Spending some quality time in the neighborhood with the 2017 Nisei Week Court. (Photo courtesy Leslie Kawai)


I’ve had the fortune of working with Leslie Kawai, the brains behind Nisei Week’s coronation production and the mentor for the many courts of queens and princesses. For those who’ve had the opportunity to wear Nisei Week’s crown and sash, they know it takes many hours of dance practices, trainings, preparation and lots of sacrifice before they step on that coronation night stage. But because of Leslie and her teachings, the women are always assured that they are better performers (and people) than when they started.

I would know. I was a member of the 2015 Nisei Week Queen’s court and I went through what I call an intense boot camp of memorizing choreography and learning how to be presentable. The first day I met Leslie was the court’s first day at the dance studio — and the first time I had ever stepped into a mirror-filled room and got instructions on how to perform. Three out of the seven court members had dance backgrounds and the rest of us were relatively new to learning steps.

However, I was the most self-conscious and scared of looking stupid. I was slow at taking cues and the last to complete combinations. The little self-confidence I had left completely escaped me and I broke down in tears immediately. I couldn’t believe I had a nervous breakdown, not only in front of the six other court members I was just starting to get to know, but also in front of Leslie, whom we all wanted to impress.

“You are one of my prime and most special examples of coming into our first rehearsal, just wide-eyed going, ‘Oh my God, what did I set myself up for? I don’t know how in the heck you’re expecting me to put on a pair of heels, you want me to dance and do what?’ ” Leslie told me, years later, while we talked about Nisei Week and her involvement with the Little Tokyo organization.

“Whatever challenges or breakdowns we may encounter, the end result is you keep pushing.

“Somewhere in that process, you find the wherewithal and the strength to just go, ‘You know what, I’ve got this.’ So to see you from your first rehearsal, being up on that stage, and then on coronation night — the transformation — that is why I have continued to come back year after year.”

1981 Grand Marshal Lorne Green (“Bonanza,” “Battlestar Galactica”) and Leslie Kawai, the first non-white Rose Queen

It wasn’t hard to trust Leslie, who passed down her own experiences. She was a Nisei Week court member in 1980 and then the 1981 Rose Queen of Pasadena’s famed Tournament of Roses organization. As a third-generation Japanese American, she became the first non-white titleholder to reign.

But it was her start in the dance industry that was especially comforting to me because she was an example of what the end result could look like.

“When I was probably like the age of the contestants, or, let’s say, gosh, out of high school, I remember ‘Okay, I want to go into this field.’ And it was a field that I was not confident in. But it’s something that was a passion of mine,” she said. “It’s funny, because even during all of the auditions that I had to go on, where you’re feeling insecure and you have to somehow put on your game face, the place I found my comfort was in the dance studio. Look at a show like ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ you see how if you put in the work, the end result will be positive on an individual basis.”

In addition, she applied what she wished she had known as a court member to us.

“I was fortunate when I was young to have some great mentors. As you get older and you go through life, you’re like, ‘Okay, what can I hopefully pass on?’

“That was helpful to me. One was, I remember when I ran for Nisei Week and the minute they put a big crown [on the queen], the rest of us were princesses,” she recalls. “I remember feeling like we were all this cohesive unit [during the process] and then [after coronation] it was like all the attention went to the top three. So when I was selected as the Rose Queen, I remember making a specific intention. I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna let that happen because the seven of us are in this together. We want to be inclusive.’ So that was one thing that I remember having a profound impact on me.”

Leslie Kawai with Astronaut Ellison Onizuka. (Toyo Miyatake Studio)

The second thing was about being on stage. “I remember when I ran, I had someone say, ‘Oh, she walks like Frankenstein.’ I just turned 18 and I’m just trying to get my butt up on stage. To hear those comments at a young age… If somebody makes a comment, it’s safe in the rehearsal space because it takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable. Out there, it’s intimidating because you’re trying to find your self-confidence,” she says.

“You’re putting yourself out there but consequently, you make yourself a target. You have to find a way to deal with that, to block it out, just stay on your path, keep your intention and do the job. When comments have been made to me over the years, my response has been, ‘I couldn’t be more proud of the girls. Have you been on stage yourself? Have you tried it?’ And it shuts them up because unless you’ve gone through it, I’m sorry, you don’t get to judge. It’s taking a huge leap of faith. I’m so incredibly proud of each and every one of the girls that I’ve worked with, because everybody had a willingness to make themselves vulnerable to put themselves out there to represent our Japanese American community.”

For those who’ve never been a Nisei Week court member, I relate it to the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis and, finally, a butterfly. Leslie is largely responsible for the chrysalis stage in the trainings, where she fosters a sanctuary for the women to find confidence in themselves through performative art. 

“Just the very fact that a group of six to seven young women are going, ‘Yeah, you know what, I’m going to try that.’ No matter what, that right there is a win as far as I’m concerned because you’re doing something out of the ordinary and you’re taking a chance,” she says. “An important lesson that my parents instilled in me was, you want to live life without regret or try to live it without regret. So if an opportunity presents itself, no matter what the outcome may be, take it because you’re never going to know unless you try. When people come in and they sign up [for Nisei Week], it’s already a win. The natural result will be self-confidence because you took the first steps to taking a chance.”

Leslie Kawai riding in the 2006 Pasadena Rose Parade with her daughter Tara and her mom.

The 2015 Nisei Week court was especially lucky as we had the privilege of learning choreography from Leslie’s daughter Tara, who is also a talented dancer and teacher in her own right. Watching Leslie as a mother is especially inspiring and it didn’t take long for us to call her by her nickname, Mama Les.

“When I started choreographing, I was like the older sister. It’s been an incredible journey for me as I’ve gotten older. As I became a mom, you learn how to relate to each court in a different way throughout the years,” she said.

“I love being Mama Les to the girls, because I wanted to provide her an arena where you feel safe, provide that safe space where a lot of change and growth can happen. It’s instilling that confidence in all of the young women that I’ve had the blessing to work with all these years. It’s how you see them blossom and just become these major goddesses. Being a mom, it’s just been very helpful and insightful in so many different ways.”

It isn’t just the 2015 Nisei Week court that she’s helped. There have been many groups of six or seven women each year. As the dance portion of the coronation night program changes year to year, Leslie remains hands-on in her approach as a supportive figure for the women who sign up to be crowned. Impressively, there’s consistently been a new crop of participants year after year. Their laughter was infectious and quickly became the talk of the town.

“In all honesty, back in the day, I think a lot more people grew up going to the events as young kids, and so it was something like, ‘Oh, one day, I’d like to do that. Oh, one day, I would like to put on a pretty dress or ride in the parade,’” she says, when asked why she thinks people volunteer to take part in the Nisei Week queen’s program. “Then it evolves to ‘Oh, that looks like it would be fun and I want to learn more about my culture, the history,’ ‘Oh, I don’t have sisters that I’m close to’ or ‘Oh, this is a great networking experience.’

“I think it’s changed throughout the years but I think now more than ever, it’s so important to really honor and look at the history of what the Japanese American community has endured. To look at the history of Nisei Week, and to really not only honor it, and be proud of it, but how can we preserve it and continue the legacy especially in moving forward.”

The longer one stays in the Nisei Week organization, the deeper the connections among those involved. “There is an importance to community. There is such a strong sense of community,” she says of Nisei Week, which is entirely run by committed volunteers.

“On a personal note, during three of the most difficult times in my life, I will tell you that Jerry Fukui was there front and center. My Nisei Week family was there for me. It’s that same feeling of being around a group of people who, like family, they’re going to be there for you,” she shared.

“Years back, it was the year that I lost my father in 2009. It was also the year that Michael Jackson passed, so we decided to do a Michael Jackson tribute. And of course, if you’re going to do Michael Jackson, you have to do ‘Thriller,’ right? We had hired this hip-hop group and they were going to be the closer of the production number. The Sunday before the coronation, I got the news that they’re not going to do it.

“So I call Jerry, Keith Inatomi and Terry Hara. They came to the rehearsal studio and everybody ended up learning the ‘Thriller’ choreography. They pulled it off. How often are you going to find that? That’s just a blessing. It’s that sense of community that I think is very unique and special to the Nisei Week family. I believe that is one of the reasons why it continues.”

As a decades-long member of the Nisei Week group, Leslie holds high hopes for the next generation of queens, princesses and volunteers who sign up to carry the torch.

“I definitely hope that certain aspects of the tradition continue. I’m excited to see what changes the future will bring and the opportunities that will continue to open up for not only young women, but young men as well,” she says. “Definitely, what I would like to see is more leadership opportunities for the next generation. If there’s a way to keep elements, honor those ancestors and the traditions of the past — why Nisei Week started in the first place — and segue into where we are now at this point in time.

“To still keep that strength in common that our grandparents and our parents had. To honor that legacy and move forward. Keeping that sense of spirit, tradition and strength, but moving forward and seeing it into the next generation so that it will continue to evolve.”

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