The 35th Queens Reunion held in August 2019. Seated from left: Helen Funai Erickson (1963); France Yanai Wong (1962); Stella Nakadate Matsuda (1955); Penny Akemi Tani Sakoda (1960); Em Kato Yamada (1952); Sandy Toshiyuki (1976); Faith Higurashi Ono (1959); Dianne Kubota Hamano (1961); Carol Kunitsugu Itatani (1965); Tracy Isawa Ahn (1983)

Standing from left: Tish Okabe Kato (1985); Nikki Kodama (2004); Lauren Kinkade Wong (2001); Lauren Iwata Hui (2013); Sara Hutter (2015); Jordyn Adachi (2017); Jaclyn Tomita (2016); Steffanie Tamehiro Takahashi (2005); Alice Amano (2018); Naomi Ono Sognefest (1993); Jamie Mizuhara Sakamoto (2002); Janet Barnes Cubak (1982); Joann Shin Cordeiro (1996); Liane Takano Pham (2006); Tori Nishinaka-Leon (2014); Jill Hiraizumi-Artino (2008)

2019 Court, standing from left: Princess Ariel Imamoto; Princess Emily Ishida; Mia Lopez, First Princess; 2019 Nisei Week Queen Juli Yoshinaga; Kara Ito, Miss Tomodachi; Princess Marika Gotschall; Princess Kayla Igawa; and 2019 Nisei Week President David Yamahata. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

This year’s Nisei Week is like no other, embracing new technology while holding on to traditions whenever possible. Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the queen competition. From the earliest contest in 1935 to the virtual version today, the race for the crown is and has always been the main event.

To journey back in time to pre-pandemic Nisei Week, **The Rafu Shimpo** asked four past queens representing different eras to share their memories of L.A.’s most enduring summer festival. 

Jill Hiraizumi-Artino (2008)

Hiraizumi-Artino is an attorney and new mom who believes in the importance of work-life balance. In the years since she served as Nisei Week royalty, she has opened her own law firm and recently welcomed her second child, Bradley Kento Hirazumi-Artino. Her first son, Vincent Kaito Hiraizumi-Artino, is two-and-a-half years old. As for taking the bold step of starting Hiraizumi Law Group, specializing in estate planning, wills, and trusts, she says she built a team that includes an associate attorney and an assistant. With her professional side established, she turned her attention to motherhood. “What I was really going for was to be a mom, be present and take care of my kids. I’m so glad I did, and I have not looked back.”

Looking back on her Nisei Week experience, she has fond memories of friendship, of bonding with her fellow contestants, and of the relationships that have continued throughout the 12 years since she was crowned queen. “It is a once–in-a-lifetime experience. My courtmates and I are still very good friends. We have kids the same age.” 

She’s also grateful for the relationships she established within the Japanese American community groups and the business representatives. “When I meet people, we start talking about Nisei Week. All of a sudden, there’s a different level of connectedness.

Of the hundreds of events, meet-and-greets, and appearances Hiraizumi-Artino was asked to attend, she’s proud of the fact that she only missed two. She wishes the new queen and court her best and hopes they have as fulfilling an experience as she did.

Lauren Kinkade-Wong (2001)

Kinkade-Wong has mastered several disciplines at once since reigning as Nisei Week queen in 2001. As she reminisces about her year as the face of the festival, her enduring relationships come to mind. She often gets together with two of the women with whom she shared the Nisei Week experience. “The three of us are very close.”

In honor of the 20th anniversary of her year as queen, Kinkade-Wong agreed to serve as a judge for this year’s competition. 

Festival watchers will remember her as a talented singer who competed on “American Idol,” has sung professionally with stars like Gladys Knight and Jessica Simpson, and was a key member of the band Kokoro for 10 years. She stepped away from the microphone two years ago but agreed to come back briefly for the recent Nisei Week dance. Last Sunday, she sang the national anthem for Japanese Heritage Day at the L.A. Dodgers game against the Angels.

Currently she is a broker associate licensed realtor, covering Los Angeles and Orange counties. “I love it,” she states, sharing that she runs her own team and is among the top 10 agents in her Sotheby’s International Realty office. Earlier this year, her husband, Gerald Wong, joined the business.

For recreation, the Wong family has joined a country club. Her daughters are enjoying the activities as their mom learns to golf.

France Yanai Wong (1962)

Yanai-Wong was still a teenager when she entered the Nisei Week queen contest. “We were so young, we had to have chaperones. Toy Kanegai and Mabel Yoshida kept their eye on us.”

In more recent years, the contestants have been in their early 20s. “I think you appreciate more and complain less when you’re a little bit older,” she admits. Looking back, she reflects on the volunteers and how much time and effort they must put forth every year.

“We also didn’t have quite the training that candidates receive now. We had to fend for ourselves.”

Yanai-Wong remembers that the coronation ball was an elaborate event. “We had nice events in lovely hotels. Today, there isn’t the glitz and glamour that we had.” It was an actual ball. “Mine was at the Beverly Hilton. People got to dance. There was a band.”

Yanai-Wong understands the importance of education. She became a teacher and is experienced at every grade level. She advanced to become an administrator. Her last assignment was as principal of Jefferson Community Adult School.

She has attended several of the more recent Nisei Week coronations, which prompted her to comment, with a laugh, “What I do think is kind of nice is that they eliminated the bathing suit competition. We were so young. We didn’t know any better … to say ‘no’ to the bathing suits.”

June Aochi Berk (1954)

Berk remembers dancing in the Nisei Week parade as a little girl and admiring the majorette.  Noticing June’s interest in dance, her mother enrolled her in classes taught by Madame Fujima Kansuma. June became an avid devotee. She remembers Mme. Kansuma teaching dance in the World War II camps. 

“At first, (U.S. government officials) wouldn’t let us dance, but eventually Kansuma was able to travel to all the camps. They even built a stage for her. I saw a man cry as he watched us.” Berk was also a member of an all-female kabuki troupe that performed at Yamato Hall, a three-story building on Jackson Street in Little Tokyo.

In 1954, she entered the queen contest at 18. “I remember I had to make my own clothes,” she says. The coronation ball was a grand event held at the Palladium. “There was dinner and dancing, and Paul Bannai was the master of ceremonies.”

What was unique about the queen contest was that for every dollar spent in Little Tokyo, you were allowed to cast one vote for your favorite contestant. “Our pictures were plastered everywhere, every business you went into. I was in last place. Then, toward the end, I started to get more votes. I remember my parents’ friends saying they bought a refrigerator for $300. That was 300 votes.”

Berk was crowned the Nisei Week queen. But then, Wimp Hiroto ran a headline in his newspaper, Crossroads. The headline read: YOU WERE HAD! He took to task the selection system and labeled it “a dollar race.” That was the last year that the queen was chosen that way.

As for Berk, she walked away with the title, a tennis racket, and a steam iron. The queen’s prize package wasn’t as big as it is today but it was a big deal back in the 1950s. Today, she remains active as a Japanese American National Museum docent and supports the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition.

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