Little Tokyo sees uptick in business, numerous leadership changes


LOS ANGELES — Little Tokyo saw an increase in business during the past year while also experiencing changes in its community institutions, with one nonprofit organization choosing a familiar face to be its interim leader after its newly chosen executive director quit under questionable circumstances, while two others selected new individuals to replace retiring leaders.

The new heads of the nonprofit groups are Bill Watanabe at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Dean Matsubayashi of Little Tokyo Service Center and G.W. (Greg) Kimura, Ph.D. at the Japanese American National Museum.

Bizarre Situation
Bill Watanabe, co-founder and former executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, came out of retirement to serve as interim chief executive officer of JACCC, effective Aug. 28, replacing Greg Willis, a former Toyota executive who resigned Aug. 22.

A French court had convicted and sentenced Willis in absentia in 2009 for “possession of stolen property, misuse of corporate funds and bankruptcy by diversion,” according to the French newspaper Le Monde. The JACCC board said it will conduct an executive search to replace him. Watanabe said he hopes the JACCC will decide on a permanent executive by January and have the person in place by the end of the month.

Watanabe said in a phone interview that the JACCC is a “valued community institution and plays an important role in presenting Japanese art and culture to broad audiences and the next generation. I hope my community experience will help JACCC’s transition and vision for the future.”

Watanabe’s priorities include “a lot of things that were left incomplete — trying to rent out some of the empty spaces here at the building, trying to book some events at the theater so that the overall cash flow situation improves.”

JACCC is losing money every month, he revealed. “The most immediate thing is how do we break even or make it a positive cash flow … There’s a pretty large debt that has to be addressed by the next leadership, over $2 million.”

The number of JACCC employees has decreased “quite a bit over the last few years,” he disclosed. “I think we have about 15 full-time positions. Six or seven years ago, it was probably double that.”
JACCC has good community support and a number of resources, Watanabe pointed out. “It’ll be a viable institution, but a different kind of organization … We’re going to have to share some cultural exhibits with JANM, but there are still things that are very Japanese art-oriented that I think JACCC does the best.”

Little Tokyo will still be important for local Nikkei, Watanabe asserted. “It won’t be the Little Tokyo of the past. It might someday become more like the International District (pre-World War II Japantown) in Seattle, where you have many Asian groups together in one area … But we’re going to try hard to protect the heritage of Little Tokyo and the history.”

‘Big Shoes to Fill’
Dean Matsubayashi, 42, replaced Watanabe as executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center in June. Watanabe had served as the organization’s leader for more than 32 years.

Alan Nishio, LTSC board member, stated, “We’re very fortunate to have Dean, someone who has demonstrated his commitment to LTSC and its mission. He has grown up within the Nikkei community and understands the important role that LTSC and Little Tokyo play in the Japanese American community, and he really carried on the tradition that Bill Watanabe established for LTSC.”

Matsubayashi, a University of California at Irvine alumnus who earned a postgraduate degree from Harvard University, grew up in the Venice-Culver City area and has been at LTSC since 1996. “I’m deeply honored and humbled because it’s such an important institution in Little Tokyo,” he said. “Those are definitely big shoes to fill.”

Like most nonprofits, LTSC is dealing with current economic recession, Matsubayashi explained. “The key issue is to “make sure our programs are sustainable for the long term.”

During the recession, LTSC suffered “some significant cuts at the public level, but today we’re in pretty good shape — we’re operating in the black,” he revealed.

LTSC has to “make sure that we are responsive to the evolving needs and challenges in the community,” he added. “In Little Tokyo, one of the big challenges is the downtown real estate renaissance. There are about 1,900 units of housing in Little Tokyo, and many of the former parking lots are now being developed, most for luxury housing. That means there are fewer parking spaces in Little Tokyo. The Little Tokyo Community Council, of which we are a member, was able to work with Councilwoman Jan Perry’s office to get a 300-car garage at the corner of First and Judge John Aiso streets.”

One of the recent challenges is the Regional Connector rail line, which would have come above grade through Little Tokyo, cutting the neighborhood in half, Matsubayashi explained. “Under the leadership of the Community Council, we worked with Metro to get it underground.”

Another challenge is the Budokan, LTSC’s proposed recreation center which supporters say will bring more visitors to Little Tokyo. The project has accumulated $9 million of the capital campaign goal of $22 million, Matsubayashi disclosed.

LTSC has a staff of 102 full-time individuals and 41 part-time employees, plus “quite a lot” of volunteers, Matsubayashi said. “We’re very fortunate that we have so many people who choose to volunteer for us, which is very helpful.”

Dr. G.W. (Greg) Kimura, 44, former president and chief executive officer of the Alaska Humanities Forum, took over as the Japanese American National Museum’s new CEO Jan. 30, 2012, replacing retiring JANM president and CEO Akemi Kikumura Yano. (See accompanying article on page 11.)

More and More Visitors

CONTINUING TRADITIONS — Rinban Noriaki Ito applauding performers during Bon Odori at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in July of 2012. photo by Mika Ito
CONTINUING TRADITIONS — Rinban Noriaki Ito applauding performers during Bon Odori at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in July of 2012. photo by Mika Ito

Little Tokyo, compared to four years ago, is “much more diverse and there are a lot of people here even on weekdays,” observed Rimban Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. “And even from last year, I feel that there is an increase in the number of people gathering in Little Tokyo whether it’s to eat or to get together with friends … I’m sure the merchants, restaurant owners and shop owners are very happy with these recent developments.”

There are a number of residents within walking distance, but it also seems like many young people are coming in from outside the area, Ito noted. “We’re seeing a little bit of an increase in activity in our temples and churches too, so we’re happy about that. And Higashi Honganji is getting more and more visitors now.”

Ito spoke of a widowed older white man he’s known for a while, a resident of Little Tokyo Towers and a lifelong Christian who wanted to learn something new. “One day about three months ago, he came to our services … And he was so happy with what he found here that he’s coming every week now. We’re really happy to have him. There are a number of people and families who have joined the temple, coming in off the street.”

Ito added, “Frances Hashimoto, former head of the Little Tokyo Business Association who recently passed away, was energetic in trying to retain the history and traditions of Little Tokyo. I think those who knew her and admired her for her conviction realize we need to take the baton from her and do the best we can to preserve our community and make sure it’s there for our children and grandchildren.”

Creating Memories

Brian Kito, operator of Fugetsu-Do, a Japanese confectionery store on East First Street in Little Tokyo, noted that business in Little Tokyo has been improving over the last two or three years, particularly because a lot of the new residents have become patrons. “There are lot more younger people on the streets in the evening … It makes the entire area seem much more alive.”

Twenty years ago, it was mostly senior citizens moving into Little Tokyo, recalled Kito. “It’s really tough to try to secure an area when it’s nothing but seniors. They’re more likely to be victimized. But young people living in the area now provide their own security … There was a period from the early ‘90s to about three years ago when we had a hard time. We’re good now. Major crimes are way down … nothing like it used to be.”

Fugetsu-Do, which specializes in Japanese confectionery goods, especially mochi (rice cake) and manju (sweet bean-filled rice cake) has seen its business “better than it has been in years,” he reported. “This year has been a strong year for us. The month of December does about 25 percent of our annual business. It’s our busiest month. I think Little Tokyo is back on its feet.”

Little Tokyo will be viable as a center for the Nikkei community “as long as JAs support it,” Kito declared, noting that there have been some changes in the area with other Asians — mainly Korean and Chinese — coming to Little Tokyo. “But as long as the Nikkei are in business and are supported by JAs, they’ll stay in Little Tokyo.”

As an example of Nikkei support for Little Tokyo, Kito recalled how the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Fugetsu-Do in 1999, showing a picture of the traditional Girl’s Day sakura (cherry blossom) mochi. The article claimed that the Japanese culture is dying among younger Nikkei.

“The story appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times and, believe it or not, in probably a week all these JAs showed up at the store to buy sakura mochi, a week after Girl’s Day,” Kito related. “Little Tokyo is taken for granted until there’s the threat that it’s not going to exist anymore. Then it gets more and more support.”

Little Tokyo is going to change a little although it’s still predominantly Nikkei, Kito pointed out. “Back in my dad’s day, it was very much supported by JAs. You only had Little Tokyo to do your Japanese shopping. You want sashimi, you come here to get it. You want tofu, you come here; mochi, the same thing. But now we’re totally decentralized.”

Nikkei cultural events — Nisei Week, Tanabata Festival, Children’s Day, and Cherry Blossom Festival — can bring people back, the manju man noted.

“If you came here as a child, you’ll want to bring your kids here. It’s about creating memories, especially for a store like mine. If bachan and jiichan like to come down here because they like sweets, then their little grandkids like to come here too. Over the years, it’s become one of those memory-making places.”

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