Bill Watanabe (front row, center) was joined by family members, friends and colleagues at the consul general's official residence. Sitting to Watanabe's right are his wife, Ruth, and their daughter, Natalie. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff  Writer

Bill Watanabe, outgoing executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays from the Japanese government on May 18 at the official residence of Consul General Jun Niimi in Los Angeles.

Consul General Jun Niimi presented Bill Watanabe with a proclamation and medal. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Watanabe, who is retiring next month after leading the LTSC since its inception, was one of two Southern California recipients of the spring 2012 decorations announced on April 29. The other is Frances Hashimoto, president of Mikawaya and chair of the Little Tokyo Business Association, who will attend a conferment ceremony in Tokyo on June 6.

Family, friends and colleagues joined Watanabe at the Los Angeles ceremony, which was emceed by consulate advisor Jennifer Usyak. The consul general gave Watanabe his “heartfelt congratulations” and gave a brief overview of the honoree’s career.

Born in the Manzanar internment camp, Watanabe grew up in the San Fernando Valley, earned his bachelor’s degree at CSU Northridge and his MSW at UCLA, and became coordinator of the Nisei Project at the Japanese Community Pioneer Center. He co-founded the LTSC in 1979 and was its first employee. Today, LTSC’s staff of more than 150 and hundreds of volunteers serve thousands each year.

In addition to providing social welfare services and family counseling, “Mr. Watanabe has been instrumental in the development and evolution of Little Tokyo through numerous community involvements,” Niimi said. “Among his accomplishments, he initiated the Tofu Festival, which helped spread Japanese dietary life and culture to the American public and revitalized the Little Tokyo area …

Bill Watanabe gives his acceptance speech. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

“Today, he leads the effort for the Little Tokyo Budokan. The Budokan complex is expected to bring annually some 100,000 visitors to the area, and will contribute greatly to the revitalization and improvement of Little Tokyo.”

Before presenting Watanabe with the medal and proclamation, Niimi said, “Although I understand you will be retiring next month … it seems by no means the end but only the beginning of another chapter of your tremendous involvement in the community … I look forward to continuing to work with you in support of the Little Tokyo Budokan and the larger mission of preserving the legacy of the Japanese American community and culture.”

In his acceptance speech, Watanabe said that being honored by any government is special, “but to be recognized by the government of Japan, I think, is even more special in the sense that it’s the country of my parents and heritage and history.”

He added that his late father, Rokuro, also received the Kunsho (medal of honor) in the 1970s. “I know how proud and how special he felt about that, so it’s nice to get this Kunsho as well … It meant a lot to him.”

In addition to his wife, Ruth, and their daughter, Natalie, Watanabe was joined by several relatives, including a cousin who came from Hawaii, and friends, including Frank Jones, a San Fernando High classmate he has known for more than 50 years. He was also happy to “share this time with many of the senior staff and others in the community that I work with almost every day. “

Alan Nishio, LTSC board president. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

Alan Nishio, president of the LTSC board, spoke on behalf of the guests. “It certainly is wonderful … to see Bill’s relatives here because this is an opportunity to really share with the Watanabe family what a special treasure Bill has been to our community over the years … If you think about the Kunsho award and what it means about recognizing people who make contributions to society and promoting U.S.-Japan relations, I’m a little biased, but I can think of no one more important and significant to get this award than Bill Watanabe.”

Having worked with Watanabe for more than 40 years, Nishio said, “I have appreciated the vision that he has had for Little Tokyo, and not only the vision but how much through his work he has seen that vision become a reality. Starting over 32 years ago to begin to serve the unmet needs of Issei, who were primarily Japanese-speaking, who because of language and cultural barriers were not getting the services and support that were required. From that kind of roots in social services to working on building and preserving affordable housing and community institutions.

“Any time you walk through Little Tokyo, you can see buildings and monuments that are there as a testament to Bill’s vision. The Union Center for the Arts, San Pedro Firm Building, the Far East Building, and Casa Heiwa are but four examples … He’s also been involved in leading the efforts to preserve and develop Little Tokyo, one of three remaining Japantowns … initiating the Little Tokyo Community Council and being founder of the Little Tokyo Historical Society …

Dean Matsubayashi, LTSC director of community economic development and Watanabe's successor as executive director. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

“He continues to look to the future as he spearheads the efforts for the Budokan of Los Angeles, a project that promises to really revitalize Little Tokyo as a viable and dynamic center for Japanese Americans … Bill is retiring from Little Tokyo Service Center after 32 years, but I think his legacy continues and I know Bill will continue to be involved in our community in the future.”

The toast was led by Dean Matsubayashi, community economic development director at LTSC and Watanabe’s successor. “For many of us in this room, Bill is more than just founder and director of the Little Tokyo Service Center,” he said. “First and foremost, he’s a dear family member and a dear friend who’s always treated others fairly and with respect. He is also a dear community leader who, along with many others in this room, has really committed himself to serving those most in need and preserving Little Tokyo as a historical and cultural center for the Japanese American community.

“Lastly, Bill is a mentor and a role model whose deep principles of fairness and equity, combined with a healthy dose of humility and passion for the work, have served as an inspiration for new generations of leaders to continue his simple yet powerful mission of helping people and building community. Bill, as you close this chapter of your life, I hope you do so with a big smile and a sense of accomplishment in knowing that you have helped and touched the lives of so many people.”

The event concluded with a reception and a group photo in the garden. LTSC held a retirement celebration for Watanabe the following day at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.

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