By TIMOTHY CHUMAN, Rafu Staff Intern
Children smashing watermelons blindfolded with kendo sticks, doing Obon dances, making floats for a pretend Nisei Week parade, and making sushi sounds like any typical summer camp. Right? Well, maybe not, but perhaps that is because Kizuna’s summer camp program is not an ordinary summer camp.
Kizuna, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that works to mold the next generation of Japanese American children and youth into community leaders, has been operating for seven years in Little Tokyo. They have constructed a pipeline of programs for children and youth to get in touch with their cultural identity and get more involved in the Japanese American community. The pipeline starts with the weeklong summer camp for children from ages 7-13.
With locations in Downtown Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles, Anaheim, South Bay and Pasadena, each camp is tailored around a specific aspect of the Japanese American lifestyle, such as matsuri (festivals) or oishii (delicious food). The week consists of many activities that pertain to the theme, such as making bento, trying to catch noodles flowing through a bamboo gutter in an activity called nagashi somen, and above all, going to Little Tokyo to explore the historic town.
The San Fernando Valley camp, which was held from June 18-22, was focused on matsuri, and while many of the students enjoy the festivities of camp, the kids tend to also appreciate the connections that they are able to make to their culture.
“This camp is important to me because we learn a lot of Japanese things like how to make gyoza and you always work together, have fun and be creative,” comments camper Luke Inoshita.
Dylan LaMarsna, another San Fernando Valley camper, had a greater appreciation for his family’s history after one of their workshops early in the week. “I learned [about] the ribbons of hopes, dreams and wishes, which is important to me because my mom is full Japanese and her grandpa was in the internment camp,” he says.
With all of the activities that the camps entail, there are a lot of things that Kizuna is trying to accomplish, but interim executive director Michelle Yamashiro sees one main goal at play.
“Summer camp doesn’t just offer a positive growing environment for young people to experience Japanese culture, but the fact that we make it a point to have Little Tokyo and community centers be part of the curriculum that we use makes it so that students don’t just feel connected to the camp, but to the space too,” she says. “Our hope is that students come back to the community centers and remember what they did and will want to continue to preserve that legacy for their future children or nieces and nephews.”
This feeling of serving the community is one that resonates with the campers, who are more than eager to put what they learn into action.
“I come back to [summer camp] to have fun and make new friends, but also learn more about my Japanese American heritage. I have learned the importance of giving back to the community because the community is really important to me and my family, so I can learn to support it to help my family,” says Kendall Gohata-Chan, a participant at the San Fernando Valley camp.
While the campers learn to give back to the community, those who serve as counselors or staff for the camps get to do exactly that. Megan Miyamoto, a senior counselor who previously attended Kizuna’s summer camp as a student, sees her position as a way to pay it forward for the impact that the camps had on her.
“I really learned a lot [from these camps], so that’s why I wanted to come here and help other people learn more. It’s a gateway into leadership… You really need to start somewhere when getting into the community to understand how important it is,” affirms Miyamoto.
The benefits are clear for both counselors and campers, but the biggest beneficiary is arguably the Japanese American community. The community continues to face challenges in preserving its cultural identity, and thus, it has never been more important to educate the future generations.
“Living in America, assimilation is going to happen. For me, I’m a product of it because I wasn’t into my Japanese side at all until I started going to these programs. I think that by going to these types of camps, it helps people learn about who they really are and what the Japanese American community really is,” says Nathan Tadios, a senior counselor at the San Fernando Valley camp.
The Kizuna summer camps may not offer the typical summer camp experience and involve pool outings, beach trips and more, but that’s the point. The cultural programming is what distinguishes Kizuna from other programs, and the profound impact that they have on the youth is what makes them so special.
Consequently, Kizuna’s summer camps have experienced a continuous growth trend, as camps with approximately 30 students one year ago have multiplied to having over 60 students this summer. This growth has not only encouraged community involvement among the families of the students, but it has also provided a sense of reassurance for the organization that they are on the right path.
Although Kizuna is in the midst of leadership transition, with founder and former executive director Craig Ishii stepping down, Yamashiro remains optimistic that the future is bright, not only for the organization, but the Japanese American community as well.
“[These camps] are not a risk, they [fill] a need in the community. There’s so much work to be done as always, but because the Kizuna family is working so hard to make every program a success because they truly believe in it, the future looks bright,” she says. “I can only speak for myself, but I want to say that I am super excited to keep doing the work that we do.”
For more information on Kizuna’s programs, call (213) 973-4465 or visit www.gokizuna.org.
Photos by TIMOTHY CHUMAN/Rafu Shimpo