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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 2, 2003

Japanese center prepares for new era

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The completion of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, built 10 years ago in Mo'ili'ili with borrowed money, shackled the nonprofit in ways that its new leaders don't want to repeat.

Dr. Fujio Matsuda, newly elected president of the board of trustees of the Japanese Cultural Center, wants a good fit between the Mo'ili'ili center and the community to prevent it from falling back into debt.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

And so, after successfully warding off foreclosure, they're moving carefully to rebuild the organization. They want a good fit between the center and the community that, they hope, will keep it from slipping back into debt.

That debt, which peaked at $9 million, had lingered for years. It took a crisis — the impending sale of a center built largely in tribute to Hawai'i's early Japanese immigrants — to galvanize a community that had grown far less close-knit and uniform in opinions and values since those pioneer days.

Fujio Matsuda, recently elected president of the center's board of trustees, was delighted with the expression of these diverse views at a recent pair of public meetings, although he admitted feeling disappointed that only about 100 people attended.

Matsuda, a former University of Hawai'i president who has presided over many contentious discussions, sat in the center's museum amid the plantation-era sets of the exhibit "Okage Sama De," a title that means "I am what I am because of you."

It's that kind of loyalty to old tradition that some who attended the meetings might endorse, along with the center's old mission statement pledging "appreciation and perpetuation of the Japanese culture and the legacy of the Japanese in Hawai'i."

"One person said the cultural center should interpret Japanese culture as it is," Matsuda recalled. "She said, 'I remember what my grandma told me, and that's what I want to teach my kids.' "

There are others, however, who leaped at the invitation to rewrite that mission statement; many aired those views not at the meetings but during the whirlwind fund-raising drive last fall, either while they were donating money or as explanation for why they withheld their support.

Some reminded the board that Japanese culture has been internationalized itself, with the younger generation adopting more Western habits and attitudes.

"Some people saw the JCCH playing an international role, similar to the East-West Center," said Brandon Hayashi, a new board member and chairman of the "vision" committee that is directing that mission statement rewrite. At 28, Hayashi belongs to the age cohort that, Matsuda said, the center wants most to attract.

"We were especially interested in the point of view from the young people," he said. "If the center is going to be relevant and viable, it's got to mean something to them."

Hayashi, a writer for the Hawaii Herald, said many of the donors who helped out with the effort to whittle away the center's debt come from the Neighbor Islands. Their views on how the center should run — including whether and how it could reach beyond its O'ahu headquarters — are going to count.

And that's why, Hayashi said, the board will dispatch representatives to hold similar meetings; these are being scheduled to begin in the next few weeks on Maui, Kaua'i and in East and West Hawai'i.

Increased participation by Neighbor Islands doesn't necessarily mean large expenses, he said. The center could enter into partnerships with Japanese cultural groups already established, rather than opening full-scale branch offices.

"There are already existing Japanese organizations," he said. "We want to work with the framework that's already there."

Once the mission is reframed, the programs committee will come up with the game plan, the governance committee will rewrite the bylaws to enable it and the finance committee will redraw a business plan. All of this, as well as the payment of remaining bills totaling about $300,000, needs to happen by the end of June, said Colbert Matsumoto, who headed the Committee to Save the Center fund-raising campaign and now is the board's vice chairman.

Success would represent an incredible quickening for an institution that previously seemed to lack the energy to chart a course out of financial trouble, said Alan Kawai, a Honolulu marketing consultant for unions and professional associations who has been an observer, and sometime critic, of the center.

Everyone agrees that the pit first opened when the center had raised about $16 million but borrowed $8 million more to build the second tower. But Kawai said it didn't have to grow as deep as it did.

"There was no reason for them to fall into that kind of state," he said. "They never did fund-raise (enough)."

Matsuda said the board at the time believed that the contract with caterer Flamingo Enterprises Inc. and other rental income would produce an adequate revenue stream to pay off the loan. In the first few years the loan was paid down to about $6 million.

But when the economy crashed in the mid-1990s, he said, the financially troubled Flamingo defaulted on its food-service contract. A replacement wasn't found for a long time, he said, further draining coffers.

Efforts to find donors continually fell short of the need until selling the buildings seemed the only solution, Matsuda said. Many of the former board leaders doubted Save the Center would succeed, he said.

Although some of them later resigned and cited conflicts because of their associations with banks holding the center's mortgage, Matsuda was reluctant to fault any individual or group of leaders. When the proposal to raise millions within months was floated by a group of board outsiders, he said, it seemed a pipe dream to most of those inside.

"When we decided we were going to try to raise the money, everyone's common sense told us, 'You can't do it,' " he said. "Our view was, 'You're probably right, but we've got to try anyway.'

"And to their credit, they gave us the chance," he added. "If the board had played hardball with us, we would have lost."

The trick now will be to avoid getting in too deep all over again. Revenue now can be spent on programs instead of debt payments, Matsuda said, which makes staying in the black easier. But potential pitfalls remain, he said: It would be foolish, for instance, to hire a large staff without the capital to support a hefty operating budget.

Kawai thinks it would be wise to establish an endowment that would help the center become self-sustaining without constant fund-raising. And he endorses the idea of clarifying the mission statement as a good step.

"They really got to put their heads together and decide who they are going to serve," he said. "Now the hope is they learned their lesson. They should be damned grateful that everyone rallied together."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.