Plenty of happiness: Tanoshii Fun Camp at Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute

Lizzie:I saw the pictures of the Tanoshii Fun Camp that you sent over and they were so cute, so I figured 'Why not make it a full piece?' instead of just popping the photos on our website. We are a business, but we're also investing back into communities. We do a lot of donations for schools and it's great to hear back. We love to find out what the kids are doing; how this is actually like benefiting the community. So I wanted to ask you, what is Tanoshii Fun Camp?

Nicole:So, Tanoshii Fun Camps are a week long. Summer day camp focuses on Japanese and Japanese American cultural heritage history. It's for kids ages seven to 10. We had 50 kids this year and yeah, we do different activities. The kids do craft activities. We have outside speakers come in and then we'll do other activities like cooking activities like this one. We made tsukemono, the cucumber pickles, this year too. We focus on a theme and this year we focused on was the Natsumatsuri, so the summer festival. Our director wanted the kids to have this experience of them going to a Japanese festival and being able to eat Okonomiyaki. So we did like a mini version of that.

Kids having fun at camp

Lizzie:So how did the Tanoshii Fun Camp get started? Like, whose brainchild was that?

Nicole:So this is our 12th year of Tanoshii. It was started by one of our board members. His name is Ray Shibata. He started 12 years ago with his wife and a couple of his friends who became a committee and then they developed this curriculum where Japanese and Japanese-American kids -of course, they don't have to be- but, where these kids can come and learn about their Japanese culture because a lot of the times, especially now, the more generations that have been in the US, the more removed from culture they are usually- the Japanese culture. So they may be Japanese, but they may not know anything about Japanese culture or they know very little of just because it's their great-great-grandparents that came from Japan and it's just harder to get that information. So Ray started this as a fun way for the kids to be able to enjoy these activities while learning about their heritage.

Lizzie:Is there any significance to the Gardena Valley JCI being here in Gardena? Like is this a historically important area for the Japanese-American community?

Nicole:So originally it wasn't in this location, but we were a Japanese language school and there were several in the area. And after a while, they merged together. So the regional, nearby Japanese language school kind of merged into one and into ours, so we have a Japanese language school here, but we became a cultural center. Gardena has a large Japanese and Japanese-American population, especially after the war when they were put into the concentration camps. When they came back, a lot of them came back to Gardena or they chose to come to this place afterward.

Lizzie:So as far as the okonomiyaki making, how did you choose okonomiyaki over takoyaki or...? Was it just easier for the kids to make?

Nicole:Our director came up with the idea. I know she wanted the matsuri theme, so she wanted a themed food item that the kids can make. We wanted the kids and counselors to make it, so we didn't want to make it too hard or too labor-intensive. We thought about yakisoba too but because of the ease of the pancakes, we chose Okonomiyaki.

Lizzie:And you did Osaka style, right?


Lizzie:Okonomiyaki has a really beautiful history, but it's also a little bit sad how it was a food of necessity. Is that something that like you bring up with the kids?

Nicole:No, we didn't this time around. We try to focus on the historical aspects of it, but we have to pick and choose what we teach them just because we're so crunched on time. So we focused more on the present-day aspect about how there are two different styles of Okonomiyaki and where it's enjoyed and if the kids have had it before and things like that.

Lizzie:What was that experience like making it with the kids? Did they take to it pretty well?

Nicole:Yeah, so we had kids cut the cabbage for us and then kind of mix the batter in for us. And then the counselors handled the fire part and they flipped it. But for a lot of the kids, they've never eaten it, mostly because the obons around here don't have any okonomiyaki or yakisoba since it's more, I would say, Japanese instead of Japanese-American food still. So a lot of the kids have never had it. Some of them have heard of it or seen it, but not really experienced it themselves. So in that scenario, it was really interesting for them to be able to try something new. Some of the kids were like, 'Why is there cabbage in here?' and they didn't know what it was gonna taste like, but they got to have a sense of what it's like.

Lizzie:That's really cool.


Lizzie:What was their overall reaction? Were they like, 'Oh, this is really good' or were they like 'This is weird'?

Nicole:Most of them really liked it. Some of them really, really liked it. They were like, 'Can we have seconds?' and they still had stuff on their plate and we were like, 'You have to finish [your plate] first'. Some of the kids really like the sauce- I'm not sure if it's maybe the texture that they didn't care for, but some of them were like, 'I like the sauce.' I would say like 80 to 85% of them just liked it. They were like, 'This is good'.

Lizzie:That's awesome. You kinda touched on that a little bit briefly, but what role does the GVJCI play in the community? I mean, I know there's the historical educational aspect, but [GVJCI is] a prominent member of the community. What does that look like?

Nicole:We're ever-evolving. We, of course, are a Japanese language school and we're a cultural center, so we have the senior classes around. We try to be this hub of everything we can cater towards Japanese and Japanese-American history, culture, heritage, um, just like the camp except for GVJCI in general, it's just on a bigger scale. We're trying to now work with the Japanese-speaking community because even like five years ago, we were very much like 90, 95%, just Japanese-American, like English speaking and we didn't have a Japanese-speaking staff until I came on. So we've been trying to gain more Japanese-speaking attendees to come to our location, get to know us, to show that we're open to everyone, not just like Japanese-American people and not just people who speak English.

During the day, we have the senior classes, we have hula and bingo and things like that, but we also open up our facility to the public most weekends. So that's what I do; I do public programs. So I put on some cultural workshops. Last weekend I did a shibori workshop, so the Japanese tie-dye. We also do kids programs that are cultural. So we do like kodomo no hi, Children's Day, or hina matsuri, Girls' Day. We also focus on historical Japanese/Japanese-American aspects, so every year we hold a day of remembrance, [for the] anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. So that's one of our biggest programs that we put on.

And then, of course, we have our matsuri- you can see our posters in the back. It's our biggest fundraiser. It's this very family-oriented, community-oriented, two-day/one-weekend thing where people can come out and it's almost like a family tradition or a family reunion for a lot of people because it's the one time that people will come out from maybe a little bit farther out to come to this location. Maybe they'll meet up with friends or they just bump into people. So we like to play this role of being this hub for whoever it is that wants to use our facility.

Lizzie:Like the facilitator of connections?


Lizzie:Are there a lot of extended families across the South Bay/L.A. area?

Nicole:Yeah. So when people moved back here from the war, everyone was in Gardena and didn't really go outside of that. But as you know, times went on and things got better, less racism and things like that, people started moving out. So now we have a big Torrance population. There are people in [Palos Verdes]. We still have a lot of people, mostly older now though, folks in Gardena still. We have people out in San Fernando Valley and Orange County. So it's kind of grown I guess, and the way that families move out and things like that. I think it's this like family network and I think Gardena is still one of the more prominent areas that people come back to. They have restaurants and businesses that they're known for and used to.

So there's just this community feel, and this is the central hub for the roots. We want to be. I think a lot of people, whether they still come here or not, have at one point in their lives utilized our facility. We have a lot of martial arts groups come in, so I do hear a lot of people say, when I tell them I work at the GVJCI, 'Oh, I used to do judo there when I was a kid', or 'My brother, blah, blah blah', or 'My cousin, blah, blah, blah'. So I think in some way or form, we try to be this... like, 'Oh yeah, I know that JCI', it's a connection.

Lizzie:That's really awesome. Yeah. Otafuku- we actually have a connection. Our [purchaser], her brother went to the Tanoshii Fun Camp.

Nicole:Oh, right, right, right. Yeah.

Lizzie:So for people who aren't of Japanese descent, what does this place represent? What can it represent? Multicultural education is so important and it's great that you guys are providing that. How do you teach that?

Nicole:So if anyone's interested in our programs or Japanese culture or anything like that, it's, of course, open to the public. We have a Japanese language school in the Japanese language. Our Japanese language school has a good amount of kids and adults who have no Japanese [ancestry] at all. They come because they're just plain interested. I know we have a family where the parents are not from the US but they're both from a foreign country and they met in Japan, so when they had a kid, they wanted them to learn Japanese. So none of them are Japanese, but they wanted to give the opportunity for their kid to learn in Japanese. I think their daughter comes here. So there are things like that. We have people come out to programs who aren't Japanese at all but are interested in either the culture aspect of it, like the workshops that we do, more of the fun stuff. We do also have a lot of people who are interested in the historical aspect of it, whether they're Japanese or not. So we have people come out to our Day of Remembrance or any of our film screenings that talk about the concentration camps and things like that. So there's, I think, a lot of opportunities. It's just that if you want to learn more about it, you just pick and choose what you want to learn about.