By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Ask Tamlyn Tomita why she loves Little Tokyo and there’s a good chance that tears will be shed. The beloved actor and community leader wears her heart on her sleeve and when it comes to J-Town, she is always there to lend a helping hand.
At Saturday’s Picnic on the Plaza, it was a literal hand, as a stray dango rolled off the table during Brian Kito’s Fugetsu-do cooking demonstration. Standing nearby, Tomita, as emcee, made quick work of the tiny morsel.
“One rolled off and it’s the five-second rule, it’s still warm and it would be mottainai!” she said brightly.
Whether dancing at Obon or emceeing the Nisei Week Coronation, or recently supporting Save Our Seniors, Tomita has been there to raise up the Japanese American community.
“It is the simple idea that we’re all of Japanese descent and lovers of Japanese and Japanese American culture and we have a place that we can call home, literally,” Tomita said with emotion. “With so much history, the good with the bad, and we rise from it, we rise together.
“It’s not only me. It’s the Aiharas, it’s LTCC, LTSC, JACCC. We all try to do what we can, really pitching in. My forte is I talk a lot because that’s what I am usually paid for, that’s my contribution. I’m just a piece of a big beautiful puzzle.”
Last Saturday, the Little Tokyo Community Council surprised Tomita as she hosted Picnic on the Plaza to honor her efforts to help J-Town weather the pandemic crisis. She was a big supporter of the Community Feeding Community program, implemented by LTCC, which provided meals prepared by local restaurants for hospitality workers, suddenly without jobs due to COVID-19.
The program, launched in April 2020, raised more than $200,000, supporting 84 local businesses and serving more than 10,000 meals.
Chris Aihara, LTCC board member, said Tomita stepped up when Little Tokyo was under siege.
“It was a very difficult time and a great threat to our restaurants and businesses and community organizations. Tamlyn really stepped up generously, not just with her time, but financially. We want to acknowledge that and how much we appreciate everything you’ve done,” Aihara said.
Kristin Fukushima, LTCC managing director, added, “We appreciate you so much! People know you from the TV screen, but they don’t know all the things that you do for the community and how it comes from a real genuine place and that’s amazing. We’re so lucky to have you.”
James Choi, an LTCC board member and owner of Café Dulce, said Tomita’s contribution to CFC came at a critical moment.
“Because of that, we were able to do more, it gave us a brighter green light to push and make it as large as possible. It became a snowball and Tamlyn is the one that shoved it down the cliff where it really got the momentum and ended up raising 200 grand. That gave everyone more confidence and drive that we can do this,” Choi said.
Tomita said before the pandemic, it was easy to take the small businesses for granted.
“We say, ‘Oh, Fugetsudo is gonna be here forever, Suehiro is gonna be here forever,” she said.
Tomita’s first memories of Little Tokyo are going to Kawafuku Restaurant on First and San Pedro streets, and visiting stores like Iida Market and Asahi Shoes. Her dad, Shiro Tomita, was an LAPD officer.
“He knew Little Tokyo very well. He would go and people would know him. It was that family feeling,” she recalled.
In 1984, Tomita was crowned Nisei Week queen, launching her career in Hollywood. Recently she has appeared on “Star Trek: Picard” and “The Good Doctor.” Most famously, she returned to her “Karate Kid” roots, reprising the role of Kumiko for several episodes of Season 3 of “Cobra Kai” on Netflix.
She has been a voice raising the conversation on anti-Asian hate.
“I don’t have that big of a platform. It’s stop Asian hate, stopping the scapegoating, trying to rectify our histories,” she said.
“Cobra Kai” stars and is co-produced by Ralph Macchio, who played Daniel in three “Karate Kid” movies.
“I contacted Ralph and I said to him, ‘Ralph, you’re the closest one I know.’ As we’re coming out of pandemic, can you please remind the three creators (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) and yourself and (co-star and co-producer) Billy Zabka, that we’re still experiencing Asian hate, so please be cognizant of it,” she recalled. “Be confident that you have people in the community who would rally behind any message that you have to say. It’s something we all have to do as fellow brothers and sisters who love this storyline of ‘Cobra Kai’ and it’s about the art of fighting without fighting.”
Tomita and ABC 7 news anchor David Ono are now preparing for their emceeing duties for the Nisei Week queen coronation, to be held virtually on Aug. 14. This year’s theme is “Ibasho,” a place to belong.
As for Kumiko, Tomita hinted that we might be seeing more of Daniel’s “Karate Kid 2” love interest.
“Season 4, I don’t know,” she said with a sad face. “Season 5 … I don’t know,” she teased with a big smile.
Rafu Shimpo photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES