Tak Yamamoto, Pioneer Nikkei Gay Activist, Dies at 74

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Tak Yamamoto, second from right, was recognized in March 2008 for his many years of work with the Manzanar Committee and Sue Embrey at Cherrystones in Gardena. Joining him are, from left, Jack Kunitomi, Rose Ochi and Bruce Embrey. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Takenori “Tak” Yamamoto, pioneer Japanese American gay activist and a longtime leader of the Manzanar Committee, passed away on Nov. 9 at his home at the age of 74 of natural causes.

Yamamoto’s family was sent to Poston, one of ten American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. His family spent three years in the Arizona desert, behind the barbed wire.

After the war, Yamamoto left Poston and returned to Los Angeles. He was openly gay most of his life, including during his service in the U.S. Air Force. He worked as a supervisor in Los Angeles County’s voter registration department.

Paul Chen and June Lagmay were founders and co-chairs of the Asian Pacific Lesbian & Gays, the first such API LGBT organization in the nation. Because of their fast growth, they soon reorganized, and Yamamoto was voted to be their first president.

Yamamoto served as the first openly gay president of a JACL chapter and was instrumental in having the JACL endorse gay marriages at its national convention in 1994.

Prior to the national convention, he arranged for his San Fernando Valley JACL chapter to present a panel on homosexuality, the first such panel in the Southern California Japanese American community.

In 1990, Yamamoto was one of two gay Japanese Americans featured in a Tozai Times article called “A Minority Within a Minority.” The now defunct publication described Japanese American gays and lesbians living previously invisible lives within the Japanese American community.

“I read that article in complete amazement, being a father with a gay daughter who had come out just two years earlier,” said Harold Kameya. “During the 1980s-1990s, public support of gays was practically non-existent. Because of the suffocating atmosphere of Japanese American culture that I felt at that time, I couldn’t imagine seeing a newspaper feature with the name of a gay person, as well as his photo. I did not know who Tak Yamamoto was at that time, but I was very grateful for his courage, for it let us know that we were not alone in the Japanese American community! I don’t know how many other families he affected by that article, but we are forever grateful for his action.”

In recent years, Yamamoto was honored by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, and by the API Equality Los Angeles organization as part of its Pioneers Project. In 2009, he was awarded the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award during the 40th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage.

Yamamoto has also been a member of the pilgrimage project since meeting Embrey in the mid-1970s when she gave a talk at California State University, Los Angeles. Eventually, Yamamoto became her right-hand man, serving as treasurer and helping to organize the annual pilgrimages. In a 2009 interview posted on the Manzanar Committee blog, Yamamoto said that although he was interned at Poston, he felt it was vital to support Embrey’s work at Manzanar.

“Here was this woman who was so into it and I thought we need to keep working at this so that there are more people who understand this experience,” said Yamamoto. “That experience is very general. I don’t care if you went to Arkansas or Tule Lake, the experience is very similar. All the kinds of bad things that happened [were the same]in all the camps. It was one way to generalize from that what it was like to help people understand.”

Embrey’s son, Bruce Embrey of the Manzanar Committee, said that his mother and Yamamoto played a key role in the redress struggle of the 1980s by keeping the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage alive.

“Without the annual pilgrimage, and without Tak and my mother organizing it every year, regardless of who came and regardless of the political climate, the community would not have undergone the transformation it needed to go through to confront its past and demand that it be redressed,” he stressed.

“Tak was a fighter, firm in his convictions and eminently patient,” he added. “He was one of the first who took on the struggle for redress and civil rights for the LGBT community, and that’s why, to those who knew him, Tak is a hero.”

Among Yamamoto’s survivors are his partner of 46 years, Karl Fish, who took Yamamoto to his local precinct on Nov. 6 so he could turn in his ballot personally. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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