gwen for webBy GWEN MURANAKA

It was a remarkable, emotional sight on Saturday. A stream of mourners, clad in black, walked down Central Avenue from Higashi Honganji to “Home Is Little Tokyo,” the mural that hangs at the JVP parking lot.

First small bouquets of flowers tied with ribbons, and then large floral wreaths were placed below the mural, a public tribute to Nancy Kikuchi, co-project manager of the mural, who passed away on Sept. 10. Her funeral service was standing-room-only, with many spilling into the hallways below the hondo.

If Nancy were here, she’d be embarrassed by all of the attention and say that it was all too much. She would also immediately take charge of the clean up, so that the temple and Central Avenue would be left spotless.

It made me smile to see the JETs gathered at the reception following the service and hear them perform a sanbon jime cheer for the woman who co-founded their alumni association. As leader of the LA Beat dance group, Nancy would lead us in a sanbon jime after each dance practice at Jodoshu Temple, and then we’d all bow to one another in gratitude.

Domo arigato gozaimasu. Those were the words that Nancy and her fellow JACCC Community Spirit awardees Victor Fukuhara and Michael Okamura said in unison to the gathering in June. Those were Nancy’s last words to us. Nothing about the fight she was engaged in, the pain she must have felt. Gratitude for others: that was Nancy.

Brian Kito, her Koban cohort and mochi master, echoed Nancy on Saturday in his beautiful eulogy, leading the gathering as Nancy had done at the JACCC dinner. Three times, the mourners, numbering more than 500, bowed to Nancy’s parents and family and said in unison, “Domo arigato gozaimasu.”

Kikuchi and then-Councilmember Jan Perry pose in front of the mural at its dedication in October 2005. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)
Nancy Kikuchi and then-Councilmember Jan Perry pose in front of the mural at its dedication in October 2005. (GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo)

Attendants passed out small pink ribbons at the service, a symbol of the ovarian cancer that claimed Nancy’s life.

Besides sharing the remarkable fullness of Nancy’s life with the community, I think her family is owed thanks for sharing her final battle with cancer in her obituary. Cancer has claimed so many mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles. It claimed my mom as well; like Nancy, she was only in her 50s when colon cancer took her.

In the JA community we tend to avoid talking about the things that are the most difficult. The gaman spirit, so often lauded, means that weakness and pain are to be silently endured. Cancer is a dark secret, almost a shameful thing, that isn’t talked about. That is what it felt like as a teenager shortly after my mom’s passing.

Maybe by following the Kikuchis’ brave example, we will all take care of ourselves a little better, get those tests that we put off, bug our loved ones to do the same. Maybe it will save a life. Mr. and Mrs. Kikuchi, domo arigato gozaimasu.

The mural is a fitting tribute to Nancy and as the mural turns 10 next year, I’m sure there will be something done to memorialize her. Even though she is gone, she will always be there on the mural, pounding the drums and keeping Little Tokyo moving forward to her enthusiastic, genki beat.

There are many fitness enthusiasts — golfers, taiko drummers, volleyball players, runners and Zumba dancers — who know the Nancy who loved to work up a sweat.

As Brian briefly mentioned on Saturday, Nancy and I took scuba diving classes together. A group of us from Little Tokyo used to go running around Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. One evening afterwards, I mentioned to Nancy that I wanted to get my scuba certification. In typical Nancy fashion, she brightened, and said, “I’d like to try that!”

Over several months, we’d meet at LTSC and drive together after work to East L.A. Community College to take classes, learning how to breathe underwater. Deemed ready, our instructors told us to meet in Oxnard for our final tests. We were to get our first experience in open water in the cold, choppy waters off the Channel Islands.

Poor Nancy, she was so terribly seasick the entire time. But she still performed the tests, taking her mask off underwater, taking the regulator out of her mouth, and proving she had mastered the skills to be a diver.

I’m not sure if I would have become a diver without Nancy there to go through the classes with me. Soon after, I went to Hawaii on vacation to finish up my scuba diving training. That left Nancy to do her final two open water dives on her own, knowing that she would be seasick again. Queasy, nauseous, trying every seasickness remedy, Nancy proved her mettle in that cold water. She completed the training, and never looked back. Nor did she ever pick up her diving certification card.

Funny, fearless, courageous Nancy. How can someone with so much energy, humor, optimism — so much life — no longer be with us? The only positive I can think of is that we follow Nancy’s example and live our lives as fully as possible.

Arigato, Nancy.

Gwen Muranaka is the English Editor of The Rafu Shimpo and can be reached at Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Mourners place flowers on Saturday below the mural “Home Is Little Tokyo” in tribute to Nancy Kikuchi, who passed away on Sept. 10.
Mourners place flowers on Saturday below the mural “Home Is Little Tokyo” in tribute to Nancy Kikuchi, who passed away on Sept. 10.

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