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Cruising Nisei

Four cars parked in front of the Fukui Mortuary mural, circa 1987-89. Photo credit: Bob Nishida.

If you arrived after dark to the Nisei Week carnival back in the 1980s, you likely would have encountered the following scene: a seemingly endless parade of cars, trucks, and motorcycles circling the streets, blaring music, revving engines, burning rubber. Crowds of Nikkei youth would have spilled off the sidewalks and street curbs, watching, gawking. They weren’t there for the carnival but for the side show that had become a main event: the Nisei Week cruise.

“The cruise” grew out of a much larger, older tradition across America where groups of car owners would spif up their rides and drive out en masse whether to small town centers or big city strips, annual festivals or year-round social spots. In Los Angeles alone, legendary cruises ran along Whittier Blvd. in East L.A., Crenshaw Blvd. in South L.A., and Van Nuys Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley. On any given weekend, for decades, thoroughfares across the Southland would bear the weight of thousands of vehicles, rolling slow and low, to be seen and heard.

As the predominant Asian American community in L.A. for most of the 20th century, Nikkei youth participated in all of these scenes but they had their own traditions as well. For years, they may have cruised summer obon festivals or Japanese American sorority/fraternity parties but at some point by the mid 1970s, the Nisei Week carnival started to become the premier event, or in the words of Gardena’s Scott Aoyagi: “Nisei was the king of the cruises.”

Still image from Scott Aoyagi’s 1987 video of the Nisei Week cruise. Used with permission. 

In 1987, Aoyagi’s brother, Glenn, had been injured in an accident and couldn’t make it down to the cruise so Scott borrowed a friend’s production video recorder—“it was huge, it was heavy” he recalls—and shot over an hour of footage to bring back for Glenn to watch later. In the grainy video, countless cars and trucks whiz by. A group of motorcyclists spin their tires until they billow smoke. There’s many shots of the police pulling over people and ticketing them. And surrounding all this were dense throngs of young people, milling about, pointing, shouting, laughing. (Even though the video doesn’t have a date stamp on it, you can tell from the new wave hair styles that it’s the ‘80s.)

By now, the Nisei Week cruise had already become an annual tradition or even rite of passage for Nikkei teens. Younger kids who’d first seen the cruise in the back seat of their siblings’ or friends’ cars couldn’t wait to turn 16 and participate themselves. “You work on your car all year and then [Nisei was] where you bust out all the new stuff. You wanted to be the biggest and baddest out there,” Aoyagi explained.

Brian Karasawa, from Long Beach, is another veteran of the Nisei Week cruise from the ‘80s; he and his friends even created stickers and license place holders that read “Cruise Nisei” as a way to reminisce about those times. He recalled “there would be hundreds of people lined along the sidewalks just watching the cars. I mean, I'm not exaggerating. We look back at some of these pictures and go, "Where did all these people come from?!”

Brian Karasawa’s 1977 Toyota Celica GT with his custom “Cruise Nisei” license plate holder. Photo credit: Oliver Wang.

The fact that most cruise attendees were in their teens is no coincidence. While cruising isn’t limited to a specific age, the tradition in the U.S. took off in the 1950s at the same time as the “invention” of another social phenomenon: a distinctly teenage culture oriented around a rebellious sense of fashion, music and automobiles. For generations since, cars, trucks and motorcycles have been both literal and symbolic vehicles for youthful self-expression and freedom. Shut out of many of the civic institutions reserved for adults, out in the streets, cruising was a way for youth to claim public space for themselves…at least for a spell.

The Nisei Week cruise might have been enormously popular with one segment of the festival attendees but the feeling wasn’t universal. In Lon Kurashige’s history of Nisei Week, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict, he cites that “in 1980, the chairman of Nisei Week’s carnival called upon the Los Angeles police to shut down the unofficial spectacle of car cruising.” According to longtime Nisei Week board member, Joyce Wakano Chinn, another turning point came once new apartment complexes like Teramachi Homes, Little Tokyo Towers and Tokyo Villa began to be opened near the carnival grounds by the early ‘80s. “I realized there was a problem because I started getting phone calls,” Chinn says. “We used to get complaints, they said all night, they have to listen to cars going around…revving their engines.” Festival organizers also grew concerned around rising liability insurance costs that could be incurred by potential accidents.

During the same era, consortiums of law enforcement and city officials had already begun to specifically target cruising throughout the Southland. As chronicled by Gary S. Cross in his book, Machines of Youth, over the course of the ‘80s, a combination of aggressive police ticketing and the passage of local ordinances outlawing cruising began to shut down popular spots, one by one. For a while, cruisers simply moved locations in what Cross compared to a game of “Whac-a-Mole,” explaining that, “playing a kind of guerrilla war with the cops, the cruisers held on to their tradition as long as possible. But 1990 seemed to signal the end of Southern Californian cruising.”

That coincides with the end of the Nisei Week cruise. By all accounts, the last carnival cruise was in 1988, just a year after Aoyagi shot his video. A common story circulated by cruise attendees is that in the summer or fall of ‘88, an illegal motorcycle race at an Orange County Nikkei festival injured a family at a crosswalk, purportedly including a pregnant woman. Regardless of the actual circumstances, festival organizers and the LAPD made sure there was no Nisei Week cruise in 1989 (or ever after). They blocked streets, pulled drivers over to frisk them, and issued tickets for any illegal gear found on the cars, according to Karasawa. Festival board member Gerald Fukui opined that the cruise also ceased once Nisei Week decided to end the carnival, which had been the original draw for young people to come out. Karasawa disagrees: “we believe the carnival ended because they killed the cruise.”

Nisei Week shifted to a hosting car show instead in 1989 and that would take on a bigger life by the 2000s through the “Show-Offs” organized by Ken Miyoshi; another story unto itself. Festival organizers also have included small groups of cars in their annual parade but the heyday of the full-blown cruise is long past. What remains indisputable is that for well over 10 years, the Nisei Week cruise was a phenomenon unto itself, one of the biggest public manifestations of Japanese American youth culture in the L.A. area.

The social history of Nikkei car culture stretches far back into the early 20th century, spanning hot rod drivers, high school car clubs, auto customizers, industrial designers, street racers, all the way up to the Asian American-lead import car scenes that emerged by the early 1990s. All of this comprises a complex mosaic that’s a reminder of how important cars have been in the daily lives of the Japanese American community: for work, for family, for play. The Nisei Week cruise, during its sprawling, dynamic and unruly lifespan, plays a fundamental role in that history, one that resonates with attendees even decades later. Torrance’s Janet Fujimoto was witness to the cruise and she could have spoken for thousands in explaining what the experience was like : “the adrenaline rush, watching the cars, seeing the cars. I had just never seen anything quite like that before.”

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Join Oliver Wang on Saturday, August 21, 2021, from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (PDT), for Little Tokyo Drift: Nisei Week Car Culture, a free public program presented by the Japanese American National Museum, in partnership with the YOMYOMF Foundation with support from the Nisei Week Japanese Festival.

The program will be online and with limited seating in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Little Tokyo Drift brings together veterans of the Nisei Week cruises and organizers of the Showoff to discuss the history and legacy of Nikkei car culture in Los Angeles in a conversation moderated by Oliver Wang with Janet Fujimoto Tod Kaneko, Brian Karasawa, and Ken Miyoshi.

Click here for more information and to RSVP >>


© 2021 Oliver Wong

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