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J-TOWN BEAT: A Thoughtful Warrior for Little Tokyo

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By GWEN MURANAKA

Our thoughts and prayers here at The Rafu are with the family, friends and colleagues of Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center, who passed away too young and with so much more to live for.

Dean had an acute political sensibility and a strong sense of community. Incredibly humble despite his many talents, he devoted his considerable skills towards envisioning what would make Little Tokyo a better place.

Most notably, that vision was of a gymnasium where young and old could play basketball and martial arts. It was also a vision of a Little Tokyo that is a creative space for artists, and a political space for conversations about empowerment and the rights of the underserved and disenfranchised.

Over the years, the forces threatening Little Tokyo have changed, and it was always to Dean that you could turn for a thoughtful, strategic response. One of the last times we talked about this, I recall that he spoke of how Little Tokyo has gone from a place where stores were shuttered and the streets darkened at night to a place coping with hypergrowth and rapid gentrification.

To these challenges facing Little Tokyo today, I would add the impacts of a growing homeless population. How will institutions like LTSC and JACCC face these issues? It will be up to new leadership to develop strategies to lead a changing community into the coming decades.

Dean Matsubayashi chats with NBA legend Jerry West during a fundraising event for Terasaki Budokan in January 2013. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

I’ve carried with me through a couple of office relocations, a thick folder of yellowing materials from early reporting on what will be the Terasaki Budokan. Someone should do a proper oral history of the project and all its tortuous twists and turns. In there will be the legacy of Dean and many others.

Back in July 2001, folks briefly disrupted a Los Angeles City Council meeting with shouts of “What do we want? A rec center! When do we want it? Now!”

At that time a motion before the City Council threatened the fate of the gym.

With some urgency, Dean at the time said that the community needed more time “to allow people to speak and to ask for and get a meeting with our city councilperson and the city to discuss the proposal.”

So many years removed, I’m not sure if the fate of what is the Terasaki Budokan was on the line at that meeting, but it did allow for some breathing room for LTSC to meet with then-newly elected Councilmember Jan Perry, who would become one of the gym’s strongest allies.

Just two years ago, Dean was there to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Terasaki Budokan on Los Angeles Street. He noted, with some self-deprecation, that he became LTSC project manager in 1996, the same year that Kobe Bryant was drafted by the Lakers out of high school.

“Kobe played for the L.A. Lakers for 20 years and here we are, still pushing ahead on this project,” Dean said.

It is heartbreaking that Dean will not be there for that first rebound or free throw or karate kata on what will be the new home court of Little Tokyo.

Dean also spoke of gambaru, perseverance, and how that is a vital part of the Japanese American identity.

This is one of those moments of perseverance now as it is up to those who love Little Tokyo to continue to live up to Dean’s legacy to make this neighborhood a better place.

Thank you, Dean. Rest in peace.

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Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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