By Alan Oda, AsAmNews Contributor
Declaring “we’re back!” Nisei Week returned to L.A.’s Little Tokyo, kicking off a week long celebration of the Southern California Nikkei (Japanese American) community.
Energized crowds lined up on First and Second Streets of Downtown Los Angeles on Sunday to watch the return of the parade and launch the 80th edition of one of the nation’s longest running ethnic festivals after two years of going virtual due to the pandemic.
Through August 21, the festival showcases free Japanese cultural events, activities and exhibits. Also included are music and entertainment, food, and other fun activities. The first Nisei Week was held during the Great Depression, with the goal of celebrating the emergence of the Nisei, the second generation of Japanese Americans and to bring new business to Little Tokyo. World War II internment interrupted the festival from 1942 – 1945, but otherwise continued the annual celebration.
“Our biggest concern was whether we could do this gathering safely,” said Nancy Okubo, co-President of the Nisei Week Foundation. “We were trying to navigate where we were in the pandemic.” The previous evening saw the crowning of Kristine Emiko Yada, Nisei Week Queen during a coronation program held at the Aratani Japanese American Theater.
“We were overwhelmed with joy last evening, so many people made time and made the effort to join us at the Theater,” said Okubo. The festival itself is a completely volunteer effort, consisting of individuals from businesses and corporations, community-based and religious organizations, college groups, fraternities and sororities who volunteer thousands of hours each year to plan and organize Nisei Week.
The parade highlights Japanese cultural arts including martial arts demonstrations, anime characters, classic and customized cars, children with special needs, and other community groups. Odori (public dancing) performances are a major crowd pleaser. “It was so wonderful to perform at the Nisei Week Grand parade after a three-year hiatus,” said Azuma Kikusue, a natori (master) in Nihon buyö (Japanese theater dancing). She served as the parade choreographer.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kikusue now lives in Kauai, returning to Southern California monthly to train her students as the shihan (master instructor) for the Azuma Ryu North America school. For Nisei Week, she extended her time Stateside to prepare her students and other dancers locally for the parade as well as lead practices in Little Tokyo for dancers who wanted to join the public troupe. “The crowd was especially appreciative and enthusiastic, cheering many times during our performance,” said Kikusue. “My dancers and I were able to enjoy the wonderful feeling of sharing our happiness with the audience!”
Among the local politicians riding in the parade was Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles. “This is one of my favorite parades in L.A., it’s an articulation of love of the community, (in fact) the Japanese American community tells the story of L.A. I’m glad to join them whenever they call,” said Garcetti. Other officials participating included Hilda Solis, L.A. County Supervisor; Akira Mori, Consul General of Japan; Miguel Santiago, Assembly Member 53rd District; Al Muratsuchi, Assembly Member 66th District; and Jeffrey Koji Maloney, Mayor, City of Alhambra. Also appearing was Toshinori Matsuo, Deputy Mayor of Nagoya, the Japanese Sister City of Los Angeles.
The crowd offered loud cheers and salutes for Japanese American veterans featured in the procession. The 442nd Battalion was honored, as well as veterans of the Vietnam, the Cold War, Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi, and Enduring Freedom. Some rode on military vehicles while others marched alongside their comrades.
One veteran served as the parade’s Grand Marshal. George K. Sugimoto was incarcerated at the Gila Relocation Center during his youth. After his older brother served with the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Sugimoto followed his brother in military service. He left Gila River in March, 1945, eventually being assigned to the 6th Army Occupational Forces, serving in Korea. He worked as an electrical engineer before he decided to start his own company manufacturing avionic components. For over six decades, KGS Electronics has continued to provide products to civil aviation, general and military aviation. Though semi-retired, Sugimoto still goes to the office daily while also volunteering for the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the Go For Broke National Education Center, and the Japanese American National Museum, among other local organizations.
Other parade marshals included Alex and Maia Shibutani, the bronze medalists for ice dancing during the 2018 Winter Olympics. The performance of the twins led them to become the first Asian Americans winning medals for their sport. Another marshal was Kellyn Acosta, a defensive midfielder for the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) of Major League Soccer. He also plays on the United States Men’s National Team, competing for a spot on the 2022 World Cup. Acosta has the potential to be the first player of Japanese heritage to represent the U.S. in the World Cup.
The Nisei Week Queen and her court were joined by their confreres from festivals in Northern California and Honolulu. The parade opened with the 2021 Nisei Week Queen and their court and closed with the 2022 Queen and court.
Reflecting on their post-pandemic return, Nisei Week co-President Okubo said “we’re so excited to be back. Local businesses have joined community efforts including the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center to revitalize Little Tokyo. We’re all working tirelessly to say we’re still here.”
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