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2017 Women of the Year Awardees Announced

Mikko Haggott-Henson, Susan Kazue Imoto, Marlene Masami Okada

The Downtown Los Angeles Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen League and the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California has selected five outstanding Japanese American community leaders for the 2017 Women of the Year Award: Mikko Haggott-Henson, Susan Kazue Imoto, Marlene Masami Okada, Irene Shigeko Sumida, and Norie Yamamoto.

Irene Shigeko Sumida, Norie Yamamoto

This year’s luncheon event will be held at the Quiet Cannon, Rooms Crystal 1 and 3, 901 N. Via San Clemente, Montebello, on Sunday, May 7, at 12:30 pm.

• Mikko (Arimoto) Haggott-Henson, known professionally as Katada Kikusa, was born in Tokyo. In 1962, she met Ben Haggott, who was a Metropolitan Water District Board member representing City of Torrance, and visited the U.S. at his invitation. They were married two years later.

Haggott-Henson helped to establish a sister-city relationship between Torrance and Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture. The affiliation was formalized in 1973. She then founded the Torrance Sister City Association and served as the president, translator, and cultural advisor until 1993. The association received eight awards from Sister Cities International and enjoyed the reputation of being the model sister city.

Haggott-Henson worked with the UCLA Fine Arts Department from 1980-1982 on special summer projects, bringing in notable classical dance and music masters from Japan. She took hayashi lessons taught by Grand Master Katada Kisaku. She then founded Katada Kai of USA in 1981 to revive Hayashi in the U.S. She became Hayashi Natori in 1986; it was a great honor to receive a name from the grand master, a designated National Treasure.

In 1980, Haggott-Henson received the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Torrance Unified School District. She received the Torrance Fine Arts Award in 1986, the YWCA Woman of the Year Award in 1987, and the Torrance Women in History Award in 1988, and was recognized as a master artist by the California Arts Council in 1990.

In 1992, Haggott-Henson founded the Japanese Traditional Performing Arts Organization (JTPAO). She wore two hats, one as president of the JTPAO, and one as a hayashi performer and instructor. Haggott-Henson remains an Advisory Board member of the Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation.

In 2001, Haggott-Henson organized Tomihiro in L.A., an art exhibit that lasted over 10 days and attracted 5,000 visitors. The proceeds were donated to Keiro Senior Health Care and Torrance-based Spinal Cord Injury Rehab Organization.

In 2007, Haggott-Henson facilitated Japanese movie showings related to orphanages and special education. The movies were shown at the Japan America (now Aratani) Theatre in Little Tokyo and at the James Armstrong Theater in Torrance. The proceeds were given to the Little Tokyo Service Center and to the special education school in Torrance. While researching this project, she discovered a moving human-interest story and engaged a writer to document this history. The book will be published in Japan by the spring of 2017.

In 2002, Haggott-Henson received the Sydney Jared Torrance Award from the City of Torrance. In 2009, she was recognized by the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce and Japanese Businessmen’s Association for her lifelong contributions towards a positive Japan-U.S. relationship.

In 2007, Haggott-Henson turned over all of her assets to establish the Arimoto Memorial Scholarship Endowment at UC Irvine to honor her father, who founded the SIT engineering college in Tokyo. Her scholarship has made it possible for 10 SIT students and six SIT staff members to study at UCI.

Haggott-Henson’s life has been dedicated to fostering Japanese culture and arts. She believes that globalization of Japanese youth is needed for Japan’s future.

• Susan Kazue Imoto was born on Oct. 28, 1944 to Michiko Kawagishi and Yoshiaki Fujinami, who was serving in the army in Shinkyo, Manchuria, China at the time. In 1946, the family returned to Kushimoto-cho, Tahara, Wakayama Prefecture where both the Fujinami and Kawagishi families were from. There, Imoto attended Tahara Elementary and Junior High School and Koza High School.

In 1960, the Fujinami family moved to the U.S. and settled in Boyle Heights. Imoto attended Roosevelt High School and graduated in 1964. Through church Bible studies and social events, she met Ted Takafumi Imoto, and in 1967, they were married. They have three children and eight grandchildren.

While raising her children, Imoto attended East Los Angeles College in the evenings and received an associate of arts degree in child development. She began working as a head teacher at the International Institute of Los Angeles. She subsequently worked at Keiro Retirement Home, where there was a high need for a Japanese bilingual social worker. Imoto retired at the age of 50 when her first grandson was born.

As a mother of Japanese descent, Imoto wanted to instill Japanese cultural values and experiences for her children. Her son took kendo lessons and is now a sensei. Her two daughters joined Fujima Kansuma Kai, a Japanese classical dance group, and they both have their natori statuses. It was with the Fujima Kansuma Kai that Imoto developed a greater passion for odori (dance). For about 25 years, she supported her girls in odori by taking them to classes and performances, making costumes and props for the group, and learning how to dress them in their kimono costumes and apply kabuki-style make up.

After her daughters married and had their own families, Imoto began her own dance lessons with Hoshun Kawamura Sensei at Nippon Minyo Kenkyu Kai from 1993 to 2009. Under Kawamura Sensei, she achieved her natori and shihan statuses as Imoto Hoshunjyu, and continued to dance until her sensei’s retirement. In the spring of 2009, Imoto opened her own minyo dance group, Kotobuki no Kai, and became the head of Los Angeles Nippon Minyo Kenkyu Kai. The group currently practices at the Centenary United Methodist Church in Little Tokyo.

Imoto shares her passion for minyo by volunteering to teach dance. Her students include her regular Kotobuki no Kai students, as well as Keiro Retirement Home residents, Nisei Week public dancers, members of the Taiwan Center, and some private students. Imoto and her students perform throughout Southern California at venues such as the Tanabata Festival, Cherry Blossom Festivals, Long Beach Aquarium, Kite Festival, Asian Expo, Wakayama Kenjinkai Picnic, the annual Kenjin Kyogikai Charity Show, and the Nanka Minyo Kyokai Aki no Minyo Show.

In addition to her dance, Imoto has served as trustee for Centenary United Methodist Church, treasurer of Wakayama Kenjin Kai Women’s Club, and the secretary of Nanka Minyo Kyokai. She also enjoys cooking, sewing, singing, crafts, and travel.

• Marlene Masami Okada was born in Los Angeles to Masakichi and Haruko Hada. She is the eldest of six children. Her father was from Hiroshima and her mother was from Kauai. During World War II, the family was relocated to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, where her younger sister and two brothers were born.

After the war, the family moved to Long Beach, where Okada attended high school. She was active in many groups, held a student body office, commissioner of arts, and worked after school at the Seaside Hospital in admissions. Okada obtained her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and her secondary teaching credential from Long Beach State College. While working for physicians and attending college, Okada helped many exchange students from Japan and became aware of the need to bridge the cultures.

Okada continued her hospital work as a medical technologist at Harbor General Hospital. There, she met Donald M. Okada, M.D., an obstetrics and gynecology resident, and like “General Hospital” was courted and married on Aug. 7, 1966. Her husband completed his residency in 1970 and served two years in the Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. Afterwards, they moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula with their 4-year-old son, Derek.

With Kiyoko Ohtomo, who was born in Japan, encouraging her, Okada helped families from Japan to adapt to living in America. She used her teaching background to tutor ESL for adults and children. She obtained a real estate license in 1980 to help her family and was able to assist families from Japan with real estate concerns. Okada especially appreciates her broker, Sandra Sanders, for supporting the community and for being a realtor with her company since 1991.

Okada was a founding trustee for the Peninsula Education Foundation in 1980. She was involved with the Multi-Cultural Committee and helped to create a “Survival Guide” in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Farsi for schools to help non-English-speaking families.

Okada supported the Little Company of Mary Hospital as a member of the hospital Foundation Board, where she met Carolyn Elliott, a major supporter in the community. With Elliott’s help, Okada has coordinated fundraisers at the Elliott Estate since 1994. She co-chaired the Sellabration fundraiser for the Little Company of Mary Hospital. For three years, she chaired the Health Career Days for the Southwest District 9 Medical Auxiliary at three local hospitals: Little Company of Mary, South Bay Hospital, and Torrance Memorial Hospital. Okada was president of the Japanese American Medical Association Auxiliary.

Okada coordinated two cookbook projects and a musicale with The Dames, a charitable women’s group, to raise $100,000 for Keiro Senior Health Care. The group also donated to the Japanese American National Museum. Okada co-chaired the annual Bravo Awards several times with the Asia America Symphony Association (AASA) and was president of the Asia America Symphony Guild twice. She appreciates renowned pianist and composer David Benoit, the music director of the AASA, for sharing his talents with the greater community and enriching the education of young musicians. Okada and her husband continue to support the AASA and guild with programs and scholarships for young musicians. Okada hopes to bridge the “East meets West” gap with culture, language, and music – “the language of the world.”

Okada is a proud grandmother of three and shares the traditions of Japan. Having enjoyed travels to many countries, she especially embraces Japan and her heritage.

• Irene Shigeko Sumida grew up in the San Fernando Valley with her parents, Shigeo and Yasumi Nitta, younger sisters, Gail and Judy, her aunt, Toshiko Okamoto, and her grandparents, Haruki and Misao Nitta.

Sumida graduated from San Fernando Valley State College (now CSU Northridge) in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in English. She earned her elementary teaching credential in 1971 and began her teaching career at Herrick Elementary. In 1974, Sumida earned her master’s degree, K-12 Reading Specialist Credential, and K-12 Administrative Services Credential. During her 18 years as a full-time teacher at Herrick Elementary, she also served as the bilingual, school improvement and integration coordinator, and mentor teacher. In 1987, Sumida received an Honorary Service Award from the California Parent Teacher Association. In 1989, she was promoted to assistant principal, and was assigned to Sylmar Elementary and then Canterbury Elementary in 1990.

Sumida was placed at Fenton Avenue Elementary in 1991. She became the director of instruction in 1993 and became the school’s sole director when Joe Lucente, the executive director, retired in 2005. Under Sumida’s direction, the Fenton Primary Center opened in 2008. In 2011, she established the Fenton Charter Public Schools, a charter management organization (CMO), to continue the growth of the Fenton schools. In 2012, the Santa Monica Boulevard Community Charter School was divested to the Fenton Charter Public Schools. In 2015, the Fenton Charter Public Schools opened the Fenton Charter Leadership Academy and the Fenton STEM Academy in Sun Valley. Sumida currently serves as the executive director of the CMO. She oversees the organization and its operations, which includes a $23 million yearly budget.

Sumida was appointed by Mayor Richard Riordan to the Environmental Affairs Commission for the City of Los Angeles from 1999 to 2001. In 2011, she was honored with a formal resolution from the city, sponsored by then City Councilmember Tony Cardenas, now a U.S. congressman. In 2012, she was honored with the Legacy Award at the 20th annual California Charter Schools Conference.

Sumida served as chair of the Board of Directors of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and continues to serve as a board member of CCSA Advocates, CharterSAFE, and Alliance of Schools for Cooperative Insurance Programs (ASCIP), as well as numerous other councils and committees.

In 2009, Sumida’s mother moved to Nikkei Senior Gardens, an assisted living community that was built with the financial support of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center (SFVJACC) and loans and donations from community members. Sumida became a board member of the SFVJACC in 2011, and was subsequently elected president and CEO. In 2012, she created the Oya Koko Foundation, a nonprofit public benefit corporation whose sole purpose is to fund improvements for the assisted living community. The foundation has completed numerous projects and has raised nearly $600,000, all of which has been donated back to Nikkei Senior Gardens in the form of improvements to the community.

Sumida has been married for over 44 years. She and her husband, Gary Sumida, have two sons: Eric, a systems engineer, and Todd, a marketing director.

• Norie Yamamoto was born in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture in July 1939. She resided in Ikuno Ward of Osaka Fu until she was 5 years old, and then moved to Fukuoka City when her father’s company reassigned him there.

Yamamoto graduated from Kyushu Accounting College in 1960 and came to the U.S. in 1964 to study English. She met James Yamamoto, a Nisei, and married him in 1966. Their son, Jason, was born in 1968.

In 1973, Yamamoto joined the Ogasawararyuu Senchado Tea Company Group of Southern California. In 1978, she obtained the teacher’s credential and was given the Sencha name of Yamamoto Shukyou. Over the year, Yamamoto taught and trained many students in the ways of the Ogasawararyuu Senchado Tea Company. Eleven of her students were awarded teacher’s credentials.

Yamamoto was honored with the rank of “Jittoku” by the grand master of Ogasawararyuu Senchadou School of Japan on the 40th anniversary of the Ogasawararyuu Senchado Tea Company Group of Southern California.

Today, Yamamoto continues to actively demonstrate the art of the Ogasawararyuu Senchado Tea Company at community events, including New Year’s celebrations and Nisei Week festivals. She also performs demonstrations at Los Angeles libraries, schools, and parks. Yamamoto believes that through these activities, she is able to contribute to the cultural exchange and understanding between Japan and the U.S.

Yamamoto participates in community organizations such as Nanka Nikkei Fujinkai, Beikoku Shodo Kenkyukai, and Showa Kai, and helps at the year-end charity fundraising events. Yamamoto is also a former president of Showa Kai.


Tickets are $45 per adult and $25 per child (ages 10 and under). Specify if vegetarian is requested. The deadline for reservations is April 22. Registration begins at 12 p.m. No gifts. Seating arrangements are made in tables of 10. Make checks payable to Downtown LA JACL. Mail check and list of attendees to Amy Tambara, Women of the Year Chairperson, 526½ W. Riggin St., Monterey Park, CA 91754. For more information, call Tambara (English/evenings) at (323) 722-3897, Rodney Nakada (English/Japanese/days) at (213) 628-1800, or Kay Inose (English/Japanese) at (310) 541-8022.

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