Denver’s 36th Kohaku Uta Gassen singing contest a showcase for extreme karaoke

It stands to reason that the country that invented karaoke is one that takes karaoke very, very seriously.

It takes singing to backing tracks so seriously that in Japan, Kohaku Uta Gassen, the annual singing showdown that airs live on New Year’s Eve, has been like the Super Bowl of the country’s broadcasting industry, drawing huge numbers of viewers year after year. And Colorado’s Japanese-speaking community has brought the tradition to Denver by hosting its own Kohaku Uta Gassen every January for 36 years.

Since 1951, the year Japan and the US signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and Gen. Douglas MacArthur — the “Gaijin Shogun” who ruled Japan as the Commander-in-Chief during the US occupation of post-war Japan — was fired by President Dwight Eisenhower, the annual karaoke singing contest has been one of the highlights of the country’s cultural calendar.

Kohaku Uta Gassen (literally translated as “Red and White Singing Battle”) has pitted women (the Red Team) against men (the White Team) in a competition to see who has the best singers.

That first Kohau Uta Gassen was broadcast on NHK radio on January 4, 1951. When television broadcasting began in 1953, the show moved onto the small screen, and to New Year’s Eve. Along with sports shows such as wrestling (there was a huge fad of Western-style, not sumo, wrestling in the 1950s) and baseball, Uta Gassen helped boost sales of television sets because no one wanted to miss the shows.

Over the decades it became so popular, featuring the country’s best performers in evolving styles from traditional “enka” (Japan’s version of blues or country music, mostly about heartbreak) to the current Jpop and rock sounds, that it’s become an institution.

Denver’s Uta Gassen has also become an institution, with some performers singing every year. This year’s contest, held at the Denver Buddhist Temple’s auditorium in Sakura Square, was filled as usual with about 300 audience members, including the singers and their families and friends. It’s always an all-Japanese affair — the one year I served as a judge, I understood about 30% of the jokes and even less of lyrics but was able to vote on the merits of the performances.

It’s extreme karaoke, spending an afternoon hearing 32 singers belting out songs in Japanese to nothing but backing tracks. At least they don’t need to refer to a TV screen with the lyrics scrolling by — they’ve been rehearsing their songs for weeks.
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Memorial for Colo. Gov. Ralph Carr dedicated

Ralph Carr memorial dedicated at Kenosha Pass on Hwy 285, reamed Ralph Carr Memorial Highway

Ralph Carr, the man who served as governor of Colorado at the start of World War II, had been largely forgotten for decades. But thanks to an effort by the Asian Pacific Bar Association (APABA) and a biography by journalist Adam Schrager, Carr’s making a comeback in Colorado, and his legacy is finally getting its due, with a fine biography, a stretch of Highway 285 named in his honor, and now, a memorial to Carr’s legacy at Kenosha Pass.

On December 12, representatives of Denver’s Japanese American community, APABA, and CDOT assembled at a scenic overlook just a few hundred feet west of the Kenosha Pass summit on Highway 285 to dedicate the memorial. (Here’s a nice report from the Canyon Courier about the dedication.)

It’s a massive stone tribute engraved with a message that explains the significance of Ralph Carr to Colorado.

A rising star in the Republican Party during the 1930s, Carr was mentioned as a future presidential candidate when he famously became the only Western governor in the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor to oppose first the harassment, and then the internment of Japanese Americans.
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Min Yasui’s Denver legacy is honoring community volunteerism

The 11 recipients of the 2010 Min Yasui Community Volunteer Awards.

Most people living in Denver today probably don’t know the name Minoru Yasui. But the Japanese American community leader has left a legacy that still impacts the city.

I attended the annual Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Awards luncheon on Dec. 1 and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the event had sold out all its 440 tickets. It’s a celebration held every December to honor the monthly recipients of the MYCVA awards, which are given to 11 people who work tirelessly to help the community as volunteers in non-profits or community organizations. Each recipient gets to choose their favorite charity to donate their $2000 award to, so there’s a powerful, positive ripple effect of the Min Yasui recognition. Young Minoru Yasui

Over the years, my wife Erin and I have known a handful of the recipients from Denver’s Asian community, and this year, two Japanese Americans were recipients: Mike Shibata, who’s volunteered with the Japanese American Community Graduation Program, which hands out a whole bunch of scholarships to deserving JA high schoolers (I was the recipient of one scholarship in the mid’70s when I graduated from Alameda High School); and Kimiko Side, who helped establish the Denver Sister Cities relationship with Takayama in Japan (it’s the oldest sister city partnership in Japan).

The other MYCVA recipients for 2010 are:
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What an atomic bomb looks like from just outside the blast zone: Japanese American photographer finally talks about it

atomic bomb blast

The German news magazine Der Spiegel has an incredible, and disturbing, story about photographers and filmmakers who worked for the US government in the Cold War years, chronicling atomic bomb test blasts… from 3.1 miles from ground zero, just outside the blast zone and considered a safe distance. One surviving photographer, George Yoshitake, shot photos of a mushroom cloud with nothing but a baseball cap to protect him from fallout.

The work of about 40 photographers and cameramen in the 1352nd Photographic Group of the US Air Force, in both the Nevada desert and remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, was considered Top Secret at the time, and the surviving cameramen are just now starting to tak about their experiences, thanks to a documentary filmmaker’s efforts to capture their stories. Many of the images and films shot by these men have become iconic images of the era, and used in dozens — maybe hundreds — of other films and articles.

How crazy were these men to put themselves so close to nuclear annihilation to document such a horrible weapon? “We could see how the shockwave came rolling across the valley floor,” says Yoshitake in the article. “We hung onto our cameras so we wouldn’t fall over.”

Yoshitake also says his worst memory was photographing the results of a blast on animals placed in the blast zone. I have to wonder if Yoshitake — like many Japanese Americans — had family members from the Hiroshima region of Japan, and if the thought ever crossed his mind that his relatives may have been in harm’s way when the first atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima at the end of WWII.

The Der Spiegel article (it’s in English) is fascinating, and also features a gallery of eight of the images.

(Thanks to Kateopolis’ Tumblr blog, where I first saw this)

Short documentary video about Hawai’i’s Japanese American internment camp, forgotten over the decades

Most history books mention only the mainland internment camps, relocation centers and Justice Department camps if they mention the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II at all. It’s often stated that people of Japanese descent in Hawai’i weren’t rounded up and imprisoned — or that only a few were arrested, and then sent to mainland camps — because there are so many Japanese in Hawai’i that if they did that, the territory’s economy would shut down (Hawai’i didn’t become a state until 1959).

But there was an internment camp right on Oahu, not far from the capital, Honolulu, on rugged land that’s now owned by Monsanto. They didn’t lock up all Japanese Americans like they did on the West Coast. And they didn’t imprison entire families. They focused on community leaders, but still held thousands in Honouliuli, the prison camp.

The Japanese Community Center of Hawai’i has captured some of this long-forgotten history in this short documentary. I hope they do more. Next time we get to Hawai’i, we’ll return to the JCCH to see if they have an exhibit or other material about the topic. Brian Niiya, the Director of Program & Development at the JCCH told us about the early states of their research several years ago when we first visited the JCCH, so I’m glad to see they got this video done.

Even though Japanese Americans in Hawai’i are anything but the invisible minority that we are on the mainland, their history needs to be highlighted and preserved just as it needs to be documented here.

(From HolyKaw on

(Cross-posted on