Examiner Assistant Editor

Lori Matsukawa, KING-TV news anchor/reporter, noticed how school buses would drop off busloads of students at the International District’s Uwajimaya store to “experience Japanese American culture.”

“Nothing against Uwajimaya, but it’s really not Japanese American culture,” she said. “We need a centralized, organized way to experience the culture.”

Members of Seattle’s Japanese American community have been attempting to build their own cultural and community center since the early ‘70s to preserve and experience that culture, but a lack of community unity prevented it from happening. Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ron Mamiya, former state Rep. Kip Tokuda and Matsukawa led the formation of the Nikkei Heritage Association of Washington (NHAW) in 2002 to try and found a cultural center again. The three have “great synergy,” Tokuda said.

“A lot of our [Japanese American community] organizations are dying out, and we don’t really have a rallying place,” he said. “We felt that, for our kids to understand their heritage, we have to do something like this.”

Many in the Japanese American community agree that the momentum created by that “synergy” represents the last chance to make a Japanese American cultural/community center a reality. It’s now or never, they say.

Matsukawa and Tokuda are NHAW vice presidents. Mamiya is its president. Board Member Shea Aoki, 91, a lifelong active member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), is “our conscience,” Tokuda said. She “exudes the sense of urgency” to get the center done.

On Nov. 5, NHAW held a “Culture Day” at the site of the future cultural /community center – the Seattle Japanese Language School on 1414 South Weller Street on the eastern edge of the International District. Event organizers said some 300 people experienced a continuous afternoon of taiko and koto performances; judo, karate and ikebana demonstrations; played “hiragana bingo” and Nintendo DS Interactive game machines; attended historical lectures and toured through sections of the school converted into a “Nikkei Museum” and the “Seattle Nihonmachi [‘Japantown’] History Display”; and learned about the future Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW).

With its first building constructed in 1912, the Seattle Japanese Language School is the oldest existing Japanese language school in the United States, and was designated as a Seattle Landmark this year. With its second building completed in 1922 and a third in 1929, all three Language School buildings combined total approximately 18,500 square feet, said Steve Woo, chair of design and construction for the JCCCW. The new site will be approximately 34,000 square feet, and the total construction budget is about $10 million, he said.

NHAW now has “site control” of the Language School site, said Tokuda. The Language School leased its property to NHAW for 99 years at a cost of $1 per year.

According to an “At a Glance” statement prepared by JCCCW, “Program Areas” proposed for the Center include:
• a “Community Gathering Place” provided by a multipurpose space within the Center;

• “Multicultural Education,” with the JCCCW housing the Japanese Language School, Lake Washington Girls Middle School and the JET U.S.- Japan student/educators exchange office;

• “Historical Preservation,” with the Densho Oral History Project, community newspapers and a resource center, including the current Nikkei Bunko library, to be located within the Center;

• “Arts and Culture,” providing the space for a martial arts dojo for judo and kendo, and practice rooms for taiko groups, Japanese dance and other traditional and contemporary arts;

• “International Relations,” which would establish headquarters at JCCCW for the Hyogo Business and Cultural Center, Japan Tourism Center and the Seattle Chapter of JACL.

With Japanese American cultural and community groups spread out within numerous community organizations, the ability to experience Japanese American culture is “hit or miss,” Matsukawa said. The new Center, she said, will provide “a lot more space, and a lot more visibility.”

“The community can gain strength from unity, bringing organizations together and supporting each other in a single organization,” Matsukawa said.

Specifications for the JCCCW are still being worked out, with preliminary architectural plans and drawings expected by the beginning of next year, Woo said. The “full design,” he said, will take a year to complete. The new cultural/community center is projected to open in 2009.

“The bones of the building are still in very good shape,” Woo said, adding that the Language School exterior will be preserved since “that is what sticks in people’s minds.”

Commercial space will also be a part of JCCCW. Bif Brigman, temporary JCCCW operations director, has suggested that a Daiso store be located in one of the spaces. Daiso, a “100 yen store” similar to the American “dime store,” sells most of its items for “$1.50 apiece,” Brigman said. Daiso operates its chain stores throughout Japan and North America, with one currently by north Seattle’s Alderwood Mall. However, the size, extent and occupants of JCCCW’s commercial spaces are still being studied.

Sheila Siden, JCCCW development specialist, said the Center has begun its capital campaign to raise $10 million and another $2 million toward an endowment fund for “continuing operations,” she said. At a summit for representatives of Japanese American cultural centers across the country last July, JCCCW board members and employees realized “we needed a very solid business plan,” she said, stressing “sustainability.” That plan includes charging admission or seeking sponsorships for JCCCW programs.

Among the grants received by JCCCW thus far include $15,000 from the South Downtown Foundation, a City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Grant of $99,990, and a $100,000 challenge grant funded by business leaders Tomio Moriguchi and Jerry and Charlene Lee.

“We want to be a gift for the future – not a burden,” Siden said. She and Brigman are currently the only JCCCW employees. There will be five when the Center begins operation.

Siden also said having the JCCCW within the Japanese Language School will be unique since, as a historical specialist she heard in San Francisco stated, “other cities have lost their historic buildings.”

JCCCW’s “Mission Statement” is “to share and promote Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage,” states the “At a Glance” handout. Its “Vision” is “heritage remembered … an exceptional gift to the future.”

Under the “What”: “The JCCCW is a gathering place where Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage are celebrated. The Center is a lively place, welcoming people of all ages and backgrounds, Seattle residents and visitors, to establish a cultural bridge between the people of the U.S. and Japan.”

At the conclusion of “Culture Day” on a blustery Sunday afternoon, and after a blistering performance by One World Taiko, Tokuda lauded the “great energy” by all who performed and attended.

“This is what the cultural center is all about,” he said.

For more information on JCCCW, or to make a donation, gift or bequest, contact its office at 1414 S. Weller St., Seattle, WA 98144, (206) 568-7114; visit; email Bif Brigman [email protected] or Sheila Siden [email protected] or [email protected].

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