Pioneer Spirit honorees (seated, from left): Dr. Kanji Sahara, Kyoko Nancy Oda and Dr. Akiko Agishi; (standing, from left), Nisei Week President David Yamahata, Pioneer Spirit honorees Akira Fujimoto, Ron Dyo and Joan Kawase, and Nisei Week Queen Kaitlyn Emiko Chu. (Toyo Miyatake Studio)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Nisei Week honored six outstanding leaders at the Pioneer Spirit Luncheon on Aug. 16 at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.

As is tradition, the Pioneers are nominated by organizations because they embody the values of service and commitment to the Japanese American community.

Nolan Maehara, chair of the Pioneer Spirit Committee, noted that the award is special because the individuals are nominated by organizations from the community.

“We are here today to celebrate our six Nisei Week pioneers, who are individuals who exemplify the pioneering spirit in the Japanese and Japanese American community. They’re true trailblazers in the work they have done and continue to do in our community,” Maehara said. “They inspire us with their commitment and volunteerism.

Kyoko Nancy Oda and Dr. Akiko Agishi are escorted into the ballroom by Nisei Week Princess Kaili Mika Inouye. (JUN NAGATA/Rafu Shimpo)

This year’s honorees are:

Dr. Akiko Agishi, actively involved in to serving the Japanese and Japanese American communities, as founder of the the Japanese Language Scholarship Foundation  and co-founder of the World Children’s Baseball Fair with Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron.

Ron Dyo, longtime leader in the Pasadena Japanese American community, chair of the Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute Nisei Week Queen Program and a founder of Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program.

Ron Dyo is honored as Mr. PJCI for his years of support of the Miss Pasadena Nisei Week queen program. He is joined by Jamie Hagiya, a former Miss PJCI, wife Cindy and granddaughter Colbie. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

Akira Fujimoto, chairman of the Japanese Singers Association USA Tomonokai and a leader in the community as president of Okayama Kenjinkai and vice president of the Southern California Japanese Chamber of Commerce.

Joan Kawase, a leader in the Orange County Nikkei community, former president and board member of So-Phis, SELANOCO (Southeast Los Angeles and North Orange County) Chapter of the JACL and Nanka Kanagawa Kenjinkai.

Kyoko Nancy Oda, leader of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition and vice president of the WWII Camp Wall memorial project in Torrance, as well as former president of the the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center.

Kanji Sahara, who is dedicated to preserving Japanese American history through his work with groups including Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, Japanese American National Museum, East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center, and most recently the World War II Camp Wall.

Lindsey Sugimoto, 2014 First Princess and associate at Latham & Watkins, served as emcee, welcoming the gathering of approximately 260.

“It is a testament to the extent and depths that these honorees have done for the Japanese and Japanese American communities,” Sugimoto said.

Naoshige Aoshima, deputy consul general, offered congratulatory remarks, comparing the Pioneers to the baseball players who proceeded Shohei Ohtani.

“It is hard to find the right word to describe his greatness, but still I don’t think his success could have been achieved by his efforts alone,” Aoshima said. “Before him there were Hideo Nomo, or Ichiro (Suzuki), Hideki Matsui … They paved the way in the MLB, overcoming many difficulties as pioneers as Japanese baseball players. I believe the efforts of these pioneers contributed greatly to Shohei Ohtani’s success.

“And today we have our Pioneers. I’d like to extend my deepest gratitude for all of your contributions to the community throughout your lives.”

Dr. Agishi spoke on behalf of the group, expressing gratitude to Nisei Week for the recognition, and asked the Pioneers to stand and be recognized. She noted that her own journey started in Hokkaido, when she received the Fulbright Scholarship to study in the U.S.

“We are grateful to the Nisei Week Foundation for bestowing us with the 2023 Pioneer Spirit Award,” Agishi said. “We would also like to say how very happy we are to be here to celebrate this occasion with our wonderful community.

“I would like to express appreciation to the Nisei Week Foundation for their hard work in planning, and it represents a remarkable recognition of the beauty, strength and endurance of our unique community. Thank you for your tremendous enthusiasm for making this possible not only for us but for our families and friends.”

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