By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The “Home Is Little Tokyo” mural, a familiar sight in L.A.’s Japantown, was rededicated last Saturday.
The restoration of the mural, which was defaced by graffiti last year, was celebrated, and there was a memorial tribute to two people who played key role in the mural’s creation.
Central Avenue between First and Second streets was blocked off for the event, which was attended by hundreds, many of them participants in that morning’s Little Tokyo Sparkle community clean-up.
“It was first unveiled back in 2005,” said ABC7 Eyewitness News anchor David Ono, who served as emcee. “A total of 500 people played a part in painting the panels and putting this together … It has been a mainstay and an important part of this little Tokyo community. It talks about the history of Japanese Americans, not just in little Tokyo, but in California … from agriculture to the internment camps to what they’ve done since then …
“As we all know, months ago it was defaced by taggers and that was very, very upsetting … I understand that there’s been one arrest. There are three taggers still outstanding. The LAPD does have security surveillance video, so we have the folks who did this on camera. So we’ll continue to look into that investigation to see that how that is going …“But on the bright side, look at all the efforts that have taken place in getting this put together again … and it’s allowed us to kind of go further in the story and to do some special things when it comes to the meaning of this mural. If anything, it reminds us of how important this mural is to this community.”
A plaque honoring community leader Nancy Kikuchi, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 52, was unveiled by Brian Kito of Fugetsu-do and the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association (Koban). The plaque reads:
“The ‘Home Is Little Tokyo’ mural was rededicated May 2019 in memory of Nancy Kikuchi, who spearheaded this project and worked tirelessly to see the mural completed in 2005. She recruited and organized hundreds of volunteers, secured thousands of dollars in funding, and gathered the overwhelming support and participation from the entire Little Tokyo and Japanese American community.
“Nancy Kikuchi’s main goal was to unite and to help all of the organizations and individuals in Little Tokyo. She worked and volunteered for Little Tokyo, and inspired countless more volunteers to join her. Few people were so humble. Her motto was ‘Do good to feel good.’ Nancy Kikuchi’s spirit and legacy will forever be a part of Little Tokyo.”
Consul General Akira Chiba said that he didn’t know who Kikuchi was when he first arrived in Los Angeles three years ago, but learned a lot about her from participating in Little Tokyo Sparkle, also known as Nancy Kikuchi Volunteer Day.
He noted that she founded the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Alumni Association of Southern California, which “not only brings together all the English teachers who worked in Japan, but also helps my office recruiting new ones.”
Chiba said that the mural reminded him that Japan, which was devastated by war and more recently by natural disasters, “came back out of that stronger than before,” and in the same way, the Japanese American community “came back stronger than ever” after being incarcerated during the war. And the mural is now “better than what it used to be because now it has added a new spirit, the spirit of the Japanese American community of coming back always, its resilience and its achievements,” he said.
Tony Osumi, one of the mural’s painters, pointed out, “Nancy’s right here on the right-hand side playing taiko … She was in a taiko group.”
He added, “You have a young woman smashing with a mallet for mochitsuki, but [instead of mochi] we put that guard tower there from World War II, from the incarceration camps.”
Osumi explained that this embodies “the idea of young people taking the lead, as with [the image of] the elder passing on the flame to the young people here, the next generation. I think that’s important. We still have work to do. We still have detention centers now that need to be dealt with. So I’m glad that the mural symbolizes the idea of working together to make things right and bring families together.”
Describing Kikuchi as “the mother of this child,” Osumi recalled, “She organized the meetings, she organized the food, she organized the money, she did everything … Nancy did the job about three or four people …It was real pleasure to work with her and see that energy.”
Brothers Sergio and Jorge Diaz, who also painted the mural, were recognized. Sergio passed away in December 2017, leaving behind his wife of 15 years, Stephanie, and daughters Olivia and Luka.
“He was really a renaissance man,” said Osumi. “He could work on cars, he could paint, he could draw, he could silkscreen, he could play music. He was a really a wonderful father and a really great friend and husband. You could not have a better friend than Sergio.”
The Diaz family was presented with a commendation from the City of Los Angeles and Council District 14. The proclamation honored Sergio Diaz for his artistic contribution to “Home Is Little Tokyo,” which embodies “the values of community, family, unity, and commitment to the greater good.”
Osumi urged everyone to watch a short documentary by Steve Nagano about the mural, which is available on YouTube.
Takao Suzuki, director of community economic development at Little Tokyo Service Center, also remembered working with Kikuchi on the mural. “Most of you know that the mural was defaced last year, and I think as a community we were heartbroken … given the deep significance the mural held for Little Tokyo. I was especially upset when that happened because the mural symbolized Nancy Kikuchi’s legacy and her really endless energy and tireless commitment to Little Tokyo … It’s people like Nancy and other pioneers and leaders in the community … who have taught me that giving is a lot more important than receiving …
“It was literally three years in the making. She spent countless hours, involved the entire community. I’ve spent over 40 years here in Little Tokyo and I can’t remember any project that had this much support. I’m really proud to say that I have had the opportunity to work with Nancy … The mural serves as a reminder every day that we need to continue working to protect Little Tokyo, preserve its heritage and really promote its legacy.”
Kikuchi’s parents, Yasuo and May, were presented with a commendation from the city and Council District 14, as well as a smaller version of the plaque for them to take home. The commendation reads, in part, “The mural is an inspirational piece and visual reference of the history, hopes, respect and perseverance of this beloved little Tokyo community. We celebrate her leadership and spirit this day as we rededicate the mural in her honor.”
Kito thanked the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Little Tokyo Service Center, and Little Tokyo Public Safety Association for working together to ensure that Kikuchi’s legacy would be maintained. He also noted that the mural’s original dedication plaque, which had begun to crack, was refurbished for the rededication.
Also taking part in the celebration was Jan Perry, who represented Little Tokyo on the City Council when the mural was first dedicated. Japanese Village Plaza, of which the mural is a part, was a sponsor of the event.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo