By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
Throughout the summer as Nancy Kikuchi battled ovarian cancer, friends and organizations in Little Tokyo had a simple message: “We Love Nancy.”
Kikuchi, founder of the JET Alumni Association of Southern California, and an active supporter of many organizations in the Japanese American community, passed away on Wednesday. She was 52.
The loss was felt keenly at the Koban, where Kikuchi helped organize patrols of the J-Town streets, and Little Tokyo Service Center, where she was first hired in 2000 to assist small business owners; as well as many other organizations where Kikuchi made a difference with her leadership and passion for volunteering.
Kikuchi was honored in June by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center with its Community Spirit award. She worked at JACCC as director of facilities in 2007 and obtained a matching grant to help renovate the maple bridge in the James Irvine Japanese Garden.
In 2012, when Kikuchi was honored as a Woman of the Year by the Downtown L.A. Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California, it was noted that she believed that “volunteering is a ‘do good, feel good’ activity.”
On Wednesday, as news of her passing spread, many took to Facebook to express their condolences.
Muralist Tony Osumi worked with Kikuchi to create a mural, “Home is Little Tokyo.” Kikuchi was co-project manager on the mural, which was unveiled in 2005 on the wall of the Japanese Village Plaza parking structure facing Central Avenue. Osumi and co-muralists Sergio Diaz and Jorge Diaz gathered their families and met at the mural to take a photo for Kikuchi.
“The kids are grown and we want them to know who Nancy is,” Osumi explained. “She was the driving force of the mural. She was a sparkplug and she was so positive about it. Even though it took a lot of time from the grant-writing to the design and the painting. During the painting, she would drive out there and pick up food and see how we’re doing. She was a Nisei mom, she was a cheerleader, the go-getter — she was everything.”
Brian Kito of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association (Koban) and Fugetsu-do Confectionery said he quickly realized Kikuchi’s abilities after meeting her in 2000. At the time, Kikuchi organized a town hall meeting of First Street merchants to deal with an issue involving trash services.
“I sensed right away was that she was very sincere,” Kito said. “She’s so very patient to listen and to learn and she was also so quick to learn the politics of Little Tokyo, which is probably the most difficult part.”
Kikuchi soon volunteered and became an integral part of the Koban, helping to organize their Casino Night fundraiser and becoming one of the few women to join in their safety patrols.
Kikuchi also volunteered at Fugetsu-do, organizing volunteers for “mochi madness,” a late-night mochi-making event that took place over several days to help the store prepare for Oshogatsu.
In a similar way, Kikuchi would lead teams of volunteers for the Japan Restaurant Association for their annual food festival and do clean-up for the Oshogatsu festivities sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California (JCCSC) in Weller Court.
“Her skills were to get the most out of a team. She lit fires under not only volunteers, but also under leadership,” Kito said. “She had the uncanny skill to lead people, to lead groups and volunteers. And the volunteers never leave without that feeling of satisfaction, she was the one who was able to put that into them.”
Born July 15, 1962, Kikuchi earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA in 1984 and a Masters of Business Administration from Pepperdine University in 1994.
In 1989, Kikuchi co-founded the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Alumni Association of Southern California, which is now the largest and most active JETAA in the world. She lived in Kanagawa and taught English for four years.
Kurtis Nakamura, a past co-president of JETAASC, said Kikuchi would often recruit JET alumni to help numerous organizations in Little Tokyo, including Koban, the Tofu Festival, Nisei Week, the Japanese Restaurant Association, JCCSC, the Japan America Society, and Habitat for Humanity.
“Through her ceaseless giving and effort and warm-hearted friendship, she has made a surpassingly broad and meaningful impact on our community in areas from arts and culture to business, social services, and development. Ms. Kikuchi embodies the very spirit of our community” said Nakamura.
Chris Fukawa, current JETAASC co-president, said that Kikuchi would often advise the board members. He noted that the board meeting this Saturday at the Koban will be their first without Kikuchi there to open the door.
“She was the person to go to if we have a problem, she would be an adviser to us. She didn’t take an active role, but she was someone we could go to in order to get a problem solved,” Fukawa said.
Kikuchi also served on the boards of the Little Tokyo Public Safely Association, Ehime Kenjinkai of Southern California, the LA Beat dance troupe, Nisei Week Foundation, JCCSC and TaikoProject.
Saya Yamaguchi, a former JET and a member of the LA Beat dance troupe, explained that the group formed in 2004 and initially met at Kikuchi’s residence. Kikuchi would lead weekly dance practices for the performers, who traveled to Nagoya, Japan three times to dance in festivals including the Nippon Domannaka Festival. LA Beat also performed in the Nisei Week Grand Parade.
“Nancy was involved in all aspects of our community. Some people could move mountains, but Nancy could move mountains of people; which is much harder.. Everyone will miss her, and continue to miss her,” said Yamaguchi.
Kikuchi is portrayed in the Little Tokyo mural playing the drums as a member of Bombu Taiko.
Osumi said that Kikuchi leaves a lasting legacy in Little Tokyo.
“If I was building an all-star team for Little Tokyo, she’d be on it,” Osumi said. “Nancy shows how you can be a community person and go the extra mile and make an impact.”
Kikuchi is survived by her parents, Yasuo and May Kikuchi; sisters, Donna (Marty) Hernandez and June (Lonnie) Akers; and nieces and nephew Marissa and Alana Hernandez, and Janna and Jake Akers. Extended family members include uncle and aunt, Yasao and Chiyoko Kinomoto; cousins, Don (Grace) and Steven (Lisa) Kinomoto; and their children Jade, Tyler, Skyler, Brooke and Aspen Kinomoto.
A funeral service will be held on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 1:30 p.m. at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, 505 E. Third St., Little Tokyo.