By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, who represented Little Tokyo for more than a decade, received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, in a ceremony on Wednesday at the consul general’s official residence in Los Angeles.
First elected in 2001, Perry represented the 9th District for three terms and left office last year. She is currently general manager for the Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department.
Consul General Harry Horinouchi noted that Perry “helped preserve and promote Japanese culture and Japanese American history in Los Angeles” and “played an instrumental role in major Little Tokyo redevelopment and revitalization projects.”
Horinouchi cited Perry’s support for such organizations as the Nisei Week Foundation, Go For Broke National Education Center, and Japanese American National Museum.
“She warmly welcomed delegations from Nagoya [L.A.’s sister city] and participated in a mission to Nagoya in 2009,” Horinouchi added. “After the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011, Ms. Perry organized a fundraising event with both the city and American Red Cross volunteers, calling on the entire city to show support for Japan.”
The consul general told Perry, “You became an integral part of the community with a regular presence at events and as a tireless advocate at the city level for issues important to the community.”
After receiving the medal and proclamation, Perry said, “I’m so moved, words can hardly express how much this means to me. To be able to look out and see my friends and family, people that I’ve known and cared about for many, many years, makes me enormously happy. It’s a wonderful recognition … This will be a day that I will always, always, always remember.”
She recalled that her relationship with Little Tokyo began 40 years ago when she was a college student. “I would go every week with my friend Cheryl, whose family lived in Arizona. We would go to Little Tokyo because her baachan needed special things to eat that they could not find in Arizona … It was always a wonderful place to be because of its authenticity. People were always welcoming and kind at the businesses, at the restaurants, at the organizations, at the churches.”
Perry remembered a retirement party for Mayor Tom Bradley in 1993 at the New Otani Hotel. “He was enveloped by the community. It made an impression upon me … When I was elected, I thought, if I could be embraced to that extent, then I will know that I’ve done my job and made true friends. At that time I never dreamed that I would be privileged enough to serve the people of Little Tokyo as an elected official.”
During her tenure on the City Council, “I always wanted to meet the expectations of the people that I represented, but I also wanted … the greater city to know more about Little Tokyo, its heritage, its history and the contributions of all the people across the generations,” she said.
“I appreciated the opportunity very much to participate in many, many Nisei Week celebrations, and I believe that I have all of the posters and all of the T-shirts. It was always my honor to bring Little Tokyo’s issues before the City Council for debate and for resolution.
“And because my father had been a World War II veteran and I had grown up hearing about the 442nd backing up the 92nd Infantry [a mostly African American unit] in the Tuscany region in Italy, I felt like I knew the men before I actually met them. It was a delight to be able to go back to see my family in Ohio and to tell my uncle — my father had passed away — about who I met in the 442nd …
“It was also fascinating and enriching to meet dignitaries visiting from Japan, representatives of the Little Tokyo Community Council and just to meet the residents and the seniors … It made me feel much more passionate about preserving the history and the importance of that history for future generations.”
Perry, a downtown resident, said she also introduced Little Tokyo to her daughter Laurel, now 23, who attended the ceremony. “You can often find us at night walking around, finding someplace to eat or her telling me to go into a shop and buy her something to wear. It’s part of our lives.”
Little Tokyo has grown in size and popularity over the years, she observed. “At night when I drive down First Street, it looks like a movie set. There’s so many people there and the neon lights and people lining up to go into restaurants. It’s a great place for students. It’s a historic touchstone for families and veterans. It is a unique tourist site.”
Regarding Metro’s Regional Connector, which will be built at First and Alameda, Perry said, “While that was a long and difficult battle for many, many years, that transportation, that line will bring more people in a strategic way to connect Little Tokyo to communities all over the region, and will make it a destination spot for more people than we can imagine, which will be good for the businesses and good for the economy.”
Perry acknowledged the other spring Kunsho recipients — Hiroo Kanamori, emeritus professor at Cal Tech, and Toshio Handa, president of the Japanese Community Pioneer Center, who received their medals in Tokyo on Nov. 13, and Terminal Islanders co-founder Yukio Tatsumi, whose ceremony will be held in Los Angeles on Nov. 26.
“A Tireless Advocate”
Congratulatory remarks were given by Little Tokyo Service Center Executive Director Dean Matsubayashi, who has known Perry since he started working at LTSC in 1996. At the time, Perry worked for City Councilmember Rita Walters.
“Even back then she was always a big supporter and a tireless advocate for Little Tokyo,” Matsubayashi said. “After Jan was elected to the City Council in 2001, she served as our fearless leader and became an even bigger champion for our community as she and her amazing staff spearheaded major improvements in the neighborhood’s infrastructure, public safety and overall economic and cultural landscape …
“During the 12 years that Jan served as our councilwoman, our relationship with her beyond moved beyond the typical elected official and constituent dynamic and moved to something even deeper where she became a friend who really understood the essence of Little Tokyo and the people and the culture that make it the special place that it is.”
Matsubayashi praised Perry for “her compassion for others,” “her ability to truly listen,” and “the integrity to stand up for what is right,” and recalled her role in securing a home for the Budokan, a community sports center:
“LTSC had already been looking for a site for about seven years. At that time there was some disagreement in the community over where the project should be located. One of Councilwoman Perry’s first actions was to convene a series of community meetings to try to come to some kind of resolution that everyone could be happy with.
“At the conclusion of these meetings, Councilwoman Perry sat LTSC down and told us that if we would be willing to look at new sites … she would help us secure it at no extra cost to the campaign. And true to her word, the city acquired a number of parcels along Los Angeles [Street] at a significant price tag and transferred them to LTSC in 2011.
“How many times have you heard of politicians making promises that go unfulfilled? Well, Councilwoman Perry is not one of those politicians. One of the things I most admire about her is that she … always says what she means and always does what she says she will do.”
Another issue arose in 2003, when the city tried to locate a new police headquarters, including a jail, on First Street near Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.
“When many of us in the community heard about this, we were both angry and devastated by the Civic Center forcibly encroaching upon Little Tokyo again … Nevertheless, under the leadership of the Little Tokyo Community Council, the community did organize itself and in the end successfully moved the elements off the block,” Matsubayashi said.
“But I think anyone who was involved in that campaign will tell you that it would not have been possible without Councilwoman Perry and her staff, who worked alongside the community and helped spearhead this campaign. This was despite a lot of political pressure inside City Hall to do otherwise … It would have been so much easier to go with the flow and allow this project to move forward, but instead she chose to listen to the community.”
Matsubayashi also noted Perry’s actions following the tsunami in Japan. “I still remember … watching her quietly mourn with the rest of the community at the memorial service at the JACCC. While other politicians used this memorial as another opportunity to posture and raise their profile, Councilwoman Perry deflected all attention away from her and onto the victims and families of those impacted …
“She was also relentless in raising funds to assist the victims. I still remember seeing her standing in front of City Hall, tracking down cars that would drive by [to ask] for donations. She even convinced some of the bus drivers to allow her on rush-hour buses to solicit donations. That’s how much of a champion she was for Little Tokyo and for Japan as well …
“I cannot think of a more deserving candidate for this distinguished award.”
Rev. George Matsubayashi, Dean Matsubayashi’s father and former rinban of Nishi Hongwanji, led the toast, saying, “Thank you to Japan for recognizing a citizen of the United States doing a lot of wonderful work not only for our own country but the betterment of the great nation of Japan.”
The reverend, a diehard UCLA fan, joked that this weekend’s big game will mark “the only time I am not friends with this lady.” Perry is a graduate of USC.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo