From left: Akiko Agishi, Chris Aihara, Sakaye Aratani, Mae Matsumoto, Lily Miyata

The Downtown Los Angeles Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen League and the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California have selected five outstanding Japanese American community leaders for the 2013 Women of the Year Award: Dr. Akiko Agishi, Chris Aihara, Sakaye Aratani, Mae Masako Matsumoto, and Lily Yoshiko Miyata.

This year’s luncheon event will be held at the Quiet Cannon, San Antonio Room, 901 N. San Clemente, Montebello, on Sunday, May 5, at 12:30 p.m.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Women of the Year, this event will also include entertainment. Past honorees are encouraged to attend. 

Dr. Akiko Agishi

Born in Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1939, Akiko Agishi is the third of six children born to the late Mr. and Mrs. Mitsuo Osada.  Her father was a former high school principal and an official Japan delegate (judge) to the Olympic Winter Games for the ski jump. Agishi is the mother of two grown sons:  Raymond, 35, and Jun, 34. Her husband  is deceased.

Agishi earned a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature of education from Hokkaido University of Education in Sapporo in 1961. From 1961 to 1967, she was a public high school English teacher in Sapporo. As a Fulbright scholar, she earned her master’s degree in secondary education from Sacramento State College in 1969 and received an Ed.D in higher education and contrastive analysis in linguistics from UCLA in 1975.

Agishi founded the production company Creative Enterprise International (CEI) Inc. She opened the Los Angeles office in 1973 and the Tokyo office in 1975. CEI emphasizes educational films, documentaries, and commercials, and also acts as liaison between Japanese clients and celebrities in the fields of film, sports, music, and graphic arts for endorsement contracts. In October 2012, CEI celebrated its 39th anniversary.

She has worked with celebrities such as Yul Brynner, Sammy Davis Jr., Julie Andrews, Pablo Cassals, Brooke Shields, Muhammad Ali, Farrah Fawcett, Janet Jackson, Scottie Pippin, Quentin Tarantino, Naomi Campbell, Steven Spielberg, Mikhail Gorbachev, Carl Lewis, Marion Jones, Ferenc Cako (sand animation artist in Hungary), Maria Sharapova, and many others. She has also participated behind the scenes at eight summer and two winter Olympics.

In 1989, Agishi, along with world home run kings Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh, founded the World Children’s Baseball Fair (WCBF), a non-profit organization. Since the inaugural year of 1990, over 5,000 participants have learned many invaluable lessons through baseball clinics, games, and special recreational activities provided by WCBF. The WCBF experience is an international friendship camp with baseball as the vehicle to spread the spirit of goodwill, teamwork, and intercultural understanding. 

In 2012, WCBF successfully completed its 22nd annual Summer Week Event hosted in Mie Prefecture. Agishi continues to actively serve as a member of the Board of Directors. One of her special dreams was fulfilled in 2004 when a former WCBF participant became a member of the Australian baseball team at the Athens Olympics. Agishi hopes that baseball will return to future Olympic Games and continues to work towards this goal.

In 1998, Agishi established the Japanese Language Scholarship Foundation (JLSF) Aurora Foundation, a non-profit organization. During the last 14 years, the foundation has provided scholarships and grants to 47 recipients. The primary mission of JLSF is to provide non-native Japanese teachers with the experience of living in Japan and participating in various programs. The Aurora Challenge Grant is awarded to a California resident with a unique dream in any field of endeavor related to Japanese culture. 

To fund the foundation, an annual autumn concert was established. Past performers include Masashi Sada (1999 and 2008), Ryoko Moriyama (2001), Yuzo Kayama (2002), Iruka (2003), Tokiko Kato (2004), Rimi Natsukawa (2005), Akira Fuse (2006), The Gospellers (2007), Masafumi Akikawa (2009), Kei Ogla (2010), and Kosetsu Minami (2011). Michel Bell, a renowned Broadway singer, performed in 2012. The foundation also has many other events that support and contribute to the Southern California Japanese American community. Some of these events are the Aurora Charity Golf Classic, the Aurora Film Screenings, and the USA National Japanese Language High School Speech Contest.

Agishi has contributed to many American Association of Japanese University Women (AAJUW) activities and remains an active member today. AAJUW, a non-profit group founded in 1970, promotes the education of women and bestows grants each year to outstanding female students, greatly contributing to cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Japan. Agishi served as head of the Scholarship Committee for more than five years.

Early in her career, Agishi organized the Japan-USA Producers Association (JUSPA), which provides top-quality production services for international film projects while creating a strong network of amity and goodwill for all Japan-U.S. production activities. She has been a member of the Board of Directors and served JUSPA as treasurer for over 30 years.

Agishi is the recipient of the 2001 CHA M. and L. Schwartz Humanitarian Award and the 2005 Senator Daniel Inouye Cherry Blossom Leadership Award at the fourth annual Pasadena Cherry Blossom Festival. She has been an active member of the Japan Business Association (JBA) of Southern California for over 20 years.  Her participation included working on the Public Relations and Planning Committee, the Environmental Study and Planning Committee, and the L.A. Downtown Committee.

Since 2003, Agishi has been an active member of Nichi Bei Fujin Kai. She served as the correspondence secretary and is currently serving as the auditor. Her other community memberships include the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, Japan America Society of Southern California, Japanese Prefectural Association of Southern California, L.A. Tokyo-Kai, L.A. Kimono Club, Japan Rebirth Study Group, Pasadena Seminar-Kai, and Fulbright Alumni Association in Japan and the U.S.

Agishi served as president of the Southern California Hokkaido-Jinkai (Nanka Dosanko-Kai) in 2011 and 2012. This summer, the group held a 40th anniversary ceremony and luncheon with over 200 participants.  During the event, 30 Hiragishi Tenjin dancers, who were the winners of the Yosakoi Soran Festival in Sapporo, were invited to participate in the Nisei Week Grand Parade in Little Tokyo.

Throughout her life, Agishi has always been committed to encouraging educational and cultural exchanges between countries to build a bridge between the U.S., Japan, and beyond. Through volunteer work with many organizations, she has been able to realize this goal. She deeply believes that a world unified by the principles of peace and brotherhood can and will be realized.

Chris Aihara

Chris Aihara has worked more than 25 years in the non-profit sector, focusing on culturally specific work in the Japanese American community, promoting Southern California arts/culture, and presenting Japanese culture to American audiences.

As a third-generation Japanese American, she has directed much of her work in the area of Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture, synthesizing her personal commitments and experiences with professional goals to promote the importance and value of arts and culture in the lives of everyone, especially in bringing to light the significance of arts, folk arts, and cultural traditions of ethnic communities.

She believes that ethnic communities are keepers of specific experiences, values, sensitivities, and cultural traditions that distinguish themselves from Western European culture, and that the promotion and sharing of diverse cultural traditions enriches American life and creates opportunities for mutual understanding and building communities.

Through her work at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), Aihara has promoted Japanese American arts and culture through presentation of programs, developed interpretive materials, and worked directly with artists to support artistic development. As director of community programs and later managing director for programs, she developed the first JACCC Oshogatsu or New Year’s festival. An accompanying publication, “Oshogatsu,” resulted from this early project, followed by a program and publication focusing on Obon traditions, “A Gathering of Joy.”

In 1998, Aihara wrote “Nikkei Donburi: A Japanese American Cultural Survival Guide,” designed to convey Japanese and Japanese American cultural information for families. She initiated the annual JACCC Children’s Day celebration, which included the Chibi K: Kids’ Fun Run, a long-standing event in Little Tokyo for more than 25 years. In 2007, she assumed leadership of the JACCC, serving as executive director until 2011. A highlight of her tenure as executive director was the renovation of the James Irvine Japanese Garden.

Aihara is an advocate for ethnic communities as she believes that they are the nurturers and sustainers of cultural values, history, and traditions. She has worked for a viable and vital Little Tokyo, serving as chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) as well as chair of its subcommittee for Planning and Cultural Preservation. She currently serves as chair of the LTCC Transit Committee, working to ensure that the major transit project, the Regional Connector, will benefit rather than negatively impact the Little Tokyo community. She has assumed a position on the Metro Regional Connector Leadership Council, representing the First Street/Central Avenue alignment of the project.

Aihara was also a member of the Little Tokyo Community Advisory Committee of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

Working together with representatives from the historic Japantowns of San Jose and San Francisco, Aihara participated in efforts to pass historic legislation, Senate Bill 307, the Japantown preservation bill.  Statewide efforts for Japantown preservation have continued through her participation in the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council.

Acknowledged for her leadership in the Japanese American community, Aihara was selected as a member of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation to Japan, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Japan, in April 2001. She has also worked to promote arts and culture in her city of residence by serving on the Torrance Cultural Arts Commission.

Aihara is an active and long-time member of Senshin Buddhist Temple and serves on its Board of Directors. She was president of the Temple from 2007-2009. Senshin is an important religious institution and cultural arts center for the Southern California community. Aihara is a member of Kinnara Gagaku/Bugaku, an affiliate performing arts group dedicated to the practice of 8th century Japanese court music and dance in the U.S.

Born and raised in Southern California, Aihara attended UC Irvine and graduated with a B.A. in history from CSU Long Beach. She is married to Douglas Aihara, who is president of Aihara Insurance Services, a more than 50-year-old Little Tokyo business. They have four children: Blair, Garrett, Steven, and Riki Aihara, and reside in Torrance.

Sakaye Aratani

Sakaye Aratani was born to Eijiro and Katsu Inouye and has one sister, Vickie Nakabayashi. She was married to George Aratani, who passed away in February 2013. They have two daughters, Donna Kwee and Linda Aratani. She has seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Aratani attended the University of Minnesota.

From 1940-1941, Aratani was the secretary of the JACL Gardena Chapter. At the time, there was an abrupt government order to evacuate all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. This caused a lot of turmoil; Issei especially required assistance in interpreting the evacuation order and procedures. Aratani helped many Issei by explaining the procedures in Japanese.

In 1953, Aratani served on the International Hostess Committee and was the vice president of the Montebello Japanese Women’s Club, whose main purpose is philanthropy. In 1954, when Madame Miki Sawada visited the U.S., Aratani helped gather used tennis shoes for mixed-blood orphans who were being relocated from Elizabeth Sander Home in Oiso to Brazil. Under the banner of the International Affairs Committee, hundreds of discarded tennis shoes, mainly from high school gyms, were collected, packed in wooden barrels, and loaded on the ship when it docked briefly at the San Pedro port en route to Brazil.

From 1954-1957, Aratani served as the vice president and treasurer of the PTA of Eastmont Elementary School in Montebello. At the same time, she was the vice president of the Women’s Welfare Service, which assisted Japanese war widows and their families in Japan. Aratani made many requests to various churches and women’s clubs throughout the U.S. to gather discarded nylon hoses, which were assembled, packed for export, and shipped to Japan to provide work for war widows, who unraveled the nylon and used them as threads.

Aratani was a Brownie leader in 1954 and a Girl Scout leader in 1957. She was a Japanese Community Service board member from 1959-1961. In 1960, Aratani joined the International Institute of Los Angeles to help underprivileged people. In 1962, she joined the Japanese Philharmonic Society and helped organize Women’s Auxiliary, Youth Program and scholarship funds. 

Aratani was the vice president of the Japan America Society for 20 years starting in 1962 and received the Victor Carter Award in 1965. She chaired golf tournaments and organized Sakura Kai, whose members were past debutantes. Aratani founded the Japanese Philharmonic Society in 1962 and was a board member of the Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Alliance and Keiro Nursing Home in 1963. In 1965, she was selected the Nisei of the Year. Aratani served on the executive board of the Office of the Mayor of City of Los Angeles in 1967 and helped organize and became the first president of the Nisei Women’s Golf Club in 1968. 

In 1971, Aratani served on the Far Eastern Art Council of the Los Angeles County Art Museum. She was vice president of the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California in 1972, vice president of the Nichi Bei Fujinkai in 1974, and a City View Hospital board member from 1971-1981. She was an honorary board member of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in 1977, the only woman board member of Sumitomo Bank of California in 1978, and the grand marshal of Nisei Week in 1980. 

In 1982, Aratani organized the Japan American Symphony Guild (Asia America Symphony Guild) and was the first Nisei woman to receive the Kunsho from the Japanese government in 1983, Fourth-Class Order of the Sacred Treasure.  

In 1991, Aratani was the advisor to Kado Kyojukai. In 1992, she organized the Japan America Society Guild, which is made up of charter members. Aratani became member of the Blue Ribbon at the Los Angeles Music Center in 1995 and received the Pacific Pioneer Award from the JACCC in 1996.  She received the Women of Distinction Award in 2012 from the JACCC.

Mae Masako Matsumoto

Mae Matsumoto was born as Masako Mae Fukuda in Auburn, Wash. on the family farm in 1918, the youngest of 11 siblings.  Her family owned the farm from 1914-1929. It was purchased by the Neely family and is now a national museum.

After selling the farm, the family moved to Seattle. Matsumoto’s eldest sister and brother settled in Los Angeles and throughout California. The younger siblings stayed in Seattle. For several years, her father had to return to Japan. Since Matsumoto had one more year of junior high school to complete, she and her mother stayed back. Upon graduation, she and her mother moved to Hiroshima. Matsumoto studied at Yasuda Jogakuen and graduated in 1939. In 1940, she married and returned to Los Angeles.

In 1942, Matsumoto went to camp in Jerome, Ark., where her son, Patrick, was born. After the war, the Quakers relocated the family to Columbus, Ohio for a couple of years. Soon after, the family returned to Los Angeles. Matsumoto married her husband Bill in 1952 and they had a daughter in April 1955.

Once the younger generation had their own families, she started volunteer work and fell in love with it. She would go to Union Church and Keiro Nursing Home and Intermediate Care Facility to help the residents or just talk to them. Her family would often say, “You’re older than some of the people you’re pushing around!” That comment would always make Matsumoto laugh since she is now 94 years old and they are absolutely right. 

Matsumoto has been a member at Union Church of Los Angeles for more than 20 years and has had many volunteer roles. Once she moved into the Little Tokyo Towers, she began to volunteer at Koreisha Chushoku Kai, Little Tokyo’s nutrition and service program. She did volunteer work, represented the community, and helped the manager.

“Doing the volunteer work has helped me keep my mind and body sharp,” Matsumoto says, “but it is the pure satisfaction that keeps me going. I love helping people. It makes me very happy.”

Lily Yoshiko Miyata

Lily Miyata was born in Seattle and is the youngest of three sisters and a brother. Her parents followed the idealism of having their children take music lessons, starting at an early age, and gave their three daughters piano lessons at home. Not interested in piano, Miyata often hid behind an apple tree and waited for the teacher to leave. Her parents also tried to enforce violin lessons, but that too, was not successful. 

While growing up, Miyata studied music appreciation in school and realized what she had missed out during her childhood. She also realized and understood her parents’ love for music and what they were trying to convey to their children.

This regret made Miyata want to support aspiring young children interested in music. Her young daughter was accepted into the violin section of a youth orchestra. Consequently, Miyata formed a mothers’ club, which later became the Ladies Auxiliary of the Japanese Philharmonic Society of Los Angeles. In 1984 and 1985, she served two terms as president and was also the co-director of the youth programs and scholarship for two years.

During her extensive 47 years of involvement with the Asia America Symphony Association and Guild, the organization was renamed three times and Miyata served three music directors and nine presidents. In 1992, she co-founded the Asia America Symphony Guild and was elected its charter president for two years. Miyata is also the co-founder of the Guild Youth Education Fund and assisted in the Youth Music Program and Competition. She served on the association’s board from 1991 to 1995 and was elected to chair community outreach. In 1999, the association recognized Miyata with the Bravo Award for her dedication to the guild and for her passion for the youth program. 

She has been co-chair of the Kay Sakaguchi Youth Scholarship since 2005. In 2011, during the Asia America Symphony’s 50th anniversary celebration, Miyata was honored with a second Bravo Award along with the co-founders of the guild.

Miyata has been actively supporting and participating in community organizations such as Keiro Senior Healthcare’s Living Treasure Endowment Fund Campaign in 2004, the Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese Language School – Chuo Gakuen and Koen Kai Board (and received Mother of the Year Award in 1972), the Mission Valley Free Methodist Church Board (as assistant treasurer, special event chair, historian, and leader of the Saturday Night Worship Service from 1994-2001). In 1994 during the church’s 75th anniversary event, Miyata received recognition for chairing the new church’s Building Project Dinners. From 2001-2003, she served as the president of the Japanese American Women’s Club.

Miyata was educated both in the U.S. and Tokyo. She and her late husband John, an engineer, were married in 1955 in Los Angeles and have three grown children; he passed away in February 2013. Miyata feels that being bilingual in English and Japanese and understanding both American and Japanese cultures greatly help her to serve as a goodwill ambassador among her many memberships and the Japanese American community as a whole.

Ticket Information

Tickets are $40 per person. The deadline for reservations is April 26. Make checks payable to Downtown LA JACL.  Mail check and the list of attendees to Amy Tambara, Women of the Year Chairperson, 526½ W. Riggin St., Monterey Park, CA 91754. For more information, call Amy Tambara (English/evenings) at (323) 722-3897 or Rodney Nakada (English/Japanese/days) at (213) 628-1800.

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