We had the good fortune of connecting with Courtney Ozaki and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Courtney, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I was born and raised in Colorado as a third and fourth-generation Japanese American, and my background and upbringing constantly provide me with strength, perspective, and resilience as I continue to forge my own entrepreneurial and creative/artistic path. My parents were born and raised in Colorado, and their families both ended-up in Denver following World War II because it was one of the only places to turn to amidst post-war racism. Additionally, it was the only place where my father’s parents knew anybody within the United States, a distant cousin resided in the city who could sponsor him because his identity had been taken away from him when he was brought to the US. What was sacrificed by my family, and how they were able to rebuild in Denver despite being stripped of all of their rights and most of their worldly possessions, has had a significant impact on who I am today. My grandparents on my father’s side were taken from their home in Peru by the American government and forced to live in incarceration in Crystal City, TX in the US; their passports were taken away and their new home was guarded by guns and barbed wire despite the fact that it was never discovered that they posed any threat. The intention was to treat them as pawns for the war, trading them as valuable property in exchange for American prisoners of war in Japan. Fortunately, this did not end up happening for my family, but still, they were forced to leave their home and the parquet flooring business my grandfather had helped his uncle to build in Lima. My grandmother was forced to find her way to Texas once my grandfather was taken away, pregnant and with a 2-year-old in tow. On my mother’s side, both of my grandparents were American citizens born in California, and their families were forced to leave all possessions and property (including their farms) apart from what they were able to pack in a suitcase behind without knowing where they were headed and with their only crime being that they were of Japanese descent. They were transported first to a race track where they had to degradingly clean-out their own horse stalls to sleep in temporarily, and then to an incarceration camp which was built for them to ‘relocate’ to in Poston, AZ. I share all of this because despite the trauma that this experience surely caused my family, I never once heard any of my grandparents speak of it or complain while I was growing up. Despite having to start over with nothing, and with no apology being made to them for years of mistreatment, they realized that choosing to dwell on their situation was not an option. Despite being forced into being ‘illegal aliens’ in a country whose language they did not speak prior to forcibly being relocated here, my Ozaki grandparents built a grocery store business in order to keep a roof over their family’s head and keep moving forward. They were resourceful and resilient, and I only ever knew them to be optimistic and generally cheerful. My Grandma Tanouye found a job as an office clerk, and my Grandpa Tanouye built a career in doing upholstery work – they didn’t always have a lot, but they still always were able to provide for my Mom and her sister as well as their elderly parents. Any time I doubt my ability to keep moving forward, I remind myself that my entire family, only two generations back, had to ‘gaman’ (or to “endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”). My parents – never having been incarcerated, but surely being passed down the generational trauma – taught me to not take anything in this life for granted, to always maintain deep gratitude, and to look forward to the future confidently never doubting my ability or worth. My family history of surviving displacement, forced incarceration, and hardship has ingrained values that have encouraged me to pursue a meaningful life of helping others to share their stories and self-expression through artistic and creative platforms.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Japanese arts have been integral to my life from an early age – I started playing taiko (Japanese drums) at eight years old when my aunt and uncle who are professional musicians began teaching my cousins and me how to play. We gradually began performing professional gigs with One World Taiko (OWT), including summers in Orlando, FL at Epcot Center, Disney World. My cousins and I formed our own ensemble, Mirai Daiko, in 2002, and we joined OWT again in 2010 to travel to Dubai, UAE for a two-month artist residency. Taiko allows me to connect on a deeper and more intrinsic level with my Japanese heritage and culture – and I have begun exploring how taiko can more universally connect people through my artistic expression in addition to my efforts as a Business Manager for the Taiko Community Alliance, a national non-profit whose mission is, broadly, to “empower the people and advance the art of taiko”. Beyond playing taiko, I began my professional career in the arts working primarily in music. My undergrad degree was in recording arts and music management at CU Denver – I moved from there to work in the classical music field–I was an artistic coordinator for a chamber orchestra in Boulder and worked summers at the Aspen Music Festival. In 2011 I moved to NYC and earned an MFA in Performing Arts Management; I was seeking the opportunity to build a foundation of knowledge and grow my skill sets so I could return to Colorado to make a more meaningful impact locally on the arts. After graduating, I worked in the city as a dance producer with the Joyce Theater – producing and touring new contemporary works set on dancers like Wendy Whelan, former NYC Ballet principal dancer, and Daniil Simkin from American Ballet Theater. I was presented with the opportunity to return to Colorado for a job opportunity in 2016 at the Lone Tree Arts Center and began thinking more seriously about how I’d best contribute to the arts and broader Japanese community in Colorado. Fast forward to today – I am now in the throws of developing a Japanese Arts Network, based out of Colorado, to serve as a national resource for artistic collaboration and connection through Japanese-American & Japanese cultural arts. We have produced a large number of programs in the past two years, despite having officially incorporated as a business in October of 2019 just before the pandemic of 2020. The voices of Japanese and Asian artists in America are marginalized and often categorized or placed into “cultural arts” stereotypes in order to check proverbial boxes instead of being recognized for the value and artistic merit of their art. I started the Japanese Arts Network to lift-up and support Japanese Artists in America, connecting them to collaborators, stakeholders, and audiences with cultural intention – but we started-off by doing this by bringing communities of diverse backgrounds together into spaces where they could gather, learn, and grow in spaces that centered the arts. In response to the restrictions of a forced paradigm shift, JA-NE re-directed our energy to work with other producers and artists of color, community orgs, local city and government funders, and small businesses to produce and fund a three-month-long digital and COVID-safe immersive production entitled ZOTTO: A Supernatural Journey. We were able to share stories and historical context from Denver history that parallel present-day issues of systemic racism and internalized/racial biase, provide work for underemployed creatives during the pandemic, building a new model for moving forward together, and lifted our community’s spirits by sharing a safe opportunity for engagement. This amalgam of small wins allowed me to understand how we as arts professionals may move forward with resilience, despite challenges faced. 2020 opened my eyes to the interdependence of our actions and decisions. I continue to take a hard look at my own biases and strive to be intentional and thoughtful with my work. I am still searching for how to best serve marginalized communities and center BIPOC voices through what I create and produce. Sustainability and financial security have been a thorn for me and I often end-up sacrificing my own financial stability and self-care in order to support the artists and creatives whose work I believe in – I still need to find a balance and would like to continue to build communities of practice and support centered around the insights gained from the struggles of 2020. I am grateful and proud every day to be able to do meaningful work that I know is contributing something important to others, to the community and to society as a whole. I would like to validate other entrepreneurs and artists, especially those from marginalized communities, and encourage them to trust in themselves, their values, and passions in the same way I have; to understand that what they have to say is important and deserves to be shared with the world.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This is a fun question, being born and raised here I love showing people around the city! I would probably make sure that I took them to Five Points to show them where my family grew-up during post WWII, and to share about the rich cultural history of that area, including the historic jazz venues, if it weren’t pandemic we’d stop in the Black American West Museum, and we’d visit the locations that used to be Japanese businesses. I’d also share the incredible public art that now identifies this area as the RiNO Arts District I’d especially make sure to show them Casey Kawaguchi’s murals, and take them to Stowaway Kitchen for my favorite ‘asagohan’ breakfast! We’d stop in at Japanese grocery store, Pacific Mercantile, on Lawrence Street and maybe also visit the Denver Buddhist Temple. For lunch or dinner, I would take them to Domo Restaurant and show them the small historical museum that is there. At some point, we’d also need to eat some CO green chile because I think it defines our cultural cuisine. In writing this I almost forgot that we’d have a full week, so I think we’d also visit Red Rocks (hopefully by this point concerts would be happening), and we’d spend some time hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park because it’s important to appreciate the natural beauty that we often take for granted. At some point we would take a walk through Washington Park and then go visit Tokyo Premium Bakery for some delicious Japanese treats. We’d visit some of my other favorite coffee shops, Hooked on Colfax and St. Mark’s Coffee House, and we’d stop in at Twist & Shout and the Tattered Cover Bookstore to browse and buy unique finds. We might take a dance class at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, or attend one of their performances. If the venues were open at this point, we’d support a local live music venue and attend a concert. My favorite local band is Pioneer Mother, but I’m a little biased because my partner is in the band. Denver really is an exciting place to be, and filled with so many fantastic small businesses which we should all support!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
So many people, groups, and organizations deserve recognition always! My entire family from past to present, but especially my parents Charles and Teri Ozaki, my Grandparents Mich and Rose Tanouye and Joe Motoichi and Tamiye Ozaki, and my cousins, aunts, and uncles. My partner, Matthew Ryan Durgin, and mentors + teachers + close friends who have encouraged me to believe in myself and recognize my value and capacity to have positive impact – including my first piano teacher Gail Clark, my taiko teachers, Nancy Ozaki and Gary Tsujimoto of One World Taiko, Sharon Babb, my producing partner and mentor Ilter Ibrahimof, Tobie Stein, Kaz Maniwa, Janiece Hockaday, Asia-Fajardo Wright. All of the cultural connectors and creative producers/artists who work with me for the Japanese Arts Network, the Taiko Community Alliance, the Japanese and Japanese American community in Denver including the Tri=State Denver Buddhist Temple, U.S.-Japan Council (USJC) Mountain Region, Next Gen JA, and Mile High JACL as well as all of the organizations who have supported JA-NE initiatives including Sakura Foundation, Japan America Society of CO, the Nikkei-jin Kai, Nisei Veterans Heritage Foundation, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Denver Arts & Venues, the RiNO Art District, and the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission. The Association of Performing Arts Professionals leadership fellows program and my cohort, USJC ELP and my 2017 cohort and fellow steering committee members, and more recently the Western Arts Alliance. All who stand-up and speak-up for, and have dedicated their lives to defending, the human rights of and justice for marginalized communities. All of the artists who help me to process my emotions and inspire me to share my own story with others. So many more … this is an enormous question to answer!
Last photo, Bruce Tetsuya, Videographer/Photographer