Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit Awardees: (seated, from left) Yoshio Nakamura, Heizaburo Okawa, Masao Morisaku; (standing, from left) Mario Gershom Reyes, Mike Murase, Ken Hayashi. (JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo)

The Nisei Week Foundation is excited to announce the 2022 Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit honorees who will be recognized during the 80th Nisei Week Japanese Festival (Aug. 13-21) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

The six Pioneer Spirit Award recipients are dedicated leaders and outstanding members of the greater Los Angeles Japanese American community. They will be honored at a special 2022 Pioneer Spirit Luncheon to be held at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel (120 S. Los Angeles St.) on Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 11:30 a.m. Tickets are $75 per person or $750 per table of 10 and can be obtained by calling the Nisei Week Foundation office at (213) 687-7193 or by emailing info@niseiweek.org.

The 2022 Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit Honorees are:

Kenneth Sadao Hayashi – Nominated by Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council

Hayashi was born in Ogden, Utah in July 1943 after his family was interned at Rohwer, Arkansas. They settled temporarily in Ogden until they were able to return to Los Angeles after the war.

Back in Los Angeles, he attended Dorsey High School and UCLA, where he graduated in 1966 with a degree in accounting. As a young man, he earned his Eagle Scout award and was active hanging out with his friends and cousins, playing basketball, baseball and mastering billiards.

In September 1966, shortly after graduating, Hayashi was drafted and reported for active duty in the U.S. Army. He went to basic training at Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, worked in the finance office at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and was a distinguished graduate of the Third Army NCO Academy in Fort McClellan, Alabama. In the summer of 1967, he went to Vietnam, where he served in the 4th Division through August 1968. He received the Army Commendation Medal and was honorably discharged upon his return to the U.S. in 1968.

Back from the war, Hayashi became an assistant administrator and CFO of City View Hospital and Keiro Nursing Home for the next 11 years, alongside his mentor and friend, Edwin Hiroto. Though he left to become a partner in an accounting firm (1979-1992) with his colleagues and brother, he cherished the work that Keiro was doing for the Japanese American community and became a founding member of the support group, Visions for Keiro. During this time, he also served as the vice chairman of the Pacific Heritage Bank Board of Directors.

Hayashi also spent much time volunteering as a Boy Scout and Indian Guide leader. He committed many years to running Yorba Linda basketball leagues and volunteering for Esperanza High School booster clubs. He also coached basketball and baseball, but mostly was an avid fan of his three children – supporting them in soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball, musical pursuits and all of the other activities and charity work in which they were involved.

To do this, Hayashi wanted to be closer to home and in 1992 he opened his own CPA office just a short distance from home and a mile from the high school where he, his wife and his kids spent many hours.

Once his kids all graduated from high school, he left his own practice and became the CFO of Rogers Poultry until his retirement in October 2018. Since then, he continued to stay busy. He and his wife remain heavily involved in the Nisei Week Festival and Hospitality Committee, where his two daughters were court members and his son served as the foundation president.

Last, and most personal to him – he commits most of his efforts to ensuring the legacy of Japanese American veterans. He is the chairman of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee and serves as the president of the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance, a 501(c)(3) organization. This is truly his passion project; he has dedicated years to building a foundation to ensure the structure and spirit of the Memorial Court is preserved for years to come.

He has been married to Colleen (Ishibashi) Hayashi for 47 years, residing in Yorba Linda for 35 years. They have three children, Kimberly (Elias), Kristyn and Cory. You can often find him with them at Dodger games, Clipper games, watching UCLA (and USC for his kids), spending time at and hosting family parties, traveling and taking his grand-dog Copper for walks.

Masao Morisaku – Nominated by Southern California Gardeners’ Federation, Inc.

Morisaku was born in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1937 and moved to Los Angeles in 1966. He joined an industrial design firm in 1972. During his career with the firm, he contributed to designing many products that are still in use today.

In 1975, he joined the Edgewood Japanese Landscape Gardener Association to learn the profession of landscaping and gardening. He served as the association’s secretary and later president for many years. During his time representing the Edgewood Association, Morisaku actively participated in volunteer activities of the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation (SCGF) to serve the Japanese American community, including his volunteer work to beautify the Keiro Retirement Home (Lincoln Heights), a project that began in 1974 and lasted for 34 years.

He served as the Japanese editor-in-chief of “Turf and Garden,” its monthly publication, from 2010 to 2020 and received an SCGF award. This newsletter, published monthly in both English and Japanese, is one of the few monthly publications of its kind in the Japanese American community, and plays a significant role in communicating with SCGF members (over 1,000 in 2010). He currently serves as SCGF’s vice president.

Morisaku has also participated in other gardening clubs and organizations. He joined the American Plant Pruning Group in 1998 and spent time pruning pine trees at the East San Gabriel Japanese Community Center, City of Hope, among other places. In 2010, he and his colleagues started the Southern California Tree Trimming Club and he served as its president in 2013, 2014, and 2015. He has also been involved in efforts to maintain Japanese gardens in and around Los Angeles by pruning pine trees, as well as giving demonstrations at the SCGF building.

In addition, Morisaku has been active with his family’s Kenjinkai and establishing ties between Ibaraki and Southern California. In 1978, he helped to establish the Hitachi-no-kai (Ibaraki Kenjinkai) and has served as president a number of times. He currently serves as an advisor.

He was instrumental in establishing a sister park arrangement between Kairakuen, a famous Japanese plum tree garden in Mito, Ibaraki prefecture, and Schabarum Park in Hacienda Heights. Thanks to support and donations from the people and businesses of Ibaraki Prefecture, they were able to plant saplings of Japanese plum trees in Schabarum Park. Even today, the beautiful flowers continue to bloom in early February.

Morisaku has been instrumental in promoting Japanese culture and Japan-U.S. ties through his hobby of shigin. He has been reciting traditional Japanese poetry for over 40 years. He’s currently the senior instructor of the Rafu Kokufu Kai. As the 2011-2012 president of the Southern California Shigin Federation, he continued to promote this traditional Japanese cultural art in the U.S. He was also actively involved in organizing the Shigin Federation’s Japan relief fund sent to Japan during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster.

His wife, Noriko, is also active with the SCGF and serves as its Japanese editor and auditor.

Mike Ichiro Murase – Nominated by Little Tokyo Service Center

Murase grew up in Okayama Prefecture, northeast of Hiroshima. He moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was just nine years old, learning English as he attended school and adjusted to a new life.

He has worn many hats throughout his illustrious career – writer, photographer, activist, administrator, and attorney. Wherever he went, he created lasting positive change for the communities and people with whom he worked.

Since the 1960s, Murase was involved in community and political activism, making waves as a college student at UCLA. He co-founded the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, paving the way for students to learn about their Asian American heritage. He co-founded GIDRA, an Asian American movement publication. He was also a leader in Asian Americans for Peace, Los Angeles Free South Africa Movement, and California Rainbow Coalition.

Besides his involvement in the Japanese American community, he was an organizer in South Central Los Angeles for more than two decades. He was Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ district director for 13 years and served as Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign director.

Murase was a part of the core group who founded Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a social service and community economic development agency serving Little Tokyo and greater Japanese American community throughout Los Angeles. He served as its board president for first five years and remained involved in the Little Tokyo community before joining the staff of LTSC. He served as the director of service programs and the special projects manager of LTSC and also as campaign director of the Terasaki Budokan. He was instrumental in helping LTSC raise close to $30 million to make the more than 30-year dream a reality.

In addition, he advocated for members of Japanese Welfare Rights Organization, Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization and the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. He authored “Little Tokyo: One Hundred Year History” – a tribute to the rich history and growth of Little Tokyo.

On March 18, 2022, Murase retired from LTSC. A retirement celebration on April 14 brought more than 150 people from various stages of his life together to celebrate a lifetime of bridge-building and uplifting communities in Little Tokyo and in South Central. One of his longtime friends, poet Ronald Kartoon Antwine, said it best when he shared a heartfelt tribute. A portion of it reads:

You teach us all how to stand up

You teach us how to speak and never shut up

You taught so many how to fight

The injustices, the wrongs, negative things in life …

Murase stood up for Little Tokyo and has always fought to ensure that the voices and needs of the most vulnerable in our community were raised. As he steps away from his career at LTSC, he’ll continue to mentor young leaders to ensure Little Tokyo continues to thrive as one of the three remaining Japantowns in the U.S.

Yoshio “Yosh” Nakamura – Nominated by Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council

Nakamura is an influential man in many areas of his life, including his honorable service to the U.S. military, involvement in the creation of numerous key establishments, and in the arts.

In 1944, Nakamura was inducted in the Enlisted Reserve and reported for active duty from Gila River. After training at Camp Blanding in Florida he was sent to France to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and saw military action in southern France and later in Italy to break the Gothic Line.

He received numerous recognitions for his military service such as the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, Presidential Unit Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster, Congressional Gold Medal, European African Middle Eastern Ribbon with Three Battle Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Victory Medal, and French Legion of Honor Medal. He was one of five Nisei veterans chosen to ride on the “Go For Broke” float in the 2015 Rose Parade.

After his military service, under the G.I. Bill, Nakamura attended the University of Southern California and received his B.F.A (Magna Cum Laude), and M.F.A. After receiving his degrees, he began his career as an educator. He started as an art teacher in the Fine Arts Department at Whittier High School and then went on to Rio Hondo College as a professor. At Rio Hondo, he was the founder of the Visual and Performing Arts Department, administrator, and vice president. As in many other areas of his life, he has received many recognitions and commendations as an educator such as Teacher of the Year, Outstanding Educators of America, and Fellow of the College.

Nakamura and his wife, Grace, have also been active in the Japanese American community. They were active members of SELANOCO (South East Los Angeles and North Orange County) JACL. He helped host the initial formation meeting of the SELANOCO Chapter at Rio Hondo College. He was also a founding member of the Go for Broke National Education Center and the Japanese American National Museum.

As an artist, he is represented in over 175 private, corporate and public collections. including the Joseph Hirshhorn Collection of the Smithsonian Institute.

Heizaburo Okawa – Nominated by Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council

Born in 1939, Okawa was raised in Tokyo. He graduated from Chuo University in 1962. It was when he started college at Chuo University that he saw fencing for the first time and became fascinated. One day, he finally asked if he could join the team. That moment marked the start of his influential journey in the fencing world.

At that time, Chuo University was ranked #1 nationally in fencing; his chance of making the team was slim due to his late start in the sport. However, due to his natural talent and determination, he made the school team and even made the Japan team in the Rome Summer Olympics. The 1960 Olympics was the first time that Japan was represented by a fencing team.

In 1962, the Japanese Fencing Federation sent Okawa and a teammate to Paris to prepare for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by studying at the National Institute of Sport for two years. While in Europe, he won two prestigious international competitions: the Foil Challenge Duval in Paris and the Epee Challenge Martel in Poitiers, France.

His hard work helped him achieve a spot as a member of the Japanese Olympic team three times: in 1960, 1964, and 1968. The team even won fourth place at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which was considered a significant accomplishment for a non-European team.

Okawa was the Japanese national champion three times in foil (1960, 1963, 1964), twice in sabre (1961, 1967), and once in epee (1967). He was twice U.S. national champion in foil (1967, 1968) and was also the head coach of the Japanese team for international competitions, including the World Championships (1969, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1998). In addition, he was chosen to referee at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

In 1966, his training brought him to Los Angeles, where he was coached by Torao Mori, a legendary kendo and fencing master. From 1969 to 1980, he was the head coach at Torao Mori Fencing Academy in Beverly Hills. During this time, he taught fencing to celebrities and choreographed dueling scenes for stage productions. He also was hired as the head fencing coach at UCLA (1974-1980) and CSU Fullerton (1980-2006). In 2006, he retired from coaching.

In 2004, Okawa was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Association Hall of Fame and in 2019, he was inducted into the CSU Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame. Being recognized as part of these esteemed groups truly showcased what a skilled and influential athlete he was to many in the sport.

He not only represented his country with his talent in fencing, but also spent many years sharing his knowledge and skill with others around him. He helped other athletes perform to their potential and made a difference in their lives. His accomplishments within the sport not only demonstrated his talent, but also served as a reminder that no matter someone’s background, with hard work and determination, anything is possible.

Okawa and his wife, Jeanie, have been married for 54 years and have three children and seven grandchildren.

Mario G. Reyes – Nominated by Koreisha Chusoku Kai

Reyes is the photo editor of The Rafu Shimpo, the 119-year-old Los Angeles-based Japanese American publication. He first joined The Rafu in 1973 as a mail and pressroom worker while a senior at Roosevelt High School. In 1979, he moved to Mexico City to work at a film company that provided Spanish subtitles to American, Japanese, and Chinese movies.

He returned to The Rafu in 1989, and in a short time, became the photo editor. Reyes converted an unused storage room into a darkroom and had appropriate cameras and lenses purchased for the staff. He also trained the staff on photo composition, light, depth of field, and cropping techniques.

In his spare time, Reyes began to organize and archive The Rafu’s photo collection that had been, up to that point, haphazardly stored in file cabinets, unmarked boxes, and trash bins.

He is among the leading photographers to document the Japanese American community in Southern California. No Nikkei organization was too small to be covered, even if Reyes had to sacrifice nights, weekends, and holidays to photograph them. And if a Nikkei organization could not afford to pay for his photographs, he did not charge for reprints.

Reyes also does pro bono work for organizations such as Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC), Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP), and the Southern California chapter of the Asian American Journalist Association, among others.

He documented the evolution of the Manzanar Pilgrimage for close to 30 years and has covered the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage nearly 10 times. In the past 34 years he has photographed 32 young women crowned Nisei Week Queen, missing two because of the COVID-19 pandemic, covered countless Obon festivals around the Southland, and gained many friends in the process.

He also recorded the physical changes in and around Little Tokyo: including the completion of the Go For Broke Monument; veterans receiving their Congressional Gold Medals; visitors first walking through the Japanese American National Museum; and the emperors of Japan visiting the museum and capturing the look on Keiro residents’ faces when meeting them.

Highlights in Reyes’ career include meeting his personal heroes: veterans, draft resisters, the folks who started and built Nihonmachi; acquiring a taste for raw fish; and becoming an honorary Terminal Islander, which included a special happi coat.

In addition to The Rafu, his photographs have appeared in Time magazine, People, The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, LA Weekly, and all the major Japanese American publications.

Through the years, Reyes has photographed world leaders and celebrities: Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, President Barack Obama, Toshiro Mifune, Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson, among others. He was also lead photographer of George Takei’s and Brad Altman’s wedding. Notable events he has covered include: 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest, O.J. Simpson trial, 1994 Northridge earthquake, and several presidential elections.

Among the recognitions Reyes has received, he is most honored to have been the subject of Steve Nagano’s short documentary film “More Than a 1,000 Words.”

The 80th Nisei Week Japanese Festival is a nine-day event first held in 1934 and is recognized today as one of the longest-running cultural festivals in the U.S. This event will take place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district from Aug. 13-21. For the festival schedule, visit http://NiseiWeek.org, call the Nisei Week Foundation office at (213) 687-7193 or email info@niseiweek.org.

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