moved to the JACCC. I can recall two Issei ladies of the Pioneer Center telling me how lucky they felt that they lived long enough to see young people, like the members of Pioneer Project, helping the Issei at the most vulnerable moment of their lives.

As you can see, the JACCC has a history to many of us. It started with the attempt by FDR’s racist government to scatter and destroy us during the war and continued on with the destruction of Weller Street to fill greedy pockets during redvelopment. This is why I say we paid a price for the JACCC and have a legitimate claim of ownership to it.

So where do we stand after all is said and done? What is happening with the JACCC? Where are all the good times when the theater was active and vibrant? Where are all the good people who gave so much of their lives to the community center and seemed to have vanished? These people are important because we should know by now that it is people who make the community what it is and are our true treasures. Without them, we are nothing but a collection of strangers.

What happened to our leadership? Why isn’t the board of the JACCC speaking up and outlining the steps they plan to take to restore the theater to its former glory? Why isn’t the board articulating its vision for all of us to see so we can understand what they intend to do?

As stakeholders in the JACCC, we feel a need to know so we can be part of it all! It is time for the board to step up and accept the responsibility we hold them accountable for. We ask these things because we are members of the Little Tokyo community and all shareholders in the community center.

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Jim Matsuoka resides in West Covina. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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