Karaoke Idols

The highlight of the Shinnen Enkai new year celebration, organized by the Wahiawa Nikkei Civic Association, was the Kenjin Kai Karaoke Challenge — and the winner is …

Susan Sunderland
Friday - March 24, 2006
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Ryoko Ishii of Niigata Kenjin Kai is the Karaoke Idol
Ryoko Ishii of Niigata
Kenjin Kai is the
Karaoke Idol

Move over, American Idol. You have nothing over the Wahiawa Nikkei Civic Association, which just named its Kenjin Kai Karaoke grand champion. Let’s hear it for karaoke idol Ryoko Ishii!

OK, so it is a much smaller stage at Dot’s in Wahiawa. True, there is no hyped-up network TV coverage. And Rene Mansho, not Ryan Seacrest, serves as emcee.

But there were seven spirited contestants who sang their hearts out. Three judges - with the intensity of Randy, Paula and Simon - had the difficult task of picking a winner. Just one singer gets the perpetual trophy, trip to Las Vegas, prizes from Schnitzer Steel Hawaii, and the adoration of fans.

Instant stardom has its rewards. And challenges.

The judges were state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Kevin Kaneshiro and Mas Kaneko
The judges were state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Kevin
Kaneshiro and Mas Kaneko

First, there was the rain. Thunderstorms and a torrential downpour last Sunday almost put a damper on the 53rd annual Shinnen Enkai new year celebration organized by Wahiawa Nikkei Civic Association (WNCA). Would members and contestants from competing clubs show up on such a stormy afternoon?

The highlight of the occasion was the second annual Kenjin Kai Karaoke Challenge. Kenjin kai are prefecture clubs, whose mission is to broaden awareness of different regions of Japan. These social groups date back to the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants.

WNCA President George Hirota and immediate past president Mansho declared that despite the stormy weather, “the show must go on.” And it did. After a business meeting and lunch, it was show time.

Emcee Mansho rallied the contestants on stage. She then beckoned the judges - a politician, travel executive and music composer. No fooling these guys. It was a tough group to play to, that’s for sure.

Armed with their ballots, the judges knew the pressure was on. How would the contestants fare with state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Vacations Hawaii manager Kevin Kaneshiro, and mandolin virtuoso Mas Kaneko?

Tokio Itano represented Okayama Kenjin Kai
Tokio Itano represented
Okayama Kenjin Kai
Joyce Nakasone of Wahiawa Kyou Kai
Joyce Nakasone of
Wahiawa Kyou Kai
Paul Sur of Wahiawa/Waialua Hiroshima Kenjin Kai
Paul Sur of Wahiawa/
Waialua Hiroshima Kenjin
Ronald Okura of Kagoshima Kenjin Kai
Ronald Okura of
Kagoshima Kenjin Kai
Kathy Fujii of Wahiawa Yamaguchi Kenjin Kai
Kathy Fujii of Wahiawa
Yamaguchi Kenjin Kai

One by one the contestants stepped into the spotlight to introduce their song. “Dozo” (if you please), each hailed the sound engineer to cue their music track.

When one’s performing karaoke, it’s BYOB, bring-your-own-band. Karaoke is the Japanese word for “empty orchestra.”

First contestant was Donald Koga of Waialua-Wahiawa Kumamoto Kenjin Kai. Eighty families are involved in this local kenjin kai, whose ancestors come from the gently rolling hills of Kumamoto. Koga sang about the beauty of Okinawa.

Next was Tokio Itano from Okayama Kenjin Kai. This prefecture is four hours from Tokyo and is known for Muscat variety grapes, supposedly as “big as golf balls.” Itano’s fine Japanese ballad earned warm applause.

Ronald Okura represented Kagoshima Kenjin Kai, whose ancestors originated in an area known for exceptional green tea. The first green tea crop of the year is produced in the mild climate of Kagoshima prefecture.

The most popular karaoke song in Japan was performed by Joyce Nakasone of Wahiawa Kyoyukai. Nakasone charmed the audience with Sinatra’s My Way sung in Japanese.

Returning for a second try at the karaoke title was Paul Sur of Wahiawa-Waialua Hiroshima Kenjin Kai. His roots are in Hiroshima, the largest city on Japan’s largest island. Sur, who loves good food, hailed Hiroshima’s oysters and manju.

Dressed in a beautiful pastel kimono, retired school teacher Kathy Fujii represented Yamaguchi Kenjin Kai. Her soulful rendition of Nosappu Miren captivated the audience, who also applauded for the charms of Yamaguchi prefecture, known for beautiful cherry blossoms.

But it was Ryoko Ishii who won the vote of the judges to become the year’s karaoke grand champion. The songstress from Niigata Kenjin Kai delivered a flawless performance of Kogane No Hana. With excellent vocal quality and command of the lyrics, Ishii sang with grace and confidence. She made the song her own and certainly was not pitchy.

That all counts in a song contest, and although Ishii is a hobby singer and not professional, who knows what the future holds? She says she won’t give up her day job as owner of Ethel’s Grill in Kalihi.

Like the top-grade rice grown in Niigata prefecture, Ishii’s performance was all about quality. That’s what makes winners and singing idols, whether it’s on stage or at a Wahiawa karaoke contest.

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