Martha Masako Itow Yamaki, a lifelong community and political activist, passed away on Feb. 21 after a brief illness. She was 88.
Yamaki was born in Compton on June 24, 1922, one of seven children of Masakichi and Sumiye Itow. After spending part of the war years in Utah, she returned to Los Angeles to work with the USO. She said it was one of the things about which she was most proud. She became a dental technician and raised her growing family.
She was also soon deeply immersed in community life, participating in the foster parent program and taking in young children with no homes. In the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, Yamaki was a driving force behind the PTA at Coliseum Street School. When her children began attending Dorsey High School, she organized efforts to teach Japanese language as a regular part of the school curriculum.
She was also active with the Montebello Women’s Club and served as its president in 1961. She not only spearheaded club fundraising drives for charities like the City of Hope, but in the process, helped to rebuild the postwar Japanese American community in Los Angeles. She was one of the first Nisei mothers to become involved in anti-drug abuse campaigns aimed at Japanese American youth. Affectionately known as the “founding mother,” Yamaki worked with the Yellow Brotherhood in the 1960s and 1970s and opened her home to teens needing a place to stay.
For her involvement in Los Angeles politics and local issues, Yamaki received many honors and commendations from the city as well as organizations such as the United Way and American Red Cross. Everyone knew there was an election when the lawn signs sprouted in front of her home. She was a strong supporter of multiethnic coalitions in the Crenshaw area. In the 1970s, she helped to establish a City Council 10th District Steering Committee with other Japanese Americans and African Americans in the neighborhood who were concerned about district needs.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Yamaki to the Rent Adjustment Commission in 1981. She served under Mayors Bradley, Richard Riordan and James Hahn before retiring in 2003.
In retirement, she continued to be involved in many pursuits and loved spending time with her three granddaughters and one grandson. She enjoyed keeping up with community news and shopping for a great bargain, and never passed up a good prime rib.
Yamaki is survived by her four children, sons Michael and Clifford and daughters RoseMary and June; four grandchildren; a sister, Mary Jane Roalizo; and numerous nieces and nephews. Her husband, Ken Yamaki, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, passed away in 2007.
Friends are welcome to share in a memorial celebrating Yamaki’s life on Saturday, March 12, at 11 a.m. at Centenary United Methodist Church, 300 S. Central Ave. Los Angeles; (213) 617-9097, with Rev. Mark Nakagawa officiating. Arrangements are being made by Fukui Mortuary. Burial services will be private.