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CENTER OF COMMUNITY JAPANESE-AMERICAN FACILITY IN PACOIMA KEY PART OF LIVES.

Byline: Rick Coca Valley News Writer

Toji Hashimoto, president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese-American Community Center in Pacoima, remembers when things were different in California and the Valley.

Born in Manzanar, the internment camp in the Owens Valley used to hold Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II, Hashimoto, 62, said that after the war ended, many Japanese-Americans went into the nursery or landscaping businesses.

``That was the only work they would allow you to do,'' Hashimoto said. ``You couldn't work for the government because they still didn't trust you.''

It was in that environment the SFVJACC was founded in 1951 as a place where Japanese-Americans could find support and friendship and where Japanese and American culture and institutions could be celebrated.

Today the large facility is run without any government subsidies and sustains itself from membership dues, donations and the help of a large core of volunteers. In addition, the Los Angeles Unified School District leases land from the SFVJACC for the Bert Corona Charter Middle School that operates on the center's property.

The center has about 800 families and individuals as members and offers many programs such as organized athletics for children, Japanese cooking classes, ballroom dancing and Hawaiian ukulele lessons.

Hashimoto, a retired nursery operator who first came to the Valley with his family in 1957, said as attitudes and career goals have changed for Japanese-Americans over the years, so must the community center.

``We have to try to get the 30-and-up group involved in the center,'' Hashimoto said. ``The first step is to try and draw them in, get their attention and see what their concerns are with the center, and see what our concerns are, and see what we can come up with.''

The center has thrived with the support of the postwar membership, a group growing in age. For members, Hashimoto said the center is an important part of their lives. Each Tuesday and Friday, the center offers lunch to members for $2 to $3. Live musicians often accompany the meals.

``They don't come because it's cheap,'' Hashimoto said. ``They come to see their old friends and socialize. Everybody knows each other and they have a good time.''

A lot of work goes into ensuring that the members enjoy their meal. Sachi and Geoff Arai of Porter Ranch head the food crew. Married 51 years, the Arais have been involved with the center since 1999.

``Once we retired, we said, We only know three Japanese families in the Valley,'' Sachi Arai said.

A month in advance, a group of volunteers creates the menu and Sachi Arai makes up a shopping list and a host of volunteers go shopping, each for specific items. The crew serves about 225 to 275 people a week, so the food requirements can be quite large. Geoff Arai said because the center is a nonprofit organization, it often receives generous portions of fresh seafood from corporations that go out on sport-fishing exertions.

``At the end of this month, we're getting a big load of tuna (3,000 to 4,000 pounds), from San Diego,'' he said. ``We'll be serving raw fish and cooked fish for March.

``(The) older folks like the sashimi.''

With a large contingent of people from Hawaii, members also enjoy Hawaiian music.

Volunteer ukulele instructor Greg Librando guarantees his beginning students that they'll learn to play in just six weeks. At a recent class, the Pacoima resident played the ukulele along with his students while his wife, Maebelle, sang:

Going to Hana, Maui

Drive that trail,

the beauty never ends ...

Maebelle Librando absolutely loves the center. She can't imagine what life would be like without it.

``If they were to close the center, there would be so many people who would be so lost because they wouldn't know what to do,'' Librando said. ``There is something to do every day.

``We're so fortunate to have it with us.''

For information on the San Fernando Valley Japanese-American Community Center, call (818) 899-1989.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Volunteer crew members arrive around 7 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays to prepare the day's lunches. From left: Ike Matsuda, Tamie Yamauchi, Yo Hazama, Eiko Muto, Sumi Kimura, Hisako Hazard and Sachi and Geoff Arai.

(2) Maebelle and Greg Librando share the aloha spirit with students at ukulele lessons at the San Fernando Valley Japanese-American Community Center in Pacoima.

Rick Coca/Valley News
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Title Annotation:Valley News
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 15, 2006
Words:736
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