With the passing of Wakako Yamauchi, we have lost another community icon.
In 1995, my late husband, George, and I bought a home in Gardena. He had just been elected to the Los Angeles Unified School Board, and we had to reside in the district. It turned out Wakako lived a few doors down across the street. We became fast friends.
Wakako would go with us downtown to community events, to East West Players’ performances … until she and EWP experienced an estrangement and she stopped supporting them. She also joined the board of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California (JAHSSC); the meetings were held in our home, so it was a quick few steps to attend meetings.
I had talked her into being recording secretary (“You’re a writer, it should be easy,” I told her.), a position she did not like because she couldn’t participate easily in discussions … and it really wasn’t “writing”!
For 11 years, 1991-2000 and 2005, the JAHSSC recognized individuals and organizations for their contributions to our historical and cultural heritage. Nominations were solicited from the community for the Community Heritage Awards. In 1998, we recognized Wakako, along with Kitty Sankey and Kathy Masaoka.
Wakako more than willingly contributed two stories to the first two issues of the publication “Nanka Nikkei Voices,” which I chaired. In Issue #1, “Resettlement Years, 1945-1955,” her story “Outside” talks of her work experiences at Poston and Chicago. In Issue #2, “Turning Points,” in her story “Napoleon Sez,” Wakako writes of the many defining moments of her life, and, in particular, her friendship with Hisaye Yamamoto.
Wakako became a regular at our annual holiday parties and even later back in Torrance after George died, until she couldn’t drive.
But, the one thing that Wakako really looked forward to was the daily morning walks she and George would take after he was no longer on the school board and not on a permanent assignment. Early on, during a walk, they stopped for coffee at the McDonald’s by the Gardena post office and they were invited to join one of the senior groups who frequented McDonald’s.
Tak Minato was the designated “shogun” of the group. They became a tight-knit group. Wakako gave the group their official name – the MAC Nisei. They would gather at our home as well to sing karaoke with the machine George had bought. Mas Shoji would sing his “Spam musubi” song at the slightest encouragement, even at one of our holiday parties.
In the early 2000s, John Esaki was working on the production of his documentary on three women, Mary Kageyama Nomura, Momo Nagano, and Wakako, called “Words, Weavings and Songs.” He filmed George and Wakako during one of the morning walks and the gathering of the MAC Nisei.
The MAC Nisei are no longer as Mas, Tak and others, including now Wakako, have passed away.
Wakako and I visited a lot in the early years after George died, reminiscing and talking. When my home was being fumigated, she invited me to stay with her instead of going to a motel.
Later, major health issues, doing my forums, and taking care of my sister invaded my time, and I would see Wakako playing cards at the Gardena Valley JCI. We went to lunch once a few years ago, and I was just thinking of calling Wakako after I had gotten out of the hospital a few weeks ago. When I heard she had passed away, I was shocked. A lesson that you can’t wait to see old friends.
She passed away on the same date as George, 13 years later, on Aug. 16. Somewhere, I imagine the MAC Nisei are having a big reunion, maybe even at a McDonald’s with their senior coffee, joking, laughing and singing.
Iku Kiriyama is a retired educator and a community organizer. The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]