Nisei Week Festival draws throngs to Little Tokyo

Sumo wrestlers and samurai converged Saturday as the 69th annual Nisei Week Festival drew several thousand people to Little Tokyo.

While the wrestlers groaned and charged at one another inside a ring, sword-wielding samurai visiting from Nagoya, Japan, hit the stage to perform a prewar ritual said to have been presented only once before outside Japan.

In elaborate 15th and 16th century warrior armor topped with giant horns, the dozen men and women reenacted the moment when Japanese samurai pledged their lives, then marched to battle.

"Courtesy, bravery, pride is the true spirit of the samurai!" one declared in a deep voice.

Captivated spectators looked on from their seats munching flavored crushed ice and dumplings. Some came from as far away as Arizona and the East Coast to be part of the annual tradition established to keep Japanese Americans connected to their cultural roots.

As Japanese families moved away from Little Tokyo into suburban areas and married into other cultures, traditions began to fade. But Los Angeles' Nisei festival -- "nisei" refers to second-generation Japanese Americans -- remains a big draw, and its core of 200 volunteers, many of them youngsters, reflects the event's popularity.

The festival organized by the Nisei Week Foundation features a host of booths, musical performances and art exhibits, along with the coronation of the 2009 Nisei Week Queen and a parade that includes more than 1,500 participants. This year's parade begins at 5:30 p.m. today and will include illuminated floats.

"This is the continuation of Japanese culture in L.A.," said Leland Lau, an event organizer. "We want to get the Japanese community to come back to Little Tokyo, to get all kinds of different communities to come out and enjoy."

Throughout the day, crowds milled -- parents, grandparents, teenagers -- checking out anime books, sleek flower arrangements, brush painting and Japanese ceramic pots. A few children lined up onstage to take a shot at toppling one of the 270-pound-plus sumo wrestlers out of the ring.

While some lounged in the garden of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Sharon Reckers and her son, Koji, settled in for a traditional tea ceremony. A room full of women dressed in kimonos moved about graciously with tea and sweets in hand demonstrating the art-like ritual in full detail.

Reckers, a third-generation Japanese American who lives in La Verne, wanted her son, who is half German, to see an authentic ceremony as part of a school assignment.

"The only other time he's seen a ceremony was in the movie 'Karate Kid,' " she said. "I wanted him to see the real thing."



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