Little Tokyo leaders retire: Nonprofits see rash of leadership changes


Akemi Kikumura Yano

LOS ANGELES — Four prominent Little Tokyo nonprofit organizations — Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) — have experienced leadership changes this past year.

Bill Watanabe, founder and executive director of LTSC for the past 31 years, revealed that he’ll retire on June 30, 2012. Chris Aihara, who has been at the JACCC for 25 years, the past five as executive director, stepped down Dec. 31. Akemi Kikumura Yano, Ph.D., who served as president and chief executive officer the last three years and has been associated with JANM for 24 years, left the museum on Sept. 1. J.D. Hokoyama retired on Nov. 1 from his position as president and CEO of LEAP.


Bill Watanabe

Bill Watanabe
“What we have to remember is that Bill Watanabe is LTSC,” stated LTSC Board President Alan Nishio. “The organization has grown the past 31 years because it has reflected Bill’s personality and values. He will be hard to replace.”

Watanabe “created an organizational plan for LTSC to remain strong even after he leaves,” Nishio continued. “The board understands that it will be different without Bill. But we have roots in the community, we’re well-known because of his work, we’re able to attract funding from our supporters. We look forward to a strong LTSC in the coming years.”

Watanabe was born in 1944 at a World War II-era concentration camp for Nikkei at Manzanar, Calif., and was transferred a few months later with his family to Tule Lake, Calif. He is the son of an Issei father, Rokuro, and a Kibei Nisei mother, Katsuye, from Fukushima Prefecture, who settled in the San Fernando Valley during the 1930s to grow and sell flowers.

With a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cal State Northridge in 1966, Watanabe spent a year-and-a-half at Lockheed Missiles in Sunnyvale. In September 1967, he spent a year at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Returning home, he worked two years as an engineer for the City of Los Angeles, and then earned his Masters of Social Work at UCLA in 1972. Following stints with Agape Fellowship and Japanese Community Pioneer Center, Watanabe founded LTSC in 1980.

At that time, the only service providers were those aiding seniors, he recalled. “We needed a program that could serve everybody, so that’s how LTSC got started. The goal was to establish a one-stop, multi-purpose, social service agency.”

LTSC has been providing one-on-one social service, case management services and counseling, and information and referrals with cultural and language sensitivity. Gradually the organization added other programs — affordable housing projects like the San Pedro Firm Building and Casa Heiwa, child care, and also developed Union Center for the Arts, home of the East West Players.

Budokan, the planned gymnasium and recreation center, now has a site and “we have to raise $22 million, but I think everyone likes and supports the project. I’m pretty confident we can raise the money and get it built in the next few years.”

One project about which Watanabe feels proud is the bone marrow donor program, Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches. “That program has saved hundreds of lives,” he stressed.

LTSC’s downside, Watanabe revealed, is that the last two years were “the worst financial periods of our existence. We had to make salary cuts and cut our expenses.”

Things have been better in 2011, he said. “We’ve restored the salary cuts we made two years ago. We have cash flow again, we have reserves again … But we can’t let our guard down because of what might happen in the next year or two.”

After he retires, Watanabe said, he wants to go on the Tule Lake Pilgrimage. “My family was there but I’ve never been on that pilgrimage. I’ve done Manzanar a few times. And, I also want to go to the LTSC fundraiser.”


Chris Aihara

Chris Aihara
JACCC’s leader, Chris Aihara, left the post she took over in 2006. She had worked in various positions, including director of education and programs, then managing director for programs, since 1982.

“Chris Aihara has meant a lot to JACCC,” said Board of Directors Chairperson Sandy Sakamoto. “She came in at a time when we needed to begin our transition as an organization and renewed our visibility in the community … She was able to revitalize some of our programming that had waned for a bit and to move things along.”

During Aihara’s tenure, Sakamoto continued, “JACCC was able to finish the (James Irvine Japanese) Garden renovation, as well as a redesigned Garden Room that is now a great event space … Chris certainly did a lot in the period of time she led the organization, and we’re very pleased about that.”

Founded in 1971, JACCC is one of the largest ethnic arts and cultural centers of its kind in the U.S. The mission of JACCC is to present, perpetuate, transmit and promote Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture to diverse audiences, and to provide a center to enhance community programs.

Born in Los Angeles in 1950, Aihara moved to Orange County with her parents as a teenager, and initially attended UC Irvine, but finished up at Cal State Long Beach, where she worked for Lloyd Inui in the Asian American Studies program. “Lloyd introduced me to (Executive Director) Gerry Yoshitomi just when JACCC was opening,” she recalled. “That’s how I got the job as an administrative assistant. I’ve been very fortunate because this job intersected with what I was most personally involved —community, culture, arts.”

While working on JACCC’s Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) Festival, Aihara was impressed by what the Rev. Mas Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple told her: “Culture is always changing and it has to be relevant to the people who practice … It’s really about renewing your relationships with people, maintaining a sense of community, coming together.”

One project that pleases Aihara is the James Irvine Japanese Garden renovation. “We had to tear something that had been neglected and convert it into a more usable space,” she said. “Now it generates income for the Center. We have weddings, and it introduces new people to JACCC.”

JACCC’s financial health is “precarious,” Aihara admitted. “We have to find a way to be more sustainable … The donor base is not what it was 30 years ago, and fundraising is more difficult. Our big support for JACCC was from Japan in the early years, but you can’t count on it now because Japan is having its own issues.”

Aihara, who wrote “Nikkei Donburi” while at the JACCC, said she’d like to write more. The Torrance resident will continue supporting the JACCC and plans to stay involved with the Little Tokyo Community Council and “a lot of the other community things.”


Akemi Kikumura Yano

Akemi Kikumura Yano
Akemi Kikumura Yano, who has worked at JANM for 24 years, stepped down from the Museum’s top position, which she held since February 2008.

“When I first assumed the position as president and CEO, I was going to raise monies to make the museum a much sounder place,” she remarked. “I felt I accomplished those goals and that it was time for me … to go back to my original goals — to do research and writing on the Japanese American experience.”

An anthropologist, writer and researcher, Kikumura Yano was teaching at UCLA when she was asked by JANM to serve as a consultant to create long-range plans. Over the years, she has worked with the museum to develop their programs, collections, exhibitions and partnership programs in the U.S., Latin America and Japan. She was project director for the International Nikkei Research Project and established the Discover Nikkei Website.

Chairman Gordon Yamate of JANM’s board of trustees stated that Kikumura Yano “served as a highly successful fundraiser, as well as an important public face for the Museum. She represented the Museum well in those roles. She played an important role for the Museum during a critical time.”

George Takei, chairman of the board from 2000-2004, praised Kikumura Yano’s performance. “She was an extraordinary executive officer, a tremendous fundraiser, speaker, writer and researcher. I am one of her supporters. I thought she was invaluable.”

The youngest of 13 children, Kikumura Yano was born in Arkansas, where her Hiroshima-born parents farmed after leaving the Rohwer concentration camp. After about five years, the family returned to Lodi, Calif. When her father died, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Kikumura Yano attended high school and UCLA. In her younger days, she was an actor who appeared in the films “Farewell to Manzanar” and Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

Since coming to the museum, she has expanded her interest in the Nikkei experience worldwide, Kikumura Yano said. Her personal highlight was “going into the field, getting to know the people and really experience Japanese American culture. It was great and liberating to travel and meet people of Japanese descent from Canada, the United States, Latin America, and Japan, going into their communities, being privy to their personal collections and stories.”

JANM was in good financial shape when she left, Kikumura Yano declared. “I believe it remains in good health. I’m optimistic because Japanese Americans are people who support the museum as members and are very proud of the museum. We also received a lot of support from different foundations and institutions.”

Today, the museum is “well positioned to meet exciting challenges and to continue telling the evolving stories of the Japanese American community, which is a truly unique and compelling American story,” proclaimed Kikumura Yano, who now has time to research, travel and work on writing a historical novel.
Nancy Araki and Miyoko Oshima are serving as JANM’s interim co-directors.

J.D. Hokoyama

J.D. Hokoyama
“It has been my privilege to be a founder and leader of LEAP and to work with so many dedicated people,” stated J.D. Hokoyama, who founded LEAP in 1982 and assumed the leadership role in 1988.

LEAP’s mission is to achieve full participation and equality for Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) through leadership, empowerment and policy, Hokoyama explained. “More succinctly, LEAP is about growing more API leaders in all sectors of American society.”

In addition to his duties as CEO, Hokoyama developed and conducted leadership workshops for organizations nationally.

“I am very passionate about the need to have more API leaders not only for our community but for the mainstream as well,” he emphasized. “We are still severely underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership and governance in all sectors: public, private, educational, nonprofit.”

A former Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, Hokoyama taught at several local private schools before becoming associate national director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Within two years, he became acting national director. In 1981, he served as the first director of the Asian Pacific American Student Services at the University of Southern California, then as Keiro Services’ executive vice president for Fund Development and Public Affairs until January 1988, when he assumed the top position with LEAP. He is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“I plan to continue my involvement in the nonprofit and API communities locally and nationally, and I am also planning to do some consulting, coaching and leadership training,” Hokoyama stated. His successor is Linda Akutagawa, who served previously as a LEAP senior vice president.

Also announcing their retirements in 2011 were JACL National Director Floyd Mori and Asian American Justice Center’s longtime Executive Director Karen Narasaki.

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