LITTLE TOKYO SERVICE CENTER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FOUNDER RETIRES Bill Watanabe leaves after 32 years at the helm of the multi-purpose social welfare agency

COMMUNITY VISIONARY — Bill Watanabe, who helped to establish the Little Tokyo Service Center three decades ago, stands in front of the construction of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. photo courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

LOS ANGELES — Bill Yoshiyuki Watanabe, founder and executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center for the past 32 years, reflected on his career at LTSC on June 15, his last day at the office.

“The feeling is kind of bittersweet, part of it is sad,” Watanabe said. “I kinda feel it today especially, it being the last day and all. I love the work and the people, but at the same time I’m looking forward to taking a break, taking it easy for a while, and hopefully doing stuff I want to do without having to think about making money. I’m 68, and I’m ready to retire.”

Pondering his long tenure at the multi-purpose social welfare agency Little Tokyo, Watanabe said he derived satisfaction in “just being able to help the agency to grow — with the board and everyone else — to where today it’s one of the more active and influential organizations in the community. I’m glad that we’ve been able to impact Little Tokyo in a positive way with some of the projects we’ve done in Little Tokyo and with our work in historical and cultural preservation too.”

Highlights of his career include the development of Casa Heiwa, the affordable housing project, and Union Center for the Arts.

“I think we have a good staff that’s dedicated. I think just the fact that we have a good team, which is not easy to do, I’m fully confident that the agency will continue to do very well. It’s in good hands with Dean Matsubayashi as the new executive director.”

Watanabe was born in 1944 at the Manzanar concentration camp, located in a remote corner of the eastern California desert that was one of many built to collectively imprison some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry — most of whom were American citizens — during World War II. He was transferred a few months later with his family to the Tule Lake concentration camp near California’s border with Oregon.

He is the son of an Issei father, Rokuro, and a Kibei Nisei mother, Katsuye, from Fukushima, who settled in the San Fernando Valley during the 1930s to grow and sell flowers.

With a bachelor’s degree in engineering that he earned from California State Northridge in 1966, Watanabe worked a year-and-a-half at Lockheed Missiles in Sunnyvale. From September 1967, he spent a year at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.

Studying in Japan was “one of the best years of my life, it was fun, and I enjoyed just traveling around the country,” he recalled.

“I visited some relatives I had never met before, in Fukushima. And I learned to speak Japanese fairly well, or as much as I could learn in nine months. I was 23 years old and having a great time over there.”

Returning home, he worked two years as an engineer for the City of Los Angeles, and then earned his master’s degree in social work at UCLA in 1972. Following stints with Agape Fellowship (an urban Asian American Christian commune) and Japanese Community Pioneer Center, Watanabe founded Little Tokyo Service Center in 1980.

At that time, the only service providers in the Nikkei community 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.”

Under Watanabe’s leadership, LTSC has been providing one-on-one social services, case management services and counseling, and information and referrals with cultural and language sensitivity. Gradually the organization added other programs — 280 units of affordable housing projects for seniors and families at the San Pedro Firm Building and Casa Heiwa, child care, and developed Union Center for the Arts, home of Visual Communications and the East West Players.

Additionally, LTSC’s Budokan, the planned gymnasium and recreation center, when completed, is expected to bring 100,000 visitors to the area annually, and will be conducive to the revitalization and improvement of Little Tokyo and the continued spread of Japanese culture. The project now has a site and supporters hope to raise $22 million to 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, which has recruited more than 100,000 potential marrow donors. “That program has saved hundreds of lives,” he reported.

Without a Lot of Egos
Alan Nishio, president of LTSC’s board of directors, exclaimed, “Bill is LTSC. He defined the organization; he built it. The values and culture of LTSC are a reflection of Bill as a person. It’s an organization where the staff and everyone involved is community oriented … working together without a lot of egos.”

LTSC is in good hands with the new leadership and will continue to reflect Watanabe’s values, Nishio emphasized. “After 32 years, he deserves the opportunity to pursue other interests in his life. He’s also been responsible for leading an organization that will live well past his, and my, lifetime.”

For the Japanese American community, Watanabe has been the “singular most important person with a vision for Little Tokyo, actually implementing a lot of concrete programs and projects that helped to advance that vision,” the LTSC board president noted.

Watanabe is someone who’s always “thinking of ideas that can be implemented,” stated Nishio, who has worked with Watanabe for more than 40 years. “The (LA) Tofu Festival is one, the Far East Cafe, the Historical Society, Ties That Bind Conference, and I could go on and on … That’s really a testament to the kind of leadership style, which is to bring people together as a team. It’s quite a legacy.”

Empowered LTSC Staff
“Bill has been a really great mentor and role model, and also a leader,” stated LTSC Executive Director Dean Matsubayashi, who took over for Watanabe on June 18. “He’s the best possible supervisor you could ever hope for in terms of how he empowers his staff with different leadership responsibilities … He is very supportive and very nurturing, and always available.”

Watanabe meant a lot to LTSC, Matsubayashi said. “He’s a founding executive director, he’s been our leader for the past 32 years. He’s really established and cemented clear values and principles — community first — around community and social-economic justice, around issues like equity and fairness. Those kinds of things have been deeply rooted as a result of Bill, not just his words but also his actions. I think that has carried over into the Little Tokyo community as well.”

One of the responsibilities to which Watanabe has committed himself is the preservation of Little Tokyo as a historical and cultural center for the broader Japanese American community, while also being able to evolve and adjust with the changes, Matsubayashi said. Those changes include “demographics, what’s going on with the downtown real estate boom, the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles, and new people coming into the community. Bill was not being resistant to the change, but made sure that, with the change, the people who do come in at least try to embrace or recognize the unique culture and history in the neighborhood, which makes it the special place that it is.”

The new LTSC executive director said he doesn’t feel the burden of having to carry on all by himself because Watanabe, through his own personal leadership style, “has developed a strong team at LTSC, with people who have been around a long time, people who have similar principles and similar values in terms of our approach to the work.”

A lot of the “vehicles are in place” to continue Watanabe’s work, he announced, whether it’s the Little Tokyo Community Council for some of the more immediate situations happening in Little Tokyo, or beyond the Nikkei community in the broader social service field with the Asian Pacific Planning Policy Council, and with the affordable housing community as well.

“You can’t replace someone like Bill Watanabe, but I think the point is to understand and learn from someone like Bill, which I think we all have done, and to build upon his legacy and move Little Tokyo and LTSC forward for the next 32 years,” Matsubayashi added. “It’s about how we deal with things like the Metro Regional Connector that’s going to be built in the area and will have an impact on the community, and I think the principles of working as one community will definitely carry forward.”

Tremendous Blessing
Watanabe said he wants to take a break now.

“I’ve been telling everybody I want six months to just take it easy with no stress … Some people have asked me if I would be interested in this board or that board, but I basically said ‘Give me six months and after that I’ll start thinking about it.’ I have one fishing trip lined up at Mammoth, but that’s just one week. After that it’s mainly cleaning out the garage and puttering around.”

Looking back on his career, Watanabe proclaimed, “I’ve been really fortunate, doing the work I just loved doing, helping people, feeling so much gratification, and working with such great folks. It’s just been a tremendous blessing to be able to do what I did and to enjoy it 99 percent of the time. Just one percent of the time it wasn’t so much fun, but generally it’s been tremendous.”

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