Richard Watanabe, Japanese American National Museum volunteer, gave the 2022 Nisei Week queen candidates a lesson in Japanese American history as part of their training. Seated, from left: Emily Kumagai, Faith Nishimura, Maile Yanguas; standing, from left: Audrey Nakaoka, Lorie Meza, Amanda Hiraishi, Kristine Yada.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

The seven young women of the 2022 Nisei Week Court will represent the Japanese American community as the festival returns in-person after a two-year absence. With their energy, youth and optimism, the court has been training for the Nisei Week Coronation both in person and virtually over Zoom.

Their sensei included: Art Ishii in karate, ikebana by Satsuki sensei, and tea ceremony by Keiko Nakada. Richard Watanabe and volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum offered an overview in JA history. A mock judging session was led by Mitch Maki, Helen Ota, Jerry Fukui, Kristin Fukushima, Tiffany Hattori, Denise Iketomi and Soji Kashiwagi.

Michelle Suzuki, coordinator for the queen candidate program, explained the training is vital to skills that will go beyond this year’s Nisei Week Festival. The Nisei Week candidates program has become a pipeline for many who have gone on to take on leadership roles within the festival and the greater Japanese American community.

“The Queen and Court Program strives to build future leaders of our Japanese American community. We are so proud of the hard work and efforts the 2022 candidates put into this year’s hybrid training, often needing to adjust to accommodate outbreaks and other extenuating circumstances,” said Suzuki. “In these unprecedented times, community takes on an entirely new meaning — throughout history, our community has persevered through so many different impediments.

“Our Japanese American and Little Tokyo community needs our support more than ever, and it’s comforting to know we have a younger generation who wants to learn and continue traditions that have been passed on from generations before us. We know that the 2022 court will be positive representatives for our community and look forward to what this year and beyond brings for them.”

(Photo by Sarah Ando)

The Rafu recently caught up to the 2022 Nisei Week Court.

Rafu: How has training been?

Emily Shigeko Kumagai (San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center): It has been really fun, it’s been really empowering to be together with such like minded women who have goals. I’m really excited to see what we can do together as a community.

Kristine Emiko Yada (Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council): For me, I think getting to know the group and learning the cultural values. We’ve been doing cultural training like karate and ikebana. We’ve done a JA history class and tea ceremony or chado, so all of those have been really fun to explore some of those traditional things and aspects of Japanese culture.

Maile Tabata Yanguas (Japanese Restaurant Association of America): The best part of the training has been being able to bond with such an amazing group of court girls. They are so beautiful inside and out and it’s just been so amazing to see everyone’s journies and how far we’re about to go.

Lorie Hatsuko Meza (Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute): The thing that has been most fun about training has been getting back involved with the community. All of the organizations that have hosted us have been so kind and so open and after COVID to all be bonding together and participating with the organizations has been so special.

Audrey Nakaoka (Gardena Evening Optimist): Training has been a lot of fun. Bonding with everyone, getting to know a group of women. That we’re all interested in the community getting more involved and being able learn together about the community and how we can step into a role and help the community has been really impactful.

Faith Sumiko Nishimura (Venice Japanese Community Center and Venice-West Los Angeles JACL): What has been so fantastic about all our training is being able to see how much we have grown since we started. For me personally, I didn’t have much cultural experience being a part of the JA community. I’ve not only been able to learn from all of them but also all of the organizations that we have been visiting, that have been helping us out. Seeing how much all of us have grown has been amazing and I know we’ll grow even more in this process.

Amanda Akiko Hiraishi (East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center): The best part about training has been to build a bond between all of us. To see our confidence grow as a collective but also as individuals especially as women taking on leadership roles, being in the face of the public being representative and an advocate for the community and we all really complement each other with different qualities, different strengths also weaknesses that we have. We really do make a really good group

Rafu: What has it been like to be part of the first court back in person since pandemic

Amanda Hiraishi: There’s been a lot of hesitancy in terms of going back to the normality and I think everyone is really just trying their best. I think there is fruitfulness in terms of efforts towards trying to rebuild community and that sense of connectivity. That’s something that maybe had been lost during the pandemic. I see some good fruitfulness that has come out whether it’s in the hybrid form.

Faith Nishimura: It has definitely been challenging because we are not out of the pandemic. We’re still experiencing the ramifications of COVID. But what I think isolation has taught us is how important community is. Because we really truly need other people in order to survive times like this and being able to help build that community and reinforcing it is really amazing.

Audrey Nakaoka: I believe going through the pandemic has taught us how to adapt so with the hybrid mode and being ready if things change, if events go virtual. Being ready for that. It has made us a lot more grateful to be able to have these public events now and see people face to face.

Lorie Meza: I think the pandemic has shown the strength and legacy of Nisei Week. Everyone is so excited to get back together. I think it means a lot to be the 80th celebration and it shows that Nisei Week is more than a parade or festival, it is a community bonding.

Maile Yanguas: The pandemic has taught us to be very open-minded and grateful for the opportunities we get. Being in the pandemic and trying to get into a way of being “normal” has almost been a creative outlet and a creative process to bring back events in a new light. I’m very grateful to be a here as of the 80th Nisei Week Festival and to be able to do it in person with the community that has been so strong.

Kristine Yada: I agree with everyone else. What the pandemic has given us is that time of reflection and gratitude for the things that were removed from us. This is an opportunity for us to look at our community in a new light. Definitely it’s not the most ideal way of creating that new perspective but we are presented with a very unique opportunity to reinvigorate our community and see where the future takes us.

Emily Kumagai: The first thing that comes to mind is **hisashiburi.** It’s been a while since we’ve all seen each other and yet oddly enough I think our bond is just as strong, if not stronger, especially seeing that everyone is so like-minded and caring for on another. I’m a pre medical student and it warms my heart to see that people actially care for one another they’re looking out for one another. That’s the kind of mentality that I want to see not only in the JA community but in the world.

I’m excited we’re together to do things together in person as one group. It’s not kodomo no tame ni (for the sake of the children), it’s minasan no tame ni (for everyone’s sake).

Rafu: What is your favorite thing to do in Little Tokyo?

Emily Kumagai: Besides getting my all-time favorite matcha latte, I love training at the Terasaki Budokan. I’m just in love with karate and every time I’m here I love to relieve stress and also practice an art that has been a part of our culture for so long. And as a woman I feel more safe in L.A. Second of all I feel more confident, I’m owning my culture, I’m owning myself as an individual. I love karate and I highly recommend it.

Kristine Yada: I’m training to become a registered dietician so my favorite thing is food for sure. I think the spot I’ve been frequenting the most is Café Dulce. They have a matcha latte, a blueberry matcha latte and I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the people who work there and they’re very involved in the community. It’s been nice to be at the caffeine check-in point.

Maile Yanguas: My favorite thing is the food as well. I love trying new places but specifically every time we’ve been to LT we’ve stopped at Café Dulce for the pastries, the drinks, and it’s been a breath of fresh air coming and meeting the people of this community and trying the amazing food.

Lorie Meza: My favorite part of coming to Little Tokyo is getting that sense of home again. I’m a creature of habit so it’s Fugetsu-Do, then Marukai for food. Walking through JACCC Plaza, all those things connecting me back to that childhood nostalgia is really special and what I look forward to.

Audrey Nakaoka: Going off of Kristine and Maile, I love the food here. I love Suehiro to get their hayashi rice with the fried egg on top. When I’m here, that’s what I’m getting!

Faith Nishimura: What I really do enjoy about Little Tokyo is that usually whenever I meet in LT it’s with a lot of other schools and other JA youth. I’m part of my NSU (Nikkei Student Union) at Loyola Marymount University and we have a lot of mixers in Little Tokyo. So whether it’s food or dessert or Marukai or Kinokuniya. It’s what makes it so much better is being with people and meeting other people from different schools that are just like me. It’s kind of everything.

Amanda Hiraishi: We all collectively agree that we’re a foodie (Nisei Week) Court! We really love food, I would say coming to Little Tokyo for the nostalgia factor, to enjoy the foods I grew up eating and have it so readily accessible like Imagawayaki, okonomiyaki. I really do find a lot of comfort and it’s a sense of a safe space.

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