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The East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center - The Founders

Till you start talking to them, personally, you’ll never know for sure, what brought to life the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center we so much enjoy. “Them,” of course, is The Founders. Many are already gone, and you kick yourself for not having caught them on tape or video before. Those still around are, to me, our “National Living Treasures,” Kim Hatakeyama among them. At 87, two of his most outstanding characteristics are his infinite patience, and his undying smile.

Kim Hatakeyama

His parent’s marriage (Kisaburo- from Niigata to Yasuji- from a Yamanashi family) was a traditional “shashin kekkon”.   Mom was already here.  Dad first went to Hawaii as a contract laborer.  From there he made it to San Francisco, and then to San Dimas, to work for an orange grower.   Since the unconstitutional California Alien Land Laws (1913-1920) deprived Issei from outright land ownership, Mr. Hatakeyama later leased some land in Covina.  On June 24, 1920 Kim joined the Hatakeyama family.  As first born, Kim was the traditional; “spoiled obotchan” –his own words.

With no kindergarten in Covina, Kim began his schooling in Baldwin Park.  Like many other youngsters of his age, he too had to go to Gakuen (Japanese language school), where he found a lot of trouble learning Japanese from the books then available.  When he was in second grade, his mother took him and his sister to Japan, to meet their grand-parents.  After coming back Kim noticed that among the things he had left in Japan was his ability to speak English.

“When we came back, I had a heck of a time, because I couldn’t speak English. But thanks to the trip, I learnt Japanese better than from any book.” 

After graduating from elementary school, he entered Covina High.  The school had a large cache of photographic equipment, and an excellent lab.  So, he “fell in love with photography and managed to learn the stuff pretty well.”  Kim became the school photographer and enjoyed covering the school events in both the small and the large photo formats. 

“Imagine me, just a kid, handling a Leica, and the big camera, when what most other kids could best afford was a Brownie.” 

He wanted to be a photographer, but, as chonan he had the on (obligation) to give Father a hand in the family business.

When WWII came, the family was interned in the Pomona Assembly Center, and then at the most desolate of all concentration camps, Heart Mountain. There, Kim befriended many of the internees from San Jose.  He managed to get a job at the hospital’s mess hall, where “things weren’t too bad.”   Later he migrated to Grand Junction, Colorado where he worked for the Shinoda Brothers, themselves victims of the injustices which, at that time, made life arduous for Japanese and Japanese Americans.  The Shinoda family operated a vast agribusiness that included flower growing, farming and a large dairy.   Because Kim was an agricultural worker, he was spared from being drafted.

Some of his San Jose buddies also relocated there; they loved the place because it reminded them of home: beautiful fruit country, green, nice.  However, not all was peace and harmony.  When drunk, some Dutch sailors went attacking the Japanese young people.  After a little taste of the magic of a karate Black-belt—one of his closest buddies--the rowdies’ became pacified.  Kim spent three years at Grand Junction, where he met Mary, his lovely wife.

“How old were you then, Mary…18?”
“I guess so.” They left Grand Junction in 1946.
“We had a place in California to come back to… an old house and five acres. Then we rented the adjoining five acres, and went back to farming for several years.  Things weren’t going too well, so in 1950, I became a gardener.”

Kim was a gardener for fifty-one years.  His first route was in West Covina, but he soon found Arcadia a better place for someone of his experience and knowledge.  The Santa Anita Oaks, with its large mansions and vast gardens, became his “turf,” with better developmental and economic opportunities.  The opening relation between the lady of the house and “her” gardener often went like this:

“There is the land…It is yours…See that you do your very best.  It is YOUR garden.” 

With his pride and his love for gardening on the balance, all that Kim could do was to constantly excel.  Keeping a large mansion’s grounds in top shape was more rewarding than simply mowing-trimming-and-yard-cleaning small tracts.  More than a chore, it was a splendid opportunity to become skilled at cultivating plants… and people. If one could keep the boss and his wife proud of how lovely “their garden” looked, they would respond generously.   When the motorized equipment appeared, Kim had to go through another “apprenticeship” on how to cut the lawn to avoid “burns.

Kim soon joined the East San Gabriel Gardener’s Association, of which Frank Yamashita, another of our founders now deceased, was the first president.1  Kim became the Association’s second president; and the Association itself became one of the pillars of the then “East San Gabriel Valley Japanese American Association.”  In recognition of his gardening expertise, in 1965 Kim received from Japan the prestigious Dai Nippon Agricultural Award.  He is the only recipient of it in our area.

Kim’s involvement with “The Center” is a long one.   It began in the late 30’s, when the Association was first established at a rented space in the Woman’s Club of West Covina.2 He went to Gakuen there.  Later, the area families got together to build their own property on a one-acre parcel at Sunset and Service Avenues in West Covina, donated by Eijiro Machida.

“You guys actually built the property?  With your own hands?”
“We did.”

During WWII, the Association closed “for the duration;” their place was leased to the Covina School District.  After people were freed from concentration camps, Kim Hatakeyama, with the assistance of Frank Konno and Yosh Sogioka, brought the Association back to life.

Besides Gakuen, the top activity then was learning judo, in which Bacon Sakatani’s father was deeply involved. The anti-Japanese fancy, not yet fully abated, still resulted in occasional humiliation and abuse,3and learning judo was good both for its aesthetics- and its value as a self-defense technique.

In 1964, and due to its own growth, the City of West Covina got the Association’s property under eminent domain, so the group had to look for new facilities.  They found the current meeting place, but acquiring it was a rather ambitious proposition. Since the sale of their previous holdings could not cover the entire expense, fundraising began with passion.  Everybody participated in the solicitation process.  Board members contributed amounts, which in those days represented a true economic burden.  Several founders, Kim included, pledged their own homes as collateral to the institution from which the Center was seeking a loan.  People actually “walked the pages of the phone books” searching for names that looked Japanese.  Then they scoured the area interviewing potential donors and asking them to join in the effort.  By doing that, they found additional members like Ted Omachi and others who had no idea the Association even existed.  The Association became a forest of “telephone trees,” and involved everyone in all kinds of “events.” The name was changed to: The East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center- ESGVJCC.  In only eight years the mortgage was fully paid!  

Kim was elected President of the Center in 1965.  Then for over 35 years, he was Treasurer of the Fund Raising Committee.  Both Mary and Kim are now members of the Leisure Club- fancy name for the Senior Citizens’ group.  Mary is also a Board of Directors’ member, and she is in charge of mailing both our “Newsette” and the West Covina Buddhist Temple’s monthly bulletin. Their daughters Nancy Misao and Joy Megumi are active volunteers for many projects, and just recently Callen Kitaure, one of the Hatakeyama’s gorgeous granddaughters, was selected The Center’s Queen, and represented our organization at the Nisei Festival.  The Hatakeyama are also closely associated with the West Covina Buddhist Temple, one of the many organizations who make their home at the Center.  Originally, there was no Temple in the area, and both Kim and his wife decided to start one, for the convenience of its residents.

“We lucked out,” says Kim.  All our three children are professionals.  Our son Kris, a graduate of Claremont College, Cal-Poly Pomona and USC, is an Electronics Engineer, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army.  Nancy is a graduate from UCLA; and Joy from San Jose State U. “Sadly, it seems to me that many of today’s kids don’t realize the need for the continuation of this place.   Sort of : ‘It’s here already, and we don’t have to pay for it.’  Often it looks as if us old timers—the old dreamers—are the ones who keep hanging to it...I don’t know… But we will survive. We have to show the younger families how we need and how we can use this place TO KEEP US TOGETHER.  To communicate this to everyone is our most important task.”

Yeah! Like in the gardening trades, it’s a matter of cultivating new ideas…and more people willing to own this place as “their beautiful garden.”

Kim and his wife Mary are celebrating Mary’s birthday at the ESGVJC Center.


1. With the help of other members of the Association, Frank Yamashita designed and landscaped the entire current grounds of the ESGVJCC.

2. Our Issei and Nisei ancestors created Centers such as ours, not just because of their gregariousness, but as a safe haven where they and their families could exercise their rights to speech, custom and tradition, free from the vexations of racial prejudice.

3. Until the 1952 controversial Walter-McCarran Immigration and Nationality Act was adopted, the prejudicial bars against naturalization of Asian-born peoples remained in our laws. So did many of the popular misconceptions about the Japanese.

*This story, now updated, first appeared in the East San Gabriel Valley’s Japanese Community Center’s “Newsette” in September 2007.

© 2007 Edward Moreno

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