The Next Generation: The UCLA Nikkei Student Union
Aside from all the great events that were offered and the memories created in the Nikkei Student Union during my freshman year, I will never forget what ran across my mind when I attended the first meeting: I have never seen SO MANY Nikkei before in my life.
Established in 1981, the Nikkei Student Union (NSU) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is a student group that places emphasis on raising awareness about the Japanese American culture. Though NSU is a Japanese American based club, many of its members are from diverse ethnic backgrounds, welcoming and connecting individuals with a common Nikkei interest through various socio-cultural and sports events.
When I first learned of what NSU is I didn’t think there would be so many people. Frankly, the masses of members were overwhelming that first night. Initially I was only a general member, but soon I was swept in by the flow of passion and energy of NSU’s staff and board members. With encouragement from some new friends, I joined New Staff, the committee for general members who want to cultivate their leadership skills and have a more intimate setting to interact with other new members and the whole of NSU’s staff. With a heavy emphasis on having fun, New Staff was wonderful because our lovely co-heads, Vanessa and Karen, did everything they could to ensure that throughout the entire experience we came to share their love of NSU. They mixed games with leadership and time management workshops, and we were able to plan 10th Week Dinners (the final event of each quarter) as well as the annual ski trip at Lake Tahoe during spring break, to get a taste of what it means to be on a committee.
Soon, New Staff became the center of the “Newbie” class of NSU members. The “Newbies” of 2009 are all very energetic, and very active. We had over 20 new members, many of whom quickly became assimilated into committees. We didn’t really have an intention of taking on leadership roles – we all just kind of kept encouraging one another to come out. Enthusiastic and excited, if one of us jumped on board for a project the rest of us were not far behind.
Of course as an introduction into the various events and behind-the-scenes action of the club, our co-heads encouraged us to be a part of various activities. One of NSU’s culminating events is our annual Culture Night (CN), which addresses Japanese American history and issues, both past and current, in order to promote both culture and political awareness. In 2009 one of the co-producers for the show was none other than our New Staff co-head Vanessa Yee. She encouraged many of us to join the Culture Night Production Committee to help in the planning and preparation of the show. As the biggest production and event of the year, CN is a collaboration of the Nikkei Student Union and its associated groups: Odori; NSU Modern, the dance group; and Kyodo Taiko. It is stunning to see everyone in NSU gets together to make such a grand effort to express the Nikkei culture in their own unique ways. This year the drama, and theme of the production, was titled "Always Welcome, Never for Sale," addressing the current gentrification and redevelopment in our very own Little Tokyo, one of the few remaining historic Japanese enclaves in California. Even though many of us are not of Japanese American heritage or had a strong connection with the Nikkei community prior to NSU, each and every individual was passionate in making the show a success. On February 16, 2009, the curtains were drawn from the stage of Royce Hall, and the drama unfolded to highlight the Nikkei Youth’s perspective about the issues of the our cultural communities in today’s economic landscape, and each performance group displayed its own sense of pride in the Nikkei culture and history.
The issue concerning the historic Japantowns is one that lies heavily in the minds of many. But you do not have to be of Japanese descent for it to affect you. In everything that NSU has accomplished I think that the question of whether you have to be "Japanese" to really be "Japanese-American?" does not matter. Being Japanese-American is more than just a transfer of traditions from their point of origin; it is a multi-faceted culture enriched by the blending of two worlds. And being Japanese-American is much more than just our heritage – it is the way we live our lives, adapt to the American culture, and bridge together an enriched hybrid of the traditions of these two nations. The execution of our Culture Night was beautifully done, and I think that the most passionate individual about the issue was Vanessa, who is Chinese American. Many Japanese Americans whose relatives and family history are more deeply impacted by changing demographics, such as the one in Little Tokyo, show little, if any, drive to take action. For many of us Newbies this was the time where we saw what NSU is really about –that though our connections with the Nikkei culture may differ, we all share a similar passion and it is we who hold the responsibility and power of the extent to which we can generate change.
As the excitement of our Culture Night began to die down, it came time for the New Staff members to “graduate” and join one of the other four committees (Cultural Awareness and Community Service, Outreach, Social, or Sports). We were reluctant to break apart. As a new wave of our friends joined New Staff in the spring quarter us older New Staff members dubbed ourselves “Old New Staff” and the new group “New New Staff,” our little bit of defiance in graduating to say “We will never graduate from New Staff!” Our co-heads held a “ceremony” for us complete with a homemade cake and certificates for each and every one of us. Sadly, by the end of our last weekly meeting together as a committee we branched off into our separate ways.
As dramatic as we were about leaving New Staff we are all still actively involved in NSU, working to have all committees work as a cohesive unit. We all still have a long way to go and much to learn and large shoes to fill, but there is no doubt in my mind that this upcoming year will be fun, invigorating, and downright amazing.
© 2009 Yoshimi Kawashima