(Published May 11, 2016)
Last week, I had the pleasure (despite the sullen reason) to interview Sats Uyeda. He of the 71-year-old S.K. Uyeda department store in Little Tokyo, which is closing its doors for good this Sunday. I also had a chance to exchange emails with his Yonsei daughter Hisako.
I asked her honest feelings on the sale of the building and the closing of the store. She was honest. “We will most likely not be replaced by another business that values the preservation of this community,” she wrote. “…The future generations will not know how it used to be — small business owners and employees supporting one another within their community.”
She’s probably right too. Little Tokyo has been evolving into something different. Gentrification is a part of that evolution regardless of those of us who don’t want it to be. But evolution isn’t a bad thing.
Little Tokyo is now blended and diverse. Vibrant. Buzzing.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Warren Furutani. He of the Manzanar Pilgrimage and Fred Korematsu Day and hopefully the State Senate this fall. He discussed a lack of JA leadership in politics despite the community having the intellect, creativity, vision, and energy, to be an equal player with anyone else.
And then he brought up a name. Craig Ishii. Director of Kizuna.
Saturday night, Kizuna celebrated its fifth anniversary. #kizunaatfive
Kizuna represents everything the under-30 Japanese American millennial needs. Direction. Mentorship. Education. Community. The ability to lead. Kizuna’s success is testament not only to the savvy and dedication of its board and staff, but also the hunger that exists for this type of engagement.
“I think our community has changed profoundly over the past few decades,” founding and current Kizuna board member Jessie Kikuchi told me. “We’re not a homogenous group anymore. And that’s amazing. The great thing about Kizuna is we’re welcoming for all kinds of communities. Even if you’re not Nikkei, and you have an interest in Japanese culture, there’s a space for you here.”
But that space is filling up fast. Kizuna is growing. From 39 students when it began in 2011, to 344 this past year. Kizuna has also reached half a decade, which means it’s established. And it too is evolving. Five years marks the end of Phase I and the completion of its pipeline of programs that includes leadership training, work internships, and cultural emersion. Phase II includes a production branch and an aim to reach JA youth on a national level.
Unlike a lot of other JA community events I’ve covered, the Kizuna anniversary dinner was full of young people. It was fun in a quirky, endearing, millennial way. MC Sean Miura had a number of LoL lists. Kizuna board chair and co-founder Stacy Toyota stepped up to the mic to Rick Ross’s “Hustlin’.” There was sparkling sake for the toasts. And conversation about the JA community filled the Hyatt Regency Long Beach banquet room.
High schooler Marley Uyemura and UCLA Nikkei Student Union President Ryan Togashi, both Kizuna participants, got that conversation kicked off by talking about what Kizuna means to them. For Marley, it means confidence in herself. For Ryan, it means giving back.
Megan Ono is a counselor for Kizuna’s high school-oriented program Student Success Institute and has been through the entire five-year pipeline. She told me how through Kizuna she built lasting relationships, was able to reach her educational and career goals, and is now serving the JA community.
And then there’s Dina Furumoto, who just started working as Kizuna’s administrative assistant six months ago. “I left my previous job to come back and work for a nonprofit, JA community work,” she told me. “It’s something I’m really passionate about. To be able to be a part of the community.”
This passion for and involvement with Kizuna is the reason why it’s built to last. Though it takes a variety of forms and covers ages 7 to 40, Kizuna’s sole purpose is reinvesting in youth by teaching leadership.
Dinner Co-Chairs Jill Hiraizumi-Artino (who also serves on the board) and Brandon Leong thanked and acknowledged the many people who invested in Kizuna. From the founders Kristin Fukushima, Sen Sugano, and Toyota, to the advisory council, who are a collection of some of the community’s finest Sansei and Nisei, to the donors like the Aratani Foundation, Nissan, Fukui Mortuary, and jetBlue.
Plenty of people and organizations are responsible for Kizuna’s success.
Which makes Kizuna that much more beautiful. In a community that has dispersed throughout Southern California and can seem at times fractured, Kizuna has functioned as unifying link. It has programs in the Westside, San Fernando, Downtown, South Bay, Orange County and Pasadena.
Bringing the community together. Investing in youth leadership. Preserving community traditions and culture. These are all things Kizuna does and will continue to do.
“What I see Kizuna doing is thinking about what currently exists in our community and what do we want to exist in the future,” co-founder Kristin Fukushima told me. “How do we find young Nikkei or folks that identify with the Japanese American community and really find ways to plug them in?”
As a community, we need the next generation to be plugged in. To know what they want. To have a voice, to take on leadership roles, so they can be the ones to determine if stores like S.K. Uyeda, or organizations like Keiro and this here publication, are entities they want to exist. So they can step out of their comfort zones and into political roles. So they can take on the responsibility of leading the JA community.
But most importantly, this community needs to look forward to the future by embracing it. Embracing the Yonsei and Gosei and Rokusei.
“This is our future,” Ishii said to end the dinner. “It’s a future where the next generation understands their community, understands their values, loves their history and wants to be a part of it. It’s also a future where our organizations are reinvigorated by new people, new vision. And most importantly, it’s a future where our community has figured out our methodology of generational transfer. From this generation to the next.”
Can’t wait for #Kizunaatten.