May 24, 1924 — December 31, 2020
Noboru Kato, long time resident of Monterey Park, passed away at 96, on December 31, 2020.
Born May 24, 1924, in Taira (Iwaki-shi), Japan, he was the “chonan,” eldest of four brothers and three sisters, but always dreamt of leaving Iwaki to “see the world.” At 19, he worked in Vietnam for four years during World War II with a company manufacturing war supplies for Japan.
After WWII, returning to Iwaki with no job prospects, he learned of the Resettlement program under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 that was associated with Issei immigrants in America. The Naimin Sen program provided a path to America for 1,500 Japanese who were experiencing economic hardship being abroad during WWII.
He applied — determined to go to the United States — and he looked for a bride to accompany him. He met Etsuko Owada, who was willing and eager to go. They married in 1954, were accepted into the Nanmin Sen program and set to sail for San Francisco in 1956. They settled in Turlock, Calif., where they were trained and worked as chick sexers — a unique skill sorting male from female chicks. It was seasonal work, so over three years, he also found work as a janitor, short-order cook, and picker of grapes and peaches.
After fulfilling his obligations to the program, Noboru and Etsuko, now with two young infants, headed to Los Angeles where he began work as a gardener. After 15 years, the daily grind of mowing lawns and pruning shrubs took a toll on his back and legs. Noboru learned of Issei managing Skid Row hotels, so at age 48, he took a gamble and signed a lease to operate the Ward Hotel. He “recruited” Etsuko to help him with this new endeavor.
With no knowledge of the hotel business and limited English, Noboru and Etsuko managed the daily tenant interactions, and by trial and error, figured out front desk routines, maintenance, plumbing, and relationship-building with dozens of single-room occupants. They went on to manage the Florence Hotel on 5th, Chandler on Main and, in Noboru’s mid 70’s, the Madison on 7th — a 200-bed hotel for low-income residents.
He continued to keep ties with Fukushima and the post war Shin Issei community, serving as president of Fukushima Kenjin Kai, and representing Fukushima-ken in Kenjin-Kai Kyogi-kai. He was also active with the Hotel and Apartment Association, So. California Gardeners’ Federation, supported the annual Tanabata Festival in Little Tokyo and the Nanmin Sen, organizing anniversary reunions for the close-knit group, who shared the voyage to the U.S.
In the 1970s, Noboru was a member of the Akita Kennel Club that organized the Akita Dog Show during Nisei Week. Their goal was to popularize “the national dog of Japan” in the U.S.
A passion for Koi led him to build a pond at his Monterey Park home, and he would drive alone as far as Indio, Calif., to find and purchase suitable Koi.
He continued to “see the world,” organizing Taisho Club trips to Europe, Russia, Morocco, Egypt, South America, climbing the peaks of Machu Picchu and strolling the Great Wall of China. Train trips up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver and from L.A. to Florida included stops in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. He finally was able to return to Japan in 1976 after 30 years in America and subsequently made several trips to see his siblings and families in Iwaki-shi and visit onsen throughout Japan. The last time was at age 90 in 2014 to see the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
At 92, he learned to use a computer with a Japanese character keyboard. Taught by his caregiver, he practiced daily, writing emails to his niece and nephew in Japan — and watching YouTube ice skating videos. He even emailed his granddaughter Mia in “nihongo.” When he did his first Facetime with Mia, he couldn’t believe he could “see” her talking from Boston University, exclaiming “taishita monda – jidai ga okure ta” “wow, this is fabulous. Just sorry I was born too early before all this was available!”
Noboru was grateful he came to America and embodied the Issei spirit of seeking adventure, taking chances, working hard and persevering to provide a good life for his family in the U.S. He peacefully passed away on New Year’s Eve, the way he wanted, at home, sitting at his familiar breakfast table, watching New Year’s festivities on Japanese TV.
Per his request, a private graveside service with immediate family was held on April 17, 2021, at Evergreen Cemetery, officiated by Bishop Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple.
Predeceased by his wife of 65 years, Etsuko, he is survived by his daughter, Amy E. Kato (John Esaki); sons, Gary, David (Mai) Kato and grandchildren, Mia, Audrey and Cody. He is also survived by youngest brother, Shohachiro Kato, and relatives, nieces and nephews in Japan.
The family asks that Noboru’s wish for “no koden” please be honored.
www.fukuimortuary.com (213) 626-0441