VOX POPULI: Takenori (Tak) Yamamoto and Me

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By DEAN GOISHI

I met Tak sometime in mid-1979 after a job transfer to Los Angeles from Hartford, Conn. From the very start we hit it off; we had a lot in common. We were both Sansei, our families had been interned in Poston, Ariz. (his family had been in Camp 1 and mine had been in Camp 3) and we were both gay.

He was out and I was not completely. And, he became an immediately role model and mentor for me. He was always encouraging me, in his very persuasive manner, to step forward to be proactive, to be assertive, and to put aside my inaka (rural/country) Japanese upbringing of being stoic, being quiet and not to bring embarrassment to our family.

Tak Yamamoto (left) and Dean Goishi

One day Tak recruited me and others to attend a meeting of gay men and women in the L.A. area to discuss the formation of gay organization specifically for Asians under the leadership of Asians. I remember walking into the meeting room with over a hundred men and some women, mainly APIs.  At the election of new officers, Tak was voted to be the one of the two founding co-chairs of this new organization, which was to become the Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays, Inc. (APLG).

Tak remained a co-chair for a couple of years and then was elected chairperson of APLG for a number of following years. Tak’s personal goal was for APLG to develop, empower and nurture gay APIs to assume the leadership roles for the organization.

About this same time Tak recruited me to the Manzanar Committee. Tak and Sue Embrey were involved with producing the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage held each year during the last weekend in April. Sue seemed to be the brains and Tak provided the brawn. A group of his friends primarily from APLG along with Karl and me journeyed to Lone Pine to be Tak’s “gophers” for that weekend.

We would leave L.A. early Friday morning; get to Lone Pine, check in the motel, and then go to Manzanar to look over the site to prepare for the next day. The next day we went early to set up the tents, the information tables, folding chairs, PA system and stage. Tak, of course, directed and ordered us around to get everything prepared for this event.

And at the conclusion of the pilgrimage we would take everything down and then watch Tak put everything meticulously away in the rented van or later in his RV. He was a little obsessive about how the van and later his RV were packed away for the trip back to L.A.

Each year, regardless of the strong sand-blown winds and/or hot temperature, it became my time to bond with Tak and to learn a little more of my Japanese American internment roots, something my parents never spoke about to me.

Around 1986, Tak decided that we should go to Poston (Parker, Ariz.) and see what remained of the camp. We journeyed to Camp 1 site and looked throughout the neglected remains of the school and the community hall that Tak’s father had helped to construct. We later found the approximate site of Camp 2 (nothing left) and then found the remains of Camp 3, the sewage system. Of course I took a few of the bricks from the sewage tank as souvenirs to show my mother evidence of our trip. I was promptly told by my mother, “Aho na koto ne” (what a foolish thing to do) and “baka” (idiot).

We stayed and watched the Native American parade held in Parker the next day. I learned two things that weekend.  First was the reason a Native American band from the Colorado River Indian Reservation marched in the Nisei Week grand parade each year. And the second was the gratitude of that the Native Americans still had for the Japanese Americans that were interned in Poston on their reservation.

When the JAs departed after the war, the irrigation system that they had built for the camp crops and fields was left for the reservation Native Americans. They in turn used it to turn their dry desert-like reservation into what seemed to be a productive and bountiful, green agricultural valley.

HIV and AIDS became a reality for us APIs in the 1980s. After hearing about it from a guest speaker at an APLG monthly meeting and after a close friend died basically dealing with it by himself, a group of us met in my living room to discuss this illness.  Our little group continued to meet, after many potluck dinner evenings, to form a response to HIV and AIDS in APLG.

The AIDS Intervention Team of APLG was formed to address culturally and linguistically appropriate HIV and AIDS programs for the APLG membership especially for the API members.

In 1988 Tak met in a series of meetings with six mainstream AP community service agencies in response to an L.A. County AIDS Program Office RFP (Request For Proposal) for an HIV/AIDS project targeting APs. Tak was adamant that APLG AIT had to have a prominent role in any response to the county. APLG AIT’s role was to develop and provide gay sensitivity training and HIV education to API service providers and consumers.

In 1989, the consortium was awarded HIV prevention funds and became the Asian Pacific Education Project. And at Tak’s insistence, a gay AP had to be recruited to be the project director. Tak persuaded me to apply for the position, and after meeting with the executive director of special services for groups, and the other consortium members, I was hired to direct the project. Thank you, Tak, for your confidence, support and insistence!

My friendship with Tak spans for over 30 years.  He has been my outspoken gay advocate, mentor and brother. I told him, privately and publicly, that he taught me everything I know about being a Japanese gay person. We have laughed and cried through many community dinners, meetings and private dinners with our close friends. Even with his mood swings, Tak will be Tak and he will be truly missed at the table.

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