By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
ALHAMBRA — The Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California installed its first female president and recognized two individuals and an organization for outstanding community service during its New Year’s luncheon on Jan. 31 at Almansor Court in Alhambra.
The new president is Kitty Sankey, a Tokyo-born Sansei, who has also served as senior vice president, vice president, secretary and board member as well as positions with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce Foundation and Japanese American Treaty Centennial Fund. She is the granddaughter of Gongoro Nakamura, JCCSC’s third president.
She is vice president of the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California, Japanese American Optimist Club, and Downtown Los Angeles JACL, and a member of the Okinawa Association of America’s Scholarship Committee.
The Community Organization Recognition Award went to the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center in West Covina.
The Nikkei Spirit Award went to Aiko “June” Kawaratani of Rafu Bussan and the late community leader John “JT” Tamaki.
Opening remarks were made by JCCSC Vice President Howard Miyoshi, who asked for a moment of silence for members who have passed since the last luncheon.
West Covina Mayor James Toma installed the 2016 officers, thanked outgoing president Yoshio “Lee” Aoki for his service, and congratulated Sankey. “I just met Kitty relatively recently, but I know she’s a very energetic, dynamic leader and she will do a wonderful job as the new president,” he said. “You’re obviously in very good hands.”
Regarding ESGVJCC, Toma said, “I’m very familiar with the wonderful things they’ve done, including most recently working with the consul general of Japan on … bringing the Special Olympics delegation from Team Japan to West Covina, and we could not have done that without their help.
“The city is also working together with them on our annual student exchange program, and this year we’re sending a delegation, including myself and the other council members, to our sister city Ohtawara in Japan in August.”
Sankey gave special thanks to JCCSC members for their efforts. “We’ve worked with you … at the year-end charity drive, where we raised funds for two organizations, Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches … and East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center … We worked with you on Jan. 1 at the Oshogatsu or New Year’s in Little Tokyo, where 11,000 visitors came to the three entertainment venues and they stayed for the day, shopping and eating in Little Tokyo.”
She invited members to participate in upcoming events, including a luncheon for local Kunsho recipients on July 10; the JATCF Scholarship presentation to high school students on July 30; and the 18th Prime Minister Golf Tournament on Aug. 29.
“Continue also to support us as we find host families for Ashinaga students who will be visiting from Japan in August,” Sankey said. “These students have lost either one or both parents through death or permanent disability. They will be staying with host families and will be volunteering at Keiro and touring Southern California …
“We hope that you will also work with us on our other community and business events throughout the year, including the Japan Fair … Finally, welcome us as we meet with you to discuss ways in which we can work collaboratively in the community and for the community.”
Aoki, who served as president for three years, also thanked the members, calling them “the backbone of the chamber … Without your support and guidance, the chamber … will not be where we want it to be.”
He said of his successor, “She may look small. Don’t let her appearance fool you. She’s a tiger. If she does come and ask for your support, please help.”
Presenting a plaque to Aoki, Sankey said, “We want to thank you for your three years of service. You worked very hard on behalf of the JCCCSC and on behalf of the community … I want to thank you for opportunities that you gave to all of us.”
Ellen Endo, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, delivered greetings and noted that Aoki is an active member of her organization as well. “He really is the one who connected JCCSC and LTBA … He’s still with our organization. We’re going to make use of him.”
George Mori, the new president of Nanka Kenjinkai Kyogikai (Japanese Prefectural Association of Southern California), said change is also happening in his organization: “I’m probably the first English-speaking president and in fact, we now have three English-speaking vice presidents in this year’s cabinet … We are bilingual now … We want to encourage young people and bridge the gap a little bit.”
Consul General Harry Horinouchi said, “JCCSC is playing a key role in the Japanese American community and Japanese community in Southern California. It’s really the core of the community. I congratulate Kitty and the new cabinet and board members … I’m looking forward to working with you and your team this year and in the future.”
Horinouchi had high praise for Aoki. “He started the Japan Fair … It’s something really new and nobody expected that. There had been no Japan Fair in Little Tokyo until that time.”
Seiichi Fujitani, president of the Southern California Gardeners Federation, led the toast.
Established in 1936 and incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1951, ESGVJCC is home to over 25 cultural, educational, artistic, recreational and social programs serving over 1,000 families.
JCCSC Senior Vice President Jeff Yamazaki said that the center’s programs include Camp Chibikko, in which college and high school students facilitate and supervise kids’ activities; a student exchange program with Ohtawara; classes in bonsai, karaoke, ikebana, koto, taiko, hula, and martial arts; a wellness program for seniors; and Keepers of the Flame, an oral history project focused on Japanese Americans in San Gabriel Valley before and after World War II.
Philip Komai, ESGVJCC board president, accepted the award. “Our organization started 80 years ago with the donation of one acre of land from an Issei farmer,” he said. “This year we’re celebrating our 65th anniversary as the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center. We are a strong and innovative organization that bridges culture, family and community … It is dedicated to foster and preserve our Japanese American cultural heritage.”
Komai announced that this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, presented by ESGVJCC and the City of West Covina, will be held on March 19 at south Hills Plaza.
Aiko Kawaratani met her future husband, Kiyoshi, also known as Skip, in Japan in 1951 and they married in 1953. They settled in Los Angeles in 1956 and worked in Little Tokyo — Aiko at Rafu Shoten and Kiyoshi in partnership with the owners of Rafu Bussan Company. In 1958, the couple took over Rafu Bussan at 344 E. First St. and sold imported goods from Japan.
The store was later purchased and demolished by the Community Redevelopment Agency to make way for the construction of Japanese Village Plaza. The Kawaratanis remodeled the former Sho Tokyo Movie Theater at 326 E. Second St. and reopened Rafu Bussan in 1978. In addition to their popular store, they were known for their generous support of community organizations, including the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and the Little Tokyo Service Center.
Kiyoshi passed away in 2014 and Aiko continued to run the business. Due to the sale of the property by the landowners, Rafu Bussan closed late last year, but it is scheduled to reopen in March at Honda Plaza.
JCCSC Senior Vice President Grace Shiba called Aiko Kawaratani “an icon in the Little Tokyo community” and said, “She doesn’t let anything stop her. She wants to make it to 60 years in business (in 2018).”
Kawaratani was unable to attend but said in a statement, “I humbly accept this in memory of my husband Kiyoshi. We both felt that selling Japanese art pieces, kitchen and chinaware, food and dry goods would help to educate and teach appreciation to those who were not familiar with Japan …. The artistry and meticulously crafted Japanese imported items showed the world what can be done with patience, perseverance and tradition. It was our wish that selling these items to the community at large would give a greater understanding of what Japanese culture is all about.
“It is because of our love of Little Tokyo and the Japanese culture that we decided to make several donations to Little Tokyo and Japanese American community organizations … We felt that because of these organizations, including the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, long after we are gone the legacy of Rafu Bussan will be perpetuated through … your community outreach, programs and events …
“Since my husband’s death … I have decided to continue this tradition of giving back to our beloved Little Tokyo in his memory. Tradition is a very important concept that you will continue to promote in your organization.”
John Tamaki, a Los Angeles native and alumnus of Westchester High School, showed leadership ability from an early age and managed his family’s real estate properties when he was in his 20s. In his 30s, he had steady work in Hollywood, standing in for children on film and TV productions. It was around this time that he became active in community organizations like Japanese American Optimist Club and the Nisei Week Foundation.
He served as president of JAO and organized annual events such as the Nisei Week Baby Show, JAO and Nisei Week luau fundraisers, and Japanese American celebrations with the Dodgers and the Clippers.
“He was known for his big heart, big hugs and his caring, loving and always giving personality,” said Shiba.
Terry Hara, 2015 Nisei Week Foundation president, recalled, ” No matter where he went … he always brought smiles to everybody’s faces. No matter what event he went to … the staff there would always greet JT like they knew him for many years … He was always there to greet people. He had this magic of being able to bring people together.
“Certainly Nisei Week was one of his fondest activities that he always enjoyed, particularly when it dealt with the young … He enjoyed being with people, the people-to-people contact that he made time and time again … We miss JT. This past November he left us, but we know in the hearts of many, including all of us, we will always remember JT for what he has done and what he has given … to the community.”
Tamaki was represented by his mother, Anna Mae, and sister, Mary.
“I am very proud to receive the award and I am also very proud to accept the award on behalf of my son John,” Mrs. Tamaki said.
“We in the community are also grateful to have had John ‘JT’ Tamaki in our lives,” Sankey said. “John and I were second cousins, so I am doubly honored to be presenting an award to his mother.”
Honorary president: Harry Horinouchi
President: Kitty Sankey
Senior vice presidents: Ryu Kato, Grace Shiba, Jeff Yamazaki
Vice presidents: Angela DeGroot, Brian Ikeda, Carl Kawata, Keiji Kobayashi, Howard Miyoshi, Shigeo Nakagama, Tomoko Omura, Mayumi Onami, Yuriko Shikai
Secretary: Tob Mallen
Treasurer: Takashi Ito
Auditors: Kaz Kishita, Tomoko Omura
Advisors: Yoshio “Lee” Aoki, Toshio Handa, Tatsushi Nakamura, Paul Kunio Shiba, Tetsuo Takahashi, Haruo Takehana, Hiroshi Yamaguchi
Staff: Lena Yoneyama, JCCF
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo