Mike Murase joined Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) as the organization’s Founding Board President, helping to shape the organizations identity. He then went on to serve on LTSC staff as both the Director of Service Programs and the Capital Campaign Director for Terasaki Budokan. Mike leaves LTSC after decades of leadership and dedication to serve our mission.
Mike is a ‘historical figure’ in the Asian American community-he has been a central participant, initiator and leader in so many movements and institutions crossing ethnicities and communities across L.A. We were fortunate that Mike brought all those experiences, and the knowledge and wisdom from them, to strengthen LTSC.
Below is an interview with Mike Murase as he reflects on his career and work in Little Tokyo:
Tell us about your early history with Little Tokyo. Why is this a special place for you?
I came from Japan with my parents and a sister when I was nine. I grew up in South Central and the Crenshaw district, but we used to come to Little Tokyo fairly regularly. My parents usually called it “nihonjinmachi” and sometimes “sho-Tokyo”. Little Tokyo was the source of our Japanese provisions (groceries, clothing, ceramics, gifts, some clothing, haircut, doctors, etc.). In those days, Little Tokyo was one of the only places you could find Japanese goods/services.
Little Tokyo is a special place for me, first of all, because of my personal memories as I was growing up. But later, when we fought for and won the right to have ethnic studies classes at UCLA, we realized that there were very few books that we could rely on to learn about JA or AAPI history, and no professors who could teach the classes. So those of us who were JA came back to Little Tokyo to learn from our elders, the people whose experiences collectively made our history. Those were times that deepened my understanding of the central role that an ethnic enclave played. The role of the churches and temples, the community leaders and community organizations, businesses, residents, etc.
How did you come to work for LTSC?
I returned to LTSC in May 2006 as staff, after an absence from Little Tokyo for over 20 years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, even though I did not live in Little Tokyo, I spent much of my waking hours here. By 1979, a group of people–Issei, Nisei and Sansei–had begun meeting to discuss the idea of consolidating disparate services provided by several community groups. Bill Watanabe and I were among a dozen or more people who met for over a year to make plans for creating a “one-stop” service center. I should mention here that social services existed in Little Tokyo and in many ethnic and immigrant communities for generations before us. The idea of people in the community helping each other was a part of the fabric of life. But nothing like LTSC existed, and that’s what we wanted to create.
For the first 5 years of LTSC’s existence, I served as the president of the board. Of course, Bill became LTSC’s founding director, and was soon joined by Yasuko and Evelyn as staff. After working for 22 years in the Black community, in 2006, I decided to return to Little Tokyo–and it didn’t take a lot of convincing. I was happy to return to Little Tokyo and LTSC was a welcoming place.
We are all special and unique, but some are more unique than others and Mike is one of those because of his many talents and skills which he has dedicated for the benefit of the local community. He earned a law degree but never formally practiced law. He is thoroughly bicultural and is comfortable in multicultural settings. He has an artistic eye as shown in his photography. He is able to bring people together to plan and implement strategies. All of Mike’s unique talents and skills helped LTSC build a strong foundation when the organization was new, and have continued to sustain LTSC over 40 years later. Larger than life, and unique in attributes, he will be sorely missed.
How did you get involved in social services?
In the early 1970s, when a generational cohort of awakened and politicized Sansei got involved in Little Tokyo, the neighborhood was our “classroom.” We learned so much about the past, but we also learned that there were many elderly Issei (first generation immigrants) that lived in Little Tokyo on their own. The Nisei generation and their Sansei children had moved out to other inner city neighborhoods or to distant suburbs. Even though many Issei had lived in this country for decades, they neither had the opportunity or the need to learn English. But in their old age, they had difficulty accessing public services that they had earned the right to receive, so many activists began to provide services to navigate complex social welfare, immigration, and other government agencies. In the 60s, we had embraced the phrase, “Serve the People” (which I think originated in China, but was popularized by the Black Panther Party, who had breakfast for children, free health clinics, self-defense classes, etc.). So social services and legal counseling became a large part of what activists did.
I came to understand that social change and social services go hand in hand. While we fight to bring about fundamental, systemic change to end suffering and win equality and justice, on a societal level, it’s just as important that we provide social services on an individual level–one person or one family at a time–because there are so many people in need of immediate help.
I met Mike in 1977 when we were fighting tenant evictions of the Sun Building on Weller Street. I was a UCLA freshman at that time and didn't know the impact he’d had on establishing UCLA’s Asian American Studies. Nor did I know then what a resume he would build throughout his impressive career, ranging from leadership in the JA community to directorial LA County positions to campaign management for local and national politicians to activism in global social justice movements. And, despite the demands of his work, he still coached his daughter's basketball team for 12 years. Resume aside, what I appreciate most about Mike is his thoughtfulness and kind soul. I admire his unwavering commitment to a set of principles that remain so important today--justice, equality, democracy and the right to self-determination. He's the kind of friend and colleague that you can trust to guide you well through thick and thin to reach a noble goal. Just as he's helped to transform the world we live in, I'm sure he'll reinvent the meaning of retirement as he continues to live his values and walk the talk.
How did you and Yasuko Sakamoto grow the Social Services Department to meet the unique needs of the JA community?
I think LTSC’s social services department was definitely stamped with the brand that Yasuko had created from 1980 to 2006. She had developed culturally-sensitive, client-centered services, particularly for monolingual Japanese seniors who were most comfortable communicating in nihongo. LTSC’s philosophy of trying to meet the needs of every client meant that the services could not be one-size-fits-all, or an assembly-line type of operation. Each person had a variety of unique needs. Each case was different and most of the time, difficult.
I joined the social services department as an administrator to help streamline operations, address personnel needs, and to make efforts for the social services department to be integrated into LTSC’s newly-merged entity that included community economic development and real estate as the other major component.
There were several new programs initiated during your tenure as Director of Service Programs. Are there any that stand out as particularly innovative or unique?
LTSC grew as the demographics of our client base changed and diversified to include more non-seniors and clients whose cultures were not Japanese. Geographically, LTSC had been serving clients throughout the county since the beginning, but the number of clients from outside of Little Tokyo continued to grow. Over the years, Yasuko and her team developed services for survivors of domestic violence (from diverse AAPI backgrounds) at a temporary shelter called Kosumosu.
One of the early successes after I joined the team was to win competitive HUD grants to provide on-site “service coordination” to the 100+ senior residents of JCI Gardens in the South Bay and to the 300+ seniors living at Little Tokyo Towers. In those days, we also did a lot of outreach to Japanese community centers located in various ethnic enclaves (such as Gardena, San Fernando, Seinan, Venice and other areas) and provided information and referral services. Probably the most direct partnerships we had with other community centers are the caregiver workshops we provided.
I first met Mike back in 1978 at the Oriental Service Center’s outpost in the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) office on First Street. Then in 2006, Mike joined Little Tokyo Service Center, where I served as the Director of Social Services. LTSC was going through some transitions at the time, and he helped me stabilize the social services department. He was very supportive, a great team-builder, thorough, creative, and a good listener. I remember once asking him about the purpose behind his work, his motivations. Looking up at the sky, he murmured “yonaoshi undo dayo” (世直し運動だよ) –“social justice movement”. For over 40 years, I have witnessed his commitment to seeking social justice–and although he has retired from LTSC, his activism continues stronger than ever.
What motivated you to continue working with social services, despite not being a social worker? And what did you learn from your experience?
My desire to be involved in social services, particularly for non-English speaking, low-income or otherwise marginalized people probably comes from my own family experience. When my parents moved to Los Angeles, they lived in a community of working-class people of color, mostly Japanese and African Americans. They were unfamiliar with their surroundings, American customs and expectations, and often second-guessed themselves about what was the right thing to do.
I remember incidents in which my parents interacted with government officials, store clerks, or someone on the phone, and they often could not understand what was going on. They would have to ask people to repeat what was said, or to confirm their understanding of the information given. Even as a child, it was so infuriating to see my parents being disparaged or ridiculed or dismissed because they spoke broken English. I would often step in angrily to stand up for my parents, “They’re not stupid. They can understand if you could be a little more patient.”
This is a common experience for many immigrants. Not understanding how things work. Not having access to information or services they are entitled to. Not wanting to go through unpleasant exchanges just for asserting their rights. I guess all that stuck with me as I grew up.
Mike is a dreamweaver. He takes an idea or vision and makes it a reality using his talents, strong work ethic and pure gumption. What he does in weaving disparate pieces together to achieve those 'unreachable' dreams is MAGIC. Now that he’s retired, people ask me, ``who will replace Mike?`` The answer is, no one. He’s irreplaceable. He can't be categorized or labeled and doesn't fall into any predictable 'mold'. The only things predictable about him are his black t-shirt and sunglasses.
You were initially part of the Little Tokyo Recreation Center Board, prior to working on the Budokan capital campaign. What made you get involved with the project?
I joined the Rec Center board before I was on staff at LTSC. I attended evening meetings and worked with others on making the idea of a gathering place in Little Tokyo become a reality. My main interest at that time was to encourage Japanese American kids from surrounding neighborhoods to come to Little Tokyo on a regular basis as a way of connecting their own identity with a place that was full of history and culture. It dawned on me later that having more people come to Little Tokyo could also improve economic activity for Little Tokyo businesses. My understanding about the needs of local downtown residents came later.
I had grown up in the Crenshaw (Seinan, Wes’side) area where I was fortunate to make friends with other kids who liked sports. Even though I took up basketball relatively late (maybe 12 years old), I was accepted as a teammate on one of the original Tigers teams at age 14. Playing basketball in the JA leagues gave me new insights about JAs from Boyle Heights, Pasadena, Gardena and other places. It also gave me the opportunity to become friends with African American kids at school.
When I joined the Rec Center board, I thought of my own experiences–of hooping, making friends, and having a good time in the JA leagues. I wanted future generations of JA youth to be able to experience that. As far as relating to Little Tokyo, of course we didn’t have a gym to come to, but my memories of coming to the Nisei Week parade and carnival, of running around a safe neighborhood, are special.
When Dean asked you to spearhead the Terasaki Budokan capital campaign, what motivated you to take on this large scale project?
When Dean asked me to spearhead the capital campaign, thoughts of retirement had not entered my mind. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought I would be involved in Little Tokyo indefinitely. More than anything, I didn’t want the dream of a big gym in Little Tokyo to not be realized. We had already gone through trials and tribulations, ups and downs, throughout the years.
When Bill retired in 2012, it left a big void in leadership and “a face” for the capital campaign. We were fortunate to have Alan Kosaka, who is well connected and highly motivated, as the “capital campaign chair,” but he was still a volunteer with a full-time job and a young family. We also had many skeptics in the JA community and among fundraising consultants who said it couldn’t be done. But I don’t think it’s the LTSC way to accept defeat without trying everything possible. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in the belief that we can raise the money, that we had the technical expertise to build a major facility, and that Little Tokyo could really benefit from a recreation center, spurred me on.
Fortunately, I’ve had experience working on long-term and complex campaigns, on large-scale projects with a lot of moving parts, and some fundraising experience. But the main thing that I relied on was the combination of my own understanding of the JA sports scene, organizing abilities and faith that enough people shared in the dream.
There were probably many memorable moments during the capital campaign. What was one experience that you will always remember?
We made a lot of mistakes, we misassessed who would be “with us or against us,” and we suffered a number of disappointing setbacks. Until we raised all the money and the last piece of wood was laid on the gym floor, it was never a foregone conclusion that the gym would be built! Now that the Terasaki Budokan project has been completed, I can tell you that there were at least a dozen times when we thought we would have to give up and abort the project. None of those harrowing moments I am going to talk publicly about.
Otherwise, there are many positive and uplifting moments. Before construction began, when things still seemed abstract, receiving checks in the mail, no matter how big or small, or even words of encouragement or gratitude for us making the effort, raised our spirits. Losing Dean in the midst of the campaign was devastating. We didn’t always agree, but Dean, more than anyone else, had the vision and insight, the connections, the acumen, to figure things out and make tough decisions. Once construction began, every milestone became memorable: the demolition of the 100-year old VIDA building, watching the graffiti art we had on the interior being torn down; the big hole being dug and discovering an underground “building” buried below the dirt; the “big pour” of hundreds of truckloads of cement; the steel beams taking shape and celebrating the topping off of the framing; the pieces of lumber being laid for the flooring; the outside “skin” of the building being wrapped; and all the final touches.
Now that Terasaki Budokan is complete, what do you hope to see over the long term for the project?
We completed construction in the middle of the pandemic. We lived through the first months with limited use by a handful of people, but in the past year or so, Terasaki Budokan has been populated by young and old, with local people and commuting sports enthusiasts. Already, Budokan has served as a Vote Center, a site for vaccine clinics and other public service activities. The well-attended Grand Opening this year was heartening. Ryan Lee and the young energetic staff that run the day-to-day operation of Budokan have done such a great job, that for me, fulfills all of the aspirations that we could only dream about during the fundraising period.
I know there is more to do to make the facility even better, but more importantly, the team we have as the core (Ryan Lee, Michelle Chan and Kim Kawasaki) is a solid team that understands their roles, their mission and the intricacies of dealing with community groups and others. If they can build on the variety of existing programming that incorporates seniors, local youth, JA/AAPI youth, Little Tokyo and other neighborhoods, that would be great.
Budokan is already a magnet that attracts people who have never come to Little Tokyo before. I would like to see Budokan develop more ideas to connect people to Little Tokyo even more.
Mike is a true trailblazer. His activism strengthened Little Tokyo and uplifted surrounding neighborhoods in DTLA. He has a unique way of bringing people and communities together in a meaningful way. Mike brought an energy, zest, and passion to his work and relationships at LTSC that will be deeply missed. He’s also one of the funniest people I know, although I don't think he's ever really trying to be funny (which is the best part!)
You were very involved in the Little Tokyo Eats program that delivered meals to seniors during COVID. Can you tell us about that program?
The COVID mandates for seniors to stay home and restaurants to shut down indoor dining operations came on March 17, 2020. By April 6, 2020, we began to deliver restaurant meals THREE TIMES A WEEK to low-income seniors in SIX BUILDINGS—Casa Heiwa, Little Tokyo Towers, Far East Building, Daimaru Hotel and San Pedro Firm Building.
Keiro donated a generous amount to cover costs, and LTCC contributed ideas, but Little Tokyo Eats would not have been possible without LTSC’s vast experience and committed staff. We were able to launch the program so quickly because we had (a) experienced social workers and a community organizer who had worked with the seniors in Little Tokyo over many years, thus having trusted relationships with them; (b) dedicated small business counselors who also had solid relationships with many of the restaurants; (c) bilingual staff who translated every menu into Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Spanish, and (d) willing staff from every department that took on additional administrative, financial and other responsibilities, and VOLUNTEERS to deliver meals to seniors.
We continued this program for 65 weeks, through most of the holidays and office closures, and closed the program on June 30, 2021. We served over 16,000 meals and provided extra revenue for participating Little Tokyo restaurants totaling $163,000.
As we learned of the Delta and other variants in the fall of 2021, LTSC was able to host vaccine clinics when vaccines became available.
So those are the numbers and statistics, but I learned how much this program is about the Human Spirit. I saw the tolerance and patience of seniors. Most exhibited a positive outlook and remarkable patience. (I forget that many have lived through The Great Depression, a world war, and most likely faced racism and discrimination.) I saw the resilience of Little Tokyo as a community, and in this case, particularly for the owners and employees of family-owned restaurants and other small businesses. And I saw LTSC’s spirit of service and attitude of “pitching in to do whatever we can.”
Looking back on your career at LTSC, are there any words of wisdom you wish to impart?
Strive to find ‘ikigai’. Most days I never felt like I was coming to work, because I loved doing what I did. LTSC was an intersection of joy and purpose for me, and I wish that experience for other people too.
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