By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
The year was 1949. Resettlement of West Coast Japanese Americans was gradually unfolding.
Three-plus years of living in incarceration camps left aging Issei disillusioned. Nisei began assuming on leadership roles. Young Sansei were coming of age. Among other traditions, the reaffirmation of cultural traditions had become central to the sense of normalcy JAs were seeking in postwar Los Angeles.
And just like that, Nisei Week was re-established. If the festival were to return, the JA community wanted it all — ondo dancing, cultural arts, the grand parade, and the queen contest.
Meanwhile, in the recesses of City Hall, the city fathers announced their 1949 master plan to expand the main Civic Center downtown, failing to mention that the plan would decimate ethnic enclaves like Little Tokyo.
Undaunted, Nisei organizers moved ahead with plans for the return of the festival. Teruko “Terri” Hokoda was named festival queen, becoming the first Sansei to win the title. Today, at 96, she still carries herself like royalty.
“The prizes (for being chosen queen) were not like they are today,” notes June Aochi Berk, who emphasizes that Nisei Week queens and princesses have received trips to Japan and Hawaii, matching designer outfits, kimono, and more.
Terri’s “grand prize” in 1949 was an iron. June joked that she, too, received an iron when she was named queen in 1954, “But it was steam iron.” Progress?
Terri and June became close friends when their sons, both coincidentally named Ron, were in the “Y” program together at Centenary United Methodist Church.
As the face of the re-emerging Japanese American community, Terri also reflects key aspects of the community’s history. The challenges confronting her grandfather, who immigrated from Hiroshima to Hawaii in 1912, and her father were typical of those encountered by early immigrants.
Based on an inscription found at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, the family name was not Hokoda, it was Miyamoto. Her grandfather borrowed the family name from a friend in a nearby village in order to travel to Hawaii without having to go through a waiting period.
Terri’s father was born and raised as Masaru Miyamoto and left Hawaii with his mother to join other family members in Fresno under that name, but his name officially was Hokoda in state records.
San Francisco State professor Charles Egan revealed during a 2016 pilgrimage to Angel Island that Masaru traveled to Hawaii in 1920 to search for his birth records because the Alien Land Laws were then in effect in California, and he wanted to prove his U.S. citizenship so that he could legally buy land. The pilgrimage was organized by the Nichi Bei Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society.
In Hawaii, however, he found his birth certificate was in the name of Masaru Hokoda. “Rather than to fight city hall and have his name formally changed, he adopted the Hokoda surname and kept it the rest of his life. He added an American given name and became known as Masaru George Hokoda,” said Egan. Hokoda was held at Angel Island along with his mother for several weeks while undergoing treatment for hookworm, Egan added.
It was something Terri didn’t know until that 2016 gathering. The third of four siblings, she is Hokoda’s last surviving daughter.
Terri was married to Takuji “Tug” Tamaru, who passed away in 2011. Her father-in-law was among those arrested by the FBI shortly after the outbreak of World War II. Although his family was confined at Poston, Arizona, Tamaru was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1944 and served honorably.
He went on to become the City of Los Angeles’ first Japanese American department head as general manager of the Data Services Bureau. Under his leadership, early information technology was brought online, forever changing how L.A. and other municipalities managed data.
In 1984, when 1952 Nisei Week Queen Em Kato Yamada decided to organize annual reunions of past queens, Terri joined in to lend a hand. The annual event has endured for 38 years.