By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Dr. Jack Fujimoto Square, named in honor of a long-time community leader and college administrator, was dedicated on Oct. 23 at the intersection of Mississippi Avenue and Sawtelle Boulevard in Sawtelle Japantown.
An unveiling was held on the southwest corner with members of Fujimoto’s family and representatives of organizations that he was involved in participating. Speakers fondly remembered Fujimoto, who passed away last year at the age of 93.
Below the main sign is a second sign with Fujimoto’s photo and a description of his accomplishments.
Len Nguyen, representing the City of Los Angeles, emceed the ceremony along with Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot and West L.A./Sawtelle community activist Nancy Vescovo.
The invocation was given by Rev. Mitsunari Nakashima of West L.A. Holiness Church in Japanese and Rev. Keith Inouye of West L.A. United Methodist Church in English. Hyobyaku (aspiration) was conducted by Rev. Koho Takata of West L.A. Buddhist Temple and Bishop Marvin Harada of Buddhist Churches of America.
“We remember the dedication and leadership of Dr. Fujimoto … [who] was dedicated in his efforts towards higher education, towards his temple and sangha, and towards the community,” said Harada. “Dr. Fujimoto served as the president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, which is the seminary of the Buddhist Churches of America in Berkeley, Calif., for many years. His leadership decades ago is coming to fruition now as the Institute of Buddhist Studies has grown in its enrollment over the years and recently gained academic accreditation.
“We’re indebted to him for his vision for the future, for his expertise and knowledge of higher education that helped the Institute of Buddhist Studies become what it is today. May his name and legacy be remembered far into the future as an individual who gave of himself selflessly for the good of the community, for the good of his temple, for the good of his fellow Buddhists and his fellow human beings.
“With deepest reverence and respect to the late Dr. Jack Fujimoto, we dedicate this square in honor … of his leadership and service.”
West L.A. Taiko members Beverly Yahata, Connie Yahata, Mari Muki, Masako Ishioka and Tamiye Yahata performed on the northeast corner.
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin of the 11th District introduced a motion to designate Dr. Jack Fujimoto Square in May after being contacted by Nakamura about the community’s desire to recognize Fujimoto.
Nakamura said in an interview that the push for the square began about six months ago, and the goal was to get it done while Bonin, who is not seeking re-election, was still in office.
Addressing the crowd and Fujimoto’s family in particular, Bonin said, “Thank you for giving us the privilege today of honoring Jack and commemorating him and dedicating the square so that people forever get to be reminded who Jack Fujimoto was … Today is a celebration of two things. Today is a celebration of Jack the person, and today is a celebration of the neighborhood and the community that … he dedicated his heart and time and his love to. Jack was all about celebrating Sawtelle Japantown.
“I had the pleasure of knowing him for over a decade and he was consistently dedicated to celebrating and appreciating the history and the heritage of this neighborhood. He contributed in so many ways, from churches to community organizations to historical societies to neighborhood events. If there was something going on celebrating Sawtelle Japantown, Jack wasn’t just there, Jack was volunteering at it, and Jack had probably been the lead organizer behind it.
“We would not have a few years ago dedicated [an official sign for] Sawtelle Japantown had it not been for [his] drive and perseverance and love for this community … So today we celebrate not only Jack and we celebrate not only the history and the heritage of this neighborhood, but by installing these signs, we dedicate ourselves to something that Jack was dedicated to: making sure that as this neighborhood grows, this neighborhood changes over the years as we move into the future, the heritage and the history of the Japanese and the Japanese American community in this neighborhood is forever remembered and forever integrated into this community.”
Bonin joined the family in unveiling the sign to cheers and applause from the audience.
A reception followed at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, where JIS Co-President Judy Okita gave welcoming remarks.
“Isn’t this wonderful? Look at all of you here,” Okita said. “I’d like to welcome Jack’s family, who must be very proud today. And I know he must be very proud today. I know you all wish, as we do, that Jack could have been with us as this honor was bestowed on him …
“We are all here because Jack cast on our shoulders to get involved in growing or at least sustaining Sawtelle. And here we are. Thank you to all our local residents, near and far, absent and present, as well as the friends of the Japanese community. Everyone’s presence and participation today made it even more special as we honor Dr. Jack’s work, dedication and legacy. He left behind for all of us to carry forward into the future.”
Bonin presented certificates of reeognition to organizations and individuals that were involved in the sign project. Accepting a certificate and a replica of the sign on behalf of the family was one of Fujimoto’s four children, Randall.
Other family members shared their thoughts with The Rafu Shimpo. Kelsey McColgan, Fujimoto’s great niece: “This is so much more than just a sign on the street. It symbolizes everything he wanted to accomplish and everything he wanted the community to grow into.”
Fumie Lee, Fujimoto’s sister: “Our mom and dad would be so proud. I haven’t been out much the last couple of years, so I really wanted to be out here for this.”
Laurie Lee, Fujimoto’s niece: “I can imagine Uncle Jack would love to come out to this corner and just sit here. He loved this neighborhood.”
Nancy Vescovo and Naomi Kageyama of the organizing committee also received a replica of the sign in addition to their certificates.
Certificates were also presented to representatives of West L.A. Holiness Church, West L.A. United Methodist Church, West L.A. Buddhist Temple, and Sawtelle Japantown Association. The late Sawtelle community leader Ted Tanaka was recognized, but his family was unable to attend.
Satomi Sinder, a student at JIS, read a message to “Jack Ojisan” (Uncle Jack), as Fujimoto was affecionately known: “Your great achievements contributed to and greatly impacted not only Sawtelle Gakuin but also the Japanese American community. It is very saddening to think that we can no longer see your smile. Despite being such an accomplished person, you always asked us whether we were happy and if we were having fun at the gakuin with a warm smile …
“Thank you so much and please continue to watch over our school from heaven. We will continue to try our hardest knowing that you are watching over Sawtelle Gakuin.”
Connie Yahata, past president of West L.A. Buddhist Temple, read a message from a friend of Fujimoto — Rick Stambul, past president of Buddhist Churches of America and member of the Board of Trustees at the Institute of Buddhist Studies — who was unable to attend. Stambul praised his friend as “an outstanding educator and a dedicated Buddhist” who received the President’s Award from IBS in 2018 and the Buddhist of the Year award from West L.A. Buddhist Temple in 2010.
Stambul, who kept up a written correspondence with Fujimoto about Shin Buddhism for many years, summed up one of their discussions: “We have a tendency in the West to look at life and death logistically … life begins at a certain point and death occurs at a certain point. But Buddhism says, well, wait a minute, didn’t I begin to die at the very moment that I was born? Life and death really are two sides of the same coin. I live every day and in every sense, I die every day …
“Shin Buddhism is saying that our mortality, the fact that we are going to die, is the one thing that gives the greatest meaning to our life. We have been given this one life. We have this one life to share with our friends and family. We have this one life in which we are able to have a career, our life’s work. The fact that our life is impermanent and that someday we’re going to die is what really gives meaning to this life. In this way, we can embrace the idea of our mortality. It’s not something that we try to avoid thinking about. It’s not something that we try to put off and ignore. We have to face it head on and embrace it.”
Sambul concluded, “I will miss my friend. The Japanese community will miss his leadership. West L.A. Buddhist Temple will miss his presence, as does the Institute of Buddhist Studies. More than that, I will miss the discussions of Buddhist teaching that were at the heart of our friendship.”
A message from the Little Tokyo Historical Society was also read.
Among those in attendance were West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath, a candidate for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors; Erin Darling and Traci Park, candidates for the 11th District Los Angeles City Council seat.
The reception included a historical photo display and video by Sawtelle Japantown Association; arts and crafts for kids by JIS; community information tables; Japanese refershments such as onigiri and manju; and a raffle with prizes including gift certificates for local businesses and copies of Fujimoto’s book, “Sawtelle: West Los Angeles’s Japantown.”
Other members of the organizing committee included Ayako Masada, Gaylin Kobayashi, Hank Iwamoto, Jennifer Hull, Keith Inouye, Matt Vescovo, Miwa Takahashi, Noah Fleishman, Paul Nakasuji, Randy Sakamoto, Ron Kato, Sandy Toshiyuki and Zachary Gaidzik.
Rafu’s Mikey Hirano Culross contributed to this story.
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)