Revival of Nisei Week
The first post war Nisei Week Japanese Festival in 1949 served as a testament to the community’s courage and resilience
The anticipation and excitement was building in Little Tokyo in the weeks leading up to the 9th Annual Nisei Week Japanese Festival.
The festival would have its signature crowd-pleasing events including the Baby Show, Carnival, Grand Parade, and a highlight – the Coronation Ball, where a Nisei Week Queen would be crowned.
“I used to go to Toyo Miyatake Studio, which was next door and they would exhibit pictures of the contestants running for Nisei Week,” recalled Penny Akemi Tani Sakoda.
The year was 1949 and Sakoda was 8 years old. This would be her first time experiencing Nisei Week. In a way, this would be the “first” festival for the entire community.
The inaugural festival was held in 1934 but there hadn’t been a festival since 1941. Beginning in early 1942, more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps during World War II. According to Sakoda, “It was a big deal because it was the first festival after everybody got out of the camps.”
Sakoda’s family was interned at the Manzanar war relocation camp. In 1946, they returned to Little Tokyo. One year later, her parents opened Kyodo Grill on 316 East 1st Street, where Mitsuru Grill now stands.
Merchants were trying to get back on their feet. A core group worked to revive the festival as a means to bring in much needed business. One way to do that was to involve people in selecting the queen candidates.
“Everybody who purchased anything was given a ticket to vote for the Nisei Week Queen. There were ballot boxes all over and I was a fan of Terri Hokoda. I would tell all the customers who came into our store to vote for Terri!” according to Sakoda.
The women who received the most votes went on to compete for the title, including Sakoda’s favorite, 24-year-old Terri Hokoda.
The queen candidates met with judges at various events, concluding with the Coronation Ball. The event had all the elements for a memorable evening. It was held at the glamorous Riviera Country Club, there was a night of dancing following the coronation, and even a Hollywood movie star in attendance.
“I remember Sessue Hayakawa was one of the judges. It was festive and crowded the night of the coronation,” recalled the now 90-year-old Hokoda (Tamaru).
That evening, Hokoda would make Nisei Week history. She would not only be the first post-war Nisei Week Queen, but the first Sansei (third generation) to hold the title.
“It was very exciting to represent the community because everyone was interested and there was so much community support,” explained Hokoda.
For the community, the newly crowned Nisei Week Queen was a symbol of hope and promise. “It was beautiful because it brought the Japanese American community back together again. People were putting all the trials they had gone through behind them and looking forward to something that would unite everybody,” explained Sakoda.
“It was beautiful because it brought the Japanese American community back together again.”
Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance of the community, Sakoda and others would be able to enjoy many more festivals to come. Sakoda would even go on to become Nisei Week Queen in 1960.
And as the Nisei Week Japanese Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary, she is grateful she now has the opportunity to share this experience with her grandchildren. “I hope they realize the sacrifices that their great grandparents and grandparents made for them to enjoy life. I want them to be proud that they’re Japanese American and continue to pass on the culture.”