By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
“Empowering Our Community: Igniting a Passion for Justice” was the theme as the JACL Pacific Southwest District held its 18th annual Awards Benefit Luncheon on Sept. 20 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Luncheon chair Nancy Oda, a member of the San Fernando Valley JACL, said that some community work, such as efforts to preserve the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site, “represents something in the past, but we’ve talked about a lot of new topics to do … because unless we continue to meet the needs of today’s young folks, this organization will not survive … With your help, we can sustain this organization and all of its programs.”
PSW District Governor Ken Inouye, who is also chair of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said he was gratified that two of the award recipients have Orange County roots. He paid tribute to the new superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, Michael Matsuda, noting, “His mother attended Anaheim Unified High School and was not allowed to get her degree because she was interned,” and also thanked the JACL interns, saying, “The future of JACL depends on young people coming together.”
The Community Hero award went to Mary Adams Urashima of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force for her efforts to save six structures in Huntington Beach that represent the early history of Japanese Americans in Orange County, particularly the Furuta family, who established a farm and raised their children there. The buildings include the Furutas’ barn and ranch house, and the Japanese Presbyterian Mission.
“Historic Wintersburg is iconic … everyone associated with the property faced exclusion, Alien Land Laws and forced evacuation, and then they came back to Orange County,” Urashima said. “…. Those properties now hide behind a green screen fence and they are slated for demolition in May of 2015. The PSW JACL and the Washington, D.C. office sent letters of support of preservation to our City Council. We got letters from organizations and individuals around the country.
“We so appreciate your help, and we need you to continue your help. We need your support. We are currently trying to raise $35,000 for an Urban Land Institute technical advisory that can show the way to preservation and adaptive reuse of the property, that will help us get funding and help us get partners. The current property owner is willing to sell. We want to buy it. It is an almost 5-acre site that contains a progression of history over the span of a century.”
Urashima said that the JACL award “gives us encouragement, gives us hope … We believe that we can follow the model that it took to build the mission when it was founded in 1904.”
The Community Partner award went to Asians and Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality, better known as API Equality-LA, which works on such issues as coming out, same-sex marriage and immigration reform in various API communities and builds leaders among young people.
Deanna Kitamura, who chairs API Equality-LA’s Legal/Policy Advisory Committee, spoke on behalf of the staff, board and supporters. “This award is very meaningful for us because it comes from JACL PSW,” she said. “… JACL has been on the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement. In the 1990s, JACL was the first national civil rights organization to support marriage equality. History has shown that JACL was decades ahead of the curve. We will always be grateful for that.
“We’re also grateful for our partnership with JACL PSW. For example, in 2008 we worked with the staff of JACL PSW … They coordinated chapter visits so that Alex Fukui [Faith Committee co-chair] and I could go to various chapters to make presentations against Proposition 8.
“Now that we’ve won marriage equality in California, API Equality has expanded our work. For example, we’re currently working with JACL PSW staff and others in this room … on the Nikkei LGBT gathering called ‘Okaeri’ … for LGBTQ individuals, families, allies. We are planning various workshops … coming-out stories. We’ll have great plenary speakers … I hope we’ll see you all there.”
The event will be held on Nov. 15 at the Japanese American National Museum.
The Governor’s Award went to riKu Matsuda, who works for the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations for 10 years and is currently a senior intergroup relations specialist. Born in Orange County and raised in Antelope Valley, he serves on the governing board of Gender Justice LA and is co-chairing “Okaeri.”
Matsuda, who had many family members in the audience, recalled that his cousin has always been a great supporter. “When he was little, he used to call me his best buddy. He was the first person to shift my gender in how he was addressing me … I feel so much love in the room right now and so much community and family …
“So many of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex — many of us don’t have support. Not to shame anyone in the room who has struggled to provide that support, that’s to say … ‘Okaeri’ is a place for you, it’s a place to start. It’s not a place for everybody who already has an answer … not a place for the choir, not only for people who are LGBTQ-identified, not just for Nikkei people … It’s for everyone.”
Matsuda said of the award, “Many more people are quite deserving. I feel humbled. It reaffirms my commitment to do this work forever and for all of us.”
The program also included an introduction of the New Mexico JACL and awards for individuals from selected chapters:
• Michelle Komatsu, a board member of the Arizona chapter for the past 12 years, an at-large member of the PSW District Board, and a frequent chapter delegate to the JACL National Council. “I have a lot of pride in our Arizona chapter … We are so fortunate to have such a strong volunteer base,” she said. “I’m honored to be here, and I appreciate our PSW board and our staff for doing all the work that they do here in Southern California and now reaching out as much as they can to Arizona and New Mexico.”
• George Kita, president of the Downtown Los Angeles JACL, who testified in San Francisco before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1989 concerning the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in law enforcement and the LAPD in particular. He works with the chapter to provide scholarships for graduates of 9th Street Elementary School, which is in an economically challenged neighborhood.
• Janet Okubo of the Greater L.A. JACL (former Greater L.A. Singles), who is also a member of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, Esumi Sonjin Kai, Long Beach Pioneer Project, Japanese American Monterey Park Senior Citizens Inc., and Nikkei Socials. For the past 33 years, she has participated in the JACL’s national conventions and singles conventions, and her goal now is to “let the reins go and let someone take over.”
• France Yanai Wong of the Hollywood JACL, whose community involvement began when she ran for Nisei Week Queen as Miss Gardena Valley in 1962. Influenced by George Takei’s political activism, she chaired dinners for Norman Mineta when he ran for mayor of San Jose, Robert Matsui when he ran for Congress, and Jimmy Carter when he ran for president. Carter later nominated her to be on the Peace Corps Commission.
“I think I got this award because I was the last person standing in Hollywood JACL,” she joked, noting that many members have moved out of state or joined other chapters. She praised “this vibrant, energetic group of young people who have opened their arms to the LGBT community … They have opened their hearts to welcome everybody, and I’m just so proud now to be a member of this organization.”
• Michelle Yamashiro of SELANOCO (Southeast L.A./Northern Orange County) JACL, who co-emceed the event with traci ishigo and Stephanie Nitahara. She is one of many members of UC Irvine’s Tomo no Kai who later became active in SELANOCO. Yamashiro said that her work with JACL has “personally helped me a lot” and thanked Inouye “for pulling in the youth and really making us feel involved and heard.”
• Dr. Mary Sakaguchi Oda and Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi of the San Fernando Valley JACL were honored posthumously. Oda, a 1941 graduate of UCLA, was starting medical school at UC Berkeley when she was interned at Manzanar. She set up a private practice in 1960 with her brother Sanbo, and for the next 46 years they delivered more than 3,000 babies. She was proud that her granddaughter graduated as a doctor from Drexel University Medical School, which Oda attended when it was called Women’s Medical College. Oda died on Oct. 18, 2013 at Providence Holy Cross Hospital, where she practiced for over 40 years.
Sakaguchi, a 1939 graduate of UCLA, was a medical student at Marquette University in Milwaukee during World War II. He returned to California after the war and started a practice, then was drafted into the Army, where he furthered his skills as a bone surgeon and was promoted to captain in the Medical Corps. He and his wife were instrumental in establishing the Nikkei Bruins. His story is told in “Silent Scars of Healing Hands” by Naomi Hirahara and Gwen Jensen. Sakaguchi passed away on May 24, 2013. The main hall of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center’s Nikkei Pioneer building bears his name.
Accepting for Oda and Sakaguchi were Nicki Thibodeaux, their grand-niece, and Alex Thibodeaux, their grand-nephew, who said, “On behalf of the family, I’d like to thank JACL and PSW, and go Bruins!”
The event included a drawing, a “dessert dash,” and entertainment by singer/songwriter Rey Fukuda.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo