I attended a film showing at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo recently. The film was a kabuki play called “The Lion Dance” that was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the theater was packed with kabuki fans who seemed to fully enjoy the story and the colorful classical dancing of the characters.

The extreme make-up and costumes of kabuki were riveting, and I realized for the first time how well-choreographed the dance movements had to be with the musicians singing and playing their instruments and drums.

Before the show began, JACCC Artist-in-Residence Hirokazu Kosaka (considered by some to be at least a Los Angeles “city treasure”) emphasized that the film will be shown in HD with a newly upgraded digital projector and a high-quality Bose sound system. Indeed, the new A/V equipment enhanced the film immensely — and brought out all the rich colors and sounds contained in kabuki drama.

As I sat in the theater, I recalled the tumultuous months when I was the interim CEO of the JACCC from August 2012 to March 2013 following the sudden resignation of the previous CEO. At that time the JACCC was losing money each month, the debt level was increasing to ominous levels, and a bare-bones staff did their best in a difficult environment. I can attest that the board of the JACCC worked hard and sacrificially to keep the doors open and the programs functioning.

One of the main causes of the monthly red ink was the costly operation of the theater (this despite the ongoing support of the Aratani family and many other generous donors). I recall there were serious discussions at board meetings to close down the theater and cut our losses.

Leslie Ito in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Leslie Ito in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Enter Ms. Leslie Ito, who succeeded me as the CEO and took on the daunting task of “making the JACCC great again” — OMG — I sound like Donald Trump! Leslie was the first person I wanted to talk to about applying for the JACCC CEO job, so we got together for dinner. I felt strongly that she would be a top candidate due to her experience in the Little Tokyo community, her past stint as a nonprofit executive director, her work with culture and arts in the grantmaking field, and her dedication to serving the people.

Over a Japanese dinner in Little Tokyo, she told me she had just gotten a nice promotion at her job at the California Community Foundation, she was the proud mother of two young children and her husband was just stepping down as the head of another community nonprofit. In an effort to be honest and transparent with her about the JACCC position, I told Leslie that there was a huge debt, ongoing cash-flow problems, and a shortage of staff.

I thought to myself, who in their right mind would want to trade a cushy foundation job for a nonprofit job with no security and that would require all of one’s time and energy as well as demands on one’s family? In my mind, I envisioned this might entail a lot of begging and I should be prepared to get down on my knees!

Thankfully, Leslie did apply for the job (I didn’t have to get on my knees after all), the JACCC Board picked Leslie for the CEO position and in March of 2013, she became the new head of the JACCC. Since that time, the JACCC Board and staff have had two consecutive years “in the black” (meaning they raised more money than they spent!) and the programs at the JACCC are “humming,” including many new shows at the Aratani Theatre utilizing their new sound and projection system.

As I sat in the theater waiting for the kabuki film to start, I was happy to see the JACCC alive again and bringing more life to Little Tokyo. It felt good to see a packed theater buzzing with people eagerly waiting to enjoy Japanese art and culture being presented at its best.

Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at billwatanabe@earthlink.net. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I have met and worked with Leslie Ito at JACCC during several cultural community events. She has such great energy and enthusiasm. JACCC is blessed to have her talent and vision. Our non profit organization has fully supported events at JACCC look forward to other partnering opportunities.

  2. Leslie Ito and her husban Steve Wong are gifts to the Asian American and broader Southern California community. They are both graduates of the MA Program in Asian American Studies at UCLA, as are many of the leaders of the Asian American service sector. The best way to invest in the future of the non-profit Asian American world in So Cal is to invest in this graduate program.