By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Two local community leaders were skewered for a good cause during Kizuna’s first annual “Roast & Toast,” held Feb. 7 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.
The roastees were two members of Kizuna’s Advisory Council, Alan Nishio and Helen Ota.
Emcee Traci Kato Kiriyama, a writer, actor, educator and organizer, explained, “Kizuna is working to ensure that the legacy of our community continues with the next generation of Japanese Americans. Because this is Kizuna, an organization always looking to find new, innovative ways to do its work, we are celebrating our honorees tonight in our own special way … We’re all going to finally get the dirt on Helen and Alan.”
Until his retirement, Nishio was associate vice president for student services and an instructor in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at CSU Long Beach. Active in the community for more than 40 years, he is a founding member and director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and a founder and co-chair of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress). Currently, he serves as board president of the Little Tokyo Service Center and chairs the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council’s California Japantowns Preservation Committee.
He was accompanied by his wife Yvonne, their two daughters, sons-in-law, and six grandchildren.
Ota is known for her involvement with Cold Tofu, Grateful Crane Ensemble, Nisei Week, the Little Tokyo Community Council, the Japanese American National Museum, and JACCC, where she is now director of development. She hosts Kizuna’s annual Family Showdown fundraiser.
She was joined by her significant other, Michael Palma, her parents, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.
Chris Aihara, former executive director of the JACCC and a friend and colleague of Nishio since their days at CSULB, described him as a superhero who fights for “social justice for all, especially for Japanese Americans, with his superior powers, his keen intellect, his relatively good looks … and his better than average athletic ability.”
She recalled two examples of Nishio’s goofy side. At one meeting on campus, “Alan’s got two different shoes on, one loafer and a tie shoe.” At another, “He gave a speech in front of all the university bigwigs, he’s walking around, talking for a long time — and of course his fly is open.”
Aihara concluded, “Alan is genuine, he’s principled … He measures his actions by his values. And he really wouldn’t want to be a superhero and he wouldn’t want to be the center of Japanese American history because as he has said to me many times, it is the story of all of us and all of our contributions … He cares about people and people are drawn to him … He is approachable and not thin-skinned. That’s why we can make fun of him. We like him even more than we respect him, and we respect him a lot.”
Bill Watanabe, former executive director of LTSC, said, “There are some people in the community that are so highly respected, that are so well thought of and held in such high esteem … that you really can’t roast them. Fortunately, Alan is not one of them. When I think about Alan … there are three words that come to mind. The first is ‘modesty,’ because Alan has much to be modest about. The second word is ‘kind,’ as in he’s kind of odd … The third word is ‘generous.’ Alan is a very generous man because it’s the only way he can keep his friends.”
During Nishio’s 30 years on the board of LTSC, 15 as president, “part of my job as the executive director was to make sure the agency ran well, but part of my job was trying to make him look good,” Watanabe said. “If you think running LTSC was hard, trying to make Alan look good was a huge job.”
In all seriousness, Watanabe continued, “Alan is the perfect board president because he knows how to listen, he knows how to synthesize people’s ideas, bring people together and move the agency forward. I will say that the LTSC would not be the agency it is today if we didn’t have his leadership, his wisdom and his direction.”
Kristin Fukushima, Kizuna co-founder and project manager for the Little Tokyo Community Council, said that Nishio, whom she has known for eight years, is difficult to roast because “Alan already knows how great he is” and the people she talked to while putting together her speech had only good things to say about him. She did note that he describes himself as “the shyest man you’ll ever meet” but in reality, “he’s all about the attention.”
“When we started Kizuna, he was one of the first people we went to,” Fukushima recalled, but instead of just offering his support, he asked pointed questions like “How are you going to do this?” and “What is your five-year plan?”
“That’s what Alan is about,” she said. “He will be a big old jerk because he wants to push you. He wants to challenge you and he wants you to be better and do better.”
In his rebuttal, Nishio said, “I wasn’t too nervous about this roast-toast thing because when I found out who my three roasters are, I said they’re much too nice to be mean — and they’re not particularly funny.”
He expressed his appreciation to everyone who attended the sold-out event. “I have a history that goes back with some of the people in this room 50 years … There are others that have known me longer than I’ve known Yvonne … These are friends that I’ve met through activism and community service, and these are the best friends you can find because these are friendships that are made … working together for a better good.”
Having retired eight years ago, Nishio said that he has devoted his time to family, friends and community, including four organizations that “reflect my values as a person”: NCRR, which represents “our commitment to social justice in our community,” LTSC, which represents “our commitment to service and the conscience of our community, JACCC, which represents “the heart and soul of our community through its representation of arts and culture,” and Kizuna, which represents “the legacy and future of our community.”
Ota was roasted by Nikki Kodama, a friend from Nisei Week, and Denise Iketani, assistant director of Cold Tofu. They gave a slideshow presentation about how Ota, a member of the 1989 Nisei Week Court, never recovered from being passed over for queen and has been campaigning ever since to change the age limit so that she can run again. They also claimed that she never married because queen candidates have to be single.
Jully Lee, artistic director Cold Tofu, said that as director of improv comedy group for 19 years, Ota was “our tiger mom, our supreme leader, our Kim Jong-Un.” Ota was so dedicated to Cold Tofu, Lee said, that “to make sure that our shows were funny, she would hand out scripts for us to memorize for our improv shows.”
Lee also “revealed” that Ota uses Auto-Tune to augment her singing voice, and a recording of Ota’s “real” singing voice was played.
Iketani, who introduced herself as Ota’s best friend, further alleged that Ota not only hangs out at Ohjah, the Miyako Hotel’s karaoke lounge, but is actually “a hostess there and she earns a little extra money by singing with strange men.”
To make Ota’s dream come true, her friends named her “Kizuna Queen for the Day,” complete with sash and crown. They emphasized that the title would expire at midnight.
After delivering her rebuttal, Ota said, “I love all three of you … in addition to my family and many of the folks I get to work with and volunteer with … Part of the reason why we do this, of course we want to give back, but we’re surrounded by people who we truly love, who we truly respect, who I think inspire me every day …
“I’m very lucky I got involved with Nisei Week, I got involved with Cold Tofu and Grateful Crane, the museum and the JACCC, and of course Kizuna … One of the things that drove me to support Kizuna was because I really wish when I was growing up, I had an organization like Kizuna. Because if I did, I think I would have been connected to this community even earlier, when I was 7 years old, which was only about 20 years ago.”
Kizuna Executive Director Craig Ishii said, “We’re building tomorrow’s volunteers, tomorrow’s philanthropists, tomorrow’s leaders, people who are going to be engaged in and committed to this community.” He thanked the honorees for being “amazing mentors to the organization from the beginning.” Nishio is “the quintessential representation of what it means to build intergenerational relationships because he has more friends under the age of 25 than I do,” Ishii said, and Ota has given her time to Kizuna despite her busy schedule, including emceeing events “as the Tamlyn Tomita alternative.”
”We love Kizuna. We love everybody who works there, the board, volunteers and especially Craig,” Ota responded. “We really have a soft spot for you because actually Kizuna really would not be the way it is now had it not been for Alan and me. Let’s be honest. Craig, you were a mess … But we were there for you.”
Nishio and Ota continued a mini-roast of Ishii by showing him in a “Men of Kizuna” calendar that they said failed to bring in any revenue.
”Seriously, you’re all here because you believe in Kizuna … We do hope that you will continue to support Kizuna,” Nishio said. “Both Helen and I feel very much that this is an organization that really represents the future and legacy of our community.”
The event, co-chaired by Janet Hiroshima and Jessie Kikuchi, wrapped up with a reception in the JACCC’s Garden Room.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo