Ken Nobe tries to locate the area where his father had a store in prewar El Centro as his wife, Mary Tagami Nobe, and Tim Asamen look on. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Ken Nobe tries to locate the area where his father had a store in prewar El Centro as his wife, Mary Tagami Nobe, and Tim Asamen look on. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

This year’s Imperial Valley reunion held in September at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello attracted 150 people, with Tim Asamen and Rafu’s very own columnist William “Wimp” Hiroto as keynote speakers.

Although there have been reunions in the Imperial Valley, the most recent reunion in the Los Angeles area was organized in 2013 by Roy Imazu, Tak Kawashima and the late Tak Kohatsu.

The 2013 gathering started out as an informal get-together with expectations of maybe 40 people but expanded to 130 people.

Following last year’s success, organizers decided to hold another reunion this year that attracted even more people, with a good generational mix, said Shig Eddow, reunion co-chair and master of ceremonies.

Years ago, Tok Onoda, originally from Brawley, chaired the Imperial Valley reunions that attracted close to 1,000 people. But as committee members and attendees started to age and pass away, these reunions were discontinued.

“Most of the people are gone,” said Onoda. “They’re all in their 90s, and both my wife and I are probably on our last legs, so we thought we better attend this reunion to say our goodbyes to all my friends.”

“It fills my heart to see so many people,” said Imazu. “A lot of this was through word of mouth. I guess these people have the same feeling as I do about the Imperial Valley as a pleasant memory.”

Imazu said the idea to hold a Los Angeles-area reunion started when he attended a 2012 reunion in Imperial Valley.

“I contacted Tak Kawashima and said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have an Imperial Valley reunion in the Los Angeles area?’’’ recalled Imazu. “He said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ So Tak Kawashima contacted Tak Kohatsu, who was a one-man army. He took care of the invitations, the program and so much more.

Isabel Watanabe Ishihara from Calexico. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Isabel Watanabe Ishihara from Calexico. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“Unfortunately, he passed away last year, so this year when we talked about a 2014 reunion, we were blessed to have Colleen Hayashi step in. She became the new Tak Kohatsu.”

Colleen Ishibashi Hayashi said she became involved when she took her father to a Poston reunion a few years ago. She realized then that organizing the Poston reunions was becoming too much work for the aging Nisei volunteers, so she volunteered her time.

Little did Hayashi know what she was getting into. What she thought would be a few hours of stuffing envelopes or setting up the microphones snowballed into planning the actual Poston reunion. But to Ishibashi Hayashi’s and the Poston reunion committee’s credit, the reunion attracted more than 600 people.

From there, Hayashi was tapped to help organize the Imperial Valley reunion. She is one of the few Sansei to be volunteering her time to help organize any Nisei-related reunion.

“I feel it is of utmost important that the Nisei get together,” she said via email. “They love having reunions but need the help. Their generation is quickly leaving us. Two of the Poston committee members, including Tak Kohatsu, have left us already.

“I remember the excitement and fun that my mom and dad had at the camp reunions for Gila River and Poston. I regret that I missed all those opportunities to share those moments with them. Just watching my family — my dad, aunts, uncles, extended family and friends — as they reunite with old friends is such a warm feeling! The smiles and laughter and hugs, and just the feeling in the room!”

Hayashi is also one of the rare Sansei to have lived in Imperial Valley. When she was 3 years old, her parents moved from Los Angeles back to Imperial Valley, where her father went into the trucking business with a partner.

She and Tim Asamen were childhood friends, and she praised Asamen for doing an “exceptional job in the Japanese American Gallery at the Pioneers Museum,” which she has been supporting.

Even at the reunion, Hayashi connected Asamen to two family members who wanted to donate FBI papers connected to Rev. Kei Kokubun, who had been arrested shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Hayashi added that being involved has enriched her entire family: “I am lucky my three kids have eagerly helped at both the Poston and Imperial Valley reunions, as well as my brother, Grant, and his wife, Colleen, with photos, videos, displays, etc. My kids love spending the time with their grandpa and great aunts and uncles as our extended family is very close. It’s become a real family experience. Some of my cousins are starting to attend.

“My hope is that the Sansei and Yonsei will take on the charge of keeping the Issei/Nisei legacy and experience alive and preserve the camps that so many of them have worked hard to preserve. We cannot let what they went through be forgotten. After all, we younger generations are where we are because of the care of our Issei and Nisei.”

Keynote speakers Asamen and Hiroto focused on Imperial Valley residents who had made positive contributions.

Asamen talked about the athletic achievements of Chiyo Sugimoto Tashima, who was an accomplished softball pitcher and bowler; Henry “Hank” Sasaki, a prewar football phenomenon; and George Taniguchi, a pioneering professional jockey.

Asamen also shared about Masahiro Nagata, who made international news in 1931 when he discovered a new comet.

Hiroto discussed Gene Takahashi, who commanded an all-African American unit during the Korean War and also some of his amusing recollections with Taniguchi, with whom he had been friends at Poston High, before Taniguchi became a horse racing legend.

Floral centerpieces were made by Lisa Kawashima Tomita, and the individual origami party favor boxes and ornaments were handmade by Lynn Onishi.

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