By MATTHEW ORMSETH
Sunday marked the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 Nisei Week Festival, the 75th observance of the historic celebration. First held in 1934 in an effort to draw the Nisei back to Little Tokyo, where Japanese-owned businesses were floundering in the nadir of the Great Depression, the festival has grown into Southern California’s longest-running ethnic celebration, drawing hundreds of participants and onlookers to Little Tokyo for the weeklong festivities.
This year’s Opening Ceremony was held at the Japanese American National Museum and led by mistress of ceremonies and last year’s Nisei Week Queen, Tori Nishinaka-Leon. Terry Hara, the 2015 Nisei Week Foundation president, opened the ceremony by thanking the foundation’s sponsors and volunteers; without their generosity and commitment to community, he explained, cultural celebrations such as Nisei Week could not exist.
Rev. Alfred Tsuyuki of Konko Church of Los Angeles led a Shinto purification ceremony of the altar, which was followed by an ondo dance demonstration from the Los Angeles Bando Ryu Japanese Classical Dance Group.
The 2014 Nisei Week court, composed of Nishinaka-Leon, First Princess Lindsey Emiko Sugimoto, Miss Tomodachi Ashely Akemi Arikawa, Princess Tiffany Akemi Hashimoto, Princess Melissa Sayuri Kozono and Princess Dominique Ariadne Mashburn, expressed their gratitude to the Nisei Week Foundation for the opportunity to serve on the court and reflected briefly on their most memorable experiences, which ranged from singing for residents at the Keiro Nursing Home to visiting Nagoya, Los Angeles’ Japanese sister city.
Following their statements, the past year’s court gave way to the unveiling of the 2015 Nisei Week Queen candidates, which this year consist of Michelle Kaori Hanabusa, 24, Sara Kuniko Hutter, 22, Kelsey Nakaji Kwong, 22, Karen Naza Mizoguchi, 23, Veronica Toyomi Ota, 23, Camryn Michiko Rie Sugita, 23, and Tamara Mieko Teragawa, 25. This year’s Nisei Week Queen will be revealed at the Coronation Ball, to be held at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo on Aug. 15.
Following the presentation of the candidates, Rev. Tsuyuki, aided by various community leaders and dignitaries, led the kagami-biraki ceremony, in which a cask of sake was broken open to ensure the good fortune of the festival. The tradition concluded this year’s Opening Ceremony, and officially inaugurated the 75th installment in Nisei Week’s long and illustrious history.
Kay Kayako Inose, who is being honored this year as a Nisei Week Pioneer, was heartened by the broadening appeal of Nisei Week, which, in recent years, has accrued a more diverse and youthful following among the larger Los Angeles community.
“So many people from all walks of life participate in the celebration, and are able to see and participate in Japanese culture and traditions,” she noted. “It’s grown so much. Younger people are more involved now.”
The festival spans an eight-day period and draws hundreds of participants and spectators from across the Southland. This year’s Nisei Week Festival, with the theme “Let the Good Times Roll,” begins on Aug. 15 with the seventh annual Tanabata Festival, which will bedeck Little Tokyo’s Central Avenue and the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art with vibrant kazari streamers.
The Grand Parade falls on the 16th of August this year, and features a nebuta float in the likeness of an enormous samurai warrior constructed with wood, paper, and LED lights as its finale of the parade. On Aug. 22, gyoza enthusiasts will square off at the JACCC Plaza for the ninth annual Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Competition in the hopes of besting last year’s winner, Joey Chestnut, who inhaled an astounding 384 gyoza in a mere ten minutes.
Finally, the Nisei Week Festival will come to an end on the 23rd of August with ondo street dancing along Little Tokyo’s First Street. This year’s grand marshal is Roy Yamaguchi, chef and founder of the popular Hawaiian-inspired Roy’s Restaurants. Contemporary taiko artist Kenny Endo will serve as parade marshal.
For more information, visit www.niseiweek.org.