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Celebrating the 30 Year Legacy of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA

A room erupts in a roar of laughter, a well-prepared yet spontaneous meeting of the Nikkei Student Union. This joyous gathering is a typical event every Tuesday at 6PM on the UCLA campus, bringing together students who share a common interest—the Japanese American culture. Whether it is the rich history, delicious food, ikemen idols, nostalgic J-league basketball, or just a place to make new friends, NSU becomes a home away from home for students searching for their niche in college.

As this year marks our 30th Anniversary NSU will be hosting a banquet on Saturday, January 21, 2012. Over the past 30 years NSU has developed to incorporate multiple facets of the Nikkei community. This year marks a milestone of tremendous proportions: a time for a rekindling old friendships, developing new relationships, and coming together under a common purpose. NSU provides a space for those seeking a niche at UCLA, held together by a drive to learn about the Nikkei culture, to reconnect with it, and a passion for change, both within the individual and in the community.

Our college careers pass by much too quickly, and too soon after we form our new friendships, embark on new journeys together, make lasting memories…we say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. Some of us are lucky to keep in touch. Some of us, maybe even most of us, become immersed in our new lives, searching for our next stop where life will take us. It’s not that we choose to forget or choose to lose touch, but it just happens with life. Think about the transition from high school to college. We change a lot, whether we realize it now or not. We hope that this banquet will provide that long awaited opportunity for a reunion. That it will allow those who have invested so much to see where NSU has come. And for those of us who have only recently begun the journey with NSU to see the privilege we have today as a result of their efforts, as well as yours.

Just stop for a second and think: When did these traditions begin? Here we can see where NSU started, what the performance groups first looked like, trace back to times when the organization had less than 20 members to now a staff of over 50. So many doors of opportunity have been opened up to us, and we in turn have opened new ones for future generations. No year is ever exactly the same, and there are so many opportunities given by being in such a club that is full of passionate, dedicated, creative people like who continue to make it all the more unique and interesting. Each member owns this organization in their own way.

Whether they came to meet some friends, fell in love with JDramas and JPop, wanted to reconnect with their JA roots, to play IM sports, be politically active for Asian American issues, to dance, to play taiko, to develop leadership skills, to eat—NSU brought us all together. And it has given us so much, in one way or another. And we should pay it forward, for those who come after us and in gratitude for all those who came before us.

Furthermore this banquet will raise money for our 26th Annual Culture Night (held this year on February 20, 2012) and for Kizuna, a non-profit organization to provide a space in the community for those with Japanese American interests. Through the support of our alumni you can see that they still feel a connection and want to help us out. And because they do we are able to put on a production of grand proportions and to give back to a community org hoping to provide a rich space like the one we have in NSU.

Our first Cultural Night featuring full performances by our NSU members. (1989)

NSU doesn’t have to end when we graduate. All the memories, all the events, all the friendships are worth more than just the years we have here at UCLA. They are friendships and memories that continue with us and we hope you can take the time to come join us as we go over 30 years of NSU’s legacy this coming January.

NSU’s History – 1981-2011

NSU helps fight for the tenure of Don Nakanishi as director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA (1989)

In 1981 Ken Minami, Albert Saisho, and Kenji Saisho founded the Nikkei Student Union (NSU) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to provide a space to indulge in cultural traditions, community service opportunities, and social events. Soon the group evolved from a primarily social organization towards a more politically active student coalition to fight for the issues of the time.

NSU connected with the greater Nikkei community by participating in different community projects. The 1980s erupted into a movement for Redress and Reparations for the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. Soon NSU became involved in the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR), known today as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), which established NSU’s reputation as a political force among collegiate cultural organizations. This issue of Redress fulfilled the students’ desire to learn about their history and a means to connect with the community, but it also showed the potential of the student voice.

Not only did NSU lend an active voice for the greater Nikkei community but it became involved in the three year long battle to gain tenure for Don Nakanishi, the Asian American Studies Center (AASC) director who recently retired in 2010. The issues revolving around his tenure were laced with racism and undue prejudice from the administration. NSU staged walk-outs, pickets, and marches eventually contributing to the successful instatement of Don as the new AASC Director. Upon his appointment as director the former NSU president Mary Katayama gave a presentation on the issue of “Racism and the Glass Ceiling” in front of a U.S. Senate Committee.

By participating in the movement for Redress and the AASC Directorship it became apparent to the members of NSU of their limited knowledge about internment and their Nikkei heritage, as well as current Asian American issues. From this desire to learn more about their parents’ and grandparents’ stories, NSU sponsored an event called the Week of Remembrance in February 1986. This event commemorated the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 when over 120,000 Nikkei were placed into camps on the West Coast. The Week of Remembrance featured a panel, forums, and exhibits about the Nikkei experience, eventually becoming the Culture Night annually held in Royce Hall, which features the three different performance groups (Kyodo Taiko, NSU Odori, and NSU Modern) and a full drama cast for over 2000 audience members.

Throughout the years NSU has made significant impacts on the greater community. In 1992 the “Future of the Nikkei Community Conference” was held as a joint effort between NSU at UCLA, CSUN’s Nikkei Student Association, and the Nikkei community under the leadership of the former president, Claire Kohatsu. The Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles, and the California Legislature Assembly awarded NSU for its dedication towards community service and disseminating JA issues and culture. In 1998 NSU initiated the Casa Heiwa Assistance Mentorship Program (CHAMPS) in Little Tokyo to tutor low-income, underprivileged children, and in 2007 the Chibi-K Internship was started by Mickie Okamoto to increase participation in the annual Chibi-K Fun Run hosted by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC). In 2011 NSU was recognized by the American Red Cross for its extensive efforts in its monetary contributions towards the Japan Relief Fund for the country’s disaster recovery.

It is amazing to think that from what began with 12 members now NSU’s staff is well over 60 staffers, divided into the five committees of Cultural Awareness and Community Service (CACS), New Staff (Leadership Development), Outreach, Social, and Sports. It has over 200 general members who come from diverse cultural backgrounds sharing a love for the Nikkei culture and community. Every generation has made built upon the foundations of the generations that preceded it, and we still have the generous and welcome support of many of our alumni.

One of the first events we host in the Fall Quarter, Zero Week Picnic welcomes new members and old to check out what NSU has in store for the upcoming year! (2001)

Check out their Nikkei Album: 30 Years of Legacy: The Nikkei Student Union at UCLA

© 2011 Yoshimi Kawashima

Nikkei Student Union (UCLA) students youth
About the Authors

Yoshimi Kawashima is currently a sophomore at University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in East Asian Studies, with a concentration in Japan. She is also the current secretary for UCLA's Nikkei Student Union and wants to familiarize herself with the Japanese American culture and community.

Updated August 2009

The Nikkei Student Union(NSU) at UCLA was founded in 1981 by Ken Minami, Albert Saisho, and Kenji Saisho to bring forth a space which not only provided social events, but a space to cultivate cultural traditions and community service. Today, NSU hosts over 200 members of diverse backgrounds on the UCLA campus, allowing students to discover about the Japanese American experience and to contribute their perspectives and aspirations. Whether it is a social, cultural, academic, philanthropist, or athletic drive, each member is able to dabble into various facets of NSU for their self-growth. The vision of NSU is ever expanding, building upon the foundations of its original founders to work towards a thriving Nikkei community. 

Updated December 2011

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