Nisei Week (? Nisei-sh? Matsuri) is an annual festival celebrating Japanese American (JA) culture and history in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Nisei means 2nd generation in Japanese, describing the first American born Japanese, a group which the seven-day festival was originally meant to attract. Though named for the Nisei generation, Nisei Week is no longer targeted at Niseis, nor is the festival still contained within a week. Nisei Week Foundation president for 2006, Michelle Suzuki, described the festival as "the opportunity for people of all backgrounds to celebrate Japanese heritage and culture".
Festivities are held over one month, though the main attractions are held during the primary two weekends of the festival in mid-August. Nisei Week draws tens of thousands of participants each year from both the Japanese community and Southern California area, mostly to its Grand Parade and specialized festivals. The 74th Annual Nisei Week Festival started August 9 and the Grand Parade took place on August 10, 2014. The festival is scheduled to conclude on August 17, 2014. The 6th Annual Tanabata Festival was also held in Little Tokyo from August 8 to August 11, 2014.
Nisei Week's history began during the financially difficult era of the Great Depression — Issei, first generation Japanese immigrants, were growing too old and the Gentlemen's Agreement prohibited new Japanese immigration. The English speaking Nisei became a sought after potential revenue source to support Little Tokyo businesses dominated by Issei. With Little Tokyo falling into stagnation, Nisei week was a celebration intended to attract Niseis and to help generate more youthful exuberance in the district.
Mihiko Shimizu, original inventor of the festival, and other Issei business owners vied for an alliance with the Nisei run Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to promote the festival. However, the possibility of being labelled as anti-American by anti-Japanese groups remained a concern, due to the collaboration of the two generations (American citizens and Japanese nationals) and cultural overtones of the festival. The Issei business owners decided to hand over all aspects of the celebration to the independent JACL to settle the problem. The first festival was held August 13, 1934, founded by the JACL.
Beyond economic reasons, Nisei Week was created to promote "ethnic solidarity". Utilizing Nisei Week's cultural environment, by centering it in the heart of Little Tokyo and holding cultural events, Issei hoped to bring Nisei back into the cultural fold of the older generation. Issei also hoped for Nisei to become brokers between Little Tokyo and the dominant society around it. The creation of the Nisei Week Queen, one year after the first Nisei Week in 1935, may be seen as the epitome of cultural mediation and broker between the Japanese community and white America. Mike Haigwara, Nisei Week's 2007 Street Arts and Carnival director, attributes Nisei Week with helping foster Japanese American identity and self-esteem.
Japanese internment presented another tumultuous and racially charged period for Nisei Week and the greater Japanese community. Executive Order 9066 was initiated in 1942, relocating and confining Japanese Americans to internment camps, including those running Nisei Week. The festival has been running continuously, except the years during and immediately after internment. Nisei Week celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1990, shifted from 6 years of inactivity during the WWII era. Despite obstacles, Nisei Week is the longest running Japanese festival in California, celebrating its 66th birthday in 2006.
Retrospectively, the celebration was seen by Time Magazine as dual reminder: "Unofficially, it recalls an ugly footnote to American history: the World War II evacuation and internment of more than 110,000 West Coast Japanese, most of them native-born U.S. citizens." Lon Kurashige, professor of ethnic studies at USC, proposes that the lingering effects of internment changed Nisei Week's cultural tones and affiliations, in part due to the weakening role of men during the internment period, which again shifted during and after the civil rights period.
Phillip Morris' first promotional event targeted at Asian and Pacific Islander American community events was staged at Nisei Week. The event was part of a larger "PULL strategy" program, which included marketing to increase brand recognition among Asians. A Marlboro booth provided samples and attempted to attract consumers by displaying a Marlboro Formula One car at the 1988 Nisei Week festival.
"Aki the Akita", Nisei Week's official mascot, was created by renowned mascot artist Dick Sakahara in 1997 for Nisei Week's now defunct Dog Show . Aki appears as a costumed character to greet and entertain children, or in cartoon form as a symbol for the festival.
Nisei Week has many attractions and exhibitions, which change annually, though many traditions remain each year.
The Nisei Week Parade takes place on the primary Sunday of Nisei Week. The parade features many varied participants, mostly from Southern California and Japan, including the following: local high school marching bands, ondo dancing groups, martial art dojos, elected parade marshals (usually celebrities or community heroes), Japanese and local politicians (such as the Mayor of Los Angeles), a mikoshi shrine, floats, pageant queens, taiko players, etc. Spanning several hours, the Nisei Week Parade lasts long due to its many participants and slow walk pace of traditional Japanese dancers.
Aomori Nebuta, a famous festival within Japan, presented an imported parade float at the 2007 Grand Parade. The parade took place on August 19, at 6pm, in order for the float's lights to be visible after nightfall.
The 2011 parade on August 14 featured former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda as grand marshal. American figure skater Mirai Nagasu, American actress and singer Gina Hiraizumi, Japanese singer and TV personality Kenichi Mikawa have appeared in the parade.
After World War II, exhibits were introduced about internment camps and JA veterans, including those of the U.S. 100th Infantry Battalion. Currently, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and Go For Broke Monument have replaced separate exhibits and the old JANM building. JA veterans still march annually in the Nisei Week Parade.
The Car Show was introduced in 2000 and is produced by Mainstream Productions LLC. / Showoff Car Show. The show features import cars, exhibits, import models, along with car competitions for cash and sponsor prizes. The Car Show is one of the few admission based events at Nisei Week, covering the cash prize and logistics of a full fledge festival, including live entertainment and exhibits. The import scene is argued as both influenced and originated within the Asian American community and linked to Asian American identity.
The 2nd annual Nisei Week introduced the Nisei Week pageant and Nisei Week Coronation Ball in 1935. The pageant was created to help reinvigorate local business and promote goodwill in the greater Los Angeles community. Today, the queen is crowned for her community service and presentation skills, with a formal coronation held for judging and celebration. New queens and princesses (part of a court marked by year) are inducted annually and featured prominently on float during the Nisei Week Parade. The Queen and Court, representing Nisei Week during community events throughout the year, were crowned at a formal dinner of 700 guests on the primary weekend of Nisei Week's festival.
The pageant has not been without past controversy. Originally the queen was selected through ballots given after purchases in Little Tokyo, allowing those making many purchases to vote many times; the rule was changed to allow a fairer chance for all contestants. One controversy remains within the JA community: mixed-race contestants. Competitors must be of at least 50% Japanese ancestry. Due to the increased outmarriage ratio of Japanese Americans, multi-racial (also known as hapa in the Japanese community) contestants began to appear more frequently, causing questioning about the Japanese cultural spirit of the competition and competing beauty standards of whites versus Asians.
Lon Kurashige, professor of ethnic studies at USC, argues that Nisei Queens played a subordinate role to as ambassadors to Issei, Nisei and white Americans. The Queens were viewed as bi-cultural, possessing "quiet charm" and "lively personality", attributed to Japanese and white Americans respectively. Criticism of sexism was brought forth by the Women's Concerns Committee within the JACL. The typical beauty portion of pageants, such as swimsuit competition, were eliminated from the Queen coronation. -
Originally similar to a matsuri (Japanese style festival) or carnival, a street festival was held over the weekend, featuring games, crafts, and rides for children, along with food and arts vendors. Street Arts was created in addition to the carnival to feature Southern California crafts and food vendors. The old style carnival was largely removed by 2000's festival year. Street Arts and the carnival were always open to the public, with no admission fee.
The 2006 fair included an eating contest of dumplings (gyoza). World champion eaters Sonya Thomas and Joey Chestnut competed in the International Federation of Competitive Eating sanctioned event, with both competitors eating over 200 dumplings.
Mike Hagiwara, a Nisei Week committee member, announced the return of the "old school" Nisei Week carnival for 2007's festivities, under his direction. His press release, circulating by email and JA news, describes the nostalgia and eventual dwindling of the carnival. The carnival goals include creating long lasting and enjoyable memories to a new generation, along with helping the older generation relive memories of Nisei Week's past. The carnival also plans to avoid commercialization, using community groups to populate the vending and game booths. Hagiwara believes the carnival will help foster Japanese American identity, giving JAs a medium to feel better about themselves and their heritage.
Partnering with the Japanese Student Network (JSN), Nisei Week's 66th annual celebration included a Japanese style carnival thrown by JSN.
In coordination with the Little Tokyo Service Center, Tofu Fest was added as a subcommittee to Nisei Week in 1996, focusing on Japanese cuisine and obon like atmosphere. As its name suggests, tofu was the primary ingredient of dishes and the cultural icon of the festival. The Tofu Festival was discontinued after 2007.
The Nikkei Games offers competition and activities for Japanese American sports leagues, and open events such as running for children. It also features martial art competitions and exhibitions. Nisei Week supports the JA community through Nikkei Games, as Japanese American sports leagues remain an important part of JA culture and history (see also: Nikkei sports).
The Little Tokyo Anime Festival features video gaming, manga, martial arts, anime, cosplaying, and other Japanese popular culture exports, as part of booths and exhibits. A cosplay contest is held, where arbitrated best costume winners are presented. Cosplayers also take part in the Nisei Week parade. The 2007 cosplay contest was held on August 19, inside the Little Tokyo Shopping Center.
Hundreds of cosplayers participated in the annual Nisei Week parade. They stopped at Second Street and San Pedro Street for a large group picture.
The Nisei Week Fashion Show showcases fashion and provides entertainment acts. The Nisei Week court usually does an opening number to commence the event (e.g., a choreographed dance). Other Japanese-American models, often past Nisei Week court members, walk the runway to represent the clothing lines.
Stemming from the queen pageant, the Baby Pageant allows for parents to showcase new born members of the community and provide an event for parent networking.
The annual Los Angeles Tanabata Festival was started in 2009 during Nisei Week by the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association. Various community groups participate with colorful handmade paper ornament streamers called kazari, which literally means decoration in Japanese. Many performers (for example, Japanese performance artist Miyuki Matsunaga with her Geta Dance Art) appear on the main stage. The 2016 8th annual festival took place from Friday, August 12 (Opening Ceremony) through Sunday, August 14, 2016 at the JANM Plaza in Little Tokyo.
In tradition of Japanese matsuris, traditional ondo dances are conducted in a closing celebration of Nisei Week's events. Madame Fujima Kansuma was 2006's official choreographer, where her and fellow instructors held chochin lanterns marked with the names of deceased instructors of the past. Public participation is encouraged, with formal dance troupes, Nisei Week Queen and Court, families, and community groups joining in for the dances.
Official passing of Nisei Week Foundation office positions to a new cabinet also takes place during closing speeches.