By ARTHUR NAKANE, Rafu Contributor
“When you know you will cry, walk with your head up high
So the tears will never fall from your eyes … “
(English translation of the Japanese song “Sukiyaki”)
In July of 1963 I came from Seattle with my ukulele on my knee. I was a student looking for a summer job. I figured Los Angeles should have something for me.
I checked into Masago Hotel on Second Street near San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo.
In the lobby I saw a large poster advertising Nisei Week. The friendly manager explained this huge annual Japanese festival to be held in mid-August.
I also saw another ad that was looking for singers for an amateur contest as a part of the festival. It caught my attention and interest since I had never been in such an event. I would love to sing for fun, but not in public.
However, on the train from Seattle, I was repeatedly asked to sing the popular Japanese song “Ue o Muite Arukoh,” which was titled “Sukiyaki” for American record buyers. It became No. 1 in the spring of 1963.
I could sing more than 100 popular American songs, which helped me improve my English and pronunciation.
But the singing contest theme was old Japanese songs. Although I knew many of them, few were in my repertoire.
I only had a few days to practice when I finally chose one song and submitted my entry.
I knew the melody well, but was unsure of the lyrics when the contest took place at the old Nishi Hongwanji Temple, now the Go For Broke National Education Center, at First Street and Central Avenue.
With the piano accompaniment by Miss Eiko Matsui and MC Matao Uwate standing by, I was doing well.
Suddenly in the middle of the song, my memory went blank. I stopped as the audience gasped.
I had to get off the stage, embarrassed.
When the names of six finalists among 26 contestants were announced, my name was included, to my surprise.
In the next 10 minutes or so I did my best to memorize the whole lyrics.
When my turn came up, I did well until I hit that same dramatic high and long note. Then my memory went out again. The audience cried out.
I finished dead last of the finalists. I felt embarrassed but not disappointed. I knew other singers sang much better than me.
A few months later, Mr. Oshige, who was one of the judges of the contest, asked me to join his amateur band, Sho-Tokyo (Little Tokyo) Band.
I was flattered and ready to go to their practice after my dishwashing job at Kabuki Restaurant in Crenshaw when the owner found out and offered me a singer/guitarist job there.
The first song I sang was “Sukiyaki.” By observing some diners were not Japanese, I decided to translate the lyrics into English. Since then I have translated 300 Japanese songs.
The first time I saw the extravagant Nisei Week Parade, I was very much impressed, and wished someday I could participate.
Many years later my children enjoyed the parade as well, having fruity snow cones and munching on sweet-bean Imagawa yaki.
My wife Rosemarie, half Irish and half Czechoslovakian from Ohio, loved Japanese foods and culture. She made sure our six children would appreciate their Japanese heritage.
She even put some of my sons and daughters in the Nisei Week Baby Show. She was disappointed that none of them were selected. But it really didn’t matter to me. Just to see them on the stage among other cute-looking kids made me very proud, thinking back to the day I arrived in L.A. with practically nothing.
In 1997 I finally decided to join the parade. The organizers were kind enough to find me a spot.
My dear friend Mike Sakamoto, who was filming my first documentary, “Secret Asian Man,” gathered some volunteers from his filming crew to push my float loaded with my one-man-band setup.
I sang my rendition of “Sukiyaki” while going down the parade route in Little Tokyo. My heart was bursting with pride and joy. No choking this time.
The 17-minute black-and-white film, which ends with a short segment of my parade appearance, received rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival (2000). It was used as an opening film for the highly anticipated and most-talked-about feature-length documentary “Eyes of Tammy Faye.” It was shown eight times, instead of once for all other short films, in the sold-out theaters in Park City, Utah.
The film and my impromptu performance during the intermission was mentioned favorably in The Los Angeles Times. Even a highly respected film critic, the late Roger Ebert, came to congratulate me and took a photo of me to put in his online column. Comedienne Roseanne Barr was impressed enough to invite me to her TV talk show soon after she saw the film.
My appearance on her show led to “Jimmy Kimmel Live” a few years later. You may enjoy this segment on YouTube.
After a serious neck injury in 2013, I became just a shell of my old one-man band, too embarrassed to be in the Nisei Week Parade.
But as more and more people encouraged me to get in the parade, I finally decided to give it a try last summer, riding in an electric wheelchair.
So here I was, this time with my karaoke machine on my knee. I sang “Sukiyaki” in both Japanese and English, waving a Japanese flag and an American flag.
Around the corner of Second Street and San Pedro Street, where everything started 56 years ago, my son, my two daughters and several of my grandchildren were cheering me on as I was singing to the spectators who welcomed my comeback.
Unfortunately, this year’s parade is likely to be canceled. But I proudly say, “I shall return!” Life goes on and the beat goes on. And my spirit will never die.