Next Gen Nikkeis You Should Know: Kristin Fukushima

There’s no question: LA-based community organizer, Kristin Fukushima, is a "Next Gen Nikkei You Should Know" because of who she is and the incredible work she does in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. In our conversation, Kristin was brimming with positive energy and insightful thoughts about history, identity, and memory in our Japanese American community. Her passion and commitment to community and justice are as deep and profound as our oceans, yet talking with her felt like catching up with a dear friend from college. While her day-to-day work focuses on managing the Little Tokyo Community Council her approaches to the community give important examples of modeling creative ways to deepen understanding about Japanese American history and identities in complex and inclusive ways. Kristin inspires us to examine our assumptions and unlock the power and possibility of community. Here are excerpts transcribed and edited from YMP's conversation with Kristin.

Name: Kristin Fukushima

Generation: Yonsei

If you could have a super-power, what would it be: Teleporting!

Official title: Managing Director for Little Tokyo Community Council

Self-given title: Community Organizer

Favorite form of self-care: Karaoke

Kristin Fukushima

Kristin Fukushima

Brynn: Who are some Japanese American artists who have been influential for you?

Kristin: One of the first is traci kato-kiriyama (TKK). TKK was one of my first Japanese American mentors. I met her when she was the artist-in-residence at the Asian American Resource Center at my college. She sat me down and was like: you’re Nikkei, let’s have some Nikkei discussions. I thought: No one has ever wanted to do this with me, what’s happening! It was great. I think her artistic process has really influenced my community work. I’ve always appreciated the different lenses she brings to work and life, I always try to incorporate those into the work I do in community.

Nobuko Miyamoto and her people have also been really huge influences, even before I met her and got to know her. Discovering her album “A Grain of Sand” was really big for me in college during my identity formation. It was amazing to find this body of work that was still relevant and real even though it was 40 years later.

Toyo Miyatake was one of the first major, famous Japanese American artists for me. I like his photography, I think it’s great, but I think a lot more about his role in the community at Manzanar. I’ve always found inspiring his balance of being a really pure artist and his dedication and commitment to the Japanese American community, and how that manifested in his work for Little Tokyo and his acts of resistance during World War II. How his children and grandchildren have carried on his legacy, and their continued commitment to the community, is something I really hold up as an example of what it means to occupy different roles in our community.  

Brynn: Can you say a little more about how traci kato-kiriyama’s artistic practice influenced your organizing?

Kristin: I first, in-depth, got to know traci in college and she would talk to me about process. There are a lot of people who plan things like: this is what we’re doing and this is how we get there. Traci takes the approach of gathering different voices, and getting different input, and being ok with part of it being a more circular process: sometimes you have to start over again. Everything for her is so community-based and community oriented, which is something that I really admire. For her, community work is always about bringing together all these different voices and perspectives and building out of that—she’s always very collaboratively based.

She would talk to me a lot about process. When she was first talking to me about it, I remember thinking: I don’t really know what she’s talking about, but she’s used this word about 15 times, in 30 minutes, so I think it’s important to her. She would give examples of how she built things like Tuesday Night Cafe, or her work at the museum, or she would make us do a lot of group poetry, where everyone contributes a word. Or movement activities, where everyone would have to move together. She would really integrate a lot of these art processes into her group process with us, and into how she talked about community.

When I started working in Little Tokyo a decade ago, that’s when what she was talking about started to click. Maybe it’s very slow and annoying for some people who want to move faster—this [process] is maybe not efficient, but it’s effective. You may take forever to get to things, but I think the end the process is really beautiful and it’s a lot stronger.

Brynn: What were some of the powerful vehicles for you, in forming your identity through community history? What were some of those vehicles, modalities, or moments in your life?

Kristin: It’s funny, Sean [Miura] is having me write something right now for Tuesday Night Cafe, and the prompt I chose was, “It’s been 10 years since I got involved in Little Tokyo.” So, it’s making me reflect on what drew me to Little Tokyo in the first place.

Even though Southern California can be this mecca for nikkei, I think if you’re not already plugged into spaces like the Buddhist community or basketball, or just the different ways the community organizes, Little Tokyo might not necessarily feel like home. Growing up, there were actually a lot of JA things happening in my life, but they weren’t necessarily things I immediately connected back to identity. So, even though I played Japanese American basketball, or I still attend the Japanese American church my great-grandpa started, or I do all our holidays with my dad’s side of the family—my Japanese American side—I always still felt like something was missing. The few times I came to Little Tokyo growing up, I felt like: this is where the answer is! It was just this feeling, there was something really there!  

My dad is the kind of person who doesn’t really talk about things, so there wasn’t really anything from him. He’s very sansei, so he was showing me, but I didn’t really pick up on it. I didn’t pick up on any of it until much later, until I had figured myself out and I was like, “Oh, that’s what you meant dad, why didn’t you just tell me?”

So, in 2008, I did the Nikkei Community Internship program, and that was a major foundation for coming home in my Japanese American identity and finding Little Tokyo… I think for most of college I identified more as Asian American, sort of that pan-ethnic umbrella, or I identified as a woman of color, and there just wasn’t space on campus to think through what it meant to be nikkei. But, I also still knew I was very interested, I just didn’t really know how to go about it. So, I was lucky that a friend from church suggested that I do the [Nikkei Community Internship] program. Then, it was me getting to Little Tokyo and meeting all the aunties, the OG activists, and different community leaders who were really good at bringing people in and saying: we see that you’re young and really interested, why don’t we get coffee or go to lunch, why don’t we get to know you.

Brynn: As part of our work, we’ve been trying to map different Japanese American memorial sites to share with the public. We wondered what sites in the LA area are meaningful to you, as Japanese American memory sites?

Right: Kristin Fukushima

Right: Kristin Fukushima

Kristin: Regionally, I like to always highlight the Santa Anita Racetracks because that was a site people stayed before being sent off to places like Manzanar. For me, it’s a particularly interesting site because, post-war, a lot of nisei would still go back there to gamble and “play the ponies” including my own grandfather, and now my family likes to go there. I always find this weird dissonance where I have an auntie who was literally born in a horse stall there, and my grandpa would go back and gamble there and now my family—as a family, we get together and go and gamble and joke, “Auntie Janice was born here.” It’s such a weird thing! What does it mean to be back here? But I think it’s weird and amazing. I think that, in Southern California, the way we talk about World War II, it doesn’t feel real to people sometimes. For many people, it’s hard to imagine what that was actually like. We talk about it theoretically or we know what happened, but that lived experience is kind of hard for yonsei to grasp. Which is why I think “Allegiance” [the musical/play] was a cool thing to see—to really see it and realize, wow, that was my family.

A place that people are really pushing right now is Tuna Canyon, in the Valley. I think it’s similar to Santa Anita—it was a detention center. But I think the reason Tuna Canyon resonates with people so much is because it’s another site where the history hasn’t really been marked. People still have their memories of that space, and now there’s a giant development trying to come in on that exact land, exactly where people were held. Now that we’re 75 years out, how are we remembering these things, and how is our history also being erased by development, or just by not being carried forth? So, I think that’s why there’s been so much mobilization in Southern California around Tuna Canyon.

For me, I’m yonsei, I grew up playing [Japanese American] basketball, I did all these things... you get used to the narrative of what it means to be Japanese American. And then, you have moments where [you realize] over one-third of our community was born in Japan, and that means there’s an even larger part of our community whose parents are from Japan. How are we expanding our definitions about what it means to be Japanese American to include them, and not just force them to conform to this box of what it means to be Japanese American? That box doesn’t even necessarily have room for all of us anyway, right? I like to think about bringing the South Bay into the conversation, not just because the food there is delicious, but because that’s where a lot of the shin-nisei folks live; how do we bring their narratives and experiences into how we talk about our community? It’s hard because they don’t have memorials in the same way we have memorials for World War II. I want to make sure they are always part of the conversation.

And then, ALL of Little Tokyo. We have thousands of memorials and public art pieces. The main thing would be historic First Street district, which was officially recognized and added to the national historic register of historic places in 1995. It’s the only part of Little Tokyo that is protected, but it’s just buildings. It’s not the actual businesses or people who live in it. 

Nikiko: Is that the street that is in front of the Manju-ya, which has the historic timeline in the cement?

Kristin: Yes. It starts at Old Nishi Buddhist temple, which is where I am right now, that’s where my office is. It wraps and goes down First Street, so it has the Far East building and Fugetsu-Do and those places and goes up to old Union Church, which is where Tuesday Night Cafe is.

Nikiko: How do we want to remember our histories—plural—and how do we push away from the single narrative of one linear progression of people? When you think about particularly effective, or exciting, or even resistant modes of remembering, what are models that make you really energized?

Kristin Fukuhima

Kristin Fukuhima

Kristin: One of my most recent favorite memory projects that makes me excited is Takachizu. This was a collaboration between Sustainable Little Tokyo and Little Tokyo Service Center [LTSC] through their ArtPlace grant—that work is now called +Lab. So, in thinking about "how do we figure out what is important about Little Tokyo, what kinds of things do we want to remember or still fight to protect, and how do we unearth that?" we did this project called Takachizu: from takara and chizu, which means like treasure map—it’s a bastardized, made-up Japanese word [laughter].

We asked folks to bring in items or pictures—or anything—to this space to basically talk about the different items. People would bring in, for example, an old Go playing board, and they would talk about how their dad used to, with all these other nisei, play Go in some basement in Little Tokyo every Tuesday night. And for her [the person who brought in the item] she sees it and hears the clicking of the Go tiles, and that’s what Little Tokyo is. Someone else brought in a little piece of the building I’m in [the Nishi Buddhist Temple]; when they did the renovation, the building came apart a little bit, so they have these old pieces of the building—that is amazing! Then, we talked about why the temple moved here: they were afraid the city was going to “eminent domain” the land they were on, which they eventually did, so they frantically moved to this spot, and then they moved again because they were afraid the city would displace them. So, it became a way for people to talk about things that would not normally come up through the sharing of different documents or pictures, like: this is a picture of my family dancing in Nisei Week in the late 80s, now I take my child and we dance.

We really wanted to figure out: how do we talk about our community, how do we talk about Little Tokyo? How do we plan for our future, what is important? Whether it’s physical spaces or residences that we need to protect today... what is the essence, what is the core character of Little Tokyo? It’s really hard to define sometimes, it’s really amorphous, it’s just out there. But if we can start to bring all these treasures together and say: this is Little Tokyo, this is a fun way for people to get to know each other. There were a lot of stories about Little Tokyo that I had never heard.

Nikiko: Through YMP, Brynn and I have been trying to be really intentional about really laying the groundwork for developing relationships beyond what we think of as “the JA” community, and really trying to use the history of internment/incarceration specifically as a point to open up conversations with other communities about both historic and current struggles—real struggles—with our rights and our livelihoods and our general sense of belonging being attacked. Do you have any insight into cross-cultural or inter-cultural organizing to share?

Kristin: I think the thing I get frustrated with about [within] the Japanese American community is that we often feel like we have to connect [other struggles] to something Japanese American to make [our community] care or understand. When really, I think: we should just care about this because it’s important. With islamophobia and the post-9/11 organizing, it totally makes sense that we connect there. But sometimes, I think: why is it that we need to say, “Oh, I care about that because that happened to my family, too.” Why can’t we say: yeah, that’s really f*cked up, we should do something about it. Or, with some of the Black Lives Matter [organizing], people will say: we were racially scapegoated in the 1940s, so we should care about Black Lives Matter now. And I think: we should just care about it because it’s the right thing to do. So, I wish we had a way to talk about this without needing to qualify it or justify it [with] “because this happened to us.”  I want it to be: we are folks that care about things like justice. Right? This is just something that we care about.

Brynn Saito