2023 Nisei Week Court at Dodger Stadium: (standing, from left) Isabella Rose Polizzotto, Aiko Marie Matsumura Dzikowski, Kaili ika Inouye, Sara Emiko Kubo; (kneeling, from left) Nancy Izumi Chin, Kamalani “Kama” Higashiyama, Kaitlyn Emiko Chu.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

On Aug. 12, Nisei Week will crown a queen and court at the Aratani Theatre, but that’s only a culmination of one chapter in the story for seven poised and accomplished young women.

Well before emcees David Ono and Tamlyn Tomita take the stage, the women who will represent the Japanese American community at events throughout the year as the 2023 Nisei Week Court have been in training, as Michelle Suzuki, coordinator for the queen candidate program, explained.

“We are proud of the 2023 candidates, who have been training so hard since May, perfecting their public speaking, poise, modern dance, Japanese dance, becoming a team and learning about themselves and their culture from the Queen Committee and community leaders,” Suzuki said.

Their sensei included: Art Ishii in karate, ikebana by Miyako Arao of Sogetsu L.A., and tea ceremony by Etsuko Ota, niece  of Madame Sosei Matsumoto. Richard Watanabe and volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum offered an overview in JA history.

In addition to Suzuki, the Queen Committee consists of advisors Nikki Kodama and Helen Ota; co-chairs Joann Shin Cordeiro and Jessica Tateishi; assistant co-chairs Kaitlin Hara and Shannon Tsumaki; trainers Eva Hosoda-Argonza, Liane Takano Pham and Kay Takano; Jill Hiraizumi-Artino, Kelly Sera, Mimi Yang and Mia Lopez, speeches; Claire Imada and Kayla Igawa, scheduling; associate trainers Alice Amano and Jaclyn Tomita; associates Ashley Arikawa-Estes, Tiffany Hattori, Jennifer  Okamura-Albert and Jennifer Yoshida Gaskins.

“We thank all of the volunteers who give so much of their time to help prepare these young women for their reign,” said Suzuki. “A special thanks to the coronation director/producer Leslie Kawai for years of volunteerism to ensure a spectacular coronation. We look forward to this year’s coronation, the crowning of the queen and court and for all this court will do this year. We know they will represent our community well.”

Classical Japanese dance training with Bando Hidesomi.

The Rafu caught up with the 2023 Nisei Week Court before the big event.

Rafu: What does this year’s theme, “Turning the Corner,” mean for you and for the JA community?

Aiko Marie Matsumura Dzikowski, (Venice Japanese Community Center and Venice-West Los Angeles JACL)

I was really excited when i first heard the theme was “Turning the Corner” because for me that means looking forward and not looking back. I think especially for the past few years it’s ben really difficult for everyone in general. To be able to not have to worry about the past and look towards how we can better ourselves in the future means a lot to me and the community.

Isabella Rose Polizzotto (Gardena Evening Optimist Club)

For me I enjoy this question because it feels meaningful to me in this period of my life. Turning the corner into a new version of myself, not only on a personal level but also within the community. With that a new version of what I define community as. I feel really grateful to be welcomed so warmly by the community and I’m really looking forward to the festival.

Kaili Mika Inouye (San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center)

I really loved this year’s theme, “Turning the Corner,” because coming out of the pandemic we’re taking that turn into new territory. As a community we come back together to celebrate. I think it’s a great way for the community to come back after the pandemic just because we’ve been apart for so long. And even those who can’t join us who might have passed in the pandemic as well. So turning the corner to a new adventure for all of us.

Kaitlyn Emiko Chu (Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council)

For me personally, turning the corner means overcoming any personal limitations of challenges I may have faced. Turning the corner represents a lot of optimism in the coming  year and a lot of ways for me to grow as a person and also as a community member.

Kamalani Higashiyama (Japanese Restaurant Association of America)

Turning the corner means getting more involved in the JA community. I have never been involved, so for me turning the corner means embracing this part of my identity.

Nancy Izumi Chin (Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute)

I’m really, really excited for this year. I think “Turning the Corner” is such a timely theme for the community because this really feels like the first time that we get to have all of Nisei Week in full swing, all of the Obons have really returned and it’s heartwarming. I grew up in the community. I’ve seen Nisei Week as a little girl and so having that big moment of COVID just kind of evokes back in the day when the war canceled the festival, so this is so impactful. I really appreciate that we’re celebrating that we’re coming back and we’re healing as a community.

Sara Emiko Kubo (East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center)

When I think of turning the corner I see it as a new opportunity. Being able to interact in the community and get to travel again is one of the biggest opportunities that we’ll have this year.

Rafu: What has it been like spending time in Little Tokyo and how does that connect to your Japanese American heritage?

Aiko Marie Matsumura Dzikowski: My mom is from Kyoto, so I grew up spending my summers in Kyoto with my grandma and so I never had that mix of the two cultures when I was living in Pennsylvania. But to be living on the West Coast and to see my identity play out truly means to much to me.

I love Little Tokyo. The first time I came here it felt so magical. It feels so true to my identity

Isabella Rose Polizzotto:  Little Tokyo has been great to be around the city. The girls and I got pizza and ice cream and we do make effort to spend time here. The other day we went to the Japanese American National Museum and hung out. Before this I didn’t have a chance to visit and see the artifacts and hear the stories.

Kaili Mika Inouye: It’s been really nostalgic being here in Little Tokyo and seeing all the changes and how it’s progressing. I’ve been coming to J-Town as a little girl to Nisei Week and the Hello Kitty store and visiting all the restaurants here, so it’s been really fun to come back and see how it has changed and I hope it continues to thrive in the future.

Kaitlyn Emiko Chu: I’ve grown up playing a lot of basketball in the JA community and doing a lot of community service events here, so being in Little Tokyo represents all of my identity. Little Tokyo is my community, it is my second home, it’s where I go to be involved, go to the restaurants and experience the culture. I hope to do more creative and artistic projects in Little Tokyo.

Kamalani Higashiyama: I grew up coming to Little Tokyo a lot. I grew up walking the streets, getting my Imagawayaki every week, so it’s been more fun to come back and have a new lens on Little Tokyo and learning how I can help support that.

Nancy Izumi Chin: I have been coming to Nisei Week since I was little. It was one of the things I was looking forward to, becoming a part of Nisei Week to meet the other girls and leaders from other communities and  sponsoring organizations. Felt like I just knew my community, so coming to celebrate everyone in Little Tokyo and see all the organizations and see different sponsors — it’s really nice to have that connection with the community.

Sara Emiko Kubo: I would say when I was in college I started learning more about my Japanese American side. My family and I would always go to Suehiro to eat lunch or dinner and I’m a supporter of Japangeles. I love shopping in Little Tokyo and supporting all of the small businesses. Being able to support my community, really my family, and being able to interact with everybody is my favorite part of our Japanese American community.

Rafu: What has it been like training and spending time with other members of the court?

Aiko Marie Matsumura Dzikowski: That has been definitely the most important and wonderful part of this experience, getting to know the other girls. I’m pretty new to the community, so having a sisterhood here in L.A. really means a lot. Coming from Pennsylvania, I never had a Japanese American community growing up, so this is a dream come true.

Isabella Rose Polizzotto: It’s been wonderful getting to know the girls. From the moment we met each other we felt like we had already known each other. It feels really special to be so bonded and feel like sisters. Training has been really fun. It’s humbled me and I feel like I’ve been able to understand my potential when it comes to a busy schedule and lots of training for many months.

Kaili Mika Inouye: It has been amazing so far. I was   a little nervous at first. It’s quite a time commitment. But it’s been really rewarding and I loved meeting all the girls from their respective organizations. I feel like I’ve expanded my network and meeting the future leaders of the JA community. They’ve been so fun to have as friends and sisters.

Kaitlyn Emiko Chu: My fellow court members are honestly the best part of the whole experience. I feel we’ve grown so much while also being so close. We go out to dinner after every training and I love all of them.

Kamalani Higashiyama: The training has definitely been rigorous, but because the girls are all so close it makes it all worth it. We have fun together, we become serious together, we help each other out and I love that.

I’m excited for the cultural classes. I majored in Asian American studies. It’s a deeper understanding of Asian America.

Nancy Izumi Chin: I have to say that I am super, super lucky. We all genuinely love each other, so every single practice is so much fun. Ever since the first practice we’ve all loved each other and seeing everyone today actually made some of us cry because we all have come so far together. We were getting ready today in the same room where we did orientation.

Sara Emiko Kubo: Training has been very hard, but all of us girls have been putting in the work and I already feel like we’re sisters. It’s really a sisterhood and we’ve all come together even though we’ve only known each other for almost three months. We’ve gotten so close and we do care for each other.

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