By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
About 270 people attended the final luncheon of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California on Sunday at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on Sunday.
Special recognition was given to board members Iku Kiriyama and Lloyd Inui, who have been with JAHSSC since its inception in 1978. Kiriyama’s husband and fellow educator George, who passed away in 2005, also played a prominent role.
A video by John Esaki of the Japanese American National Museum’s Watase Media Arts Center showed highlights from the past 38 years.
Serving as emcees were Kiriyama’s son, George Kiryama, managing editor at KCOY, KEYT and KKFX (Santa Maria/Santa Barbara), and Traci Kato-Kiriyama, a writer, performer, editor, author and community arts organizer. This was their first time to co-emcee a public event together.
Kato-Kiriyama, who was only 5 when JAHSSC was founded, said, “I don’t really recall much from 1978. I do remember, of course, all the events over the many years. I remember being on buses to Manzanar. That was really formative to my sense of being, my sense of politics, my sense of history, and to community and family.
Her brother remembered “several people in the living room … talking about something very, very important … I remember just sitting there listening, trying to soak it in, but as a 7-year-old you can only understand so much. But you see what the organization has been about since 1978 — many great things and many memories.”
Kato-Kiriyama noted that JAHSSC’s Community Heritage Awards events, which were held from 1991 to 2000, were educational. “The emphasis was on recognizing unsung heroes … people who do so much but you don’t necessarily hear their names or read about them in books … people who made an impact.”
Among the award recipients at the luncheon were members of Kinnara Taiko, East West Players, Visual Communications, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Project Kokoro, The Rafu Shimpo, Little Tokyo Branch Library, Little Tokyo Service Center, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, and GVJCI.
Iku Kiriyama announced that an NCRR leader, longtime redress and civil rights advocate Lillian Nakano, had just passed away, and a moment of silence was observed in her memory.
Entertainment included songs of the1940s performed by the Grateful Crane Youth Ensemble (Miko Shudo, Aimee Machida, Erika Olsen and Alyssa Nakamoto) and Mary Kageyama Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” who has been singing since camp days. Scott Nagatani accompanied on keyboards.
Past awardee Nobuko Miyamoto, founder and artistic director of Great Leap, performed “Song to a Child” by the late Chris Iijima, and past awardee Dan Kwong performed an excerpt from his one-man show “What? No Ping-Pong Balls?,” which tells the story of his mother, Momo Nagano, an eccentric Japanese American artist and groundbreaking single mom in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s.
Before giving her farewell remarks, Kiriyama announced upcoming events, including a workshop production of “Old People Play” at Inner City Arts in L.A. from March 13 to 15. She noted that her daughter is one of only two people under 50 in the musical and added, “When we started the historical society I was young too, I was younger than Traci. I was 38 years old and now I’m 75 and I need help up and down the stairs.”
Kiriyama herself will be one of the speakers at a forum on chronic kidney disease on March 22 at GVJCI. “If you know ahead of time, maybe you can avoid it,” she said. “It’s too late for me, but maybe you can learn some the things that I learned … What’s maddening and frustrating to me is it’s preventable. You can’t say that about ALS and cancer (but) CKD is so preventable.”
“Japanese American Gardeners: Their Stories Through Senryu” will be presented on March 28 at the Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance. Although the “Generations of Action” forum last year was billed as JAHSSC’s last program, Kiriyama — whose father once worked as a gardener — and the board decided to do just one more. “I had never read or heard about senryu … One line of poetry tells a whole history … funny things, regular, everyday life,” she said.
With Kato-Kiriyama as facilitator, the program will feature authors Naomi Hirahara and Sunny Seki and actor Kurt Kuniyoshi.
Inui thanked all the volunteers who made the event possible, including Yvonne Nishio and the Gardena Cymbidium Club for the orchids and Alvin Takamori for the program design.
Kiriyama thanked everyone who worked with her on JAHSSC’s publication “Nanka Nikkei Voices,” including Jennie Kuida and Kimiyo Ige. “It was fun but got to be stressful at times … We all had things that we are good at doing, but not one of us alone could have produced the books.”
She also fondly recalled JAHSSC trips to Hanford, San Jose and the Sacramento area, as well as a conference on Nikkei activism that she worked on with her daughter, Kathy Masaoka, Mark Masaoka and Evelyn Yoshimura. “Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference” lives on as a Facebook page.
Kiriyama had planned to make a presentation to Dale Vinke of Torrance Public Library for his help with various events, but he was too ill to attend.
JAHSSC President Roy Sakamoto announced that all of the organization’s remaining assets will be donated to the Little Tokyo Historical Society “because their mission is very similar to ours.” The actual amount will be determined after a final accounting, and a formal presentation will be made at an LTHS meeting.
LTHS founder Bill Watanabe said, “We pledge to you that whatever funds there are, we will put them to use for the preservation of our Nikkei history and culture and heritage … Thank you very much for entrusting us with these funds.”
LTHS President Mike Okamura commented, “As you know, Little Tokyo has changed quite a bit and it’s going through some major disruptions, but there’s so many stories that we haven’t been able to capture … There are similarities (between the two groups) and so we want to learn from you and we hope that we can continue to partner with you in some way.”
Also taking part in the presentation were JAHSSC board members Janet Okubo, Dianne Belli, George Nakano, Christy Sakamoto and Bill Shishima.
Door prizes were donated by Trader Joe’s in Torrance.
Community Heritage Award Recipients
1991: Shi Nomura, Betty Mitson, East West Players, Kinnara Taiko, Visions for Keiro
1992: Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Miles Hamada, Harry Honda, Koyasan Boy Scout Troop 379, UCLA Nikkei Student Union
1993: Nobuko Miyamoto, Harold Muraoka, Helen Nakano, Glenn Omatsu, Visual Communications
1994: Tim Asamen, Warren Furutani, Kay Ochi, John Sakamoto, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Rafu Shimpo
1995: Masao Dobashi, Yuji Ichioka, Masa and June Oshiro, Randi Tahara, Project Kokoro
1996: Sue Koyama, Robert Hayamizu, Madame Bando Mitsusa, Qris Yamashita, San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center
1997: Richard Katsuda, Dr. Takeo Susuki, Japanese American Optimists, Gardena Valley Gardeners Association, Friends of Little Tokyo Branch Library, CSU Fullerton Japanese American Oral History Project
1998: Kathy Masaoka, Kitty Sankey, Wakako Yamauchi
1999: Brian Kito, Harry Nakada, Scott Nagatani, Francis Nakano, Little Tokyo Service Center
2000: Chris Aihara, Lillian Nakano, Takeshi Nakayama, Tak Yamamoto, Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute
2005 (25th anniversary event): John Esaki and Amy Kato, Dan Kwong, Sumako Azuma II
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)