APA Spotlight: Bill Watanabe, Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Bill Watanabe, for the past 30 years, has been the Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a multipurpose social welfare agency in the Little Tokyo district in downtown Los Angeles. Starting as a one-person office, Bill, together with the Board of Directors, has developed a comprehensive program of social services, housing and community development activities, with a combined staff of over 150 employees and hundreds of volunteers.

Bill received his BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cal State Northridge.  In 1972, he made a career change and received his Masters in Social Work from UCLA and has since been an active member of the Asian Pacific community in Los Angeles.

Bill has been President of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON), the largest social service network in the Asian community, and is the founder of the Asian Pacific Community Fund which has awarded over $1.5 million in grants. He has also been President of the Asian Pacific Health Care Venture, and has served on the Board of the California Association of Nonprofits and chaired the statewide Nonprofit Policy Council of California.

Bill has served eight years on the board of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and serves on the Advisory Board of the UCLA Center for Civil Society, and has concluded a term on the Union Bank Advisory Board for community reinvestment. He is also a co-founder and former Board member of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development.  He has also served on the national Board of Amnesty International USA, a worldwide human rights advocacy organization.

Locally, he has served for many years as the Board Chairman of the Evergreen Baptist Church of San Gabriel Valley, one of the largest Asian American Christian churches in the southland.

Bill and his wife have a daughter, and they live in Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles. He enjoys trout fishing, trivia, and Star Trek.

The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) provides such services as counseling, transportation/translation program for seniors, peer support groups, emergency assistance, health and consumer education, small business counseling, affordable housing, child care programs, and community/economic development.

In recent years, LTSC has:

  • built or renovated hundreds of units of affordable housing for seniors and families in downtown or central LA
  • revived an abandoned historic church into a visual arts center, and home to the nationally renowned East West Players
  • renovated a 100 year-old restaurant and hotel building, contributing to the vitality of Little Tokyo and Downtown Los Angeles
  • helped over 200 Asian Americans seek life-saving bone-marrow matches, and recruited over 160,000 potential marrow donors

What is the mission statement of your life?
I am a devoted Christian so I guess my life mission would be the two great Biblical commandments to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?
During my college days in the 1960’s there was great turmoil going on in society with the hippies and flower power, Black and Brown and Yellow Power, the Vietnam War, the great Civil Rights movement, and JFK’s stirring challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” and the development of the Peace Corps. Though these were dramatic times and many of my friends were involved in the community but I ended up majoring in engineering and after graduation, I quickly realized it was a bad fit for my skills – rather my lack of skills in this field – and so I switched to social work and got my MSW from UCLA.  Part of my motivation to do social work was my Christian faith – it was directly in line with “loving my neighbor” and desire to do community service and change the world for the better and I was also heavily influenced by the Autobiography of Malcolm X which opened my eyes to seeing the world in an entirely different perspective.

In 1979, me and some community service colleagues started the Little Tokyo Service Center to be a comprehensive multi-purpose community service agency. We got a small grant from the Japanese American Community Services (JACS), which hired me as the first staff, and away we went!  After 30 years, we now have many service programs with over 100 paid staff and many volunteers so that we can be a comprehensive service program, which was our original goal. I have never regretted changing from engineering to social work and count my blessings every day to be involved in a work that I love, engaged with colleagues whom I respect and love.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?
I have no idea, and have a hard time even thinking about it. For much of my young adult years, I wore black-rimmed glasses so it would have to be someone who looks good in black-rimmed glasses.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?
My agency has a website so if you Google the Little Tokyo Service Center (or go to www.LTSC.org) you can find out all about our agency and the work that we do. I am also very happy to meet directly with people who are interested in doing community service, either as staff or as a volunteer, and to show them our agency and introduce them to our work so we can find a good fit for people and their skills.  My direct number is 213/473-1607 and my email is BW[a]LTSC.org so anyone can contact me if they are interested in getting engaged and doing some meaningful and fulfilling work.

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?
This is a big question – but I am confident the APIA community will continue to grow and become a bigger and more major and more powerful and influential force in American society. I hope that our future generations will be able to succeed in blending the best of our API cultural values and traditions with the best of American values and traditions and create a vital and strong Asian American identity and lifestyle that will help lead and strengthen our country.  One of the greatest assets and resources of America has been the drive and energy and cultural values brought by the immigrant generations of past years (even though many Americans now want to demonize new (often illegal) immigrants as the source of our current problems). There will be high levels of out-marriage taking place within the APIA communities – Asians marrying other Asians or non-Asians, and again, there will be a blending of cultures, races, values, and traditions.  The challenge is not to sacrifice one’s cultural heritage and values but to appreciate and live out what each culture brings to a multi-racial or multi-ethnic family.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?
I will speak from my personal experience of changing from engineering to social work.  First, if possible, pick a career or profession doing what you really believe in and care about because you may end up doing it for a majority of your life and we each only get a limited allotment of days and years.  I ignorantly went into engineering because it seemed like (in the 1960’s) an interesting field that paid well and had job security (these are all good things and may be right for those with the right disposition for engineering) but deep down, it was not my passion and not within my skills. If you are not sure what is your passion or “calling in life”, then try different things to see what clicks for you.  Maybe volunteer here and there, or take different classes but make a plan to find your niche and what makes you happy to the core. I love social work – I love going to work – I feel fulfilled every night when I go to bed with the work I am doing, and feel happy to go work the next morning.  Sometimes I wished I made more money or could enjoy more material things – but all in all, to love what you do is the greatest reward of all and that is more than enough.  I would also urge young professionals to try to have good balance in their lives – spreading time for their work, their families, their friends, serving the community, and taking care of yourself and your own physical, emotional, mental, and especially spiritual needs.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?
I am not a “foodie” and have sort of a “food-amnesia” where I usually forget what I eat soon after I have eaten. On the other hand, as a child growing up in a traditionally Japanese home, I did not experience many American foods til later in life and thus have a good recall of the first time I tasted things – like a vanilla shake, cotton candy, crispy bacon, ovaltine, chocolate-covered raisins. I enjoy the Japanese New Years food like mochi and ozoni each year – which is a good way to mark the passage of an old year into the new year, and is something my family did each year as I was growing up.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?
I said I don’t classify myself as a foodie; I do love a good steak, even though I know it is not the best for me nor for the world in terms of the environment.

Know someone we should highlight on 8Questions? Send an email with their name and contact info or website

Thanks for rating this! Now tell the world how you feel - .
How does this post make you feel?
  • Excited
  • Fascinated
  • Amused
  • Disgusted
  • Sad
  • Angry

About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
This entry was posted in APA Spotlight. Bookmark the permalink.