WHEN I was asked if I’d like to join the leadership team to build a Japanese Cultural and Community Center in Seattle with Kip Tokuda, I jumped at the chance. Kip was from the ’hood — born and raised in south Seattle. He was the gracious older brother who took care of his four siblings and doted on his parents.
The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington became a gathering place for sharing and promoting the Japanese and Japanese-American cultures that played an important part in shaping our region.
Last week, Kip died of a heart attack during a fishing trip. He was 66.
His life is an example of how one person can make a difference. Serving as a state representative for the 37th Legislative District from 1994 to 2002 was just a small part of who he was.
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What made Kip successful was his commitment to a vision of justice and inclusiveness. In a world where 140-character tweets fly by, the center is the result of an eight-year campaign and will stand as a lasting tribute to that vision even now that Kip is gone.
For Kip, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center was always about the kids and about the future. He wanted a place where his daughters and other children would be able to learn the culture’s language, music, arts and martial arts in a place where all were welcome.
He kept trying to get a basketball gym into the blueprints, but we finally convinced him that basketball wasn’t really a part of Japanese culture. (Though I think he never really gave up on the idea.)
Today the center’s list of programs is as long as my arm, but its biggest accomplishment is nurturing hundreds of young people as volunteers and interns in historical, cultural and social activities. They are the future leaders who will fill Kip’s shoes.
Kip was a behind-the-scenes man. He talked to the right people, said the right things — always, always coming back to the future generations that would benefit the most from the center. He bent the ears of two governors, one House speaker, three King County executives and two Seattle mayors.
Within a year and a half, Kip was able to obtain $1.2 million in state grants.
It’s a testament to his earnestness and skill that he secured the grants without a site selected or a single sketch of what the center would actually look like.
Throughout it all, he did this work with humility and grace, yet also with great determination and a sense of urgency.
Kip often talked about how his trip to Japan in 2003 as part of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation was transformational. The trip made him appreciate his Japanese heritage deeply. He came back more determined than ever to complete the cultural center.
He was proud of the success of Japanese Americans despite the setbacks caused by the incarceration of West Coast families during World War II. And he shared that story of accomplishment with people from Japan so they could also take pride in their “brothers and sisters” across the Pacific. That effort was recognized when he received the Order of the Rising Sun in 2012 from the Emperor of Japan.
Kip’s Japanese was pretty poor, but to him I’d say, “Okage sama de.” It’s an expression of gratitude, loosely translated, “I am what I am because of you.”
Kip san, okage sama de, from a grateful community.
Lori Matsukawa is a news anchor at KING 5 television.