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Little Tokyo Leaders Discuss Post-election Activism

Speakers included (clockwise from top left) Bill Watanabe, Stephanie Nitahara, Dean Matsubayashi, Ann Burroughs, Mitch Maki and Dianne Kujubu Belli. (Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Speakers included (clockwise from top left) Bill Watanabe, Stephanie Nitahara, Dean Matsubayashi, Ann Burroughs, Mitch Maki and Dianne Kujubu Belli. (Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Stunned by the results of the Nov. 8 election, a group of Little Tokyo community leaders and activists gathered at the Japanese American National Museum on Nov. 13 to share their thoughts about how to proceed.

“A number of nonprofit organizations came together very quickly after Tuesday and decided to pull this gathering together,” said Bill Watanabe of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, former executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center. “… This is not a protest march. This is really a time for us to come together, to talk together, to help each other to process, and I think most importantly to be together in very challenging times.”

While some had been participating in anti-Trump demonstrations since the election, some felt a need to “meet in small groups so people have a chance to express themselves in a safe place and be accepted and supported,” Watanabe said. “I know for myself … I felt a lot of feelings — sadness, grief … anger, anxiety, fear — but a sense of mourning to me was very strong because my concept of America died on Tuesday and there was a new reality that had to be accepted on Wednesday …

“In my opinion, Donald Trump has declared war on civil society. He has declared war on most of the progressive values that we hold very dear. His very words to build a wall, to round up and deport millions of men women and children, to carpet-bomb towns into oblivion, to murder the families of terrorists, to insist that global warming is a hoax … We will have to step up and change our priorities to fight this head-on.”

He added that the museum was a fitting setting for the meeting because it is “a reminder that our country can do some terrible things to its own people.”

Noting that his parents were incarcerated at Tule Lake during World War II, Watanabe said that they considered relocating to Brazil or the Philippines, but ultimately decided to stay. “Just like them, we need to make a decision. We aren’t moving anywhere. We are going to stay and we’re going to fight … for the America that we believe in.”

Organizational representatives read prepared statements and also offered personal observations.

Mitch Maki, acting president and CEO of Go For Broke National Education Center, talked about his Issei grandmother. “She worked on the plantations as a young girl in Hawaii, got married at a young age, and by the time she was 30 had six children. And all the hopes and dreams that she had for a better tomorrow rested squarely on the shoulders of her children and her grandchildren. My grandmother didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Japanese … but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t communicate because we had my mother, who would translate. The message was always the same — be good, take care of family, remember those that came before you.

“Today that’s what we are doing here, remembering those who came before us, the sacrifices they made for a better tomorrow here in America, and now it’s our turn to be committed to maintain those gains and maintain America as that more perfect union … Equal protection under the law is a fundamental American value which serves as the core of our American democracy. We have seen the abandonment of this value in times of national crisis and hysteria, but we are ready to stand and protect this right for all individuals in America.”

Stephanie Nitahara, interim associate director of the Japanese American Citizens League, commented, “For me as a Yonsei and granddaughter of veterans and incarcerees, it’s really heartbreaking to hear how our story has been used recently to be a model for what should happen to other communities. We went to Manzanar National Historic Site with a group of college students and we saw in the guestbook someone wrote, ‘You should do this to the Muslims’ …

“For us it was really difficult to see our story, which has been so tragic and I feel that we are still trying to rebuild from, recover from … held up by some folks as an example of what is the right thing to do. So it’s really important to me that we’re having this moment to come together as a community and unpack all of these emotions that we’re all feeling and be able to try to make some changes, be better together.”

Ann Burroughs, acting CEO of JANM, said, “As Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, we owe Mr. Trump a chance to lead. We hope though that he will do so in a way that brings honor to this country and treats all Americans with the dignity they deserve. Regardless, the Japanese American National Museum remains fervently committed to its mission, to strengthening our communities and to creating a more just nation. No matter who the president is, this museum will ensure that the Japanese American experience is shared and preserved, and that a tragic chapter in our country’s history is not repeated.”

Attendees hold small-group discussions during a post-election community meeting at JANM.

Attendees hold small-group discussions during a post-election community meeting at JANM.

Diane Kujubu Belli, chief administrative officer of Keiro, read a statement on behalf of Gene Kanamori, interim president: “Election Day 2016 reminds us of the meaning and importance of civic engagement, to support the quality of life in the community both through political and non-political processes, and it reminds us of the significance of Keiro’s mission to enhance the quality of senior life in our community.

“We are experiencing unprecedented increases in the number of older adults … especially the segment of the population who are considered the oldest of the old, with … accompanying increases in the number of older adults with memory and cognitive disabilities, multiple health conditions, and increasing demand for and stresses on family caregivers. There are also seniors whose health and welfare are impacted by social isolation, low income and immigration and residence status …

“Decisions that impact programs like Social Security and Medicare … funding for Medi-Cal, congregate meal programs, senior centers … family caregivers, medical research and intergenerational volunteerism are critical. Keiro joins with the rest of the country in hoping that our government leaders at the national, state and local levels will work together to shape public policy that will support our seniors in the manner which they deserve. Whatever lies ahead for us, it’s even more apparent that it takes a community to care for an older adult. As in the past, and even more now, the social network of family, friends, partners, temples, community centers and community agencies is critical for the future of seniors in our community. Keiro pledges to work collaboratively within our community and outside of our community to build a future in which our seniors live a healthy and fulfilling life.”

Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center, stated, “Today is not a day to be a quiet American. Today and in days to come we must express our grave concern about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the impact it could have on the people and communities we serve, which include Japanese and Japanese Americans but also other low-income communities of color and immigrants … We join many others across the country who have exercised their First Amendment rights in the last few days.

“While the transfer of power has yet to take place, we already know from his many statements and actions what Donald Trump claims to represent and what kind of platform and policies he is likely to advance. He promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and pledged that 12 million undocumented individuals will be deported, destroying families and so many lives in the process.

“He asserted that Muslims must be banned from coming into the country and that a Muslim database should be created. He even considered rounding up aliens in concentration camps, saying it might have been okay with Japanese and Japanese Americans being incarcerated during World War II.

“He plans to get rid of the Affordable Care Act … Many of our clients who we serve at LTSC who recently got insurance will face uncertainty again about whether they can access proper medical care. His list of nominees for the Supreme Court has the potential to dismantle many protections and freedoms for women, the LGBT community and other vulnerable communities.

“He’s a climate [change]denier who is considering doing away with the EPA. And his policies on gun ownership and on war will lead to increased violence both at home and internationally. This does not even include the vulgar racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist statements he made during his campaign that are antithetical to LTSC’s vision, values and practices …

“All of us at LTSC pledge to continue to provide social services and counseling to those in need, advocate for and build much-needed affordable housing for low-income individuals and their families, and work with others to maintain Little Tokyo as a historic and cultural center of the Japanese American community …

“We will continue to build partnerships and coalitions with people from other communities to fight for social justice and equality for everyone … While the election has revealed a great division in our country, it is our hope and plan to promote and protect a more inclusive America.”

After attendees broke up into small groups to brainstorm about future strategies, Kristin Fukushima of the Little Tokyo Community Council and traci kato-kiriyama of the Tuesday Night Project gave closing remarks. They announced that the Vigilant Love network is planning a multi-ethnic, multi-faith event in support of the Muslim American community, and that ways to address increasing hate crimes are being discussed, possibly including safety and self-defense training.

Both were pleased with such a good turnout on such short notice and said that the meeting was only the first step in a long process.

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