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In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, the first Nisei Week Festival was held to celebrate the achievements of L.A.'s Japanese American community, along with the aim to bring in outside shoppers to the struggling businesses in the area. Highlights of the week-long event included a parade, talent show, traditional folk dance -- and the crowing of the Nisei Week Queen.
Organizers of the festival chose to have a queen over a king to mark a clear distinction from the male-centric gender values favored in Japan at the turn of the century.The Nisei Week Queen was not only a pageant queen, but also acted as a liaison for the Japanese American community in a year-long campaign to promote Little Tokyo and its businesses.
Today the Nisei Week Queen continues to be a powerful representative of her community, trained in public speaking, civic mindedness, and cultural history. It's not all serious business though, as the tradition these days include competing in the annual gyoza eating contest. With the crowning of the latest Nisei Week Queen and the celebration in full swing this week, let's take a look back at past Queens, and how their roles have changed over the years. Thanks to former Nisei Week Queens Judy Sugita, June Aochi, and Tracy Ahn for providing these photos.
WATCH: A round table conversation with five former Nisei Queens. Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz (1953), Helen Funai Erickson (1963), Sandy Toshiyuki (1976), Tracy Isawa Ahn (1983), and Erika Mariko Olsen (2011) shared stories with us that offer insight into the motives of the community as well as the changing role of women in Little Tokyo. Hear them in the videos here.