Nisei Week Japanese Festival Los Angeles
Nisei Week (二世週祭, Nisei-shū Matsuri) is an annual festival that celebrates Japanese American (JA) culture and history in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. The name “Nisei” refers to the second generation of Japanese Americans, the first American-born Japanese, who were the original target audience for the festival. Nisei Week is now open to all and lasts longer than a week, typically taking place over a month with main attractions held during two weekends in mid-August1.
History of Nisei Week
The festival was first conceived in the financially difficult era of the Great Depression, when Little Tokyo was facing stagnation and needed to attract Nisei and create a more youthful atmosphere. The first festival was held on August 13, 1934, and was founded by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)1.
Beyond its economic goals, Nisei Week was created to foster “ethnic solidarity”. By centering it in Little Tokyo and holding cultural events, the founders hoped to bring Nisei closer to the cultural traditions of the older generation. The festival also sought to bridge the gap between Little Tokyo and the dominant society around it1.
However, the festival faced significant challenges during World War II, when Japanese Americans, including those running Nisei Week, were forcibly relocated and interned in camps. The festival ceased during the war and the immediate post-war years, but resumed later and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1990, marking its position as the longest-running Japanese festival in California1.
What to Expect During Nisei Week
Although the specific events and schedule may vary from year to year, you can expect a range of activities and displays that celebrate Japanese culture. The festival often features a grand parade, music, dance, and cultural exhibits. The cultural exhibits typically include bonsai and calligraphy, and are usually held at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center plaza2.
Other traditional Japanese arts and practices showcased during the festival include Ondo dancing, Taiko drumming, Ikebana (flower arranging), and various anime displays. A coronation and a car show are also part of the festival’s lineup. In addition, you can look forward to exploring various food stalls, and art exhibits2.
Nisei Week is a vibrant celebration of Japanese American culture and a significant event in Los Angeles. While I haven’t been able to provide specific details for the 2023 festival, the historical information and general description should give you a good sense of what to expect. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, I recommend checking the official Nisei Week website or contacting the Nisei Week Foundation closer to the event date.
The inception of Nisei Week in the 1930s took place against the backdrop of the Great Depression, a time of economic hardship and uncertainty. Japanese immigrants, known as the Issei, were growing older and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 had curtailed new immigration from Japan. As a result, the second-generation Japanese-Americans, the Nisei, became a crucial demographic to sustain Little Tokyo’s economy.
In this context, Nisei Week was more than just a cultural festival; it was an economic lifeline for the community. The English-speaking Nisei were seen as potential patrons for the Little Tokyo businesses, most of which were owned by the Issei. Nisei Week was intended to attract the Nisei and rejuvenate the district with youthful energy1.
However, the festival also held political implications. The Issei business owners were concerned about being labeled as anti-American due to the collaboration between two generations—American citizens and Japanese nationals—and the cultural overtones of the festival. To navigate this sensitive issue, they handed over the organization of the celebration to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), an independent entity. This decision ensured the festival’s continuation, with the first event being held on August 13, 19341.
Cultural Significance and Impact of Nisei Week
Beyond its economic and political roles, Nisei Week also served an essential cultural function within the Japanese-American community. The Issei used the festival to promote “ethnic solidarity” and to reconnect the Nisei with their cultural roots. By holding cultural events in the heart of Little Tokyo, they hoped to bring the Nisei back into the cultural fold of the older generation1.
The festival also sought to position the Nisei as cultural intermediaries between Little Tokyo and the dominant society around it. This role is epitomized by the creation of the Nisei Week Queen, one year after the first Nisei Week in 1935. The Nisei Week Queen was seen as a cultural mediator between the Japanese community and white America, symbolizing the dual cultural identities of the Nisei1.
First-Hand Accounts and Reviews
Attendees often highlight the vibrant parade, the variety of cultural performances, and the delicious food. Many also appreciate the opportunity to learn about and engage with Japanese-American culture. The festival’s longevity—over 80 years as of 2020—attests to its popularity and significance within the community1.
Little Tokyo and Nisei Week
Little Tokyo, where Nisei Week is held, is one of only three official Japantowns in the United States, and it has a rich history dating back to the late 19th century. The district is known for its traditional Japanese architecture, cultural institutions, and businesses. During Nisei Week, Little Tokyo comes alive with the sounds of Taiko drums, the sight of beautiful Ikebana arrangements, and the taste of authentic Japanese cuisine. The festival transforms the neighborhood into a vibrant showcase of Japanese-American culture and heritage2.
Nisei Week is more than just a cultural festival—it is a symbol of Japanese-American resilience, identity, and community. It was born out of economic necessity, shaped by political realities, and has evolved into a powerful affirmation of cultural heritage and unity. Although the specific details for Nisei Week 2023 are not available, one can expect that it will continue to be a lively and meaningful celebration of Japanese-American culture in Los Angeles.