Nihonmachi Little Friends celebrates leadership transition

Two woman present a framed piece of origami artwork to a third woman.

SOU — Cathy Inamasu (left) receives a 1,000 paper crane art piece featuring the kanji “sou” for creativity in recognition of her work at NLF. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei News

Nihonmachi Little Friends celebrated 48 years on Nov. 17 with their annual sushi and jazz event inside the preschool.

The school temporarily converted classrooms located in the historic Julia Morgan-designed former YWCA building and the newer addition fundraised and built in 2017 to host several dozen staff and supporters celebrating the nonprofit as well as a change in leadership.

Cathy Inamasu has worked at the San Francisco-Japantown based preschool for all 48 years since its founding, first as a volunteer, then hired as a staff member. She noted during the celebration that she has been at the organization for 70% of her life, serving as the school’s executive director for 36 years since October of 1987.

Dawn Mokuau, a parent in NLF’s after-school programs, takes over the organization from Inamasu after serving four years on the board of directors.

Inamasu told the Nichi Bei News she first started volunteering at the school when it opened in October of 1975 while studying psychology to work with children with special needs at San Francisco State University. She found she liked the language and cultural aspects of NLF’s program more and shifted gears.

“I also really liked the idea of working in the community,” Inamasu said. “The ideology of NLF in terms of being multicultural and serving a diverse population, in addition to being Japanese bilingual bicultural was very intriguing to me. And I loved that idea that we wanted to expose our young children to not only Japanese language and culture, but to other ethnicities and cultures that make up San Francisco.”

She stayed on at the program, helping it grow over the years. While the institution began as a collective of teachers and volunteers sharing responsibilities to run the school, the school’s growth required more dedicated staff and Inamasu transitioned from teaching to program development by the time she took over the organization from Jay Wang, her husband, as executive director.

Through her tenure, Inamasu led the preschool through two capital campaigns, as well as threats of evictions.

Notably, the YWCA announced they wanted to sell their building in 1996, prompting a six-year battle led by the Soko Bukai legal team to prove the school building was held in trust for the Issei women who were unable to own property at the time of the building’s construction due to racist alien land laws. Inamasu said the Soko Bukai, an organization of Japanese Christian churches whose members formed the original Japanese YWCA, entrusted the preschool to become stewards of the building after the case was settled in 2002.

Her biggest achievement, however, was the organization’s ongoing Plant a Seed capital campaign, which helped fund the new addition to the school and is continuing to pay for the school buildings’ maintenance into the future.

“That really gave us a strong foundation, and we could feel that now we really have a place where we can continue the legacy of not only NLF, but also the Issei women,” Inamasu said.

While the focus of the annual celebration focused on Inamasu and Mokuau, the organization also announced the formal launch of the “Dreams Interrupted… but not forgotten” Issei Women’s Legacy Website at https://isseiwomenslegacy.com. The educational Website aims to chronicle the history of Japanese Americans by focusing on the historic Japanese YWCA the preschool is located in.

Parent of an alumni Karen Kai, a former member of the legal team and member of the capital campaign committee, said the project will next focus on the history of the Soko Bukai legal battle and aim to update the site in 2024.
Inamasu said she hoped to retire before her own grandchildren enrolled in the program, but her first grandson started attending this past year. She announced to the school and its board she was looking to retire by the end of the year in January and found Mokuau was open to taking on the role.
Mokuau previously worked for the City College of San Francisco with more than 20 years of experience in administration in higher education, a career path she locked in after working and studying at the University of San Francisco, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in nonprofit administration. She said she took on the board position at NLF initially because of her own curiosity over how the school is run and a growing interest in her own children’s education. She served as board president for the previous two years.
“I was interested in the health and growth of my own kids, and found that, while I still love working with adults, this was an area that was pulling towards me,” she said.
Inamasu said the school, in turn, always seeks representation from current families attending the school. While many move on after the children leave the program, she said a number of board members stay on as community representatives who also retain institutional knowledge to share with newer board members.
Mokuau said she was initially approached about the position in February and took over in September with Inamasu remaining on as an advisor through a three-month transition period.
“I did a lot of research, I did a lot of conversation and dialogue. So in terms of unexpected things, there weren’t a lot of unexpected for me,” she told the Nichi Bei News. “I think in terms of unexpected things, is just the day to day. You can certainly know that we’re open during these hours, this is usually the schedule, but we’re dealing with little people and things can happen. Each day that’s different that brings joy, that’s a puzzle, that you have to solve.”
Tiffanie Muraoka, a longtime NLF board member, said it was “bittersweet” to lose Inamasu, but she is also excited to see Mokuau at the helm.
“There’s a lot of energy … a different perspective to maintain the tradition, but also bring in new life,” she said. “It’s hard to top what Cathy’s been able to do for the community and for this organization, but I think Dawn is a perfect fit for that. She’s got a great background in education, she’s invested in the community, she’s kind of like the whole package.”
While Mokuau said her children call her the “new Cathy,” she said she is looking to contribute in her own way while respecting the work Inamasu has done over the years.
“How am I going to add value to this place? How am I going to ensure that I’m honoring the foundational work that Cathy has done for decades, while still being able to bring in some of the touches and some of the reasons why they considered me for this position,” Mokuau said. “And so for me, part of that work is making sure that I’m always checking in with our board and staff.”
And as NLF experiences a dawn of a new era, Inamasu will remain a part of the school even in retirement. The outgoing-executive director said she looks forward to a trip to Hawai‘i and a long-postponed vacation to Greece as well, but said she also looks forward to being a grandparent and will remain nearby.
“I feel very comfortable leaving — and I’m actually not even going to say goodbye, because I’m not really leaving, leaving, I will be a grandparent in the program, and I will be continuing on in the capital campaign committee as a volunteer, so you’ll still see me,” she said.

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