When surveying community programs a decade ago, Japanese American leaders found a lack of meaningful activities for young people.
“There had been a vacuum for a long time of new programs (for young people),” said Jon Osaki, the executive director of Japanese Community Youth Council.
In an effort to engage Japanese American young people, the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council (CJACLC) launched the Nikkei Community Internship (NCI) program, placing college-aged persons in various community-based organizations — for the most part, in the three remaining Japantowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose — for eight weeks in the summer.
There, they would learn the inner workings of nonprofit organizations, meet and learn from community leaders, and get better connected to their community.
“When we started this program the first year, we were wondering if young people were going to come,” said Osaki, who credits the CJACLC for having the vision to address this segment of the community.
“It didn’t happen by accident that young people year after year find themselves in this program,” added Osaki, speaking at the closing luncheon of this year’s NCI program on Aug. 12 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC).
While celebrating this year’s class of 15 interns, the luncheon also marked the 10-year anniversary of the NCI program.
“The reason why this program is successful is because … young people told us this is what they want from the community,” Osaki said.
The internship not only gave them an opportunity to connect with their community, but it also gave them some practical experience as well.
“A lot of the work I learned in school were applicable to the organization I worked in,” said Jason Hata, a third-year business major at the University of Southern California who was placed at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. “We got placed in programs and were completely invested in the things we do.”
Alison Sunahara, a third-year recreation, parks and tourism major at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, helped to oversee other interns at the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco’s Japantown.
“This was really meaningful to me,” she said. “Through this internship, I really learned how to be a leader.”
Kyle Ichikawa, a second-year civil engineering major at UCLA, came into the NCI program with little understanding what it was about.
“Through this internship, I learned what it is to be a Nikkei,” said Ichikawa, one of two interns assigned to San Jose’s Japantown. “(It) broadened our perspective on what it meant to be JA in the real world.”
Ichikawa was joined by Alex Lim, a second-year physiology and neuroscience student at the University of San Diego, and the two of them were shared by various organizations in San Jose’s Japantown.
“Probably the most important thing we’ve taken out of this internship is … a place to come back to in the future,” said Lim, who said he and Ichikawa plan to “invest our time in” Japantown.
For Mari Miyamoto, the program opened her eyes to the “tremendous volunteerism” omnipresent in nonprofits.
“I was surprised at how much fun this internship was,” said Miyamoto, a second-year political science student at UC Berkeley who was placed at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute in Southern California, helping with their summer carnival. “This internship has gotten me in touch with my Japanese roots.”
The luncheon allowed some moments of reflection for alumni of the program as well.
“This program really got us back into Japantown,” said Ryan Kimura, an NCI alumnus from the second year who was recently named program director at the JCCCNC.
“If you want to be a big CEO, that’s fine,” Kimura told the interns. “Just remember the community.”
Alan Nishio, the chair of the CJACLC, said it’s “always so rewarding” to see the interns go through the program. “Our future is in good hands,” he told the gathering.
While reflecting on the success of the NCI program, Osaki also issued a warning to the interns, urging them to continue to be involved in the community. “If you don’t make it happen, there isn’t going to be anyone to make it happen,” he said. “Our community needs you.”