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Transitions: Leslie Ito Departs JACCC

Leslie Ito reflects on her tenure as president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor


emerging from the chaos

don’t give up

At the entrance to Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo is a poem written by Sansei artist Nancy Uyemura that seems to aptly describe the five-and-a-half-year tenure of Leslie Ito as president and CEO of the 38-year-old community center.

Ito is leaving the JACCC at the end of this month to serve as the executive director of the Armory Center for the Arts, a Pasadena-based arts organization.

She joined JACCC in the spring of 2013 as the community center emerged from a wrenching period of controversy and uncertainty following the abrupt departure of its former CEO, Greg Willis, in 2012.

“The narrative I will always start with at the JACCC is that this was a sinking ship,” Ito said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo. “We have rejuvenated and re-energized so the next CEO will never have to have ‘re’ in their narrative. I believe it’s going to launch in a new direction and it’s very stable.

“For a Yonsei it was really fulfilling and I had a huge learning curve. I had great mentors like (board members) Henry Ota and George Tanaka, who really helped to guide me and teach me the ropes.”

During Ito’s tenure, the JACCC upgraded the Aratani Theatre with new lighting, sound and video, showcased most vividly in the collaboration with East West Players on the six-week run of the Broadway musical “Allegiance.” Programs such as Fiesta Matsuri, FandangObon and Crab Fest brought new audiences to the JACCC, and notably the center has strengthened ties with Japan, including formalizing a relationship with Miyazaki Prefecture to promote the region’s food and culture.

Ito said that the occupancy of the center has gone from 70 percent to “115 to 105 percent,” after moving the JACCC administrative offices to the Aratani and renting out that space.

“We’ve been operating in the black and we’re halfway to our goal for the Watanabe Culinary Center. I think we’re in a good position and we’ve made so many upgrades,” Ito said.

Daren Mooko, interim JACCC president and CEO, poses in front of the upgraded Aratani Theatre. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Earlier this year, JACCC announced the naming of its Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center, which will showcase Japanese cuisine and food products. Toshizo and Hidemi Watanabe donated $2 million to further JACCC’s culinary initiatives, which have included seminars and tastings of Japanese whisky, tsukemono and soba.

In 2016, the terrace at the James Irvine Garden was renamed the Suntory Terrace to honor the new partnership with the Japanese beverage company.

“My vision is for the commercial kitchen to highlight Japanese products and companies,” Ito said, noting that Hoshizaki, a leading manufacturer of ice makers and refrigerators, is supplying its products to the JACCC.

Board Chair Craig Tomiyoshi praised Ito for laying out a clear vision for the JACCC — where it was currently and where she thought it could go in the future.

“JACCC was a hub for Japanese American and Asian American performing arts, and cultural arts. Leslie saw that the JACCC could take this amazing foundation of preservation and promotion of Japanese cultural arts and take it to the next level. I said I want to be a part of it,” Tomiyoshi stated.

Board member Jean Miao is leading the search committee, which also includes a member of the staff and a representative from the community. Tomiyoshi said that among the qualities they are looking for in the next CEO is someone with a strong performing and cultural arts background.

“We’re looking for doers. Someone who understands the importance of JACCC’s role in the community,” Tomiyoshi said.

Ukes for Little Tokyo perform at a recent farewell party for Ito. The group provides free ukulele instruction in Japanese and English. (Toyo Miyatake Studio)

Daren Mooko, a former board member and university administrator, is serving as interim president and CEO. Mooko, a Torrance native, most recently served as vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Whitman College in Walla, Walla, Wash.

“It’s the best scenario one can ever go into because I’m picking up where Leslie Ito left off. The center is in great shape, the staff is doing wonderful things, and so my job is to make sure it continues to go while we do a search for a permanent CEO and president,” Mooko said.

Ito will start at the Armory Center for the Arts in September. Her new job will place her at the center of the arts scene in Pasadena. The Armory Center offers arts education, gallery showings, performances, and classes through the local school districts and parks, as well as working with incarcerated youth.

Ito’s voice quavered as she talked about something impacting every institution in the Japanese American community: the loss of elders, particularly the Nisei generation.

“One of the most heartbreaking things is that we’ve lost so many community members, and I love working with the donors and so many have passed. Just so many funerals — that I wasn’t prepared for,” Ito said. “That’s why it’s important to support groups like Kizuna and Rising Stars. As the community evolves, the people who support JACCC are not going to look like you and I.”

She said that the JACCC and the JA community should look to the future with a sense of openness.

“We’re a pretty closed community. I think it was easy for me because I’m related to half of J-Town and there are certain things that come with that. I think we need to be open,” she said. “L.A. loves this organization. There are still a lot of people to expose ourselves to and introduce ourselves to. We stand for so much more beyond the Nikkei community.”

Ito will no longer be working at the JACCC, but she promised to remain a part of the community.

“I’m really excited, but it is bittersweet to leave the JACCC. But I don’t feel like I’m going to be leaving, I’m just going to be taking a different role. Can’t wait to take culinary classes and be an audience member,” she said.

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