The government of Japan on Sunday announced two Southern California recipients of its Spring 2012 Decorations: Frances Hashimoto, CEO of Mikawaya, and Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.
Hashimoto will attend the conferment ceremony to be held in Tokyo on June 6. The ceremony for Watanabe will be held in Los Angeles.
Frances Kazuko Hashimoto will receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays. She was born at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona in 1943. After the war, the family returned to Little Tokyo, where Hashimoto spent much of her time both working and playing at the family business.
After graduating from USC in 1966, she worked as an elementary school teacher for four years. When her mother got into a car accident, Hashimoto decided to enter the family business full-time, and she began learning in earnest the art of making Japanese confections. In 1970, she became the CEO of Mikawaya.
As a successful entrepreneur, Hashimoto has grown the company from a small neighborhood store into a large corporation with five retail branches. During this time, due to her great passion for the community that she had grown up in, she began her service in many local organizations and has served in many varying posts.
From 1994 to 2008, Hashimoto served as the president of the Little Tokyo Business Association; she now serves as its chairperson. During her tenure, LTBA was revitalized and continues proudly to serve the community.
One of her numerous accomplishments is that she strengthened the ties between Little Tokyo and Minami Otsu Dori Shotengai in Nagoya through delegation exchanges, organizing fundraising for Nisei Week, arranging business seminars, and lobbying the city governments of both countries. She continues collaborating with many other Japanese American organizations, the City of Los Angeles, and non-Asian businesses; Hashimoto is constantly promoting the revitalization of Little Tokyo.
As the first female general chairperson of Nisei Week Japanese Festival in 1982, and again in 1990, Hashimoto reinvented the event by introducing more entertainment and by highlighting the rich cultural traditions of Japan. The performances attracted more spectators and participants to the festival and gave them all an opportunity to discover the charms of Little Tokyo and Japanese culture.
As a result, more and more people started to come to Little Tokyo regularly to enjoy Japanese culture, even after the festival. In addition, she arranged for delegations from Nagoya, Los Angeles’ first sister city, to participate in Nisei Week and vice versa, promoting cultural and economic exchange between the two cities.
Mikawaya has been offering traditional Japanese confections to the communities in Southern California since 1910. Under Hashimoto’s leadership, the company has expanded its operations significantly. Now its signature product, mochi ice cream, is sold in many Japanese restaurants and supermarkets all over the country, enabling many people to experience and appreciate the Japanese confectionary culture.
Yoshiyuki Bill Watanabe will receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays.
Watanabe was born during World War II at the Manzanar internment camp. After graduating from California State University, Northridge, he worked briefly at a private company before he decided to learn about Japanese culture and history for a year at the Department of International Studies of Waseda University in Tokyo. After returning from Japan, Watanabe earned his MSW from UCLA. He then became the coordinator for the Nisei Project at the Japanese Community Pioneer Center in Little Tokyo.
In 1978, out of concerns for the aging Issei, who despite racial prejudice had contributed to the development of California while nurturing the Japanese American community, and in response to the various needs of the Japanese residents and Japanese Americans, an organizational plan to utilize the community’s resources and offer a comprehensive program of bilingual social services in the Little Tokyo area was established.
With Watanabe as the executive director and the first employee, the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit organization, began offering social services in January 1980.
Watanabe’s contribution was to provide social welfare services and family counseling to Japanese residents and Japanese Americans, and to preserve and convey the history and cultural heritage of the Japanese American communities to Japanese residents as well as to the general public. He also initiated the Tofu Festival, which helped spread Japanese dietary life and culture to the general American public and revitalized the Little Tokyo area. Under Watanabe’s direction, LTSC now employs 150 staff members and provides services to many thousands each year.
The 1994 Northridge Earthquake forced many vulnerable historical buildings in Little Tokyo to undergo immediate restoration work. Watanabe, who had taken part in the preservation of history and culture of Little Tokyo, led the endeavor to protect this symbol of Japanese culture and epicenter of Japanese American cultural heritage in Southern California.
Furthermore, he has initiated a major sports complex plan for Little Tokyo to host various athletic events, including basketball, volleyball, judo, kendo and karate. The Budokan complex is expected to bring some 100,000 visitors to the area annually, and will be conducive to the revitalization and improvement of Little Tokyo, and the continued spread of Japanese culture.