By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
In the southern part of Wakayama Prefecture, there is a little-known small village called Esumi. Although many people, including some locals, don’t know about it, it is a special place for those who gathered at Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance on Jan. 19.
The Esumi Sonjinkai was founded in 1923 by immigrants from the village but was interrupted by World War II. After the war, Yaemon Minami, known as the “Lettuce King” in Santa Maria, Yataro Minami, Sannosuke Madokoro, and others reformed the organization in 1959.
Ever since, the members have gathered each year at the New Year’s party and summer picnics. These events honor the group’s pioneers and inaka (hometown) while offering a chance to appreciate Esumi history, culture, and dialect.
At this year’s Shinnenkai, president Mari Shirai, who was born and raised in the village until she was eight years old, said, “Our Sonjinkai is very fortunate to be able to continue to hold these New Year’s parties and summer picnics every year for 55 years.
“However, only a small percentage of the original members are left. As Charlie Hamasaki said at the Terminal Islanders’ New Year’s party, we too are looking for young blood to help keep Esumi alive. All of us, young and old, must get involved and stay involved to ensure that Esumi Sonjinkai is here for years to come.”
Shirai asked for everyone’s help.
Gene Aoki served as master of ceremonies. Shogo Fujii introduced the new officers. And Hatumi Inouye shared the annual financial report with the members.
The highlight of the luncheon was a celebration of members who turn 80 (Sanjyu) and 88 (Beijyu) years old this year. Keiro honorees for 2014 are: Frances Hamanaka, Mitsuo Koyama, Fumiyo Minami, and Isamu Shimomaye for Sanjyu, and Midori Hamanaka, Sue Izumi, Mitsugu Minami, Akiko Uyeno, and Yoshiaki Yamamoto for Beijyu.
The participants also enjoyed Japanese songs performed by L.A. Kayo Club and children’s odori.
Alison Minami, a great-granddaughter of the “Lettuce King,” recently joined the group. She told The Rafu, “I grew up on the East Coast. I didn’t have a lot of extended family, so I have always been interested in family history and histories about Japanese Americans.”
When Minami attended an event at the Japanese American National Museum a few months ago, she was seated next to a gentleman who was from Wakayama. She introduced herself and told him that her father’s family was also from Wakayama. The man told her, “Oh, your great-grandfather sponsored me to come to America.”
“As somebody who didn’t grow up with a lot of close relatives, I really like being a part of the Japanese American community in California. It inspires me to reflect on the legacy of hard work that generations before me really went through,” said Minami, explaining the reason she decided to join Esumi Sonjinkai.
At the event, Minami met a woman whose great-grandfather came to America with Yaemon Minami and was his neighbor in Central California. “A story like that touches me. There’s a lot of history and legacy that’s important to honor.”
Minami is looking forward to finding out more about her family history as well as the history of Japanese Americans.
The Esumi Sonjinkai’s next event will be its summer picnic on Sunday, June 29, at George Bellis Park in Buena Park.