2016 Inspiration Awards

The Nisei Week Foundation is pleased to honor three exceptional individuals with the 2016 Nisei Week Inspiration Award, which recognizes individuals who exemplify the spirit of Nisei Week by going above and beyond to volunteer their time and/or service or whose contributions have promoted the Japanese and Japanese American community and/or culture. This year three individuals will receive the Inspiration Award, actor Rodney Kageyama, choreographer/dancer Leslie Kawai, and the late actor, John “JT” Tamaki.

These three exceptional volunteers will be honored at the annual Awards Dinner to be held on Monday, August 15 at the Double Tree by Hilton (120 S. Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles). Starting at 6 p.m., individual tickets are $85 and tables of 10 are $850. Also recognized at the Awards Dinner will be this year’s Grand Marshal, Kaori Nara Turner, Emmy-award winning make-up artist; and Parade Marshal, Brittany Ishibashi, actress, President’s Award honoree, the Rafu Shimpo; and three Frances K. Hashimoto Community Service honorees: Bunkado, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, and Manzanar Committee. For tickets or information, call the Nisei Week Foundation at 213.687.7193 or email office@niseiweek.org.

The following will receive the Nisei Week Inspiration Awards:

_MCP4303Rodney Kageyama

Rodney Kageyama has been in the performing arts for 35 years. He began his career in San Francisco as one of the founding members of “The Asian American Theater.” While there he participated as actor, director, and designer in several productions, including Frank Chin’s “Year of the Dragon,” Ed Sakamoto’’s “Yellow is My Favorite Colo,r” and “Voices in the Shadows.” Kageyama attended the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre, where he later became the registrar of the conservatory.

In 1979, having moved to Los Angeles “to play with the big guys,” Kageyama became a member of East West Players, the leading Asian American theatre group in the United States. He worked there as actor, costume designer, and director for their new playwright series.

Kageyama also acted in many films and television shows, including, “Gung Ho,” “Karate Kid II,” “Karate Kid IV,” “Hiroshima Out of the Ashes,” “Pretty Woman,” “Teenwolf,” “Home Improvement,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Quantum Leap,” just to name a few. He was also seen in “California Dreams” at Disney’s California Adventure theme park.

He presently volunteers many hours as an emcee for many events throughout the Japanese American community. Among them include: Japanese American Nation Museum, Japanese American Community and Cultural Center (JACCC), Monterey Park Cherry Blossom Festival, East West Players, Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), Nisei Week Japanese Festival, and the Tanabata Festival.

Kageyama has been involved with the Nisei Week Japanese Festival since 2003, serving as Baby Show Chair for many years and a member of the board of directors of the Nisei Week Foundation. Kageyama has also produced events in the Japanese American community, including: So-Phis Fashion Show, A3M Charity Benefit, Nisei Week Baby Show, and the JACCC Children’s Day. For the past 10 years, he has been volunteering his time as a part-time docent at the Japanese American National Museum, where he initiated a storytelling program for children.

At present, Kageyama is working up ideas for a children’s book, “Adventures of Rex and Reiko,” based on his two pet pugs. As an animal rescue advocate, he also helps placing animals in loving homes.

LeslieKawai2016_InspirationHonoreeLeslie Kawai

Leslie Kawai is a Sansei and third generation native of Pasadena, California. Her grandfather, Toichiro Kawai, immigrated to Pasadena in 1898 and built the drum bridge and bell tower for Henry Huntington at the Huntington Gardens.

Growing up in an athletic family, her father Shigeru played baseball and football with Jackie Robinson, Kawai began dancing at the age of 5 and studied with Evelyn LeMone, later becoming a member of the Pasadena Dance Theatre.

As a child, her mother Aya, patiently drove her all over the Los Angeles area to study from different teachers and work on different sets.

A graduate of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Kawai is a former Nisei Week Princess and the first person of color to be named Pasadena Tournament of Roses Queen. Shortly thereafter, she was signed by the Nina Blanchard Agency, where she worked as a professional model and dancer.

Having appeared in numerous print ads and national commercials, Kawai was fortunate to work for clients such as Nike, Shiseido Cosmetics, Kikkoman, and Clairol, and was featured in Shape, Muscle & Fitness, Mademoiselle and Vogue magazines. She also walked the runway for Escada, Bruce Oldfield, Tadashi, and Nolan Miller.

As a dancer, she was blessed to work with legendary choreographers Vincent Paterson, Kenny Ortega, Michael Peters, Bill Goodson, and Jaime Rogers. Throughout her career, she has worked with artists who include Al Jarreau, Ben Vereen, Paula Abdul, and Earth Wind and Fire. She traveled to Rome, dancing for an Italian television series, was part of the Body Glove World Tour, LA Gear European tour, and worked on the series “Fame,” “You Write the Songs,” and “Days of Our Lives.”

Kawai choreographed the Nisei Week Fashion Show, which opened the opportunities to stage productions for Catalina and Gottex Swimwear, Baryshnikov Dancewear, Heal the Bay, Nordstrom, and the Susan G Komen Foundation.

She eventually left the industry to raise her daughter, Tara, and entered the world of fitness. She was a co-owner of Spinning Pasadena Fitness Center, the first facility to bring Spinning to the San Gabriel Valley, where she met her would-be fiancé, J Lopez. In addition, she has taught Cardiobarre, a ballet based workout, for the past 15 years.

In 1994, Kawai choreographed her first Nisei Week Coronation Ball and will be choreographing her 18th Coronation Ball this year. Daughter Tara has served as Co-Choreographer for the past four years. She enjoys the process of working with each unique court, watching them grow from their first day in rehearsal as shy young women, to seeing them on stage Coronation night as fierce, phenomenal goddesses.

She serves on the board of directors of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy and is a past board member of the Pasadena Dance Theatre. Giving back to the community is very important to Kawai and she is truly grateful for being a part of the Nisei Week family.

JT Tamaki ClippersJohn Carl “JT” Tamaki

“Good times with good friends!” For John Carl “JT” Tamaki, that meant getting a group of friends together to go to a Clipper game at the Staples Center, watching a Clipper game on the TV monitors at the Dave and Busters arcade, sitting in a luxury suite at Dodger stadium, or eating together in Little Tokyo at the Oiwake’s restaurant. Tamaki had a special knack for arranging group activities.

Making people feel comfortable in social gatherings was another special talent. Tamaki’s generosity extended to the Japanese American community. For example, during a 12-month period, Tamaki was busy organizing the Nisei Week Luau, Japanese American Optimists’ Luau, Nisei Week Baby Show, picking up and delivering food and supplies for the Nisei Week Hospitality Committee, organizing the Japanese American Community nights at Dodger stadium and Clipper games at the Staples Center. He did all this with a smile and good words for everyone.

Tamaki worked in the movie and entertainment industry. He once appeared in a movie as one of Santa’s elves and later had a role as a mud wrestler. He was mostly hired as an actor who read the script for a child’s character. Since child actors can only work a limited number of hours each day, Tamaki would take over the child’s role and continue to read the script so adults could rehearse their lines.

A memorable winning moment for Tamaki took place on the Clipper basketball court. As Tamaki stood on the free throw line, his friend Andy Shimazaki turned to the 2007 Nisei Week Queen and Court and told them if Tamaki made the shot, he would take them all to Lawry’s Restaurant. Tamaki threw a left-handed hook shot towards the basket. That free throw shot is now on YouTube and it is titled “JT’s Big Shot: A Tribute.” Shimazaki’s good-natured joke became an $800 dinner.

On November 1, 2015, Tamaki was relaxing after his weekly Sunday dinner at the home of his sister, Mary. While watching the World Series on TV, Tamaki exhaled a final breath and peacefully closed his eyes for the last time. He was 53 years old.

Tamaki was with the family he loved, and they in turn, loved him. As his extended family, we will continue to remember his example of generosity and of having fun. Most importantly, he showed us how to love each other.


For a full press release, click HERE.