Shigeko Kawano

Shigeko Kawano
February 22, 1926 – October 9, 2020

Shigeko Kawano passed away peacefully on Friday, October 9, 2020 in Medford, N.J. at the age of 94. She was born in Los Angeles, Calif. and was the oldest daughter of Seizo and Toshiko Sakamoto. Shigeko and her family lived in the Boyle Heights area of LA and her father owned a pharmacy in nearby Little Tokyo.

In 1942, after President Roosevelt authorized the removal of all people of Japanese descent (including U.S. citizens) from the coastal areas of the western U.S., Shigeko and her family lost their home and livelihood.

The Sakamotos were incarcerated at Poston I, one of three concentration camps located in the desert of western Arizona. Shigeko often recalled the searing heat and dust storms that leaked through the thin walls and floor of her family’s one room barrack quarters.

While incarcerated, Shigeko graduated high school. She was released from the camp to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. with the help of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) that was led by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). So, at the age of 17, Shigeko left her family behind and traveled by train to Philadelphia. During most of her train trip, she had to sit on her suitcase or stand as soldiers refused to allow her to use a seat.

On the way to Philadelphia, Shigeko stopped in Kansas City, Mo. to visit her future husband, James. She first met James in 1940 when he worked in her father’s store while attending pharmacy school at the University of Southern California. While Shigeko and her family were in Poston, James was in the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. Through the help of the NJASRC, he was able to leave the camp to complete his studies at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). After working in Kansas City, James moved to Philadelphia where he would later open his own pharmacy. After a period of dating, Shigeko invoked an old saying that a woman can propose marriage during a leap year (1944). They got married that year and Shigeko often said with a glow that she married the person she loved since she was 14.

Shigeko worked at the AFSC while attending Temple but discontinued her studies to start a family. Nonetheless, she remained an avid reader throughout her life, discussing books she read with her sons up to her final weeks.

After James and Shigeko moved from Philadelphia to the western suburb of Merion, Shigeko played an active role in Merion Friends Meeting (Quaker) and her sons’ scouting activities. After her sons left home for school, she became a licensed practical nurse and worked part-time at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pa.

Shigeko also had many artistic interests. She was accomplished in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, with exhibits at the Philadelphia Flower Show, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Longwood Gardens. She enjoyed painting, quilting, sewing, knitting, baking and cooking. Additionally, she took classes in carpentry, sculpture, pottery and stained glass among others. All the while, Shigeko worked tirelessly as the bookkeeper for James’s pharmacy.

After James retired, Shigeko and James moved to Medford Leas, a Quaker-sponsored, senior independent living continuing care community situated within an arboretum. They loved travelling and their trips to Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and California often included family and grand-children. After James passed away in 2012, Shigeko would visit her great-grandchildren in California and enjoyed visits from them at her apartment at Medford Leas.

Shigeko was a loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. She was predeceased by her husband James and son Gary, and is survived by her sister Hiroko Nakata, sons Arn (Sandy) and Jim (Madelyn), grandsons Tom (Angela) and Mark (Yumi) and great-grandchildren Koby, Emi, Mateo and Kaíque.

In remembrance of Shigeko’s life, donations may be made to the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker humanitarian social service agency, and the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, a national scholarship program created in the spirit of the NJASRC to address the higher education needs of Southeast Asian Americans.