CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: Nisei Week When Nisei Reigned

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By W.T. Wimpy Hiroto

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 25, 2010.)

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The curtain was drawn on the 2010 version of Nisei Week last Sunday with the traditional Li’l Tokio parade. I’m told the finale drew “a respectable” number of spectators while others graded it “disappointing.” Depends upon who is asked. Admittedly absent from the annual proceedings far too many years of late, CR2S relied on the Rafu’s special pictorial edition to garner a recap of the venerable showcase proceedings. And stir the ashes of celebrations past. And marvel at how the queen contest has become such a professional presentation.
My first after thought was the year Li’l Tokio merchants had the clout (and audacity) to make the Queen race a popularity contest based on $1-a-vote chits available only at participating businesses. A drink at Kawafuku earned an imbiber one vote; a sofa from Nisei Trading maybe a hundred. LA Mercantile, which did a lot of appliance  exporting to Japan, was a popular venue.  It’s been since bandied about that more sales were rung up the final week than many outlets did in a year. If memory serves an ace the vote count was conducted in the basement of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple with the interests of the two most prominent candidates present to ensure a correct count. And it was awfully close.

The winner was the daughter of a furniture store owner.

The monetary vote standard was scuttled the next year.

This year’s Rafu recap happened to include several interviews from past pageant winners that reigned during CR2S’s newspaper days: Em Yamada, June Aochi, Helen Funai, Akemi Tani, Faith Higurashi. Which certainly dates me, but they didn’t. (Excuse the omission of married names. I didn’t change my surname upon wedlock. Why should they?) In those days the highlight was an afternoon gathering at the Pasadena residence of the Consul General. And how can the years when Michi Takata mother-henned the candidates be forgotten?
Or the year an  also-ran NW princess was voted the next Rose Queen? The judges shall remain anonymous.

With each year’s renewal under the aegis of different organizations, the competition to outdo the prior sponsor was palatable-and productive. Whether a JACL production or JA Optimist vehicle, there was ever present the “Let’s Top Last Year” attitude. New features were added, popular introductions mixed with standard highlights: Sororities side-by-side with the matronly, youth groups vying for attention with veteran orgs, commercial versus community interests.

The all-encompassing carnival vied with the Queen race for attention and attendance. It eventually became a victim of its own success as churches, organizations and outlying areas concentrated on their own local version of fund-raising for a specific purpose or holiday. The growing concern for security and safety with the growing menace of gang warfare also played a role in the disappearance of the popular weekend highlight.

I do not join the handwringers who lament the slow demise of the annual celebration. I do believe in its aim and intention and do hope it survives in some sort of successful annual renewal. With Li’l Tokio no longer the social/cultural magnet of past decades and San-Yonsei scattered throughout the state, the community embrace no longer exists. A shame when you pause to reflect.

We elders mourn the passage of time and Far East Chop Suey, had only San Kwo Low for large gatherings,  later to find evening surcease in the triumvirate of New Chinatown’s Man Jen Low, Century City’s Yamato Restaurant and Hollywood’s Imperial Gardens. (All clients of CR2S who initially launched the practice of NW queen and court entourage being recognized and feted outside the confines of LT. Okay, it wasn’t earth-shattering but a trend-setter nonetheless.)

Today the world is an Easter egg.  You can go anywhere, do anything, buy everything,  literally choose your poison as the saying goes.
There are still speed and physical limitations but not much else. I’ve mentioned being followed on the streets of Beverly/Holmby Hills by city gendarmes until well past its boundaries in early ‘50s. Same experience when temporarily living at Doc Goto’s South Pasadena pad. A patrol car would slowly tail me up the winding road until I (triumphantly) turned into a driveway that overlooked the entire city.  In deference to the diligent cops, I would have to admit the car didn’t befit the neighborhood (nor the driver).

But let’s be real, folks.  Julia Roberts was once married to Lyle Lovett, you know.

Now, how in the world we got from Nisei Week to “Eat Love Pray” is beyond comprehension. Versatility might be one explanation. Nuts is another.

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W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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