Nikkei celebrate at ‘Queer O-bon’

Gia Gunn. photo by Willa Cutolo (@willa.camera on Instagram)


LOS ANGELES — On June 19, Okaeri, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ Nikkei, held their first “Queer O-bon” at the Terasaki Budokan in the city’s Little Tokyo. Colorful origami chains hung from the tall concrete walls as attendants munched on fresh inari and sipped cold milk tea and chewy boba.

“‘Queer O-bon’ came out of a desire to create a space where we could have the queer and trans Nikkei community come out and feel like we could just celebrate with each other and not be bogged down by feelings of being unwelcome,” said Mia Barnett, co-chair of Okaeri. “Some (LGBTQ+) people had said they’ve been to Obons in the past and felt excluded in some way.”

Obon is an annual Japanese summer Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors, whose spirits are believed to temporarily return to this world in order to visit their families.

Organizers created “Queer O-bon” as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their loved ones who have passed on. Marsha Aizumi, the founder and co-chair of Okaeri, felt this niche experience was important for the queer Nikkei diaspora.

“I think our community felt that there wasn’t a space where the queer and trans people could show up in all of who they were and just feel comfortable to celebrate our queer and trans ancestors,” Aizumi said. “They can dress how they want. They can just feel comfortable bringing their partner and (holding) hands.”

Aizumi, whose adopted son is transgender, founded Okaeri in 2014. She and a group of LGBTQ+ Nikkei, parents and allies of queer Japanese Americans organized “Okaeri: A Nikkei LGBTQ Gathering,” the first-ever conference focused on queer Nikkei. The event was a major success, and the conference continued yearly, with hundreds of people in attendance. The goal of Okaeri is to create visibility, compassionate spaces and transformation for LGBTQ+ Nikkei and their families by sharing their stories and providing culturally-rooted support, education, community-building and advocacy.

“Queer O-bon” is their most recent project. The evening included a Buddhist service of remembrance, taiko drum performances by Mujō Dream Flight and odori, a kind of Japanese folk dancing. Three Buddhist priests led the service, with one sermon in English and one in Japanese.

Gia Gunn. photo by Willa Cutolo (@willa.camera on Instagram)

One of the highlights of the evening was a Japanese folk dance performance by Gia Gunn, a former contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Gunn also performed a dance with her aunt Elaine Miyamura, as well as helped lead odori alongside Okaeri organizers.

“I was very fortunate to have family support and I grew up in the [Buddhist] church, so I’ve always felt very welcome,” said Gunn, who is a transgender Japanese American woman. “But what I’ve taken from others is this is a unique opportunity for members of the LGBT (community) to be able to have an open extended invite that is just for us. And I think nowadays we need things that are just for us because there’s so much that is not.”

The event also featured LGBTQ+ community organizations, arts and crafts and an altar where attendants could honor their loved ones who have passed away with a written message, flowers and incense. Among the organizations in attendance were Changing Tides, a program with the goal of destigmatizing mental health within the AAPI young adult population and API PFLAG, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people.

There were also various food vendors present including Milk + T and Azay. Volunteers sold fresh trays of fruit from Japanese American farmers, including Koda Farms, Fujiya Market and K&K Ranch.

The uniquely queer Nikkei space was a testament to how much adversity the Japanese American community has overcome. The courtyard was filled with a diverse group of attendants sharing smiles, stories and of course, bowls of savory soba noodles. The lively crowd performed odori for hours as members of Mujō Dream Flight kept tempo with their taiko drums.

“Whenever I go to events, (what I’m most) looking forward to is just seeing people that come to a space where they can be themselves,” said Aizumi. “I think many in our LGBTQ community don’t think that they’re worthy of being loved. And so we want a space where they know that they’re beautiful, that they’re worthy of being loved.”

Okaeri’s upcoming annual conference will take place from Nov. 10-12. 2023. More information about the event can be found at https://okaeri-losangeles.org/conference-2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest