On Nov. 22, my wife Marion’s sister, Akemi Kikumura Yano, received from the Japanese government a medal with the impressive title Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays, with Rosette. It was presented to her by Consul General Jun Niimi at his official residence in the Wilshire District.
Akemi is the youngest in a family of ten girls and three boys. Her lone surviving brother, Michihiro, is fourth from the top. Their father owned a restaurant in Lodi before the war. After Pearl Harbor her family spent three and a half years in Rohwer, Ark., where Akemi was born. After the war, her father farmed outside of Little Rock for a while before returning with the family to Lodi.
In the early ’50s, the father was drowned in a fishing accident, after which the family moved to L.A.
During the late ’60s, Akemi and her older sister, Carol, appeared in a production of “Flower Drum Song” in Las Vegas. In 1976, Akemi was chosen to play the wife of a 442nd veteran in the film “Farewell to Manzanar.”
Akemi received a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. For her doctoral thesis she went to Japan to interview relatives from both sides of her family. From this thesis came a book, “Through Harsh Winters,” which is used in English, U.S. history, and Asian American studies classes. She also wrote a book based on the life of her father, “Promises Kept.” A play she wrote about her dad, “Gambler’s Den,” was performed at East West Players.
A highlight of the awards presentation by Consul General Niimi was his description of the intensive study conducted by Akemi on the lives of immigrant Japanese in South America and other parts of the world. “From this study came the award-winning book she co-edited with James and Lane Hirabayashi, ‘New Worlds, New Lives.'” Also deriving from this work was Discover Nikkei, the world’s largest database of Japanese immigrants and their descendants.
Akemi has taught at UCLA and USC. She is currently a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and affiliate faculty member of American studies at the University of Hawaii.
In 1987, Akemi began her career at JANM as its first curator, and in 2008 was appointed president and CEO.
In 2010, Akemi received a medal on behalf of JANM at the White House, from Michelle Obama. It was awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Akemi’s acceptance speech gave generous credit to the many who have supported and encouraged her over the years. Akemi and her husband, Gary Yano, have a daughter, Remi, and two grandchildren, Cameron and Sofia, living in Northridge. Their son, Greg, lives in San Francisco.
The awards ceremony was attended by a distinguished group of people from the community. It was followed by a reception at Akemi and Gary’s newly remodeled home in Sherman Oaks.
Akemi rode in our back seat going to her home for the reception. With a quaver in her voice, Marion’s comment to Akemi was: “Akemi, we are all so very proud of you.” It was touching, and so very much deserved.
Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.