Evelyn Yoshimura joined Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) on October 15, 1980 as one of the organization’s three original staff members. Her retirement comes after almost 40 years at LTSC and decades of work in the Little Tokyo community. As LTSC’s Director of Community Organizing, Evelyn’s social activism and grassroots organizing helped steer LTSC’s mission and values over the years. Her wisdom, moral compass and moxie will be sorely missed–but her vision and legacy continues on in LTSC’s work.
Below is an excerpt from a 2021 interview with Evelyn (by Chris Aihara) as she reflects on her career and work in Little Tokyo:
Talk a little about the early days of the organization, Little Tokyo Service Center.
Calling LTSC an organization at that time is a loose thing. We were learning as we were doing. Initially the 3 of us- Bill Watanabe, Yasuko Sakamoto and me- shared one office on the 3rd floor of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC). Both Bill and Yasuko were social workers; I was more like an activist. I was not afraid of going out into the community, talking to people and learning about the community. Yasuko was a “do-er”– whatever needed to be done. Bill was more intellectual, figuring out systems. I think he wanted me to take on things like putting together a filing system, but that wasn’t me.
LTSC’s three original staff (left to right): Yasuko Sakamoto, Bill Watanabe, Evelyn Yoshimura
Who were some of LTSC’s early clients?
People would walk in and ask for help. They had a range of needs; for many it was “GR” or general relief. Most of them were low-income and Japanese-speaking. To get better known in the community we would participate in things like the Little Tokyo Community Mochitsuki. On the Monday after the mochitsuki, Yasuko and I spread the word that we would distribute the leftover mochi out of the LTSC office. It was a mochi frenzy. So many people came to our office wanting mochi, Yasuko and I ended up covered in mochi powder.
Evelyn with Yasuko Sakamoto in front of Far East Building
What projects did you work on in those early days?
The whole Redress movement for Japanese Americans happened about this time and it became a big part of our work. There was a call out for people’s testimony of their Wartime experiences and people started coming to the LTSC office. A lot of work fell upon Yasuko who put together the translation system and personally took most of the testimony of Japanese-speakers. And she wrote it out all by hand! The Redress movement hit us in ways we weren’t expecting. We knew about people’s experiences intellectually, but emotionally, the impact of their experience really hit us. This was the first time people got to tell their stories. We had argued for an evening session for testimonies at Little Tokyo Towers and I remember Mrs. Okamoto brought her brother’s bloody clothing with her – clothing he was wearing when he was shot in the back and killed at Manzanar. She had kept it all those years. How can you respond to something like that? It was cathartic for so many people.
Evelyn working at LTSC in the 1990s.
You left LTSC for a few years and worked at the Rafu Shimpo. When you returned to LTSC what projects did you work on?
I came back to work on the Little Tokyo Rec Center project. It was the Rec Center before it was the Budokan. Young people, like traci kato kiriyama, really spoke out for the project. They wanted it for Little Tokyo and were willing to fight for it. I worked with the Rec Center Board and mostly did community outreach and organizing for the project.
Advocating for the Little Tokyo Recreation Center, 2009.
How did you learn to be a community organizer?
Learning by doing mostly. I did learn a lot from Lillian Nakano working with her on Redress. Lillian could concretize a concept, breaking it down to practical steps like ‘who is a stakeholder?’ and ‘what role should they play?’ I saw my work as a community organizer at LTSC as defining stakeholders in the community in the broadest way – including people who are sometimes overlooked like seniors, residents, and small business owners. And then work to bring these stakeholders’ voices into the decision-making process. I tried to do this in all the projects I worked on: the Rec Center, the fight to prevent the building of the jail next to Nishi temple, and the construction of the Regional Connector transit project.
Left: Evelyn speaking at the Commission Hearings evening session, Little Tokyo Towers, 1981.
What is special about Little Tokyo for you?
I have a familiarity–a comfort-level in Little Tokyo. It’s a place where I can be as Japanese as I want to be.
Evelyn celebrating her JACCC Community Spirit award with LTSC staff in 2017
How do you feel about your work at LTSC?
I really enjoyed the work. I had felt like my life had meaning before LTSC, but it was very abstract. Working directly with people was very real.
LTSC’s three original staff: Bill Watanabe, Yasuko Sakamoto and Evelyn Yoshimura
To read more about Evelyn’s background and contributions to the Asian American Movement and Little Tokyo, click the button below.
Evelyn at her retirement lunch with husband Bruce Iwasaki