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At Japanese Festival, Everyone Is Nisei

August 11, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Second-generation Japanese Americans created the event 63 years ago to draw outsiders into the struggling Little Tokyo business district.

It worked.

That explains why Caucasian performers wearing ceremonial Japanese costumes were among those doing traditional ondo dances Sunday along 2nd Street in downtown Los Angeles.

And why the mostly Latino members of the Lynwood High School marching band were followed by a Chinese American group banging cymbals and carrying a colorful representation of a dragon.

And why, as this year's Nisei Week Japanese Festival was getting underway, one-man-band street performer Arthur Nakane was able to draw laughter instead of glares when he slapped a stringy wig on his head and pulled out a harmonica to play "Proud Mary" at the corner of 2nd and San Pedro Street.

"I used to be a hippie in Japan. They called me a 'Nippie,' " Nakane joked to the crowd. "The back of the wig here says it was made in Japan. The harmonica has 'Made in China' written on it. Close enough."

Thousands visited Little Tokyo for Sunday's festival-opening street fair, which included dozens of food and craft booths, and for a lengthy parade that circled the Japanese American business district.

Ten-year-old Charles Hollowell of Van Nuys spent $10 to buy a tiny bonsai tree from one artisan. And even though he already speaks English and Spanish, Charles announced he will enroll in Japanese-language lessons.

Sunday's parade will be followed this week by a community concert, a car show and cultural exhibits at various locations around Little Tokyo.

Many of the parade's 60 entries paid tribute to Japanese American "pioneers" who in 1934 took the first steps to welcome non-Japanese into the close-knit Little Tokyo area, which was then run by Japanese-born immigrants called Issei. Later, the American-born Nisei proved their patriotism by fighting for the U.S. in World War II.

Over the years, Nisei Week has remained popular with descendants of the original Nisei.

"I can remember coming here when I was about 6 and my dad had to put me on his shoulders so I could see the parade. It was very crowded. It was a very big deal," Canyon Country mom Deb Toshimitsu told daughters Alyssa, 9, and Amanda, 8, as they waited for the parade.

"That was 30 years ago?" Alyssa asked.

"No, it's like 20," Toshimitsu replied.

Then with a whisper that drew a laugh from husband David Toshimitsu, she confided, "I always tell the girls I'm 29."

Parade-goers included fifth-graders from Raymond Elementary School in South Los Angeles who traveled by bus and subway to get to 2nd Street through a program called TransitPeople.

"I'll bet they are hot in their costumes," said Franka Penel, 10, as classmates Tecora Glass and Amos Thomas stared at kimono-clad dancers. "They're working real hard out there."

Spectators on 1st Street gave a standing ovation to hard-working Venice Koshin Taiko Drummers, who played ceremonial percussion instruments aboard a brightly colored float. There was heavy applause for Nisei Week Queen Nicole Miyako Cherry and her court.

There was some curiosity as the parade's grand marshal passed in a convertible, however. He was a beaming Jesse James. And he is from Orange County, not Little Tokyo.

Katsumi Kunitsugu, a parade organizer, explained that James is a veteran youth-league basketball coach who, for more than three decades, has helped train Asian American hoop players.

James is part Japanese, she said. Which means that, despite his Old West name, he's definitely part of the new West.

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