Bill Watanabe speaks at the first public meeting for the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund on Aug. 25 at the JACCC. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

In January 2016, Rafu Bussan Inc. bid a sad farewell to its longtime Little Tokyo home at 326 E. Second St. after the building was put up for sale by its owner. Today that store is now the site of a Shoe Palace, a mainstream retail seller of athletic shoes.

Instead of Zojirushi rice cookers and Imari ware, it sells Nikes and Converse sneakers — a sign of the times as, bit by bit, parts of Little Tokyo have been put up for sale.

Happily, the iconic Japanese gift store was able to reopen at a new location in Honda Plaza in March 2016, but other family-owned stores and restaurants have been displaced as properties have been sold and rents increase in a red-hot real-estate market.

“The old adage is if you don’t own it, you don’t control it,” Bill Watanabe said of the properties in Little Tokyo.

On Aug. 25, more than 70 people came to hear about the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund, which seeks to raise money to invest in real estate with the goal of preserving Japanese American businesses and cultural institutions.

The target of the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund is to raise $10 million, which would enable the fund to bid on properties within the historic Japanese American neighborhood. The organizers estimate that 1,000 individuals donating $10,000 would enable them to accomplish their goal.

“If this fund had existed, with enough assets, we could have bought that (Rafu Bussan) property and invested in businesses that could add to and nurture and sustain Little Tokyo,” said Watanabe, president of the fund’s board.

Takao Suzuki said the need for such a fund is extremely urgent, noting that seven properties within Little Tokyo are currently up for sale. With the Metro Regional Connector projected to open in 2021, property values in Little Tokyo will only continue to rise.

The fund will be administered by a board of directors. So far, ten individuals have invested $2,000 each. Steve and Patty Nagano, who have witnessed the changes to Little Tokyo since moving to Teramachi seven years ago, are among the leaders of the fund. A small group has been meeting over the past several months to discuss the idea.

Watanabe compared Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund to the initial idea of Bruce Kaji to start the Japanese American National Museum, or Paul Tsuneishi, whose inspiration eventually became Little Tokyo Service Center.

“From idea to fruition it takes not just an idea, it takes people willing to take the hand to the plough and make it happen,” Watanabe said.

The money invested into the Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund would be used to purchase properties and provide a small return on investment to shareholders. The properties would then be leased at below-market rates to businesses that add to the character and culture of Little Tokyo.

Watanabe compared the yield to the paltry yields on savings accounts in today’s current low-interest environment.

“This is not a donation, it’s an investment. If I can get two percent, three percent, I’m doing 10 times better than what I’m doing today. I’m not rich but I can do it, I should do it,” he said.

Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund would also offer legacy owners the opportunity to sell their properties to the fund in order to maintain the historical value and priorities of the community.

Little Tokyo, as one of only three remaining Japantowns in California, remains an important gathering place for Japanese Americans, despite the many changes to the neighborhood.

“If we lose that, we lose a huge part of our Issei, Nisei and Sansei story, as a racial minority we can’t afford to lose that,” Watanabe said.

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