The 2024 Japanese Community Graduation Banquet

By Heidi Kimiko Tolentino

Front Row (L to R): Genji Uzunoe, Lincoln Hirata, Ricky Kamenetz, Gigi Bareilles, Olivia Norrish, Marika Handa
Back Row (L to R): Hodaka Nakamura, Neena Brines, Mark Williams, Caden McGowan, Ty Takashima

This year was the 77th annual Japanese American Community Graduation Banquet.  The banquet was held at the Monarch Hotel on April 21st and was Emceed by Mrs. Sharon Takahashi, a Nikkei leader who has tirelessly served our community for years and brings the Aloha spirit to all of her pursuits.

The Pledge of Allegiance was led by Mr. Chip Larouche of Portland JACL and the words before and after the meal were given by Reverend Ikenaga of Nichiren Buddhist Temple.  Consul General of Japan, Yuzo Yoshioka, offered the graduates congratulations and reminded them that they are lucky to have the freedom to choose their career paths.  He also encouraged them to stay connected to their ancestry in Japan and be grateful for their Japanese American community.

This year’s keynote speaker was Ms. Tiffany Tamaribuchi, who is a world-renowned Taiko teacher and performer.  Ms. Tamaribuchi is a groundbreaking artist who founded the Sacramento Taiko Dan, Jodaiko, the first all-women’s group in North America.  In her speech, she shared her personal history with the graduates.  She noted that only 10% of professional taiko players are women, but that she fell in love with drumming at a very early age.  Ms. Tamaribuchi is bi-racial and it was actually her white mother who her brought her to Obon where she was first introduced to Taiko.  As a young girl, she was told that only men do Taiko, but she kept asking and about the time she graduated from high school, she finally had the chance and was allowed to play the small drum at Obon.  Ms. Tamaribuchi had struggled in high school and barely graduated.  Afterward, she started community college and at nineteen, she found a Taiko teacher in San Francisco who was willing to teach her.  She drove back and forth to San Francisco, four hours each way, so that she could play.  In 1988, she started Jodaiko, an all-women’s Taiko group that allowed women to play all of the drums, even the ones that were traditionally only reserved for men.  In their first year they had 15 performances, the next year, they had 80 and their success has grown from there.

Ms. Tamaribuchi encouraged the graduates to find a job that touches people.  She asked them to consider the idea that even if it is not as financially beneficial as other jobs, but it is rewarding and makes a difference in the world, that it might be worthwhile.  She told them to, “Do things you are passionate to make change in the world and have a sense of yourself in the world.  Be the artist and director of your own life.”

After her speech, Ms. Tamaribuchi performed both on the flute and Taiko drum for the audience and gave the attendees a chance to experience why she has won solo Taiko performances in Japan and was asked to tour with Japanese Taiko groups like Ondekoza.  She is now the artistic director of Portland Taiko, a true gift to the Portland community.

After Ms. Tamaribuchi’s speech, the scholarship recipients were announced.  

Mrs. Mark Sumida Awards 

The Mrs. Mark Sumida Awards are presented in memory of Alice Sumida.  Alice Sumida was a long-time supporter of the Japanese American community and a generous donor to the graduation banquet.  Alice Sumida passed away in August of 2018 at the age of 104.  Mrs. Sumida wanted to award students in the community so that they would know their community was proud of them.  This year, the awards were presented by Setsy Larouche.  This year’s recipients were Gigi Bareilles of Franklin High School who will be attending Seattle University, Ricky Kamenetz of Grant High School who will be attending Bates College, Olivia Norris of Grant High School who will be attending the University of Oregon and Ty Takashima from Central Catholic High School who will be attending Oregon State University.  Congratulations Gigi, Ricky, Olivia and Ty!

Shokookai of Portland Scholarship

Portland Shokookai was founded in 1966 by a small group of Japanese companies.  They facilitate business operations for Japanese companies in Oregon and SW Washington and run the Japanese Language School.  Mr. Hideo Wakimoto presented the scholarship.  This year’s Shokookai of Portland Scholarship winner was Caden McGowan of Adrienne C. Nelson High School.  Caden was chosen by his coach to represent the soccer team on the athletic leadership council.  He was also nominated by his varsity team and coaches as best team player for his integrity and generosity towards his team.   Caden plans to attend the Grand Canyon University next year.  Congratulations, Caden!

Japanese Ancestral Society (JAS) Hide Naito Scholarship/Epworth United Methodist Church Scholarship

The Japanese Ancestral Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the Nikkei community and promoting education and fellowship among the members of the community.  JAS awards the Hide Naito Scholarship.  Hide Naito was a Portland entrepreneur who started his first of several businesses in 1921 which diversified during his lifetime into retail operations, importing and real-estate development.  Sam Naito is the annual donor for this scholarship.  He just turned 102 and we thank him for his generosity.  Mrs. Setsy Larouche represented JAS for this scholarship.  

Epworth United Methodist Church has evolved to become a reconciling congregation that welcomes people of all backgrounds and identities, and practices with an inclusive vision and in alignment with these values.  The Epworth scholarship is provided to support the promotion of compassion, justice, and community building in our youth.  Mr. Jim Nagae represented Epworth for this scholarship.  

This year’s winner of the Hide Naito/Epworth United Methodist Church Joint Scholarship was Hodaka Nakamura of Ida B. Wells High School.  Hodaka has attended the Shokookai Japanese School since kindergarten.  He was also employed by PSU to develop an innovative website to teach analysis and group theory.  He will attend UC Irvine, University of Virginia or Northeastern University next year. Congratulations, Hodaka!

Portland JACL Kiyoko Yumibe Scholarship/Nikkei Fujinkai Scholarship

Portland JACL was established in 1928 with an ongoing mission to fight social injustice and to preserve the cultural heritage and values of Japanese Americans.   Portland JACL awards the Kiyoko Yumibe Scholarship each year.  The scholarship was presented by Mr. Jeff Matsumoto, the President of Portland JACL.

Kiyoko Yumibe was a hard-working Nisei who was incarcerated during WWII.  She established a fund, through Portland JACL, to help support youth seeking higher education.  Diane and Gary Onchi represented the family at the event.

Portland Nikkei Fujinkai is a Japanese Ancestral Women’s Association that was established in 1935.  They support community activities and cultural education.  Reverend Michie Uzunoe, President of Nikkei Fujinkai, presented the scholarship.

The winner of the Yumibe/Nikkei Fujinkai Joint Scholarship was Lincoln Hirata of Grant High School.  Lincoln was on Grant’s Constitution Team that recently placed first in the national finals.  Lincoln is the President of Unite People PDX, the youth civil rights organization connected to the Portland JACL.  Next year, Lincoln will attend the University of Oregon.  Congratulations, Lincoln!

Portland JACL Yoshiko Kennedy Scholarship/Matt Masuoka Scholarship

Yoshiko Kennedy used her talents as a seamstress and master of Ikebana to ensure her children would receive an education.  The Yoshiko Kennedy Scholarship was created in her memory.  Yoshiko’s son Jim, a past president of Portland JACL, and his wife, Laila, represented the family at the event.

The Matt Matsuoka Scholarship honors Matthew Masuoka, a Nisei dentist, who was past president of Portland JACL in 1952, and Pacific Northwest District Governor in 1953-55.  This scholarship is given in his honor by his daughter, Dr. Connie Masuoka, who helps organize the Graduation Banquet every year. 

The winner of the Kennedy/Masuoka Joint Scholarship was Marika Handa of Mountainside High School.  Marika volunteered 110 hours in farming the garden at the Oregon Food Bank and this led to her earning the 150-hour School Award for volunteer service.  Marika will attend Oregon State University.  Congratulations, Marika!

JAS Yoji Matsushima Scholarship/Veleda Club Scholarship

The Japanese Ancestral Society sponsors this scholarship in memory of Yoji Matsushima, a valued community leader who passed away in April 2023.  Yoji was a consummate volunteer at Ikoi No Kai, the Japanese Cemetery and many other community activities.  This scholarship was made possible by a grant from the SW Washington Community Fund.  The Matsushima family, Martha, Matt, Meg and Abigail attended the banquet.  Mrs. Setsy Larouche represented JAS.

The Veleda Club is Portland’s oldest Nikkei women’s service organization that is active in the community today.  Mrs. Janice Okamoto represented the Veleda Club.

This year’s winner of the Yoji Matsushima/Veleda Club Joint Scholarship was Mark Williams of Lake Oswego High School.   Mark was a National Qualifier in both singles and pairs figure skating.  He was also team captain of his school’s Robotics team that has qualified for two World Championships.  Mark will attend the University of Southern California next year.  Congratulations, Mark!

Gresham-Troutdale JACL (GT JACL Scholarship

The Gresham-Troutdale JACL is part of the oldest national civil rights organization in America.  It serves to protect the rights of not only Asians, but all minorities, and nurtures the cultural heritage of Japanese Americans.  Mr. Terry Nishikawa, President of GT JACL, presented the scholarship.  The winner of the Gresham-Troutdale JACL Scholarship was Neena Brines of David Douglas High School.  Neena attended the Shokookai Japanese School for twelve years and graduated this spring.  Nina also had a leadership role in the student-run restaurant at her school.  Neena will attend Portland Community College for two years and then transfer to the University of Oregon.  Congratulations, Neena!

Oregon Nisei Veterans Iwasaki/Okamoto Scholarship

The Oregon Nisei Veterans began in 1948 with the purpose of raising money to build a monument to honor the Nisei soldiers killed in action during WW II.  The Oregon Nisei Veterans awards the Iwasaki/Okamoto Scholarship each year.  The  scholarship was presented by Paul Tamura on behalf of Commander Ron Iwasaki. 

Art Iwasaki was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat team during WWII and a founding member of Oregon Nisei Vets.  Art was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and this scholarship is given in memory of his loving wife, Teri.  Second Lieutenant Roger Okamoto was killed in Vietnam in 1966 at the age of 23.  Lieutenant Okamoto graduated from Benson High School and earned an engineering degree from the University of Washington.  Mrs. Janice Okamoto and her son, Mr. Gary Okamoto, represented the family at the banquet. The winner of the Oregon Nisei Veterans’ Iwasaki-Okamoto Scholarship was Genji Uzunoe of Grant High School.  Genji is the kitchen supervisor for his family’s business, Bachan’s Mochi.  He is also a mechanical engineer on Grant’s Robotics team    Genji will attend Iowa State next year.  Congratulations, Genji!

The Graduate’s Response was given by Lincoln Hirata.  Lincoln thanked the community and the Scholarship organizations for their support of the graduates.  He reminded the graduates not to forget the significance of this event and that during the incarceration of our people, the community stood together and it’s important for them to carry that forward.  He encouraged the class of 2024 to remember where they come from and to return to their roots.  

The event ended with the ice breaker award presented by Mrs. Linda Guerber, Mr. David Batchelor and Ms. Connie Masuoka.  Mrs. Sharon Takahashi concluded the program by thanking all of the members of the Banquet Committee for their commitment to our youth and the hours of time they donate to make this event possible.  

Congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2024!  You have endured four years of constant change and uncertainty and you have done so with resilience and remarkable success.  You bring distinction and honor to our community and we are so proud of what you have accomplished.  Good luck with the next steps of your academic career and we look forward to hearing about your future endeavors.