By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
It is well into the evening at Keiro, and the members of the Nisei Week Court are just beginning ondo practice. Dressed in crisp white and blue yukata, the young women line up and dance to the music under the watchful eye of instructor Loryce Hashimoto.
“They’re doing really good, their schedule is so full, but they never give up,” said Hashimoto, whose professional dance name is Bando Hirokaori.
Before the lights go up at the Ambassador Auditorium or the floats ride down Second Street, volunteers prepare for months in advance for the annual Japanese festival. As Nisei Week enters its 71st year, the two-week festival is the largest event on the Nikkei calendar, bringing together Japanese Americans, as well as others, to celebrate the community’s rich heritage.
The Nisei Week festival has become more diverse and weathered the ups and downs, including the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the recent economic downturn that has not spared Little Tokyo. However Nisei Week has persisted despite the hardships.
Rev. Mark Nakagawa, who is serving his first year as Nisei Week Foundation president, recalled first coming to the Nisei Week carnival as one of the young yogores. Today he is senior minister of Centenary United Methodist Church, staging point for the Grand Parade.
“As I reflect back, the heart and strength of the JA community is in the organizations and institutions, churches, temples and VFW halls. And in organizations such as Nisei Week that don’t own a physical building,” said Nakagawa. “What keeps them going is the commitment, spirit and dedication of the people who belong to it.”
For the young women of the Nisei Week Court it has been a crash course on everything from Japanese cultural classes to public speaking, dance and current events. A team of volunteers, many of whom served on the court themselves, help guide the women through the experience.
“We give them the tools to feel confident and successful at Nisei Week and also for the rest of the year,” said Michelle Suzuki, who has chaired the Queen and Coronation Program committee since 2003.
Suzuki noted that among the volunteers is Michi Sujishi, a kimono instructor, who started volunteering in 1964. She dresses the girls in kimono for coronation, parade and the Pioneer Luncheon in addition to teaching kimono etiquette.
The hours of work culminate in the transformation of the women, who will serve on the Nisei Week Court. They are joining a unique sisterhood that goes back to the beginnings of the festival.
Leeann Fujinami, who is representing the San Diego Japanese American Citizens League, said being a member of the court has helped her get in touch with her JA roots.
“When we moved to San Diego I lost touch with that, what’s been the best part for me is being able to get really involved,” said Fujinami.
All the members of the court point to the friendships they’ve made, both within the court and among the Nisei Week volunteers.
“When I’ve talked to former court members, they say how wonderful it is getting close to their group of girls, they’ve bonded and become like sisters. It sounds really clichéd but it is actually really turning out to be that way. It’s a nice experience,” said Mimi Yang, the candidate representing West Los Angeles JACL and Venice Japanese Community Center.
Fun Facts About the Nisei Week Court
The court has attended many Obon festivals this summer, and of course, sampled the great food. Melissa Nishimura and Michi Lew’s favorite Obon food is dango; while both Kay Yamaguchi and Erika Olsen said chili rice. For Jessica Kanai, it was a tie: Spam musubi and Chinese chicken salad.
Amber Piatt said that traveling to Japan, which she will do as part of the Nisei Week Court later this year, has been on her “bucket list.” She also wants to try zip-lining in Costa Rica. Mimi Yang said she would like to volunteer abroad; while Leeann Fujinami wants to visit Africa and Yang said she would like to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
For Yamaguchi, her role model is her grandmother Ei Yamaguchi, who lives in Tokyo; Piatt looks up to her grandma Sally Hamamoto, “Sally from the Valley,” and Fujinami also pointed to her grandmother, Fumie Yahiro. Nishimura, who volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum, mentioned longtime museum volunteers Mary Karatsu and Hitoshi Sameshima.
Olsen, who studied voice with Sue Okabe and performs with Grateful Crane, said she can’t live without music. Nishimura can’t live without her dog Colbie, a shorkie (shi tzu/yorkie mix) and of course, French fries. Lew, a member of Montebello Plymouth Congregational, said her faith in God is what keeps her going.
Kanai fessed up to being a band geek in high school, playing the flute; while Yang said she was an anime nerd. Yamaguchi has been to 14 different countries. Piatt is scared of goldfish and Fujinami has a fear of birds. No animal phobias for Olsen, she knows how to gut a fish!