Pioneer Spirit awardees (seated, from left) Ken Hayashi, Masao Morisaku, Mike Murase, Yoshio Nakamura, Heizaburo Okawa and Mario Gershom Reyes. Standing (from left) Deputy Consul General Naoshige Aoshima, Amanda Hiraishi, Faith Nishimura, Maile Yanguas Kristine Yada, Audrey Nakaoka, Lorie Meza, Emily Kumagai and Nancy Okubo.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Nisei Week honored six outstanding leaders at the Pioneer Spirit Luncheon on Aug. 17. As is tradition, the Pioneers are nominated by organizations because they embody the values of service and commitment to the Japanese American community.

This year’s honorees are:

Ken Hayashi, a leader of the Japanese American veterans, serving as chair of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee and president of the Veterans Memorial Court Alliance.

Masao Morisaku, former Japanese editor of the “Turf and Garden” publication of  Southern California Gardeners Federation, current SCGF vice president, and promoter of Japanese culture through his practice of shigin.

Mike Murase, longtime community organizer, activist and among the core group to found the Little Tokyo Service Center, where he served as director of service programs and campaign director for the Terasaki Budokan.

Yoshio “Yosh” Nakamura, a decorated member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and dedicated educator, serving as arts professor at Rio Honda College and founder of the Visual and Performing Arts Department.

Heizaburo Okawa, an influential leader in the sport of fencing both in Japan and the U.S. He was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Association Hall of Fame in 2004 and the CSU Fullerton Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.

Mario G. Reyes, photographer and photo editor of The Rafu Shimpo. He is the first Latino to be recognized with the Pioneer Spirit award.

Pioneers offer a friendly wave. (From left) Ken Hayashi, Masao Morisaku, Mike Murase, Yoshio Nakamura, Heizaburo Okawa and Mario Gershom Reyes.

Juli Yoshinaga, 2019 Nisei Week queen, served as mistress of ceremonies. She welcomed the gathering, noting that the last time the celebration was held was three years ago.

“It’s been such a long time since we’ve gathered together. Glad we are able to see one another once again,” Yoshinaga said.

Naoshige Aoshima, deputy consul general, offered congratulatory remarks, saying, “Your accomplishments reflect a great dedication to the community and inspire all of us to take pride in our Japanese American heritage and work together for its further growth. We follow in the esteemed pathways of the Issei pioneers who arrived on the shores of the United States over 100 years ago and have laid the foundation for the striving community we enjoy today. They are our mentors.”

Dignitaries in attendance included Alhambra Mayor Jeff Koji Maloney, former L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry, who represented Little Tokyo, and Torrance City Councilmember Jonathan Kaji.

From left: Torrance City Councilmember Jonathan Kaji, honoree Mario Reyes, former Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, Alhambra Mayor Jeff Maloney.

Murase spoke on behalf of the group, expressing gratitude to Nisei Week for the recognition, and acknowledging that with the honor comes the fact that they are all old.

“But I can say with confidence that there is more that unites us — and that is our love for this community. I know I am preaching to the choir, but if there is one message, one wish, that we want to share with all of you, it would be that Little Tokyo continues to be the vibrant community that it is today. Throughout its 138-year history, Little Tokyo faced many difficulties, but we’re still here, rooted in the Japanese American experience — one of three remaining Japantowns — the center of Nikkei history and culture,” Murase said.

He gave special recognition to Reyes, who is among the few non-Japanese to be honored as a Pioneer. The late Jeff Folick was recognized in 2017.

From left: Mike Murase offers remarks on behalf of the Pioneers. In a post on Facebook he expessed gratitude to his LTSC co-workers Yasue Katsuragi, Amy Phillips, Erich Nakano, Margaret Shimada, Ryoko Nakamura, Jun Hori, Sharon Kamegai-Cocita, Kim Kawasaki, Scott Ito, Ayumi Omoto, Ayumi Nagata, Vivian Lee, Ryan Lee, and many others for their support and counsel.

“It is both a testament to the contributions Mario has made to this community over many years, but also the Nisei Week selection committee, who had the wisdom and broadness of mind to select Mario,” Murase said.

“We have high hopes . . . but as I said earlier, the six of us are old! So, in accepting this Pioneer Spirit Award, we are passing the torch to the next generation. That’s all of you here … or most of you. Seeing all the young people already showing keen interest and being deeply involved in some aspect of community life, we think the future is bright.”

Photos by JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo

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