Fighting to stay in place: Japanese Art & Culture Center staves off eviction

TEACHING CULTURE ­— Akihiro Omi opened his San Jose dojo in 2010, but rising costs and the pandemic put the space in jeopardy in April of this year. photo courtesy of Japanese Arts & Culture Center

The Japanese Arts & Culture Center in San Jose, Calif. is lauded by students and instructors alike for its Zen approach to teaching Japanese culture in the Silicon Valley. But the coronavirus pandemic has left the organization, which opened in 2010 in the Strawberry Park Shopping Center behind the Mitsuwa Marketplace, in dire straits.

Like many organizations across the state, the center was forced to close March 17, 2020 when the Bay Area ordered its citizens to shelter-in-place. While businesses were gradually allowed to reopen on a limited basis, the JACC, remained closed for more than a year. Eugene Chang, executive director of the JACC, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the dojo’s small space has made reopening difficult, as it prevents social distancing. While some classes moved online, Chang said they generated no income and the center faced eviction after a year of non-operation.

Striking a Deal
“We carried them for a year, and we had to approach them here a few weeks ago to find a resolution. It didn’t look like they could survive,” Tom Biagini, Strawberry Park Shopping Center’s property manager told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The JACC and its landlords reached a deal in April. The landlords would forgive half the outstanding rent and let them stay if the dojo could raise $45,000 in back rent. Biagini said they also canceled the center’s lease and instead offered them a month-to-month contract through the end of the year at half their previous rent.

“We’ve told them, as long as they make those payments, we’ll allow them to stay month-to-month while they try to recover from the pandemic, get open, attract patrons again and, perhaps next January, they might be in a position to sign a lease with us at a fair market rent,” Biagini said.

Biagini said the shopping center, which also hosts Mitsuwa Marketplace and Daiso Japan, serves as the center of the Japanese American community in Santa Clara County. He said the property owner agreed to give the steep discount to the JACC because they rounded out the tenant mix “in order to (keep) the critical mass of Japanese merchants at Strawberry Park,” and hoped that they could remain in the shopping center.

Chang welcomed the deal, but was then saddled with a new conundrum: raising the money.

“How do we come up with $45,000? I was kind of dumbstruck,” Chang said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Chang worked with Akihiro Omi, the founder and chairperson of the JACC board, to raise funds. Omi set up a PayPal account to accept donations, but the fundraising campaign did not take off until an aikido student set up a GoFundMe page for the center. The campaign caught on, with KTVU-2 and ABC7 doing stories on the fundraiser.

“And then after that, our GoFundMe page went viral,” Chang said.

The campaign quickly raised the necessary $45,000 and an additional $6,000, which Chang said they will use to help get the JACC through the summer months as they try to reopen. As vaccinations continue and CDC guidelines are relaxed, California is looking toward reopening June 15. Chang said he is monitoring those new rules, as well as the mood among students and their parents, to see how best to reopen the JACC for classes.

For the time being, he said he hopes to hold outdoor classes in a park, since many students have expressed their reluctance to hold classes indoors.

Community Gem
Chang said the fundraising success is partly owed to the service the JACC has provided over the past decade. Many of the donations speak to the organization’s impact on former and current students.

The majority of the dojo’s teachers are volunteers. Chang originally joined as a kendo student in 2011 before volunteering to help Omi with bookkeeping and other tasks. The student-turned-executive-director said the dojo’s emphasis on Zen traditions helped him more than any kind of diet program. Now, he wants to pay Omi and the JACC back.

“I started off overweight, diabetes and high blood pressure, the kind of person working too much in Silicon Valley,” Chang said. “I’m in a perfect weight spot right now for my age and my height, … it changed me for the better in a way. … I think my mentality, my focus on things has changed quite a bit.”

Like Chang, most of the teachers and support staff at the JACC are unpaid volunteers. Chang said the bulk of the tuition revenue they used to collect before the pandemic went toward paying the rent, which Omi noted had steadily increased since he opened the dojo.

Cory White also joined the JACC as a student in 2010. The 35-year-old senior engineer manager told the Nichi Bei Weekly he has practiced martial arts his entire life, but his aikido lessons with Bruce Mendenhall at the

JACC has taught him how to find balance in all parts of his life.

“What’s really resonated with me over the past 10 years, aikido offers kind of a middle way, a way to bring harmony to a situation of conflict, where you can neutralize aggression or conflict without fighting or without running away from it,” White said. “And that’s something that I’ve embraced like in a physical practice of the martial art, as well as in my day to day life.”

White and other supporters faced the $45,000 bill in April and tried to find a “middle way” to resolve that adversity by leveraging their community to raise the necessary funds.

“It just kind of floors me how willing and eager people all over were willing to chip in and ensure that we were able to make the payment, … especially being so close to this horizon of normalcy,” he said. “There is a real post-COVID horizon incoming and I’m so incredibly glad that we were able to receive sufficient donations to save this little gem of a cultural center.”

Part of the reason why so many people support the organization may be because of Omi’s dedication to teaching his interpretation of Japanese culture, which emphasizes self-improvement through “samurai traditions.”

Facing Further Adversity
Upon arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1987, Omi said many of the martial arts classes he saw being taught in America were either business-oriented, competitive, or based on the military traditions of the art.

Omi also taught karate and kendo in Anaheim before moving to Palo Alto, Calif.

“The primary motive for building the dojo (JACC) was to allow the current (including myself) as well as the future generations of traditional Japanese martial arts instructors to have a venue to teach classes in a Zen-like atmosphere which samurai trained and developed not only their fighting skills but their minds and spirits,” Omi said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Since he started teaching karate in the early 1990s, Omi learned that many parents also wanted to enroll their children in karate classes to help them develop focus and discipline. After nearly two decades teaching classes, Omi said he borrowed money from his karate and kendo students, as well as his mother, to open the JACC in 2010.

“All of such financial and emotional supports kept me going. I sold my Sunnyvale townhouse in 2011 to cut the cost of living and to use the money to pay down some of the loans for the dojo,” Omi said. “I then moved into an apartment in Santa Clara but its rent kept going up and in 2018 it reached the point where I couldn’t support myself by working as a freelance Japanese translator while teaching at the dojo as a volunteer.”

He said he still currently owes $137,000 in loans plus interest, most of which he has been unable to pay back due to rising rent costs for the JACC. As his mother suffered from cancer and subsequently developed dementia, Omi said he elected to temporarily move back to Japan to provide her care.

When Omi left to care for his mother in Toyota city in Aichi Prefecture, he left Chang and the other volunteers in charge. He had initially planned to return to the U.S. last year, but the pandemic made him decide to stay in Japan to continue caring for his mother. While he may be across the Pacific, Omi has continued to keep in touch with Chang and did what he could to keep the JACC going.

“It depends on the availability of instructors, volunteer staff and students. We will need at least $5,000 monthly revenue until the end of the year, and then $8,000 to $9,000 per month in 2022,” Omi said. “I personally gave all that I could before and during the pandemic, but I personally ran out of funds … The center is now in the hands of the volunteers and the students.”

Chang acknowledged those challenges, including the longstanding debt.

“Our first order of things is to figure out how to re-open the dojo now that the eviction scare is over,” Chang wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

White, meanwhile, looks forward to getting back to the dojo once it reopens.

“I’m really looking forward to the JACC returning to that state of its former glory, like being able to return to a position of being basically a cultural pillar in the local community that welcomes everybody,” he said.

For more information about the JACC, visit www.jpnarts.org.

 

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