NEW YORK – As New York City kicks off a weeklong event celebrating Japanese food culture Sunday, few people would make the connection between traditional culinary delicacies and glittering musicals on Broadway.
The exception is Kumiko Yoshii, a project coordinator for the festival. Yoshii has produced a number of critically acclaimed musicals, including the 2004 revival of “Pacific Overtures” by Amon Miyamoto, through a production company she cofounded in 1997.
“There are many Japanese restaurants in the United States, but there are a lot of things that have yet to be fully understood, and there are many people who still find Japanese food less accessible,” Yoshii said.
To demonstrate the infinite possibilities of Japanese food, Yoshii has enlisted acclaimed chef David Bouley, who often features Japanese ingredients in his contemporary French kitchen in Manhattan.
“I hope this event will motivate many Americans to try out Japanese food, and help sustain the Japanese food boom in the United States,” said Yoshii, who is involved in organizing other Japan-related cultural events in New York.
Before coming to study history at the City University of New York in 1987, Yoshii’s only experience of living outside Japan was a year she spent in Montana as a high school student.
“I had problems with English at first,” she said. But while in junior high school, Yoshii listened to an audiotape of her English-language textbook “until the tape was literally worn out.” She credits this simple method with forming the basis of her English communication skills.
Yoshii was scheduled to return to Japan after graduating from CUNY, but decided to gain work experience in the United States first. So she found a paralegal job at a New York law firm, Wasserstein Perella Co.
Yoshii, who as a teen loved Japan’s all-female Takarazuka troupe and Broadway musicals, never made the connection between “business” and “show business” until she heard her American bosses talk about Broadway shows as an investment project.
“I realized how ‘show business’ had a lot to do with ‘business.’ It was a plain fact, but I never made the connection until then. So I decided to make it my career,” Yoshii said.
Having no connections, she kept sharing her dream with everyone she met, before finally finding a job as an assistant at a small production firm, where she learned the ABCs of theater production during the next 2 1/2 years.
After a few slow years, Yoshii went back to graduate school to study performing arts management at CUNY, where many instructors were real-life producers on Broadway.
Yoshii then became a consultant specializing in Broadway musicals as investment projects, before establishing Gorgeous Entertainment Inc. with screenwriter and director Michael Wolk, best known for his 2005 documentary “You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story.”
The company, which develops and produces theatrical and film projects in addition to counseling Japanese firms on the transfer of shows, has since produced “Modern Noh Plays” and “Macbeth,” both directed by renowned stage director Yukio Ninagawa, in addition to “Big River,” “A Class Act” and other highly acclaimed musicals.
In May 2005, Miyamoto’s “Pacific Overtures,” a revival of the 1976 musical by Stephen Sondheim, received four 2005 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical Revival.
Yoshii’s contacts with Japan were limited to her clients for a long time, but a series of special events in recent years brought her closer to her Japanese roots.
In addition to the Japanese food culture festival, Yoshii is now working with the project liaison office of Japan Day @ Central Park, scheduled for June. The event aims to enhance the unity of the Japanese community in New York, which largely comprises businesspeople, students and permanent residents who typically have no regular contact with each other.
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