By Michael Aushenker
With an aging membership, the Venice Japanese Community Center faced an uncertain future last year as it struggled to keep young Japanese-Americans on the Westside interested in centuries of cultural heritage.
Enter Jennifer Yamamoto, president and co-founder of the center’s Young Adults Club, devoted to engaging Westside Japanese-Americans in their 20s and 30s.
At just 15 members, the nascent Young Adults Club is feeling its way one event and one member at a time.
“When you’re third or fourth generation, it’s hard to keep tradition,” said Yamamoto, 33, a Westside native. “I’m second generation, so my mom drilled it into me. “
Hiro Harada, president of the Venice Japanese Community Center, said reaching young people is essential to the survival of his organization.
“We have to be thinking of the future, always about the participation of your youth,” Harada said. “We have a program for kids, but once they pass high school we have a problem again.”
Surrounded by images of monsters, robots, anime characters and other Japanese popular culture iconography adorning the walls and tables of The Humble Potato restaurant in Westchester, Yamamoto and Young Adult Club Vice President Jon Okada spoke enthusiastically about some of the club’s past activities — among them a well-attended sake tasting in March and class on how to wear a summer kimono.
“If you wear it the wrong way, that means you’re dead!” Yamamoto, laughing, said as she explained how one wears the garment, a Yukata, can symbolically mean the difference between life and death.
It’s also a fitting metaphor for the Venice Japanese Community Center.
Okada, a fourth-generation Japanese-American who lives in Westchester, said he wasn’t aware of the Young Adult Club until August 2012, when he heard about it through a friend.
“I think there’s a real need for the club,” said Okada, 26, adding that he joined to make his connection to his heritage feel less distant. “There isn’t that innate sense of community.”
Founded in 1921 to assist the local Japanese farming community at a time when Los Angeles was booming with Japanese immigrants, the center has long been enmeshed with the Westside Japanese-American community. It even served as a relocation center for the displaced Japanese-Americans returning from the internment camps of World War II.
While Los Angeles currently has other Japanese cultural centers — among them Hollywood Japanese Cultural Institute, East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute and the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo — Venice Japanese Community Center and the Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple are the only on the Westside.
That’s notwithstanding the ethnic explosion along Sawtelle and Olympic boulevards in what is now referred to as the Little Osaka district; a swath of blocks dense with younger, hipper Japanese retailers, restaurants and art galleries that has swelled in the past decade in a section of town where Japanese-American history dates back to the late 19th century.
But these shiny, newer establishments are more pop-culture oriented and are not steeped in the underlying Japanese traditions that might be more accessible in Little Tokyo. Terry Keelan, who oversees the Venice Japanese Community Center’s Summer Festival (Natsu Matsuri), said it plays a crucial role.
“As a community ages, you get more mixed Asian families, and the focus seems to change more toward martial arts and away from the traditional art forms. But the VJCC is still vibrant,” Keelan told the Argonaut in June.
Equipped with a large community room, a newly constructed recreation room and a gym, the center currently hosts more than 30 clubs and courses in Japanese creative activities that are open to the public. These include bonsai, ikebana (flower arrangement), shodo (calligraphy), watercolor, sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) and soroban (abacus) courses. The center also offers Japanese language courses, hula dance and ukulele lessons, iaido (Japanese sword), martial arts such as judo and karate, tai chi, koto (Japanese harp), line dance, karaoke, odori (classical dance) and shigin (classical singing)
Year-round activities include Shinnenkai and Keiro Kai, celebrating the New Year, and Miss Nisei Week during the Nisei Week Festival.
Randy Tamura, a center board member, said the club provides a cultural reentry for people in their 20s and 30s who were once active in center youth activities but lost touch during college.
“They go off to college and then they kind of disappear. And then the families disappear [from the club],” added Randy Tamura, a center board member.
For Yamamoto, a graphic designer who now lives with her husband in the San Gabriel Valley, it’s her role in the club that keeps her connected with her Japanese and Westside heritage.
She wants the same for others.
Without the club, “they really don’t have anything to come back to,” she said.
Venice Japanese Community Center is at 12448 Braddock Drive. For more information, visit vjcc.com or the Young Adults Club Facebook page: facebook.com/vjccyac.