JA Nat’l Museum founding president Bruce T. Kaji passes

LOS ANGELES — The Japanese American National Museum issued a statement announcing the passing of its founding president, Bruce Teruo Kaji. He was 91.

Kaji was incarcerated in the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp during World War II and served in the Military Intelligence Service during the occupation of Japan.

Born in the Bunker Hill district and raised in Boyle Heights, Kaji returned to Los Angeles after the occupation and obtained an accounting degree from the University of Southern California.

Kaji was elected Gardena City treasurer in 1960.

“After the city of Los Angeles used eminent domain to take possession of an eight-acre block of Little Tokyo to build its police department headquarters,” Kaji worked with “the Rev. Howard Toriumi of Union Church … to establish the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Association to help protect their community,” according to the statement.

“In 1962 Kaji and a group of Nisei investors organized Merit Savings & Loan. For more than 30 years, Merit served as one of the few Japanese American-owned and managed banks. The Japanese American National Museum was incorporated in 1985 and it was at Merit that initial fundraising began and the museum’s first employee, Nancy Araki, worked in a converted janitor’s closet. Bruce was instrumental in securing a lease for the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building in Little Tokyo to be the museum’s site and in securing funding for renovation of the building. He was also instrumental in the hiring of the museum’s first executive director, Irene Hirano (now Irene Hirano Inouye). Her arrival marked the start of several key developments that would ultimately lead to the opening of the museum in 1992,” the statement said.

Norman Y. Mineta, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, described Kaji as a “pillar of the Japanese American community in Southern California.”

Earlier this year, the museum presented Kaji with its Legacy Award, which recognizes “individuals who have made a lasting contribution to the museum’s institutional legacy and helped distinguish the museum as a unique, vital, and valuable community resource,” the statement said.

Kaji married Frances Tashiro in 1954. She was the daughter of prominent physician Kikuwo Tashiro, who founded the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles in 1927; she preceded him in death in November 2016.

Kaji, who learned to play the trumpet in Manzanar and played with the band the Jive Bombers, wrote his autobiography, “Jive Bomber: A Sentimental Journey,” in 2010.

Services were held Nov. 11 in Gardena, Calif.

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