PERSONAL ESSAY: Investing in Our Community

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By IKU KIRIYAMA

On Sunday, Sept. 2, after attending the “Celebration of Life” at JANM for Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga (a wonderful program, by the way), Traci and I walked over to the JVP (Japanese Village Plaza); I wanted to get a sweatshirt at Japanangeles.

It was difficult for me to walk, it was so busy, with a diverse crowd of mostly young people in the shops and on the streets. It was a good feeling, actually, to see Little Tokyo so alive with people. Even her good friend’s Café Dulce was jammed with customers; we gave up and decided to go home. Traci, who considers Little Tokyo her second home since she’s there attending meetings almost every day, said the crowd is typical.

I thought of the time back in the old days prior to WWII when the Issei pioneers worried about the future of Little Tokyo, coming up with the idea of Nisei Week to attract the younger Nisei to come and support the businesses.

I thought wistfully of the times when my brother and I were in elementary school in Torrance. We would come to Little Tokyo with my father in our GMC truck. This truck was kept by a “hakujin” couple during our incarceration in Manzanar — my father going to pick it up to bring it to camp when we left. We took this truck on the surface streets (no freeway yet) to get to Little Tokyo, and I don’t recall much traffic.

Our treat that we would look forward to was the hot dogs sold by a black vendor out of his cart. The grilled hot dogs remain in my memory as the best hog dogs ever. I can almost smell and taste them still.

Since we lived in the “inaka” of rural Torrance, we had to go to “Nihonmachi” (we didn’t say Little Tokyo back then) to shop for Japanese foods our twice-weekly fishman did not carry and to pick up tools and supplies for our nursery (Kato Nursery), located where today is the Crenshaw off-ramp of the 405 in North Torrance.

We never ate out, but the few times we went with my father to a wedding or some kenjinkai function, we always ate at San Kwo Low and had “china-meshi.” I don’t know why that was the only place we went – no Far East Café.

Far East Café came into my life and the lives of my students at James Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley in the early sixties. We took field trips every weekend. We had lunch at the Far East a minimum of twice a month, with parents who were always on call to drive. The waiters knew us because we went regularly for three years “Ahh, Mon-ro High School,” they would say as we walked in and paid $1.50 each for a great lunch.

I am going down memory lane because of something that is now in its formative stage. A group of concerned Japanese Americans have formed the Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund to address what has been going on for several years, namely the closing of “mom-and-pop” businesses as their rising leases force them out. Corporations and wealthy individuals outside of Little Tokyo with profit as their sole motive have bought out properties.

A community meeting in the South Bay Is set for Sunday, Sept. 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural institute, 1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena. The organizing committee will make presentations about the mission, the goals, how people can participate, and also take questions and suggestions. People who may want a tax deduction and not be a major investor should attend.

RSVPs are appreciated for set-up purposes. You may go to the Facebook event page at https://www.facebook.com/event s/2094333047563312 or call Nicole Sato, JCI program director, at (310) 324-6611.

I am not on the organizing committee, but I was asked to help set up the meeting at the GVJCI. I make donations every year to lessen the income tax burden and see this as a new way to get a tax write-off, which I would want anyway. Primarily, my decision is based on the people involved.

Bill Watanabe is leading this group, and he has a long track record as the former executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center. He and the staff at LTSC have been committed to bettering the quality of life for the Little Tokyo community. I’m sure he has gathered like-minded individuals to guide this new Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund, and they will work for the betterment of our community with integrity.

I hope there will be a good turnout at the Sept. 23 meeting. Please join me to find out about a new way to donate towards supporting our community.

The following mission statement is from the Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund website:

Protect the Past

Little Tokyo, one of four remaining Japantowns in the United States, has a rich cultural history and is a significant part of the Japanese American experience in Los Angeles. Preserving the legacy of Japanese American family-owned businesses, cultural institutions, and spiritual centers is critical as pressure from outside investors increases. Controlling real estate within the community will keep gentrification from changing the cultural identity and landscape of the area.

Impact the Present

The Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund will create a public/private partnership and platform to allow individuals, foundations, and the local government to invest collaboratively in the Japanese American community. The fund will be led by long-standing stakeholders, experts in real estate and finance, and members of the nonprofit sector in Little Tokyo. Legacy owners will be provided the opportunity to sell their property to the fund in order to maintain the historical value and priorities of the community.

Solidify the Future

The Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund will provide Japanese American owners of real estate an avenue to maintain their legacy and impact on the community despite challenges and pressures from outside. Family-owned businesses will be able to continue to operate within the community with the help of the fund’s pool of investors. By investing collaboratively with the Community Impact Fund, the cultural integrity of Little Tokyo will be preserved for future generations.

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