A video of traditional arts based on the ancient festival of Kyokusui no Utage featured music, poetry and origami. It was recorded near the waters of the JACCC’s James Irvine Japanese Garden.

Like other arts and cultural organizations, over the past year and a half, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) has struggled with the question of how to keep serving the community during the “new normal.” For anyone used to JACCC’s plaza being filled as an indicator of activity, it might be hard to tell what the organization has been up to.

Usually, during Nisei Week, the entire campus would be packed with people for performances, cultural activities, and exhibits. JACCC has for many years been a nexus for cultural groups, especially the traditional cultural schools of ikebana and chado. At the same time, as a community center, its approach is to “weave” these arts into the community.

When the pandemic first hit, JACCC was part of a network of community-based responses that focused on keeping Little Tokyo residents safe and healthy. The organization’s biggest question was how to go virtual with Japanese and Japanese American culture and arts, without being able to gather in person.

This is when the Little Tokyo Little Podcast premiered, led by Sustainable Little Tokyo’s Scott Oshima and Alma Guzman. 2020’s Season One featured Rajio Taiso, music from local talent, haiku poetry submissions, Rafu Shimpo’s Mikey Hirano Culross giving short news updates, and more.

“Since we were trying to reach seniors isolated in their homes, often without Internet, we made sure that listeners could actually call in by telephone to hear the podcast,” said Oshima, Sustainable Little Tokyo program director. “We were concerned about the digital divide.”

The podcast was followed by several major digital programs, each building on the last. First, JACCC brought back the nostalgia of AutumnFest, a popular annual JACCC fundraiser in the 1980s-2000s. The video program and silent auction, hosted by Tamlyn Tomita, included a variety of performances — a purification ritual, ikebana, cocktail-making, koto music, chado — and of course, pick-up bentos from a variety of restaurants.

Next came Kotohajime, the annual New Year’s event curated by Hirokazu Kosaka, JACCC master artist-in-residence, featuring kyudo, koto, calligraphy, chado, and dramatic shots of the campus using a camera drone.

Kotohajime marked the start of several collaborations with videographer Ken Honjo, whose talents have made him indispensable, whether shooting intimate Japanese food videos in the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center with Culinary Arts Curator Jane Matsumoto, or most recently, “Visas for Life,” a celebration of Chiune Sugihara Visas Day, on a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II.

A display by the Ikebana Teachers Association of Southern California.

This latest video’s story was created by Kosaka based on an ancient festival, Kyokusui no Utage, which combines sitting by a stream with sake drinking and poetry writing. Weaving together koto players, gagaku, a kimono club, poetry, origami, and a vintage hat handed down from an Issei, Sugihara’s heroic actions come to life by the water in JACCC’s James Irvine Japanese Garden.

While the pandemic has caused a lot of hardship, and gathering in person still feels like a fraught activity, JACCC continues to push forward, bringing traditional arts to the community in new ways. For the two weekends traditionally reserved for Nisei Week activities, Aug. 14-15 and 21-22, the Ikebana Teachers Association of Southern California will be filling the George J. Doizaki Gallery with ikebana from the Ikenobo, Sogetsu, and Ohara schools.

“It is a transient offering to those lost to COVID-19,” said Kosaka, who is curating the exhibit. “With worldwide COVID-19 deaths numbering over 4 million, greater than the population of Los Angeles, we are returning ikebana to its origins as a temple altar offering.”

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