By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On June 29, movers and shakers gathered at the residence of the Consul General of Japan to honor former KING TV anchor Lori Matsukawa, recipient of the Emperor of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun Award.
Ambassador of Japan Tomita Koji was in Seattle to present the award to Matsukawa for her work as co-founder of the Japanese Community Cultural Center of Washington State (JCCCW).
Established in 1875, the prestigious award is for those who have made distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, and other services.
How JCCCW began
JCCCW’s history is a reflection of the local Japanese community’s history in bright and dark times. Although the idea was brought up in the early 2000s, the roots of JCCCW have actually been long laid at the turn of the 20th century.
When the idea of JCCCW was brought up in the 2000s, several community members were concerned, including me, that it would compete with Wing Luke Asian Museum’s capital campaign, as it was planning to move into a much bigger venue on South King Street (currently the museum’s location).
We were blinded then by assumptions and insufficient information. What made the JCCCW concept work is due to the vision and resourcefulness of its leadership, and the Japanese community’s commitment and determination. As I told Matsukawa last year, “I am so glad that I was wrong.”
The Wing and JCCCW are two separate organizations with different goals and objectives, appealing to specific audiences. Empowering our community and future generations, the two institutions are preserving the untold history of Asian Americans, which have been mostly left out of the American public school textbooks.
JCCCW’s current location was once the home of a Japanese language school. Few in the Asian community know that the Japanese language school had been flourishing before the 20th century. According to Matsukawa, to accommodate the growing student population, the original school built in 1902 had moved out of Pioneer Square and the board built three more Japanese language schools as each had outgrown each other. The first one was built in 1913, the second in 1917, and the third in 1929.
Up until the war, the schools were booming. As many as 1,500 students enrolled in these Japanese language schools. The students went to daily classes right after their regular day school. It was only after the war the schools had changed to Saturday classes only. Run by the Japanese Language School board and Japanese Community Service, the schools evolved into community meeting places and more. The first and second generations, Issei and Nisei, would also use the schools to greet visitors from Japan. Even Japanese brides would like to visit the schools to meet other Japanese people and look at Japanese books at the center, said Matsukawa.
But the war changed everything…
During World War II, Japanese Americans were incarcerated and put in camps, and the school buildings were taken over by the U.S. military and turned into Army Air Force training centers.
When the war was over, the buildings were returned. But the Japanese Americans who came home from camps lost everything. They found themselves homeless and jobless. No one would rent them apartments or give them jobs. JCCCW served as temporary, emergency housing after the war. It housed 32 families (130 people) from 1945-1959. They also made themselves a kitchen so they could cook. Only in 1960 did all the families move out.
Community members had been collecting things over the years, and some old community treasures were stored in the building over the years, wrote Karen Yoshitomi, JCCCW executive director. Hence, a museum was born after 2008. Aside from being a community gathering site, shops were opened, including a barber shop and karate and judo schools.
In 2003, the Nikkei Heritage Association of Washington (NHAW) was formed with the desire to establish a cultural and community center, said Yoshitomi.
Matsukawa and the two other founders, the late Rep. Kip Tokuda and Judge Ron Mamiya, were searching for a suitable location for JCCCW. Later, they approached the language school board and the Japanese Community Service about merging over with the school board. With the merger in 2008, NHAW named itself as the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington. Matsukawa remembered what the old guards said, “If you guys mess up, we will take it back.” Yoshitomi clarified that the Northwest Nikkei Museum is a JCCCW program.
But the heart of the language school remains…fostering Japanese culture and language not only among Japanese Americans, but non-Japanese, and building bridges between the two through their love of Japanese ethos.
For the past two decades, JCCCW has been growing. The pandemic pushed the center to expand online Japanese classes and increased enrollment outside Seattle. Matuskawa said the classes are not only for kids, but adults, too. As of now, over 200 students have enrolled, and there is a waiting list. A decade ago, it only had half of the number of students for in-person classes.
“Raising visibility,” was Matsukawa’s role in developing JCCCW. She has been instrumental in organizing the Tomodachi fundraising event, honoring people who have made a difference in the Japanese community, related to Japanese heritage, culture, and products.
As for her Emperor’s award, Matsukawa said she was shocked. It’s her desire to bring people of Japan to learn more about the stories of Japanese Americans and be proud of their accomplishments.
“I wish my grandparents and parents were still alive. They would be amazed, so pleased that Japanese Americans are appreciated by Japan. It’s so easy when you are gone from the motherland, you can sometimes feel that you have been forgotten. Now, Japan is learning about Japanese Americans, what they’ve been through, how they preserved, and how they succeeded.”
The timing of the award ceremony couldn’t be more perfect to showcase the achievements of Japanese Americans—a parade of new political stars at the event including Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, deputy mayors Monisha Harrell and Kendee Yamaguchi, and Port of Seattle Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa. All were elected and appointed in 2021.
The Consul General of Japan Hisao Inagaki and his team organized the event with multiple goals fulfilled simultaneously. I have been to quite a few of these award ceremonies and the ambassador was never present. Koji announced this year is the 65th anniversary of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City relationship. A trip for the Seattle delegation to Kobe will be planned for fall. Koji also met with Gov. Jay Inslee during his trip.
Talk about killing several birds with one stone…This event did it all.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.