The Nisei Week Queen is meant to be the embodiment of the values her community wished represented of them, and held that large responsibility with poise, humility and grace | PhotoÂ courtesy of Judy Sugita
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.
Born out of the Great Depression, the Nisei Week Festival was an event designed to revitalize the retail section of Little Tokyo, and provided much needed allure to a blighted community struggling to maintain its identity in its second generation | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
Judy Sugita, 1953 Nisei Week Queen, is pictured here entering the Coronation Ball at the Palladium in Hollywood | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
Nisei Week festival attracted patrons by the thousands to Little Tokyo | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
The Nisei Week Festival is one of the oldest ethnic festivals in the nation. It was once covered in media outlets outside of those catered toward the Japanese American community. Here 1954 Queen June Aochi is crowned at the Palladium | Document courtesy of June Aochi
Nisei Week Queen candidates and volunteers campaign at a tennis club, circa 1953 | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
In its earlier days the selection process for the Nisei Week Queen involved small gatherings like a swim party, shown here with candidates from the 1953 campaign | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
The Nisei Week Foundation, which runs the festival and the queen pageant, is made of a board of directors and volunteers who devote time to helping with production of the event. Pictured here is a list of guidelines and expectations for the reigning year to come in 1954 | Document courtesy of June Aochi
Each year readers looked forward to seeing all the beautiful candidates on the cover pages of the local papers | Document courtesy of June Aochi
As with the Miss America pageant, showcasing talent of the queen candidates is the main focus for Nisei Week | Document courtesy of June Aochi
Families of the Nisei Week Queen were usually extremely proud to have their daughter hold the privilege and honor of representing their community | Document courtesy of June Aochi
Local Japanese newspapers updates the community with key events of the Nisei Week Festival and the selection process of the queen | Document courtesy of June Aochi
Judy Sugita and other Nisei Week Queen candidates at a campaign event in 1953 | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
In 1953, when then Prince Akihito -- now Emperor -- came to Los Angeles, the 1954 Queen, Judy Sugita, greeted him at a ball held in his honor | Courtesy of Judy Sugita
Ticket for a banquet honoring Prince Akihito | Courtesy of Judy Sugita
Judy Sugita with her court in 1954 greeting a local dignitary in full kimono | Courtesy of Judy Sugita
Fashion takes an alternate hybrid spin in the 1950s when designers begin to use Japanese fabrics on American-styled clothing as picture here, a hand printed dress with an advertised obi effect in the back | Courtesy of June Aochi
For about twenty years, the selection process involved the community voting with tickets earned through money spent in the community. While it did increase dollars spent in Little Tokyo, the ticket system revealed flaws and loopholes. With the votes tallied and published in the daily newspapers, community voters would horde tickets until close to the end of the campaign, upsetting leads overnight with the right planning. This system ended after 1954, when June Aochi's selection was debated under suspicions of trickery | Courtesy of June Aochi
This article from a 1954 issue of the Rafu Shimpo shows tallied votes purchased by tickets from the community | Courtesy of June Aochi
The Nisei Week Queen's face graced the cover of the annual Nisei Week commemorative booklet, at one point a calendar, as well as other promotional items that surveyed and promoted business in the area | Courtesy of Tracy Ahn
Toyo Miyatake and his succeeding sons Archie and Alan have photographed community royalty for three generations. Here, Archie, son of Toyo, photographs former Nisei Week Queen of 1986, Tracy Ahn, in his studio | Courtesy of Tracy Ahn
During Nisei Week in the year of the bicentennial celebration, Sandy Toshiyuki was selected as queen and cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the New Otani Hotel. That era involved a great deal of sponsorships from corporations in Japan, attributing to varied perspectives over the name ''Nisei Week,'' with third (sansei) and fourth (yonsei) generations forming the core of the Japanese-American community by that time | Courtesy of Sandy Toshiyuki
Tracy Ahn, 1986 Nisei Week Queen, was selected to enter the now defunct Miss Nikkei International Pageant held in Brazil. The largest concentration of Japanese outside of Japan can be found in Brazil | Photo by Justin Cram
The Baby Pageant, still held today, allows for parents to showcase new born members of the community and provide an event for parent networking | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
The Nisei Week Queens represent the many satellite Japanese American communities outside of Little Tokyo. Today, Japanese American community centers in counties all the way from San Diego to San Dimas will sponsor a young woman who will then be trained with the rest of her court. This 1954 article of a Pasadena candidate foreshadows the eventually widespread dispersal of Japanese American communities across Southern California | Courtesy of June Aochi
Today, the the Nisei Week Court has responsibilities as great as the queen | Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
Each member in the court has a platform for which they will campaign for the year. The Nisei Week Queen's selection criteria has shifted from a focus on beauty to placing more importance on community services and volunteerism | Photo by Justin Cram
Today, there are 72 former Nisei Week Queens from a wide variety of backgrounds. They take responsibility for archiving their own history and participate in the cultivation and maintenance of Japanese American culture and history, as seen in this 154 issue of the Rafu Shimpo | Courtesy of June Aochi
A Nisei Week Queen will always be a Nisei Week Queen in her community. Photo courtesy of Judy Sugita
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.