Support a ‘Living’ Legacy of Japanese American Culture (Part 4)

(Note: The fourth of four parts)

For more than 30 years, off of the deck of my house, I have gazed into the beautiful garden of my neighbor next door below me. I observed Rose planting flowers everywhere, tenderly applying soil or pulling unsightly weeds. Years ago she passed away, and her husband did a good job of keeping all the colorful flowers for over a decade… but slowly, the garden shrank in size and color. This happened so slowly, I hardly noticed. As he turned 90, the garden deteriorated due to lack of watering and daily attention.

In one corner though, a yellow rose bush still thrives without getting any special attention, while more and more of the few remaining plants die or whither away. This reminds me so much of the 1830 Sutter St. building in San Francisco’s Japantown. It was once a part of a great “garden” of Japanese American businesses and families that had thrived and then slowly disappeared over the last century… yet somehow this one building, like the beautiful yellow rose plant, is still vibrant. It has a special energy within and about it.

I used to be very angry and saddened that Japanese America, which has endured so much pain and injustice, is now represented by only a few institutions. Today I’ve come to realize that maybe we have attained the American Dream we so strongly sought after coming out of the internment camps: We’ve simply assimilated (Be careful what you wish for!). Philosophically, I understand that everything we see, touch and feel does come to life and then folds back into eternity.

That yellow rose plant is also a metaphor to me of Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) and the 1830 Sutter St. building. Both are alive and full of vitality: Starting with just 15 preschoolers 34 years ago, NLF now serves over 200 students each year. In my neighbor’s garden, it is not any flower… it is not the begonia or tulip that has survived. It is the rose which now thrives in Rose’s garden. Through my prior editorials, I hope I have effectively shown you that NLF’s 1830 Sutter is not just any building — it is one that was born out of a community vision, nurtured, transferred to friends, stolen from us, fought for, and returned. It now endures for the future… unlike the yellow rose plant, however, NLF needs finances to continue its success.

Maria Matsu

I want to balance my focus on the building by briefly sharing with you insights of a few individuals who have been involved in NLF. They are examples of the many connected to NLF over the past three and a half decades (ironically the same period I have been raising funds for community groups). With the settlement of the lawsuit and then the sudden need for NLF to raise funds to purchase 1830 Sutter, the burden of responsibility fell squarely on the shoulders of Maria Matsu, then NLF’s board president. She asked me to help because their board consisted of mostly young working parents who had little or no experience in fundraising, and had limited time for volunteering. Some were also taking care of their own parents.

Initially, the majority of board members told me that they gave their time, but could not give money. I spoke to them and asked, “Why would anyone else want to give to your cause if you don’t?” I also shared with them the unique and inspiring history which I’ve uncovered in the last three articles. Passing out a piece of paper to each member, I asked them, “If you truly believe in NLF, in what it is providing your children, in why you feel it is important to preserve this school, please write down a dollar number that you feel you can pledge to make your campaign dream become a reality.” I was astounded that the pieces of paper totaled over $75,000. This was almost 50 percent more than I had seen from boards of other community organizations with more affluent, older members. From this example, one can understand that people find NLF as special to the community as the building it belongs to.

Maria’s children, both NLF alumni, are in their teens and early 20s, yet she remains involved, becoming the second highest individual benefactor to NLF. Her continued enthusiasm and dedication to NLF are shown in her recent remarks during an interview: “[At NLF,] there is a sense of commitment and caring that transcends the traditional childcare experience… It’s important to me to see NLF continue to thrive.”

Jack Hirose

Thus far, the largest individual (excludes private foundations) benefactor to NLF’s Capital Campaign has been Jack Hirose (oldest brother of Bill Hirose). When we recently approached Jack about placing his name prominently in the 1830 Sutter St. building as an appreciation of his generosity, he politely refused. Like Julia Morgan, the renowned architect who designed 1830 Sutter over 75 years ago, Jack started off as an engineer but then changed careers. And similar to Morgan becoming the first female architect, Jack became the first Japanese American accountant after returning from World War II as a member of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).

It is not surprising to me that Jack is both tough and humble. I met many Nisei veterans of the 442nd/100th and the MIS when I was a board member of the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), led by Rosalyn Tonai. Many of these men had the same traits. At one NJAHS dinner, I asked the Nisei veterans to stand up and look across the capacity-filled room to the Sansei Dale Minami, Don Tamaki, Karen Kai, Bob Rusky and the rest of the coram nobis legal team, who were also standing. In between the two was the audience of 400. I explained that the veterans had fought for all of our freedom…but to me there can be no real freedom without justice, which is what the Sansei attorneys had accomplished. Not only has the Japanese American community benefited from both groups…all of America has.

I met Jack when I was fundraising at a Golden Gate Optimist meeting years ago. His friend is Hatsuro “Hats” Aizawa (also an MIS vet) with whom I share the honorary co-chairmanship of NLF’s Capital Campaign. Jack’s generous donations have supported most of the institutions, organizations and churches I have already referenced throughout my historical review. At NLF’s 30th anniversary dinner in 2005, Jack stepped forward to make the final payment of almost $100,000, enabling NLF to retire the mortgage on the building. When asked why he did this, he quietly stated that he simply wanted to help empower the lives of young Japanese Americans.

Cathy Inamasu

When Cathy Inamasu came to San Francisco in the 1970s from Stockton, she was inspired by the groundswell of grassroots community organizations that were being formed. Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF), similar to the Japanese YWCA four decades before, had just been uniquely founded as the first bilingual school of its kind in San Francisco, and possibly throughout Japanese American communities.

Cathy started as an NLF teacher and rose to executive director, a position she has held for over 20 years. NLF was special from the beginning. Indeed, it is that uniqueness that keeps Cathy and other teachers, staff and board members fresh and active: “What sets NLF apart is its community base and the close working relationship between the staff and parents. This develops leadership skills among the parents that they carry with them to their children’s elementary schools and beyond.” She is proud of the fact that NLF “is the only full-day and full-year Japanese bilingual/bicultural program serving preschoolers in San Francisco to meet the needs of working families.”

The Future – NLF

In his book “The Prophet,” the philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran wrote this about children: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth… You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit… For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

Last year, Cherry Blossom Queen Alicia Kagawa, who grew up mostly in Marin, spoke at the 75th anniversary of the 1830 Sutter St. building as an NLF alumna. “When I returned to the Japantown community, I saw buildings, programs and services in a different way. I understood the hopes that our Issei generation had set forth for us… what Nisei had fought for… what our Sansei activists had preserved. I recognized the need for my generation to get involved.”

Alicia is just one NLF graduate. Every year, over 200 students at NLF shape their values and dreams amid the historical posters of 1830 Sutter and under the guidance of culturally sensitive teachers and staff. Imagine how many are influenced like Alicia: They are the seeds planted for the future and are reasons to support NLF’s cause.

The Meaning of Your Gift

As I explained earlier, NLF’s board initially felt inadequate to give money, in addition to their time, for its Capital Campaign to purchase and renovate the 1830 Sutter St. building. When they stepped up, I reminded them that, with their financial commitment, they now shared the original intention expressed by the Issei pioneers who had created the building four generations before. When the young women met their challenge in the 1930s, I am certain that most of them also felt they had limited funds, just as you might feel in our current state of economy.

NLF’s future can only be secured with more funding. As Kahlil Gibran wrote about giving: “Give now, that the season of giving may be yours.” The final $100,000 of the $2.2 million Issei Women’s Legacy Project is the hardest to raise. Certainly, I would appreciate one individual, foundation or corporation giving this amount. However, I would rather see 100,000 like-minded individuals giving $1 to become involved and reconnected. That, I see, would be an expression of a collective kokoro, an intention to propel Japanese American culture into the unknown future. Thank you.

Established in 1975, Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) is a bilingual, multicultural childcare organization located in San Francisco’s Japantown. To learn more or to view the full series of editorials, visit NLF’s Web site at www.nlfchildcare.org or contact NLF at nlfchildcare@yahoo.com. Contributions to the Capital Campaign can be sent to NLF, 2031 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94115 or made online at www.nlfchildcare.org. All donations are tax-deductible.

Dr. Gary Kono is a hospice volunteer. He is a retired surgeon in dentistry, recipient of two humanitarian awards, guest of the China Medical Association, and Regent Scholar of the University of California. He resides in Oakland with his wife Qin Lu. He can be reached at (510) 658-9898.

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