By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Three pioneers in the culinary field were recognized, one posthumously, by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center at its 33rd annual dinner, themed “A Taste of Success” and held at the Beverly Hilton on June 30.
Three more individuals, nominated by the public, were honored for their community service.
Sandra Sakamoto, JACCC board chair, thanked the event’s supporters, in particular title sponsors Paul and Hisako Terasaki and family, and introduced “our brand new CEO and president,” Leslie Ito.
“Leslie has deep ties to our community and the JACCC,” said Sakamoto. We all look forward to helping support Leslie’s leadership as she seizes the opportunity to present new, relevant and innovative programs to grow the next generation of audiences and rebuild the organization. Despite the challenges, with the help and support of our community and the vision of new leadership, we are confident that this marks a renewal of JACCC.”
“‘Taste of Success’ highlights the strong culinary traditions that are the foundation of every culture, community and family,” Ito explained. “In my family it’s my grandma’s teriyaki chicken, tamale pie, corned beef and cabbage … It’s very JA … Through food and eating we also share our culture with others outside our community.
“In 2004, the JACCC honored Mr. Noritoshi Kanai with the Pacific Pioneer Award for his life’s work promoting Japanese food to America and worldwide. Long known as the culinary ambassador of Japan and the father of sushi, providing fine Japanese foods to restaurants and retail markets across America, this story of Japanese culinary arts is not complete without recognizing Mr. Kanai and the achievements of Mutual Trading Co. … Like Mr. Kanai, the three awardees … all represent the power of culinary arts to bring community together and keep culture alive in traditional and non-traditional ways.”
Kanai was unable to attend as he was celebrating his 90th birthday in Japan.
The Pacific Pioneer Award went to Akira Hirose, the owner of Maison Akira in Pasadena, who has contributed his culinary talents to numerous causes, including the JACCC. He was introduced by noted scientist and philanthropist Paul Terasaki.
Born in Kyoto, Hirose studied cooking in a small French village for eight years, worked in Los Angeles, “where he met his wonderful wife,” went back to Kyoto for eight years, and returned to the U.S. to establish “one of the top-rated French restaurants in the Los Angeles area,” in the process becoming trilingual in “Francais, Japonais and Anglais,” Terasaki said. “When you go there, you will feel like you’re in France.”
Giving thanks in French, English and Japanese, Hirose said, “I would like to … share what I have learned in my career. It is important to pass on what we know to the next generation so that our community and JACCC will last forever. What is important to me is that my family, customers and staff are happy, which will make the community happy.”
The Ambassador Award went to Michael Hide Cardenas, founder of the Innovative Dining Group, who has had great success with restaurants offering multiethnic cuisine in the Southland, including Toranoko and Lazy Ox in Little Tokyo. He goes back often to Japan, where he was born, to keep up with changing food trends.
He was introduced by Tammie Kanda of Toyota Motor Sales USA, who said he “represents a new generation of culinary masters investing in the Little Tokyo community.”
Emcee Frank Buckley, KTLA morning news anchor, recalled that he and Cardenas lived near each other in Yokohama’s Negishi Heights in the mid-1970s.
Cardenas gave special thanks to Bill Watanabe, former director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, describing him as a “ninja warrior” who helped establish the Little Tokyo restaurants in an effort to “capture the younger generation,” as well as his wife and two kids “for putting up with Dad those long days of working and coming home late.”
“Since I was born in the restaurant business, I have soy sauce in my blood,” Cardenas joked, adding that as he seeks to extend the Japanese American culture, “one day I will find this thing called success, what they call yasuragi,” which he translated as “peace of heart.”
The Chairman’s Award went to the late Francis Hashimoto Friedman, an influential Little Tokyo business leader who served on JACCC’s board for more than 30 years. She took over the family business, Mikawaya, which she expanded from one retail store to four, and invented its popular fusion dessert, mochi ice cream.
The award was presented by her long-time friend, Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, whose last day in office was Sunday. “Over four decades, Francis worked to protect the history, integrity and identity of Little Tokyo,” she said, and the City Council voted to “memorialize Francis’ leadership and contributions to the community by dedicating Francis K. Hashimoto Plaza at Second and Azusa streets.”
Joel Friedman accepted the award on behalf of his wife, accompanied by their son Ryan. “All of you have really come to know Francis … the fact that she was in Little Tokyo for 67½ years, the fact that she played on the streets, built a business, pushed for the community, but you’ve heard all of that,” he said. “Francis Hashimoto was also a dynamic life partner, she was bright, she was kind, she had a great sense of humor. She raised two boys, took care of her mother until her mother passed at 101 …
“Francis, as you know, was stricken with lung cancer. What you probably don’t know is she fought it for over 3½ years. She continued her community work because she believed in it so much. Her accomplishments you’ve all read. There are many more that you have not read. There are many that I am still just learning about …
“She fought vigorously for Little Tokyo … for the JA community … for Nichibei kankei (Japan-U.S. relations). She really believed all of this with all her heart, and with all the time that she spent doing that, she still put in 12, 14 hours, six days a week at Mikawaya. I, for one, truly miss her. I miss her ideas, her guidance, someone to talk to … I thank you all.”
The Community Spirit Awards went to Iku Kiriyama, leader of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California and its publication, “Nanka Nikkei Voices”; Leland Lau, CPA, former president of Japanese American Optimist Club of Los Angeles and commissioner of JAO Invitational Basketball League; and Diana Ando, co-founder of Orange County Buddhist Church’s Project Kokoro and volunteer with Keiro Senior HealthCare.
Ito noted that when the three were contacted, the response was the same: “I don’t deserve this award. There are so many others in the community besides me.” In fact, “they were absolutely the ones to honor, always putting the community and others ahead of themselves,” she said.
Kiriyama, representing the awardees, said that her horoscope for that day was perfect for the event: “You like to see others have an easier time because you were there to help. You don’t need to be publicly recognized for giving as you do.”
“Everyone here is deserving of recognition, and we do no more than all of you do, and many of you do even more than we do,” Kiriyama said. “You help at schools, your church or temple, your community centers, sports leagues and the various organizations. We all give our time and commitment to carry on our heritage, history and culture, to care for our seniors and support our youth as future leaders. But we also recognize the need to reach beyond our community to work together for the common good in a diverse society.
“For mutual support, such as tonight, our paths intersect as we network, collaborate and come together when there is a need.”
Ito honored five pioneers and JACCC supporters who have passed away in the past year: Sen. Daniel Inouye, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan James Hodson, Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi, philanthropist George Aratani, and Frances Hashimoto Friedman.
In her “call to action” for additional donations, Ito told the story of her great-grandfather, John Ryosuke Funakoshi, an immigrant from Fukuoka who survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and used his life savings to assist his friends who had lost everything. “This story has always resonated with me … a story of faith, community and helping one another,” she said. “I hope to make my jii-chan proud by doing my part to ensure our great JA legacy continues for my children and grandchildren … Please join us on this exciting journey to rebuild and re-envision the JACCC.”
The “call to action” was continued by actress Tamlyn Tomita and Sean Miura, volunteer administrator for Tuesday Night Project. Noting that there are many hidden connections within the community, Tamlyn said that she just found out that Miura’s grandfather, former Assemblymember Paul Bannai, was friends with her late father, LAPD Sgt. Shiro Tomita.
The raffle was conducted by the dinner’s co-chairs, Nancy Matsui of American Airlines and George Tanaka of Union Bank. The 2012 Nisei Week Court escorted honorees on and off the stage.
Entertainment was provided by the Nikkei All-Stars, a band produced by Ishibashi/Stonebridge exclusively for this event; the Sounds of the Supremes, led by ’70s-’80s Supreme Karen Ragland; and Nanchuu Soran Tai Kaikyougumi from CSU Long Beach’s Nikkei Student Union.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo