New York Interview #1 Tommy Tomita

New York Interview

I'm really happy to see you in NY.

October 11 (Thu), 2007

#1 Tommy Tomita

Representative of Harlem Connection Inc./Music producer
Organizer of Harlem Japanese Gospel Choir (New York City NPO)
(He's been in th US since '85)


I got shot twice.
I faced countless holdups.

My Eyes Tokyo bring you interviews with mainly Japanese people living and working in US. We've met four persons in New York and three in Los Angeles. Let's explore their points of view on America.

Now we introduce you to Tommy Tomita who has been in Harlem, the black people's residencial area in Manhattan for about 20 years. He's contributed to the community with donations and volunteer activities. Also he's introduced black culture to Japanese tourists for a long time and become the only Japanese board member of the Apollo Theater, a sanctuary of black music. He's helped Japanese singers' stage debut at the Apollo Theater.
On the other hand, he's been producing the "Harlem Nights" in Japan and introducing Harlem musicians to Japanese people.

*Interview at Tommy's House (259 West 139th Street, Manhattan NY)

Tommy's history: Click

Before reading our talks, please read; article #1#2


I wanted to enjoy the real jazz.

I entered the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics in luge. So I'm robust.
After that, I opened jazz clubs in Roppongi, Tokyo. Jazz flowered in Japan so those clubs have flourished very much. But I saw some foreboding signs of the bubble economy in '82 or '83. So I closed them and came to New York.
I love jazz and I visited here many times before. But I wanted to enjoy the real jazz. When I managed my clubs, a number of young people and foreigners were increasing. Then there were many, many people in Roppongi area. I didn't like such a situation, so I quit my business.

People took aim at Japanese.

I used to be in SoHo and Greenwich Village and I went to all of jazz clubs in downtown Manhattan. Then I started to go to Harlem. I went there many times so Harlem residents suggested me to come.
At that time, there were no Japanese in this area and people didn't know about Japan at all. So I had a tough time. I was exposed to dangerous situations. some times.
I got shot twice. Also I faced countless holdups. People took aim at Japanese. Do you remember what former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone said? He mentioned something about the intellectual level of black people and Puerto Ricans and it fed fire into them. They always saw us as their enemies so it was terrible.
But there is real jazz and real gospel here. There are as many as 250 churches in Harlem. I listened to gospel music at churches every week and got into their culture. After all was said and done, I settled down here.

The world's best things and its worst things.

Music is my lifework. Listening to jazz has been my favorite thing since a long time ago.
I knew jazz very well and I showed my friends around some spots in Harlem. It led me to organize the jazz tours. When the publisher of Japanese travel guide started its New York Edition in '88, I edited it. After that, my Harlem tours became a big hit. They were very popular among Japanese tourists. We needed motorcoaches everyday.
New York is a "Melting Pot" so there are many kinds of people and many kinds of cultures. And there are both world's best things and its worst things in New York. Everything is standardized in Japan, but there are many people who have various backgrounds in Harlem and New York. I felt it was so interesting.

Harlem Nights

We hold the concert called "Harlem Nights" once a year at Landmark Hall in Yokohama, near Tokyo. This is the event we introduce Harlem musicians to Japanese people. We have been doing it since '94 and it enjoys extraordinary popularity. Some Japanese asked us to introduce excellent Harlem musicians who were not well-known in Japan and we started that event. It's a sellout every year. We do it every year besides '01, '02 and '03. When the concert is held, I go to Japan.

Posters of "Harlem Nights"

We will do the concerts in four cities next year (2008). It's becoming increasingly popular every year. I also look forward to staying the luxury accommodation. Musicians are also happy staying there.
I am busy every time I go back to Japan because my friends and musicians come to my room and enjoy the great view. So I can't get out of my room. But I enjoy it.

This community is still closed.

What I like in New York is that you can enjoy music everywhere. You can enjoy many free concerts in summer and there are many excellent musicians in Harlem who are not famous among Japanese. You can enjoy their live performances.
On the other hand, It's not very safe. New York is becoming a safe city and many Japanese visit here. But it's a superficial safety and New York is still unsafe. You have to check out safe places and unsafe places in NY.
Japanese tourists cannot come to Harlem by themselves so they come to me first. We choose safe spots and take them to those so they don't encounter danger. But you must not go out late at night. This community is still closed.

People help each other in Harlem.

When I came here, we had a difficult time. But I could get Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Excellence Award from the Civic League, the black people's organization. Harlem is "give-something-back community" so we have to give back some of our profits to this community.
People help each other in Harlem. It's like Asakusa, old town in Tokyo. So I also contributed some of my profits to this community because I made much money by organizing Harlem tours. I'm still doing it. We take tap dancers and jazz musicians to nurcing homes in Harlem and show elderly people their parformances. And we invite nursing home residents to dinner. People appreciate our activities and we could receive an award.
After receiving it, how Harlemites felt about me has changed. We could do that quietly, but we had to appeal what we did to residents in order to live here.

Those who fight against addiction to drugs by singing.

Japanese musicians and Harlem musicians are totally different. As for jazz, it came from US and we've learned it. So Japanese jazz blossomed by taking American real jazz as its model. I feel it's still a kind of imitation.

IMGP5780.jpg IMGP5782.jpg
A sanctuary of black music "Apollo Theater"

Gospel has an element of religion. The members of choir express their appreciation to God for overcoming addiction to drugs. So you are touched by their voices. (Note: All the members of ARC Gospel Choir are addicted to drugs, former gowsters, or involved in drugs in one way or another)
All of members of ARC involved in drugs. They rehearse twice a week. That's overwhelming. You will be surprised at their rehearsals. They sing for treatment so it's really overwhelming.

ARC Gospel Choir's powerful and touching performance!

We can't try to compete with them.

As for gospel, our spiritual roots and their spiritual roots are totally different. Gospel originated in the history of aggrieved black people. That history is rooted in their hearts so their approaches to gospel are totally different from ours. Gospel is gospel, and it has an element of religion. We can't try to compete with them on that aspect.
People of the Baptist Church think that making a joyful noise rejoices God's heart. Almost of their black churches are Baptist. If they did it at the Roman Catholic churches, they would get yelled at because people have to be quiet there. That's the fundamental difference between white people's church and black people's church.
Many people die at churches every year. They get excited and they die of a heart attack. But it's the best way to meet the Maker. Then people are called to God.

Japanese people are overwhelmed by real gospel.

People in Japan can check out things related to jazz or whatever. There are a large number of "jazz fanboy" in Japan. But they don't listen to the real American jazz.
Also people learned about gospel through the film called "Sister Act" and they thought that's the gospel. But that's not true. There are 250 churches in Harlem and each of them has each community. You can't find that situation in Japan at all.
People in Japan learned jazz or gospel by collecting information from such movie as "Sister Act". The church in that movie is fantasized. It's neither Baptist, Methodist nor Roman Catholic. They learned gospel through that movie, so they are overwhelmed by real gospel.
Nowadays many tour companies in Japan organize Harlem tours. They also show people around this area but we're trying to be different and better than those. They tell tourists that Harlem is still dangerous. But we've taken tourists to Harlem community and introduced them to our Harlemite friends. That's our style.

I will die in this place.

I will be here for the rest of my life. People here think that Japanese people stay in NY for only a few years because they think almost of the people from Japan are businesspersons. So my friends sometimes ask me when I go back to Japan. I feel sad every time I'm asked that. I say I will die in this place and they stop worrying.


What is New York to you? And what is Harlem to you?

New York is an anything-goes city.

I came here because I loved jazz. New York is the origin of modern jazz which is loved by people all over the world now. Also Harlem is the roots of jazz. This area is the birthplace of jazz. I want to be here because jazz is originated right here.

Here is where the roots of my favorite music is.
I've found it in Harlem.

I devote my time to listening jazz and gospel everyday. So I would be very happy if I could do that for rest of my life. I want to immerse myself in the real jazz.

I think I would be really happy if I could immerse myself in the real jazz and gospel.

Tommy's Links

Japan Times' article about him:

New York Times' article about him:

Gospel workshop (Article):

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