As dedicated leaders and outstanding members of the greater Los Angeles Japanese American community, the Nisei Week Foundation has announced six 2023 Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit honorees.
The six Pioneer Spirit Award recipients will be honored at a special 2023 Pioneer Spirit Luncheon to be held at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza (251 S Olive St, Los Angeles) on Wednesday, August 16 at 11 a.m.
The 2023 Nisei Week Pioneer Spirit Honorees are:
Akira Fujimoto was born in Japan and immigrated to the United States in 1972, at the age of 22. Akira found himself in Los Angeles with a life goal of helping Japan and the United States. Currently, Akira is the Vice President of the Southern California Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Director of the Southern California Kenjinkai Council, and President of the Okayama Kenjinkai, all while volunteering for various organizations.
Akira also enjoys supporting the arts and working to popularize Japanese music in the United States. He is the chairman of the Japanese Singers Association USA Tomonokai, an organization that supports signing concerts throughout the United States. Akira’s work with the arts does not stop there — he is also a writer and lyricist, whose book “Another Dream Across the Pacific Ocean” was published in Japan and the United States, winning the monthly bestseller award at the Los Angeles Kinokuniya. One song in particular, “Umi wo Watatta Jinsei” has become a cheering song for Japanese people who have gone abroad.
In his later life, Akira has also helped to fund several projects in the Los Angeles area and back home in Japan. Of note, Akira has supported the Budokan, victims of the disaster in Okayama Prefecture, AI Research Institute in Mitoyo City, Hiramatsu Masai Municipal Stadium in Takahashi City, Keiro, and more.
Ron Dyo was born at the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles and raised in Pasadena, California. His landscaping career began when he did gardening work at Shin Honda, Inc. in his early twenties. Ron then went to work with his father, Sei, who was a landscaper and managed a mobile home park. Working with his father, Ron honed his business skills and decided to pursue a career in the landscape industry. He returned to Shin Honda, Inc. where he designed landscapes for major shopping centers, businesses and residential homes, eventually becoming the Vice President. In time, Ron partnered with a colleague and went on to start his own company, Landscape, Inc. Currently, Ron works as a Landscape Planner and Inspecter with Koba Associates. Client’s of Ron have gone on to win city awards for outstanding landscape work.
Despite his busy schedule, Ron followed in his father’s footsteps and always made time for community service. Ron has served as a board member for the Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute (PJCI), he co-founded the Mishima/Pasadena Student Exchange Program, initiated and chaired the PJCI Nisei Week Queen Program, and more. Ron has also helped to guide and mentor the youth of Little Tokyo by co-founding the Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program, where high school students develop leadership skills and gain knowledge about the Japanese American heritage and culture. In 2016, Ron received the PJCI Outstanding Service Award and the JACCC Spirit Award.
Ron has been able to combine his two passions of cooking and fishing, by coordinating large scale trips to Apple Valley and Manzanar as the President of the Pasadena Nikkei Seniors. Ron also loves cooking and serving lunches with his wife Cindy. Together, they cooked and organized 16 luncheons during the pandemic, feeding over 2,000 seniors and volunteers. He also shares his passion for fishing with his youth event, Kids Gone Fishing, a program to help kids learn how to fish.
In his spare time, Ron enjoys cooking, fishing, and cheering on his UCLA Bruins and Dodgers alongside his wife of 44 years, Cindy, and their two songs Shaun and Nolan. Being a grandfather of 2 has been one of Ron’s greatest joys and achievements.
Joan Kuniko Ota Kawase was born in 1940. After being incarcerated in Poston, Arizona, the family relocated and began farming in Huntington Beach. Through her work on the farm, Joan discovered her passion of taking advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. Throughout her youth, Joan was the class Treasurer, softball team Captain, Girls Athletic Association President, member of the OC Jays, and a member of the Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) youth group.
Joan continued her community work as a Bruin Belle while at UCLA for a degree in Education. She worked to welcome minority athletes, who were not welcomed alongside the white student athletes. Additionally, Joan was involved with the Wings, a women’s auxiliary to the Airforce ROTC, and was a founding charter member of the Theta Kappa Phi sorority, providing Japanese American women the opportunity to participate in sorority life. After marrying Frank Kawase in 1962, Joan relocated to Boston and completed her degree at Boston University.
After returning to California and settling in Brea, Joan continued her work as an advocate for education and cultural preservation. After being asked by the Brea Director of Recreation and Park, Joan started a low-cost preschool and a Summer Day Camp, both of which are still in operation to this day! As a credentialed teacher, Joan had an illustrious 23-year teaching career at St. Anthony Claret grammar school. In addition to her passion for education, Joan was also involved with the Rotary Club of Brea and helped in the development of a 30-unit low-cost senior housing project called “Breal”.
Joan’s commitment to the Japanese and Japanese American communities can be seen in her role as former President and board member of So-Phis, coordinating their annual fashion show. She is a long-time member of the SELNAOCO Chapter of the JACL and also worked with Nanka Kanazawa Kenjinkai on the award-winning Kamari for the Tanabata Festival. Joan has also dedicated countless hours volunteering for the BreaFest, Brea Arts and Craft Show, as a Girls Scout leader, and at her children’s schools. Joan is a proud mother of 4, grandmother of 9, and will be welcoming her first great-grandchild in October!
協子 Kyoko Nancy Oda was born in Tule Lake Segregation Center and returned with her family to Boyle Heights. She attended Maryknoll School in nearby Little Tokyo. As a youth, Kyoko earned a Kodokan black belt in judo from Senshin Doji in 1963.
With an avid interest in history, it was natural to take the helm of Tuna Canyon Detention Station that is a historic cultural monument 1039.
In June 2013, the City of Los Angeles designated the former Tuna Canyon Detention Station a Historic Cultural Monument. Ms. Oda and the coalition had relentlessly sought recognition of the site where 2,000 Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants and Japanese taken from Peru were detained for several years during World War II. In 2014, Ms. Oda was designated the first president of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, a new non-profit formed to preserve the history of Tuna Canyon.
Under Ms. Oda’s leadership, the Coalition developed a traveling exhibition, funded by the U.S. National Park Service Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant, entitled “Only the Oaks Remain.” With further funding, Project Directors, Dr. Russell Endo and June Aochi Berk have interviewed more than forty descendants at the Watase Media Center at the Japanese American National Museum.
She has been a lifelong member of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center where she served as president of the board of directors and is a member of the JACL. She has been on the Future Planning Committee for five years and will be co Capital Campaign Chair for a much needed multipurpose facility.
Five years ago, Kyoko and her nephew, Ernie Nishii, began to coordinate a Day of Remembrance with the Manzanar Committee. Nisei incarcerees brought their personal stories students in the ABC Unified School District.
Currently, she is Vice President of the WWIICampWall in Torrance, California that will honor the 125,000 that were incarcerated.
Among her honors are Los Angeles City Pioneer Woman of the Year, Japanese Woman’s Society Woman of the Year, and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, for meritorious service toward Japan.
Kyoko was a LAUSD elementary school principal for thirty-two years. In 2020, she published “Tule Lake Stockade Diary,” a rare account written by her father, Tatsuo Inouye. Kyoko is married to Kay Oda and had two sons, Jon and Daron. Her daughter-in-laws are Monique and Yvonne Oda. She has four grandchildren who are Alexander, Arielle, Devon, and Kyle.
Kanji Sahara was born in Hiroshima, Japan on April 4, 1934 and was raised in Los Angeles, along with his three older sisters. In April of 1942, Kanji and his family were sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center and were incarcerated in Jerome, Arkansas from 1942 to 1944 and in Rohwer, Arkansas from 1944 to 1945. After the war, the family re-located to Chicago, where Kanhi went on to receive his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and his Ph.D from Northwestern University.
After graduating in 1961, Kanji moved to Pomona to work as an engineer for General Dynamics. While back in California, Kenji met and married Jane Sachi Sakata and they later welcomed two children, Richard and Judy. After Raytheon Technologies acquired General Dynamics, Kanji and Jane moved to Arizona before he retired in Torrance after 37 years in engineering. However, retirement has not stopped Kanji, who has acted as a volunteer docent at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and the Japanese American National Museum.
In addition to his work as a volunteer docent, Kanji is the former president of both the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center and the Greater Los Angeles Japanese American Citizenship League. He also formed and led a Democratic Club at El Camino College and has been involved with the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, continuing to protest around town! Additionally, Kanji’s proposal helped to secure funding for wall memorials at the War Relation Authority camps and led him to sit on the board for the World War II Camp Wall non-profit.
While life has slowed down, Kanji remains as committed as ever to give back to the community through the support of various organizations. In recognition of his tireless work, Kanji was the recipient of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Spirit Award in 2017 and the National JACLer of the Biennium in 2018.
Dr. Akiko Agishi was born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan and worked as a Public High School English teacher after graduating with a degree in English Language from the University of Education. She came to California in 1967 as a Fulbright Scholar and graduated from UCLA in 1975 with an EdD in Higher Education.
Receiving the Fulbright Scholarship was life changing and put Dr. Agisihi on a path for a new life in the United States. This opportunity helped her to start her career and become involved in organizations that are dedicated to serving the Japanese and Japanese-American communities. This passion can be seen in her work as the Founder and President of the Japanese Language Scholarship Foundation in 1998.
Additionally, Dr. Agishi founded the Creative Enterprise International, which operates in the United States and Japan. As the acting president, Dr. Agishi was awarded the Los Angeles Community Organization Recognition Award in 2014 and the 2013 Women of the Year Award by the Japanese American Citizens League. She also worked with Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron to co-found the World Children’s Baseball Fair and was recognized at the 20th anniversary with an International Recognition Award from USA Baseball and the MLB.
Dr. Agishi mountain climbing, skiing, ballroom dancing, attending the theater, traveling, and appreciating and collecting fine art and duck decoys, which she enjoyed doing with her late husband, Mitsuho Agishi, a talented aerial photographer. Together, they have two sons Raymond and Jun, and an adopted Shiba-inu named Aurora. She is grateful for the opportunities she has been given and hopes to continue to create a “circle of happiness and peace” for everyone.