New Director and Direction Needed for Little Tokyo Culture

On the eve of Nisei Week, the most important arts, business and social event in Downtown's Japanese-American community, Little Tokyo is looking for a cultural leader and lead.

Its prestigious Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the largest ethnic arts organization in the United States, is still without an executive director following the abrupt departure of Eric Hayashi in October 2000, just a year after he assumed the post. The JACCC and Hayashi parted company because of differing cultural visions that even now seem to split the community into modernists and traditionalists—which makes choosing the right director all the more crucial to the area's future.

"The important thing is that we get someone who understands what we're doing," explains Minoru Tonai, who is filling in during the interim. The JACCC, founded in 1974, has been in its present building on South San Pedro Street since 1980. "It's a difficult task given that it's several communities—Japanese, Japanese-American. Our big thing is to get more people involved."

That's exactly what Hayashi had said he wanted to do when he assumed the JACCC mantle in October 1999. Before he arrived, the JACCC was led for 18 years by Jerry Yoshitomi. Under his dynamic leadership, the Center grew quickly in status and space; by 1983, an 800-seat Japan America Theater, the largest minority-owned theater space in L.A., was completed, as well as a plaza designed by Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. By the time Hayashi took over, the Center's building housed Japanese and Japanese-American cultural organizations, from dance companies and theater troupes to the Doizaki art gallery.

An experienced arts administrator who in the mid 1990s served as assistant director for theater programs at the National Endowment for the Arts, Hiyashi spoke often and openly about bringing a new multicultural vision to both the Center and to Little Tokyo. True to his word, Hayashi began inviting non-Japanese acts and performers to the JACCC stage. To reporters, he talked enthusiastically about an upcoming "whole series" of performances by Chicano and Latino artists, among them the Chicano Secret Service band of comedians, and the Culture Clash drama group.

Again and again, Hayashi emphasized that such multicultural programming was just keeping pace with the cultural changes already affecting the Japanese-American community at large. "The Japanese community has left little Tokyo and spread to outlying communities," said the third-generation Japanese American. "When we do that, we start mingling with other ethnic communities."

But it quickly became apparent that championing the non-traditional, in a district noted for upholding tradition, was bound to rankle a significant portion of the 21-year-old organization's backers and board. "You talk to different people, and you'll get different opinions," says Irene Kurose, director of the Nisei Week Foundation. "Those who supported him will tell you, sure, he was fired. Those who didn't support him will tell you his departure was mutual.

"But he did have a one-year contract, and it was up."

The managing director of the East-West Players, Al Choy, believes Hayashi's removal was not unexpected, given the JACCC's role within the community. "I don't think it was a 'get him out' thing, or his saying 'I can't work here anymore.' But the JACCC was created by the traditional generation, and the main mission was to preserve the culture."

Tonai, speaking on behalf of the JACCC, offers this official explanation for Hayashi's departure: "How he wanted to do things, and the way the JACCC wanted to do things, were different. We came to an understanding." (Hayashi himself could not be reached for comment for this article.)

No matter who is hired to lead the JACCC, and in turn set Little Tokyo's cultural agenda, Choy and others believe the incoming executive director has his work cut out for him. "He'll have a difficult job in trying to meet the needs of all generations at the center, since Little Tokyo is not a 'live-in' community any longer," notes Choy. "If you want to make money, you have to attract the younger generation. It's a difficult road to hoe."

But so is straddling the two schools of cultural thought in the community—modernism and traditionalism—since where the JACCC goes, so Little Tokyo will follow.

Questions abound: Should its mission be to preserve the culture in a purely Japanese form? Or should it embrace other ethnic groups starting to wield influence within the community? Is the JACCC to be a haven for Kabuki theater and Ikebana floral arrangements? Or has the time come to acknowledge the impact of the Korean, Mexican and African communities on Japanese-American culture? Can the JACCC keep modernists happy and still count on the financial backing of traditionalists?

Speaking on behalf of the JACCC, Tonai claims the center is maintaining the multicultural course set by Hayashi. He cited recent appearances by Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Latin and African performers. "We haven't changed our direction," he maintains. "There were some comments at the time he left that we're going away from multiculturalism. That is not correct. Multicultural activity is important for us. We can't turn away from that."

One reason, he explains, is that the younger generations of Japanese Americans are multicultural by nature, and by default. "Young people today grew up with that, and they have no problem with it," he said. "I feel very strongly that this is something we should continue to pursue."

Meanwhile, JACCC's search for a permanent director continues and Tonai says the organization is looking at a "number" of likely candidates. (Asked if he wants the job for himself, Tonai says that, at age 72, "I don't have the energy.") He also predicts a choice will be made "very soon."

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