12/14/2012 02:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2012 Was a Good Year for Denver's Japanese and Japanese-American Community


Photo by Gil Asakawa

This was a good year for Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Colorado. A lot of the credit goes to Ikuhiko Ono, the consul general who came to Denver late last year and has made a concerted effort to reach out to the local Japanese-American community.

Previous Consul Generals have invited local Japanese-American leaders to the official residence for private dinners and to special receptions and events, including an annual reception at a downtown Denver hotel to mark the birthday of Emperor Akihito, celebrated Dec. 23 as a national holiday in Japan on his actual birthday.

The birthday reception is a lively annual reunion for the local Japanese and Japanese-American community. We end up seeing a lot of people only at this event, and get to catch up with each other. This year's reception, held Dec. 3 at the downtown Sheraton, brought together a who's who of community and business leaders, as well as politicos to wish Emperor Akihito well. (In the photo above Kimiko Side, recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun award from the Emperor of Japan, toasts "campai" during the Emperor's Birthday reception Dec. 3, with Consul General Ikuhiko Ono at the left of the photo and Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock behind her, and Denver judge Kerry Hada next to the mayor.

But Consul General Ono and his staff do much more than just hold a birthday party every December. During the past year he's interacted with the community in lots of other ways. Partly, that's because of the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan. Ono arrived in Colorado in the wake of a number of fundraising efforts for disaster relief, including events and donation drives by the Japanese community.

I was just speaking to a graduate student working on the Japanese-American community's response to the temblor and tsunami. Although many Japanese Americans don't feel a strong connection to Japan outside of some family traditions, familiarity with Japanese food and the habit of taking off shoes in their homes, the March 11 disaster reconnected all Japanese-Americans to the country of their roots.

They may not have reached out to contact distant relatives (most Japanese-Americans' family origins were in southern Japan's prefectures anyway, so they weren't affected by the tragedy), but the disaster may have nudged their connection to the country out of sympathy and empathy.

The outpouring of emotion and support for Japan was so genuine, that the consul general thanked the community during a memorial reception in March of this year, during which the consulate featured the Kyogaku taiko drum group from Matsukawa.

This reception was a special occasion that would otherwise not have happened. But Ono and his staff (and his charming wife, Eiko) have been busy marking other anniversaries and building bridges with the Japanese-American community all year.

Because this was the 100th anniversary of the gift of cherry blossom trees from Japan to the United States, the consulate held a series of plantings of cherry blossom seedlings throughout Colorado. At many of these events the consulate features Japanese cultural performances such as koto, or flower arranging displays, by Denver-area artisans.

Ono and his staff have also brought Japanese artists to the area to perform free concerts, including Abeya Tsugaru Shamisen Ensemble, which features members who are national champions of the stringed instrument in Japan.

Ono and staff members are also regular attendees at local Asian and Japanese community events, such as the recent Japan America Society of Colorado annual banquet, which focused on the upcoming direct United flight from Denver to Tokyo on the 787 Dreamliner.

Many of these events are well-attended by local Japanese and Japanese-Americans.

Previous Consul Generals have also brought Japanese culture to Denver, though not as often. But Ono has added a new layer of outreach into the community, by aggressively awarding commendations from his office, and also facilitating recognition of local Japanese-American by the Japanese government, including not just Coloradans but also recipients from Utah, which the consulate also covers.

Earlier this year, Ono awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon to Dr. William I. Higuchi for his work in educational and research exchanges with Japan, and his role as special adviser to the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, to keep alive the memory of the concentration camp there.

Ono then awarded the Commendation of the consul general of Japan to two Denverites and a Denver organization for their contribution to mutual understanding and closer ties between Japan and the U.S.: Seiji Tanaka, a longtime leader of Japanese Association of Colorado; Haruhisa Yamamoto, former owner of Denver Tofu Company; and Ikebana International Chapter 66, one of 69 branches of Ikebana International in the United States, which promotes "friendship through flowers" with its artful flower arrangements.

In July, the consulate awarded the Foreign Affairs Ministry's Foreign Minister's Commendations for promoting mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S. In this region, the recipients included attorney Richard Clark, a founder of the Japan America Society of Colorado (and a behind-the-scenes power who helped bring United's direct flight from Denver to Tokyo, which launches next March); Denver County Court Judge Kerry Hada; and Mr. Raymond Uno, president of Japanese Community Preservation Committee of Salt Lake City.

In November, Kimiko Side, a longtime leader of the Japanese community who was instrumental in the Denver-Takayama Sister Cities relationship, as well as in many organizations including JACL and JASC, received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, an imperial decoration and the highest civilian honor conferred by the country. Side was flown to Japan to receive the award from Emperor Akihito.

And finally, Haruhisa Yamamoto, the man who received the consul general's commendation for running Denver Tofu for many years long before tofu caught the fancy of mainstream America, was just flown to Japan to receive the Minister of Agriculture's Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food.

All these award recipients were welcomed on stage at the Emperor's Birthday reception to toast "campai!" to the crowd, with Consul General Ono once again congratulating them.

On top of the recognition for so many individuals, Denver was buzzing with Japan-related news and events all year, including a major Japan-related exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens; a Japanese Gardens conference; a visit of representatives from Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hard-hit areas from the earthquake and tsunami, to thank Denverites; and the opening and dedication of the Botanic Garden's Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion and Tea Garden and the installation of a bust of Hosokawa, a Japanese-American community leader and longtime journalist, at both the Botanic Gardens and the Denver Public Library.

And of course, the direct flight from Denver International Airport to Tokyo's Narita Airport on United"s brand-new 787 Dreamliner jet was announced last spring, and will start service March 31, 2013. It should bring a whole new level of activity highlighting Denver's Japanese and Japanese-Americans.

There's a lot for the community in Colorado to be proud of from this past year. We may be a much smaller population than on the West Coast, but we're making an impact here - and we're building ever-stronger bridges between Denver and Japan.

Here's to 2012, and a great 2013... Campai!

Note: This was cross-posted from Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View blog. The original post included a series of photos.