The graduates from the Nikkei Federation’s Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program 12 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
The graduates from the Nikkei Federation’s Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program 12 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer

“Through this program, not only did I meet wonderful people and make great friends, but I was also able to learn so much about Japanese American culture, leadership, and public speaking skills.”

Kelsie Nakasone, who grew up in a primarily Caucasian area, came to the Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program five months ago, having no idea what to expect. She was afraid because she thought she was alone, but she wasn’t.

Russel Tsuda, the chair of Rising Stars, congratulates the RS12.

The Nikkei Federation hosted a ceremony of the Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program graduates at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center on March 28. The confident 18 students of RS12 proudly left the nest where they had spent every Saturday for the last five months.

Justin Ninomiya recalled the first day of the program, particularly his feelings of uncertainty because he, too, had very little prior interaction with Japanese Americans. But he soon felt it was like a second home.

“Through the cultural session, I learned more about Japanese culture,” he said. “I learned characteristics about myself and my heritage that I didn’t know.”

The program is designed to train leaders and inspire youth involvement in the Japanese American community. During the five-month program, students experience a series of interactive workshops, including cultural values, working in groups, assertiveness, networking, financial fitness, and powerful and persuasive presentation.

Russel Tsuda, the chair of Rising Stars and one of the founding members, has seen many students’ positive transformations from being quiet and shy to confident and assertive since its inception. He is pleased to see the growth in RS12 students as well.

“Five months ago, the 18 students embarked on a journey to develop their skills and become more familiar with culture and community. Today, we are here to celebrate the achievements that this group of exceptionally talented students has accomplished,” Tsuda said.

Nakasone recalled the public speaking session. “I will never forget having to be filmed and later critiqued on my speaking capabilities. But because of the learning opportunities and experiences I have (gained through this program), I was able to get out of my comfort zone and improved myself.”

Erika Yamasaki, keynote speaker, reminded the students not to forget where they came from.

Nakasone expressed her gratitude to the Rising Stars planning committee as well as all the involved parties.

Mai Nojima, an RS11 graduate, emceed the graduation ceremony and introduced the keynote speaker, Erika Yamasaki, associate dean of admissions at Occidental College. Yamasaki congratulated the graduates, saying, “Today is the culmination of five months and many hours that you’ve been investing.”

She asked the students not to make this valuable experience something to merely add to their resumes or college applications. “Not everyone has the opportunity to be a part of something such as the Rising Stars. You are unique, qualified, privileged, and gifted. You are now trained to serve and lead this community.”

Every year, the Rising Stars students practice what they have learned at the end of the program through a group project: the miniature golf tournament and raffle. Gary Sakaguchi, a planning committee member, announced that RS12 raised $21,800 through the golf tournament, exceeding their initial target of $20,000.

At the ceremony, this year’s Rising Stars scholarship recipients — Kara Tanaka, RS10, and Christian Miyamae, RS9 — were introduced by Margaret Takimoto.

Nicholas Hanashiro talked about the Rising Stars Alumni program, formed in 2005 by a group of RS2 participants with the mission of utilizing the leadership skills that they gained to give back to the Rising Stars program and the Japanese American community.

Each year, the alumni welcome the participants of the previous year to join them in planning events and programs such as the Buddy Program, which brings alumni together with special-needs children from JSPACC (Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges).

Hanashiro asked recent graduates to participate. “There’s a lot that we can give back to the community with the tools that we’ve gained from the program. I think that’s an amazing thing we can do.”

At the end of the event, Tsuda told The Rafu Shimpo that it was time for the transition of power to the next generation. “Our next step is to recruit more alumni members to come out to the planning committee. We’ve been doing this for 13 years. We’d really like to see younger-aged planning committee members, who are closer to the targeted age.”

For more information about the Rising Stars program, visit

Photos by RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo

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