It was quiet in Gardena the morning its mayor, Paul Tanaka, was indicted. On the street where I live, construction equipment was parked ready to start on the day’s work. Handicap ramps are being installed on the corners, a welcome improvement. I wondered if, with the improvement in the economy, the city is getting around to some much needed construction projects.
A quick jog around Mas Fukai Park found folks walking their dogs, young African American kids with backpacks heading to Perry Junior High, a middle-aged Korean woman meticulously sweeping the street in front of their church, keeping the area immaculate. It’s a good neighborhood.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that Gardenans (is that what we are called?) have for the most part supported Tanaka through his ups and downs. Gardena has its quirks and problems like any small town, but it didn’t experience the dramatic upheavals caused either by the terrible recession of 2008 or small-town corruption of the sort uncovered in the city of Bell. Tanaka has been its leader in those difficult years and that counts for something. The signs of the city’s renewal have come under his watch.
I recall disappointment back in 2005 with the Gardena City Council vote to deny LTSC and the owners of Tin Sing Restaurant a permit to build a senior housing project at the old site of the beloved chop suey restaurant, an issue of contention where Tanaka undoubtedly lost some JA supporters. But he has also been there for Japanese Americans, such as presiding over a Bronze Star ceremony for Noboru Kagawa, a member of VFW Post 1961, at Happa Restaurant in 2012.
Tanaka didn’t actively campaign for mayor in 2013 because he didn’t have to. He is a local boy, graduate of Gardena High, who rose to the highest ranks of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and his achievements have been a source of pride. With the shifting demographics, it may be one of the last times a Japanese American will lead the city whose stalwarts have included Nikkei with names like Nakaoka, Bannai, Terauchi, and yes, Tanaka.
His recent troubles may be particularly hard to accept for Japanese Americans; the severity of the alleged misdeeds cannot be ignored. It’s hard to reconcile the image presented by acting U.S. District Attorney Stephanie Yonekura last Thursday in the indictment for obstruction of justice with the guy who so many of us have known for so many years as their mayor, friend, neighbor and classmate.
The Rafu Shimpo has always been this community space where Japanese Americans can celebrate important victories, and so we’ve been there for nearly every phase of Tanaka’s notable career in the city of Gardena and with the Sheriff’s Department. George Yoshinaga has been one of his strongest supporters throughout the years and Tanaka was there last year to declare “George Yoshinaga Day” when Horse was honored at Santa Anita Racetrack.
The tougher role we play is to faithfully and impartially report the news, whatever the outcome, but perhaps with less of the glee for scandal that is the norm in most publications. While the L.A. Times editorial board applauded the indictments on May 15, calling for a “thorough de-Tanakafication” of the Sheriff’s Department felt like a bit of unnecessary editorial flourish.
With Paul Tanaka we will be reporting what happens next whatever the outcome. Whenever there is a Japanese American in the news for a bad reason — a terrible accident, a crime or as in this case an indictment — I have a thought that I think others may have: say it ain’t so. That goes against the instincts of a reporter, but I think it is in line with the instincts of a JA.
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There are many things I admire about my dad, but one thing that has always struck me is his appreciation for the unsung Latino workers who are often invisible or disparaged in society.
The men and women selling oranges on the side of the freeway, cleaning rooms or mowing lawns in the mornings — Dad has always pointed out to me how hard they are working. As an older Nisei, it’d be easy to become intolerant, but he has always made it clear that he doesn’t buy into racist stereotypes of “lazy Mexicans.”
He has a genuine empathy for the working guy that may have come from being a pharmacist in blue-collar San Pedro, ministering to people’s ailments and, importantly, listening to their troubles.
So when we were recently talking about replacing our lawn with artificial turf to cut back on water usage, he ruefully expressed concern that our gardener, and other gardeners, would no longer have work if everybody does the same.
I was thinking about this as I drove to Little Tokyo on Friday, the pavement wet and glistening with rain from a surprising spring storm. If it would only keep raining until — say — August, maybe our drought woes would lessen. Gardeners’ jobs will probably be lost in this unrelenting battle to cut back and conserve a dwindling resource.
As Mayor Garcetti recently talked up “sustainability” at a press conference, J-Town has been ahead of the curve on the issue with the creation of Sustainable Little Tokyo last year. It shows that this is more than just a historic neighborhood; it is leading the city on important strategic initiative.
Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.