A place to ‘share and embrace the Nikkei experience and culture’

A CULTURAL AND COMMUNITY HUB — The GVJCI hosts community activities ranging from martial arts to local scouting programs.
photo courtesy of Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute

GARDENA, Calif. — The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, which hosts major events like the South Bay Day of Remembrance and the GVJCI Matsuri, is an institution that “holds the legacy of our pioneering Issei and Nisei, and what they sacrificed and worked so hard to build in hopes to preserve and promote the Japanese language and culture, and the Japanese American cultural heritage,” GVJCI Executive Director Alison Kochiyama stated in an e-mail.

“Through decades of community support and involvement, the GVJCI remains a vibrant cultural community center utilized by so many people of all ages and backgrounds,” stated Kochiyama, who has been at the helm of the nonprofit organization since 2004. “Our staff and board continue to strive to remain relevant to the community’s needs and engage community members in that process. Our mission is to provide a space to engage, share, and embrace the Nikkei experience and culture.”

The GVJCI held their 10th annual Day of Remembrance event in February commemorating the signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese descent in World War II, she stated. “With our hall reaching full capacity of 300 people, our DOR serves as an important educational program highlighting various voices and points of view of personal experiences or the generational impact as a result of the Japanese American WWII incarceration experience.”

The GVJCI Matsuri (formerly known as the JCI Carnival) is their largest fundraiser and weekend event, attracting 8,000 people. It was first organized in the 1950s, and it continues to be not only a major fundraising event for GVJCI, but it serves as “a huge annual community festival for all ages,” Kochiyama noted. “The funds raised help to support the operational expense of GVJCI’s daily programs and services, as well as help with our facility expense and overhead cost, subsidizing our low rental fees for community and cultural classes and organizations.”

Started as Moneta Gakuen
The early beginnings of GVJCI date back to 1912 when it was founded by the Issei as the Moneta Gakuen, a Japanese-language school, during a time of “disenfranchisement and historical racism that existed against Japanese and Japanese Americans,” Kochiyama explained.

Surviving the turbulent World War II years, it was formally established as the Gardena Valley Japanese Language School in 1967. Then in 1968, the organization changed its name to the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute to incorporate the broader services and function of the organization.

The majority of GVJCI’s weekday daytime programs are dedicated to the seniors in the community. About 200 senior citizens take part every day in activities, including arts and crafts, physical fitness, recreational games, dance, music and educational and health classes. The GVJCI administers a bento (Japanese box lunch) program providing bento for anywhere from 60 to more than 100 seniors each weekday. These programs focus on meeting the needs of every senior participant.

As both a cultural and community center for all ages, the organization sponsors and houses many community activities ranging from martial arts to youth sports to local scouting programs. On Saturdays, the GVJCI Japanese Language School holds classes for both children and adults who are looking to learn the Japanese language in a fun environment with cultural activities. GVJCI also hosts a week-long youth summer Tanoshii Fun Camp during which elementary school kids learn about their Japanese American heritage and values through hands-on activities, cultural demonstrations, and lessons from cultural and community leaders.

Additionally, the Little Tokyo Service Center has a South Bay satellite office at JCI. The institute has held fundraisers to help local restaurants through these challenging times, with people purchasing takeout meals from restaurants and the GVJCI receiving a percentage of the sale for each purchase made.

Many of the legacy member organizations that helped to develop the growing cultural community center are still an active part of the GVJCI today, Kochiyama explained. GVJCI has increased greatly in size over the years with programs, services, and activities being held seven days a week.

GVJCI is the home of 30 member organizations holding regular activities at the institute. In addition, the organization holds its own public programs and services, many of which are collaborations with community partner organizations and individuals.

As a community center serving all ages, the GVJCI had a full spectrum of changes to adapt to when the COVID-19 pandemic began. For their older adult programs, this included transitioning to a virtual class format and introducing the community to the new platform. GVJCI launched their first virtual senior programs in August, providing multiple classes a week for both Japanese and English-speaking older adults. Some of these classes have included low-impact exercise, hula, and other movement classes in English, as well as bilingual classes in meditation and Japanese language and culture.

GVJCI’s chief said that serving the organization and the community “has been gratifying and humbling. The scope of the GVJCI continues to expand, as well as the work that our staff, board, and volunteers provide. We are grateful for the continued support that the community gives to us, and we are also very fortunate to have an active campus utilized day and night, seven days a week. We are especially grateful for the support we received during this COVID-19 pandemic, when we had to temporarily close to the public in March 2020, and transition to online classes and services, and virtual events. With a major decrease in facility and program income, our ongoing building and operational expenses continued. We couldn’t have made it through without the generous support of our community donors.”

GVJCI’s major source of revenue is from private donations, fundraising and grants, Kochiyama revealed. “We have various ways people can help through general donations or Friends of the GVJCI, where people can pledge support at various levels annually. We also have our end-of-the-year raffle and donation appeal, auto donations, business advertisements and sponsorships, matching gifts, stock donations, bequests, tribute gifts, in-kind donations, volunteerism, and support of our various fundraising events.”

Important Community Institution
The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute “is an important Japanese American community institution in the South Bay,” state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi said in a telephone interview. The GVJCI is “extremely relevant in keeping the community going with the great traditions like the JCI Carnival and the annual Day of Remembrance.”

He has attended the South Bay DOR every year since his election to the Assembly, Muratsuchi related. “The Gardena Valley JCI DOR usually packs the gymnasium with a lot of South Bay residents who appreciate having the DOR program in the local community.”
The JCI hasn’t held any of the usual events during the pandemic, the Nikkei politico added. “But every year they have held their big JCI Carnival, where a lot of the South Bay groups like the Japanese American Boy Scout troops, the gardeners, the Hawaiian hula dance groups, and others all come together, and they serve great Hawaiian and Japanese and Japanese American foods. I always look forward to that.”

The GVJCI is “not as high-profile as the Japanese American National Museum and may not have as much funding as the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, but it is a very community-based center in the South Bay,” the lawmaker explained. “They provide a lot of important programming with a very small staff. I think it really highlights the critical importance of having that building there as a meeting place, as a community space for the South Bay Japanese American community to come together.”

Muratsuchi appreciates the Issei and Nisei for having built so many Japanese community centers throughout Southern California, the politician, whose Assembly district includes all of Torrance and two-thirds of Gardena, said. “Those community centers continue to be the institutional backbone for the Sansei and Yonsei to stay involved in their local Japanese American communities.”

“The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute is an important institution in the South Bay Japanese American community, one that I will continue to strongly support,” Muratsuchi declared.

Mom Receives JCI Bento
Gardena resident and freelance writer Martha Nakagawa recalled in an e-mail that her mother used to go to JCI’s annual shinnen enkai (New Year) celebrations and to restaurant outings on the bus. “These days, my 90-year-old mom has Japanese lunches delivered to the house five days a week through the JCI lunch program.”

“I’d say JCI is still very relevant,” Nakagawa stated. “We have a family friend who goes to JCI because Little Tokyo Service Center has a Japanese-speaking social worker there and she utilizes their service … When I went to my chiropractor in Gardena, another woman sitting there said to me, ‘You look familiar. Do you do line-dancing at JCI?’ I told her no. But a lot of people like her take classes at JCI just to socialize.”

The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community center housing various classes, services, and programs for seniors, non-senior adults, and youth in the South Bay for more than 50 years.

For more information, call (310) 324-6611, e-mail info@jci-gardena.org or visit www.jci-gardena.org.

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