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NSU Cultural Night to spotlight Japanese American identity through ‘Seishin’

Students in the Nikkei Student Union will host their 36th annual Cultural Night on Saturday at Royce Hall. One of the several performances will include dancers from Odori, NSU’s traditional Japanese dance group. (Sarah Teng/Daily Bruin)

NSU's 36th Annual Cultural Night: Seishin

Royce Hall

Feb. 19

By Amelie Lobo

Feb. 18, 2022 2:57 p.m.

Through drama, dance and drums, The Nikkei Student Union is celebrating the spirit of Japanese American identity.

For its 36th annual Cultural Night, NSU is hosting an in-person production Saturday, featuring various performance styles. Around 160 students from the organization and its related groups – Kyodo Taiko, Odori and NSU Modern – will be performing a drama by NSU, with dance and traditional Japanese drum performances dispersed between the acts. This year’s theme is Seishin, meaning “spirit” in Japanese. Fourth-year economics and geography student and Cultural Night producer, Lauren Young, said the theme was chosen because it encompasses the ideas of identity, intergenerational conflict and the significance of perspective as presented in the play.

“The play is about how there’s not really one true definition of being Japanese American,” Young said. “It’s (about) how one’s identity and spirit are uniquely and actively shaped by someone’s individual choices – by previous generations and the overall conditions that are around them.”

[Related: ‘BFE’ brings Asian American story of belonging to the virtual stage]

The preparations for Seishin began last May, Cultural Night assistant and second-year chemical engineering student Emma Hanson said. Along with fellow Cultural Night producer, fourth-year aerospace engineering student Kimiko Kodama, Young said she and Hanson sat down and brainstormed various themes and ideas they wanted to be included in the play, with Kodama writing the script.

The three took into account present-day Asian hate crimes and the struggles faced by the Asian American community in the past, but did not want to overlap with a previous Cultural Night’s focus on Japanese concentration camps in the U.S. Consequently, she said the trio decided to create a play that depicts two generations of Japanese Americans and how their stories and experiences impact each other.

Tying in the theme of Seishin, the play addresses Japanese American identity and demonstrates that there is no specific way one has to act to be Japanese American, Hanson said. The storyline takes place in both 2022 and 1984, and the use of consecutive generations touches on the duality of perspectives and different conflicts faced by Japanese Americans.

NSU will also feature a drama portion, performed by 9 main student actors from its Drama cast, on Saturday that incorporates this year&squot;s theme of Seishin, meaning "spirit" in Japanese. (Sarah Teng/Daily Bruin)
NSU will also feature a drama portion, performed by 9 main student actors from its drama cast, Saturday that incorporates this year's theme of Seishin, meaning "spirit" in Japanese. (Sarah Teng/Daily Bruin)

This year’s drama consists of nine main cast members, Young said, with fourth-year psychobiology student Mattie Kao as one of the leads. For Kao, the acting process involved learning his character’s changing emotions in the 1980s timeline, as he goes about what was then everyday life for a Japanese American.

“What’s really special about this play … is there’s nothing particularly special or super unique about the characters themselves,” Kao said. “That helps get that message home and express the theme and all these emotions that everybody can resonate with a bit and relate to a lot.”

Between the acts of the play, one of the groups performing is Kyodo Taiko, a traditional Japanese drumming group. Third-year education and public affairs student and Kyodo Taiko director Grace Hirai said the group will perform songs from its existing repertoire, songs written by its own members and its signature piece, “Encore Remix.” Taiko is an important aspect of the show, connecting audience members and performers to traditional Japanese roots, Hirai said.

“I have been really fortunate in that I’ve been able to play taiko since I was younger, but I know that not everybody has the opportunity to do so,” Hirai said. “We tie in Japanese American identity. … Learning about the activist history behind taiko’s origins (on) the West Coast really helped me to figure out how I can use it to connect with my community roots.”

[Related: Indian Student Union to bring Garba night to Wilson Plaza for fall celebrations]

In addition to the drama and drums, hip-hop group NSU Modern and Odori, a traditional Japanese dance group, will be performing different sets of dances interspersed between the acts of the play, Young said. For Hanson, these dances intertwine with the theme of Seishin, with modern and traditional dance styles intermingling to demonstrate how individuality and tradition can go hand-in-hand as well as serve as a more upbeat feature to the production.

The in-person performance serves as a full-circle moment, where senior members can look back at their first Cultural Night and see how far they have come since then, Kao said. For Hanson, seeing the show in its entirety with the lights and props will be exciting in comparison to rehearsing in the Wooden games lounge without the extra production touches. Each aspect of the final production adds intensity and helps to immerse the audience into Japanese American culture, Hirai said.

“Learning about your cultural heritage and the history that comes with being Japanese American (and) having multiple generations here in America is always really nice for me to see as somebody with that history myself,” Hirai said. “(The play) is not just grounded here and now but also in the past, and it (has) important implications for the present and the future.”

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