This community isn’t the easiest to get to know as an outsider. I think everybody who first comes to the JA community finds it initially difficult to make their way. For the most part, as a people, we’re not the glad-handing, smiley, friendly types. That’s especially the case in Little Tokyo where the history has made us guarded and protective of this small downtown neighborhood. We want to know first, what are your intentions? Are you coming in to help, do you understand what makes Little Tokyo a truly great neighborhood? Will you help us make it even better?

And that is what it is: a neighborhood. Walk down First Street and you’re sure to bump into somebody you know, maybe it’s Mr. Maehara from Anzen Hardware or Hector Watanabe, the unofficial mayor of Little Tokyo, or some LTSC staffers running to grab a quick bite. When I first started at Rafu over 10 years ago, I didn’t have that feeling. I’d look to photographer Mario Reyes, and see the welcome he’d receive wherever we’d go, and wonder, if I’d ever get to that comfort level with the community. It’s taken years to get to that point, but now I feel like I’ve truly become part of Little Tokyo.

Chris Komai

And so recently it’s been hard getting used to so many new neighbors. Few will speak publicly, but no doubt the anxious buzz in Little Tokyo is of the leadership changes at the anchor institutions (JACCC, JANM and LTSC) and the communication void that has developed in some instances. To have all three major nonprofits change their head man at the top within a few months has meant adjustments — both small and large — no doubt felt most profoundly internally, but also for those of us who work here in Little Tokyo. And it is resoundingly a male leadership. As a woman, it also struck me, that the leadership is now mostly men, another change from the styles of women such as Akemi Kikumura Yano, Irene Hirano and Chris Aihara.

The changes are inevitable, dictated by generational shifts, and a desire to hand over the reins to younger blood with broader vision. For the boards of these organizations, it is a daunting challenge to find leaders who can move these organizations forward in an era that sees both the decline of its main donor base of Nisei, as well as the longest downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. This challenge faces all of us — The Rafu as well.

LTSC selected from within, Dean Matsubayashi, who has been working side-by-side for years at the center alongside retired director Bill Watanabe. From the outside, it seemed to indicate that the board was comfortable with the direction Watanabe and staff had set forth, and Matsubayashi has been a continuation of Bill’s leadership, though he is no doubt asserting his own vision.

For Greg Willis and Greg Kimura, of JACCC and JANM respectively, that transition is much tougher and the hurdles they will have to overcome to gain trust in the community are that much higher. Willis, chief executive officer at Catalina Capital Advisors, LLC and a former Toyota executive brings a corporate perspective, as well as a love of Japanese arts. Kimura is coming from academia, and as a fourth-generation Alaskan, a perspective quite different from the Southern California culture of Nikkei basketball leagues and spam musubi. Both have brought a more corporate, professional outlook to their respective institutions.

As outsiders coming in, they have their board of directors, volunteers and staff to guide them through the challenging cultural issues and responsibilities, the uniquely J-Town interactions of their new positions. All this while making sure the lights are on, the toilets work, and payroll goes out. No doubt, fundraising is one of the biggest priorities, and a reason for many of the changes we’re starting to see. It’s no easy task, and I think they need the time to get to know the community, as we get to know them.

But having said that, I would hope that these leaders understand that they have a broader community constituency, which they must work and communicate with beyond their boards and major donors. Walking around Nisei Week this past week, there were two topics of conversation: the heat wave, and did you hear what happened to Chris Komai? It’s been somewhat disturbing the silence from JANM after the abrupt dismissal of Komai, the museum’s longtime public information officer. As disclosure, Komai is the cousin of Rafu publisher Michael Komai, as well as former English editor of this publication. He started working at JANM in 1991 and has been its spokesman, and in turn, a spokesman for Little Tokyo as well. The first time I ever set foot in the historic building was with Chris back in 1991, before the museum even officially opened.

The rumbling, the disquiet is out there, and with it, concern about the direction JANM is heading. These are tough times, everybody knows somebody who has been let go: good, smart people with families to feed and bills to pay. As long as I’ve known Chris he has represented JANM with the passion of somebody who is deeply devoted to sharing the Japanese American story in all its facets.

It is entirely understandable that CEOs must make dramatic changes — that’s what they are paid their salaries to do. And if the changes ultimately make the institutions stronger in the long term, then those changes are welcome. But CEOS are also paid to communicate with their shareholders and like it or not, everybody feels some sense of ownership of these core institutions that’s developed over years of working together and supporting one another. Perhaps JANM as it stretches to become a national museum, with a board of trustees made up largely of individuals with few ties to Little Tokyo, is missing some of the J-Town connection. I think folks like Chris Komai and the museum volunteers provided that. And the shock and concern expressed by some of the volunteers over his firing is one of the reasons why this is an important issue.

It is only because our fates are so interlinked that these tough questions must be asked, and I hope that in time these questions about the direction of these organizations will be answered. It’s not about any one person, rather how it impacts the neighborhood of Little Tokyo and in turn the larger Japanese American community as a whole. That’s how things are: ties in Little Tokyo are complex and everybody is somehow related to one another. We need each other to succeed, but we need to be able to talk to one another, to trust one another, to rely on one another. That’s what good neighbors do.

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  1. As a volunteer docent at JANM, I have listened to Dr. Kimura in meetings and marveled at his energetic hands-on approach to the numerous duties of a CEO. In word and deed, Dr. Kimura consistently reflects integrity and sincerity in promoting the mission of the Museum in a collaborative environment. He is no outsider.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful, sensitive and savvy observations. Like you and many others, I share your hopes for a future leadership that keeps J-Town’s history, values and community in mind as they forge the future in tough times. Keep up the great reporting and analysis! (And “Noodles”!)