Nisei Week’s Pioneer Spirit Award recipients are dedicated, long-standing volunteers and leaders of the Japanese/Japanese American community. This year, the following individuals are being recognized posthumously.
Sumako Azuma (Janice Aiso Edesa) was the North American representative for Azuma Ryu in Japan. Sumako Azuma II sensei was born in Tokyo but was raised in Southern California. Her mother, Sumako Azuma I, a dance instructor, and grandmother, Setsu Okawa, a tea ceremony instructor, surrounded her with Japanese language and culture as a child.
She showed tremendous talent in dance at a young age and studied in Japan for many summers under the soke (grand master) of the Azuma school, Tokuho Azuma. At age 14, she was awarded the natori (master) degree as a direct student of Mme. Tokuho Azuma. After the untimely death of her mother in 1975, she returned to Japan for one year and was a live-in student under the soke.
She received her shihan (instructor’s) degree at 19 and honored her mother’s legacy by returning to Southern California and continuing her mother’s dance school. Fourteen of her students received natori degrees and one was awarded a shihan. Sumako also earned the senmombu (specialty instructor) degree, and was honored as a Woman of the Year by the Downtown Chapter of JACL.
A dance instructor for nearly 45 years, Sumako participated in many Nisei Week Grand Parades as both choreographer and regular participant with her students, and in the Closing Ceremony ondo dancing. She had been involved with Nisei Week since 1969.
Sumako passed away in July 2020. She was 61.
Leland Lau practiced accounting for 42 years starting with his father, Bing G. Lau. Graduating from USC in 1975, he was a member of Gamma Epsilon Omega fraternity. He joined the Japanese American Optimist Club (JAO) in 1991 and became its 40th president in 1993.
He was the JAO basketball commissioner after his presidency for the next 30 years until his passing. Being both JAO president and basketball commissioner are 24/7 undertakings. For 27 years, he oversaw the organization’s transformation from a league of 55 teams to more than 145. Alumni include Natalie Nakase, who is on the coaching staff of the L.A. Clippers.
He also served on the board of the Optimist Boys and Girls Home in Los Angeles. In the early 2000s, he organized the Kids for Keiro Hoop Shoot Fundraiser, to help benefit retirees at Keiro Senior HealthCare. He helped with Nisei Week, taking care of the Noguchi Plaza festivities by coordinating live performances and demonstrations. The JACCC presented him with its Community Spirit Award in 2013.
Leland passed away in May 2021. He was 67.
Gary Toyo Miyatake was a third-generation photographer of the renowned Miyatake Studio. He was a member of Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and Koyasan Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps, and graduated from Montebello High School in 1969. He went on to graduate from the Art Center College of Design and opened his own studio, Toyo Photography in Gardena, where he became known as the go-to photographer for local events and elected officials.
Some of his notable portraits were of the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, photographer Ansel Adams, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, and Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully and his wife, Sandra. He also took a portrait of labor leader Cesar Chavez, which is in the Smithsonian Institution. In 2019, he gave a portrait of Emperor Akihito taken by his grandfather, Toyo, to Consul General Akira Muto.
Gary passed away in December 2020. He was 69.
Masako Kodera Rodriquez
Masako Kodera Rodriquez was a dynamic and enthusiastic ondo dance instructor. A native of Okayama-ken, her love for the Japanese folk music style of ondo inspired many to “just dance” and to enjoy the festive music.
It all began in 1999, when Sam Kimura noticed a very graceful dancer at the Obon summer festivals. That dancer was Masako. Together they established the Bon exercise class at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center in Pacoima. Sponsored by the Meiji Senior Citizen Club at the SFVJACC, it was promoted as a year-round ondo instruction and exercise class.
By following Masako’s encouraging and sometimes intense dance instruction, the group’s reputation became known beyond the SFVJACC. The Meiji Ondo dance group was invited to perform at the Pasadena Ronald McDonald House fundraiser, the Japanese Gardens (SuihoEn), and California State University, Northridge. The group led the Nisei Week Ondo and most recently performed at the Keiro no Hi Festival.
She passed away at the age of 85 in July 2020.
Junko Suzuki was the co-founder of Suehiro Cafe, located on the north side of First Street where the Tokyo Kaikan used to be, and ran the business for more than 40 years. Suehiro recently received a national honor along with a Historic Restaurant Grant. Before moving to its current location, it was located on the south side of Second Street between San Pedro and Los Angeles streets.
She immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 from Gunma-ken and started Suehiro with her sister, Yuriko, in 1972, serving authentic home-style Japanese dishes. Although customers were hard to come by initially because of constant construction in the neighborhood, she built her business by treating her customers with respect. She would greet them with the familiar “irasshaimase,” and always said “arigatou gozaimasu” when they left, which is what you hear in Japan. The popular restaurant is now operated by her son, Kenji.
Junko loved Little Tokyo and always supported the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association with its fundraising events, donating raffle prizes and gifts.
She passed away in January 2021 at the age of 84.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was the owner of Little Tokyo’s first ramen restaurant, Kouraku, which was open seven days a week until 2 a.m. He later opened branches in Sherman Oaks and Torrance, and in Nevada. Kouraku was popular with Japanese nationals because he also had home-style Japanese dishes, and since it was open late, customers came to eat after they finished drinking.
Kouraku has had a history of catering to a wide range of customers, from celebrities to police officers to athletes, including baseball stars Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki, who would come in together whenever the Dodgers and Mariners were in town.
Hiroshi was involved with the Little Tokyo Business Association, and was an advocate for other Little Tokyo businesses. He disseminated information in Japanese about problems, like water shut-offs and street closures, with Metro’s Regional Connector Project to other businesses along Second Street when the tunnel under it was being built. He also took up the trash collection issue with the city’s Public Works Department when new contracts for rubbish collection were newly established and service was poor.
Hiroshi continued to volunteer in the community by patrolling the streets to ensure safety, and assisted businesses when the pandemic hit, most recently teaming up with Little Tokyo Service Center to use social media to promote Little Tokyo restaurants.
He passed away in September 2020 at the age of 67.