L.A.’s Japanese Community Pioneer Center founded out of necessity

SERVING PIONEERS ­— The Japanese Community Pioneer Center, established in 1969, has been serving seniors in the greater Los Angeles area for five decades, providing classes in traditional Japanese arts, as well as more contemporary classes.
photo courtesy of the Japanese Community Pioneer Center

LOS ANGELES — The Japanese Community Pioneer Center was established out of necessity, to serve older Japanese Americans who had endured decades of racial discrimination and had re-established their lives after returning from World War II concentration camps, the center’s chairman of the board Haru Takehana explained.

“In 1964, after the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, everyone, including Japanese Americans, Kibei-Nisei and Japanese who came after the war, were able to work and live anywhere in the United States,” Takehana stated via e-mail.

As racial discrimination against the Nikkei subsided, concerned community members realized there was still a need to provide recreational and social services to the many low-income elderly Japanese men and women who were living alone in and around Little Tokyo, the JCPC chairman stated. “So, several people, including Rev. Howard Toriumi and Paul Takeda, who had been in the camps, established in 1969 what was initially called the Japanese American Pioneer Center of Southern California.”

Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s intended to stay temporarily in the U.S. and eventually return to Japan, Takehana remarked. This pattern continued, with most of the immigrants staying in the U.S. until the outbreak of World War II, when they were among the 120,000 Nikkei locked up in wartime U.S. concentration camps.

After the war, the Nikkei returned from the camps, the Kibei came back from Japan, and new immigrants also came from Japan, with many of them finding work as gardeners. As they grew older, some of these people became isolated and lived in Little Tokyo, gathering at bus stops in Little Tokyo and spending most of their days in the area. So, the Japanese Community Pioneer Center invited them to their office, and JCPC initially served as a rest house for them, Takehana stated.

Displaced by Redevelopment
The Pioneer Center’s original office was in the Sun Building on Weller Street (now called Onizuka Street) in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district. However, the JCPC and other tenants of buildings on Weller Street were forced out by redevelopment, which many tenants and their supporters (including the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization) protested.

Nevertheless, Kajima International succeeded in building the luxurious New Otani Hotel with shops and restaurants on the triangle-shaped block bounded by Weller, First, Second and Los Angeles streets.

The temporarily-displaced Japanese Community Pioneer Center soon moved to the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in 1980, as one of its original tenants after the JACCC was completed in the late 1970s.

The Pioneer Center started as a welfare and social services provider to the Nikkei community — they assisted elderly people, especially Japanese-speaking people, in applying for Social Security, Medicare and Medi-Cal, Takehana commented. The JCPC also provided cultural classes and recreational activities.

“When I became president, we had a major renovation … Now the Pioneer Center has been reborn,” Takehana declared. “We have new programs like citizenship class, tax return preparation, health seminar, financial seminar and computer classes. For the cultural aspects, we have Japanese dance and songs, ikebana, haiku, embroidery, senryu, shigin, tanka, tea ceremony, kimono dressing. Other classes include Smartphone, photography, picture letter, yoga and ukulele class.”

The Pioneer Center offers 22 programs and classes, with an average of 12 people taking each class and each class providing at least two sessions every month. That means approximately 528 people come to JCPC every month, according to Takehana. “We have about 550 members, with 23 directors of the board and 12 office volunteers. It is operated by all volunteers, without any single employee.”

The majority of people who come to Pioneer Center are Japanese-speaking people, but English-speaking people come for cultural classes, the chairman added. “The membership used to be only senior citizens before, but now there is no age restriction. We see many younger people now.”

The JCPC is located at 244 S. San Pedro St., #301, Los Angeles, CA 90012. For information, call (213) 680-1656 or visit http://jcpioneercenter.org/.

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