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J-TOWN BEAT: The View from Little Tokyo

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By GWEN MURANAKA

After Juli Yoshinaga was announced as the 2019 Nisei Week Queen, many of us at the Aratani Theatre turned to thoughts of her grandfather, George “Horse” Yoshinaga. Even though he has been gone for nearly five years, George’s voice and unique character are indelibly part of Little Tokyo.

Emcee David Ono immediately recalled interviewing Horse when he was working on a piece on Heart Mountain. Horse was one of the more noted Heart Mountain incarcerees and he earned much appreciation for his efforts to memorialize the assembly center at Santa Anita Racetrack.

In his youth, George would volunteer, and a photo of 1952 Queen Em Kato Yamada unmistakably shows Horse behind the wheel, waving and grinning wolfishly from ear-to-ear.

I wonder if Em could answer whether that was the beginning of their friendship. It is thanks to Em that the Queens’ reunion continues and from that has seen the formation of the Nikkei Women’s Legacy Association, which continues to support many important causes and organizations.

George and Archie Miyatake used to attend the luncheon, and if the women weren’t happy with comments he may have written in his column, one thing about Horse was that he was actually quite quiet and reserved in person.

Hard-working Rafu staff at the Nisei Week Parade: (from left) Junko Yoshida, Mario Gershom Reyes, Akari Harada, J.K. Yamamoto, Michael Hirano Culross, Mie Aso and Jun Nagata.

I’m not sure if this was because he had mellowed with age, but he hardly ever came across as brash as his cigar-chomping Horse’s Mouth persona.

He wrote two columns a week for The Rafu nearly without fail until his passing in 2015. Looking at some of his old columns, I see that Nisei Week is a frequent topic.

One year he mused: “Hey, maybe next year the festival might also select a ‘king.’ Then we could have a king and queen to rule over the yearly festival.

“Yeah, I know, some of you will probably say, ‘Are you out of your mind, Horse?’’’

As Horse might say, “heh, heh.”

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While I don’t think you’ll see a Nisei Week “King” anytime soon, the court has changed in ways to reflect how much the Japanese American community has evolved over the decades.

The court members in 1935 were Alice Watanabe, Miye Fujioka, Fukiko Hori, Kay Okamoto and Mary Ota. Today the court consists of Ariel Mai Imamoto, Emily Yuiko Ishida, Mia Masai Lopez, Juli Yoshinaga, Kara Chizuru Ito, Marika Kate Gotschall and Kayla Sachiko Igawa.

Besides being Japanese American, they are multicultural, multigenerational and even Latinx. In recent years, many of the candidates have been Shin Nisei and quite fluent in Japanese. The old template of Issei, Nisei, Sansei is shifting and what comes next is embodied by these young women.

Nisei Week Queen Em Kato waves to the crowd as George Yoshinaga drives the car during the 1952 Nisei Week Grand Parade.

I think it was Craig Ishii, when he was executive director of Kizuna, who said the mission of the youth leadership organization was to create a pipeline of young JA leaders.

In its own way, I think that is what the queen coronation does for Nisei Week. It gets young people, and often their parents, involved in the festival and many continue to volunteer years after their time wearing the tiara.

I wish that we here at Rafu had some similar pipeline of young journalists to whom we could pass down some of our accumulated experience. Mario Reyes celebrated 30 years covering the JA community and next year will be my 20th here. I’m not sure who will follow us once we are gone.

This might be where Horse would suggest we have a Nisei Week-style pageant to crown a Miss or Mr. Rafu Shimpo.

Actually, no thanks.

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To an outside observer it probably seems we take this whole Nisei Week Festival too seriously (queens, tiaras, parades etc.), but this is because Nisei Week is one way to mark the passage of time and changes within the Japanese American community.

Next year’s 80th anniversary will be another time to assess where the Japanese American community is and where it’s headed.

For the 50th anniversary, Nisei Week turned to journalists such as Naomi Hirahara, Henry Mori, Takeshi Nakayama and Harry Honda to write about the community. It’s an invaluable resource and an interesting glimpse at Little Tokyo before institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum were completed.

In my years working in Little Tokyo, I’ve known all of them, but worked most closely with Tak and Harry, who was a mentor during my years at Pacific Citizen.

For his piece, Harry looked back at the early years of Little Tokyo and a map from the first Nisei Week in 1933/34 shows how much the neighborhood has changed. Notably, Rafu Shimpo back then was located on Los Angeles and Second Street. It was forced to relocate in 1951 because of Parker Center. Other businesses such as Fukui Mortuary and Fugetsu-do are still around, and religious institutions such as Koyasan, Nishi Hongwanji and Zenshuji continue to serve as vital sanctuaries.

What will be here if the map is drawn again in 21 years for a 100th Nisei Week? The planning for the subsequent decades is happening now, at places like Go For Broke National Education Center, which secured a lease to develop their long-sought headquarters; at the Terasaki Budokan; and with the folks working to buy legacy properties through the Little Tokyo Community Investment Fund.

As an aside, amidst all the renewed Korean-Japanese friction, it should be noted that one of the strongest advocates for JA veterans was Col. Young Oak Kim, longtime Go For Broke chair and a hero of both communities.

Hopefully Rafu Shimpo and a new generation of journalists will still be here to cover the 100th Nisei Week, but that will take considerable planning in the present. I think the key words for most institutions in the JA community to consider now are “succession,” “sustainability” and “strategic planning.”

Harry dutifully reported back in 1990 of community-based projects that would eventually become JANM and Union Center for the Arts, home to East West Players and Visual Communications.

He wisely wrote: “We owe these far-sighted citizens our gratitude for conserving a tangible piece of Little Tokyo, a neighborhood which the Issei developed and the Nisei nurtured with its annual midsummer Japanese festival with an American accent.”

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Well, let’s leave with something good to eat.

Anyone who has read my column knows that my husband Eric loves to cook and bake. Another new tradition at the Nisei Week queens’ reunion is that Eric makes the desserts. This year he baked some macarons and hand-dipped chocolate strawberries.

Chicken barg with saffron rice and khoresh bademjan (eggplant stew).

Lately, he has been cooking some delicious Persian food. He recently bought a mortar and pestle, and has been grinding up spices like coriander and cumin. The other night, he ground some precious saffron and added it to the rice, turning it a sunny yellow.

When I lived in Japan, it seemed they were always talking about the Silk Road, the ancient land route that ran from Europe to Asia. The other night, we ate barg, a marinated chicken that he barbecued, with a stew of eggplants and tomatoes that were grown in our friend Norman Naritoku’s garden.

It’s amazing that the old spice trade is connected to the amazing meal we had the other day. In the hands of a capable cook, all of this is possible.

Thanks, Eric!

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Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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