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Little Tokyo leader discusses Budokan, sustaining Japanese American community

The following post was written by intern Maggie Su as part of a series of profiles of API members of the community.

Mike Murase, Director of Service Programs at Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), has come full circle. As one of the original founding members of LTSC, Murase served as the board president from 1980 to 1985. He did not return until 2006, when he was charged with helping LTSC bridge the gaps between their different departments using his native understanding of the Japanese-speaking sector.

Murase, currently in his 70s, was born in Japan and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 9. It was during his time as an undergraduate at UCLA that he and his peers noticed the lack of an ethnic studies curriculum — including Asian American studies — in the education system. They then sought wisdom from elders in ethnic communities such as Little Tokyo, realizing in the process that many of them needed social services that the government did not provide them with. LTSC was founded with the goal of establishing a support system for these elders.

“Many monolingual first-generation immigrants in their 60s, 70s, 80s had no support system. They needed social services. In reality, those services should have been provided by the government,” Murase said. “But because most of these agencies didn’t have Japanese speakers or various languages that we have in L.A., we started providing these services ourselves.”

After serving on the LTSC board for five years, Murase spent over two decades outside of the Little Tokyo community working in law, politics and community organizing. He held positions such as state campaign manager for presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and district director for a member of Congress, working closely with the black community. A particular passion for him was working in the anti-apartheid movement, which gave him the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela twice — once in Los Angeles and once in South Africa.

When Murase eventually transitioned back to LTSC, he oversaw the social service department along with several other smaller programs, including APIOPA (now APIFM). His organizational and administrative skills have since been put to good use coordinating the different aspects of LTSC’s work. For the past few years, Murase’s primary job has been to fundraise for Terasaki Budokan, a multipurpose sports facility and community center set to open in in Little Tokyo in early 2019. LTSC broke ground on the $25 million-project last August.

“Budokan is important because it’s a gym and sports facility, and it provides a venue for healthy activities and an active lifestyle,” Murase said. “But to have it placed in Little Tokyo… that is an anchor institution that attracts younger Japanese Americans back into the community. We think it’s very important to the overall sustainability of Little Tokyo as an ethnic neighborhood.”

Budokan, which means “hall of martial arts,” was named after a multipurpose venue in Tokyo, Japan. Its founders hoped that giving it a Japanese name would allow community members to connect more deeply with Japanese American history and culture, which Murase hopes will in turn sustain Little Tokyo.

Little Tokyo itself, dating back to 1884, was originally a gateway location for incoming Japanese immigrants. Over 30,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived in the ethnic enclave by the 1930s, according to Murase, who considers that period its heyday. Despite discrimination and hostility, the community persisted until World War II, when 110,000 Japanese were locked up in internment camps. For a brief period of time, Little Tokyo became a ghost town.

Although Little Tokyo has since recovered, with many former residents choosing to return post-war, it is much smaller than it used to be. The city reclaimed much of what was formerly part of Little Tokyo by eminent domain to accommodate its expansion, which included the building of the LAPD headquarters. Now, even as the community thrives as a relic of Japanese culture in Southern California and as a tourist destination, stakeholders such as Murase hope that some of its historical significance can be restored.

“Little Tokyo is already a destination for many young people, mostly non-Japanese, and it’s a community where they feel like there’s something different than any other shopping mall or whatever. It’s also perceived as a very safe community, and we have good food,” Murase said. “But those things by themselves won’t sustain a community that has a deeper meaning than that, so I think that’s our hope for wanting to work on something like Budokan.”

With the help of former councilwoman Jan Perry, LTSC secured a 50-year lease of city land for the facility. Funding came from the government, foundations and community members. While the largest donation, a sum of $3.5 million, came from the Terasaki Family Foundation, Murase recalled other memorable donations such as $500 from an 11-year-old girl who sold handmade rubber band bracelets and a few thousand dollars from high school students who raised funds by charging a fee for participation in 3-on-3 basketball games.

Fundraising events such as a hip hop concert dance and a performance of traditional Japanese music, in addition to the fundraising efforts of individuals, have involved members of the Little Tokyo population from all walks of life in the process of bringing the Budokan to fruition.

“People are getting the idea that Budokan is not just like any other high school gym, and that it’s symbolically something very important,” Murase said.

Murase hopes that Budokan will become an accessible space for low-income youth who may have limited options for afterschool activities, noting that there aren’t many comparable recreational spaces currently in existence. Senior community members, too, may lack gathering places and opportunities to socialize that the Budokan will provide. Socialization, according to Murase, contributes to the lengthening of an independent lifestyle, which is what many seniors want.

“We want Budokan to be an intergenerational space. We want activities for seniors,” Murase said. “Our goal is to have everybody live a healthy, independent life for as long as possible.”

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