By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
PASADENA — Erika Mariko Olsen, 22, was crowned 2011 Nisei Week Queen at the 71st annual Nisei Week Coronation held Saturday evening for the first time at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Olsen represents the Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute.
“I feel very excited and blessed,” said Olsen. “It’s a very big honor to have been selected and I hope I will be a good representative for the community.”
Olsen, whose parents are Paul and Rieko Olsen, graduated cum laude from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in music performance. She is an aspiring performer of the arts and looks forward to playing in leading musical and opera roles.
Olsen’s parents, beamed as they talked about their daughter. They described Erika as active, friendly and sociable from a young age.
“I had told her now that you’ve graduated college, go into a master’s program. She said, well, I’ve got other things. But this is better than a master’s degree,” said Paul.
Mimi Mitsuko Yang, 22, was named First Princess and Kay A. Yamaguchi, 25, was selected as Miss Tomodachi. The 2011 Princesses are Leeann Fumiko Fujinami, Jessica Makiko Kanai, Michi Renee Lew, Melissa Ayumi Nishimura and Amber Akemi Piatt.
The audience of more than 600 was welcomed to the Ambassador Auditorium, home of the Harvest Rock Church, by Pastor Gwen Gibson. The coronation was moved to Pasadena due to the closure of the Japan America Theatre for renovation.
Actress Tamlyn Tomita and news anchor David Ono served again as emcees of the evening, which featured a tribute to–in keeping with this year’s Nisei Week theme–“Honoring Our Community Heroes.”
The eight young women first appeared onstage in traditional kimono and performed the lively ondo classic “Kawachi Otoko Bushi,” accompanied by Marisa Kosugi of Minyo Station.
During their personal statements, many of the Court talked about ways they have come to terms with their Japanese American identity.
Yamaguchi, who represents the Gardena Evening Optimist and Loft Hawaiian Restaurant, spoke of feeling culturally different as a Shin Nisei.
“To me being Japanese American meant being mediocre at being Japanese and being mediocre at being American,” explained Yamaguchi, who said she found herself through studying in Spain.
Yang, representing the West Los Angeles JACL and Venice Japanese Community Center, found herself empowered through participation in the Nikkei Student Union, describing receiving an invite to the club as like “going to Hogwarts.”
Nishimura, representing the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council, acknowledged Hitoshi Sameshima, a MIS veteran, who was in the audience.
“Hitoshi, whose education was interrupted, inspires me to become a role model, like Hitoshi is to me,” said Nishimura.
Before the intermission, the young women were joined by 2010 Nisei Week Queen Lani Nishiyama and the 2010 Court for “We Salute You,” a tribute to the veterans of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.
The Nisei Week Queen and Court represent the Nikkei community at events throughout Southern California as well as in Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco and Seattle. Judges for the coronation included Koichi Kinoshita, president of the Japan Business Association; Dianne (Hamano) Kubota, 1961 Nisei Week Queen; actor James Kyson Lee; Kazuaki Sato, executive vice president Mitsubishi Motors North America; Justice Kathryn Doi Todd; and Akemi Kikumura Yano, president of the Japanese American National Museum.
In the second half, the young women returned to the stage in elegant, draping gowns by Tadashi, and were each asked how would they teach future generations about our community’s heroes of the past.
“One thing I would like to teach the community based on our heroes, is the spirit of gaman and ganbare, always trying your hardest and persevering no matter what is happening around you,” said Olsen.
Lew, who represents the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, shared that her grandfather was a member of the 442nd.
“I want to pass down to anyone I meet and my family, to honor our veterans and all the heroes is very important to our community,” said Lew.
At the evening’s conclusion the women gathered together to hear their names called and embraced Olsen as she was named 2011 Nisei Week Queen. Nishiyama returned to place the Queen’s crown and cape on Olsen, and she waved to the audience, who cheered for the entire 2011 Nisei Week Court.
Afterwards Olsen reflected on her heroes as she looks ahead to the upcoming year. She performs with the Grateful Crane Youth Singers and counts the late vocalist Sue Okabe, a former Minidoka internee, as one of her mentors.
“When I was growing up I took voice lessons with Sue and she used to be in the internment camps and she used to tell me that despite what was going on she would sing in the camps, and she would bring joy to others, despite their circumstances,” Olsen said.
“I’d like to get the younger generation more interested in learning about their history and getting more involved in traditional events, whether it be obon or Tanabata Festival or even if it’s an undokai (athletic festival).”