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2016 Women of the Year group shot: (from left) JWSSC’s Yoshiko Yamaguchi, honorees Ellen Endo, Michie Barbara Sujishi, Toshie Kawaguchi, Fumi Akutagawa and Carolyn Tokunaga and JACL Downtown L.A.’s George Kita. Photo: George T. Jonhston

By George Toshio Johnston, Contributor

May arrived with beautiful California weather and the annual Women of the Year luncheon, sponsored by the Downtown Los Angeles Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California.

More than 300 guests filled the Quiet Cannon banquet  facility in Montebello, Calif., on May 1 to mark the event’s 53rd edition, which feted five Nikkei women for their respective service to and leadership in the region’s community.

Downtown L.A. JACL Chapter President George Kita served as the luncheon’s master of ceremonies and Yoshiko Yamaguchi, current president of the Southern California Japanese Women’s Society, gave the event’s opening remarks.

Honored were Fumi Akutagawa, Ellen Endo, Toshie Kawaguchi, Michie Barbara Sujishi and Carolyn Tokunaga.

Tokyo-born Akutagawa studied kimono, tea ceremony and flower arranging and moved to the U.S. in 1976. She was recognized at the luncheon for her efforts over the past four decades sharing her expertise in kimono, ikebana, tea ceremony and calligraphy with the denizens of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. She was introduced by Hiroshi Yamaguchi.

Endo, who was born in Italy to a father who was a Japanese American soldier serving during World War II and a native Italian mother, was honored for her time as a journalist for the Rafu Shimpo and as a pioneering Asian American woman executive in the entertainment industry in addition to her work with many community organizations, including the Asian American Journalists Assn., the Little Tokyo Business Assn. and the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Assn.’s board of directors. She was introduced by longtime friend, former broadcaster and current UCLA professor Tritia Toyota.

Kobe, Japan, native Kawaguchi moved to the U.S. in 1961 after marrying Yoshinori Kawaguchi in Tokyo. Her community activities over the decades include serving as the vp and president of the Kagoshima Prefectural Assn., vp of North American Hyakudōkai, the Southern California Showakai, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and, since 2008, the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California and the Little Tokyo Senior Nutrition Center. She was introduced by Kitty Sankey.

Burbank, Calif.-born Sansei Sujishi’s background included a childhood spent at two different U.S. concentration camps, Manzanar and Tule Lake, and then after the end of World War II, a move to Japan. Before returning to the San Fernando Valley with her mother in 1963, she studied at a beauty college in Japan, where she also learned a skill that would be most beneficial to Los Angeles’ Nisei Week festival: kimono dressing, which proved vital for authentically dressing the event’s court in kimono. As noted by Helen Ota, who introduced her, Sujishi volunteered her expertise to Nisei Week for more than 50 years.

Chicago-born and Los Angeles-raised Tokunaga was recognized for her more than three-decade teaching career, which included two decades of service as the on-site representative of the United Teachers Los Angeles union. She still participates in UTLA Retired. She was introduced by the Centenary United Methodist Church’s Rev. Mark Nakagawa, who noted Tokunaga’s continuing active participation in church activities, including the annual bazaar.

Serving on the Women of the Year’s planning committee were Kay Inose, George Kita, Atsuko Lee, Rodney Nakada, Nancy Nix, Tomoko Sakurai, Kitty Sankey, Patricia Sookdet, Nina Suzuki, Amy Tambara, Marie Tanaka, Yoshiko Yamaguchi and Kiyoko Yoshiyama.