By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
The Japanese American community has lost pioneering businesswoman Peggy Mikuni, who for more than six decades ran a travel agency in Little Tokyo. She passed away earlier this month at the age of 90.
Mikuni worked with her father, Eddie Yamato, in his multi-service employment agency in Denver after World War II. As the eldest of nine children, she was expected to take over his business. Unfortunately, she found that trying to find work for former incarcerees amid postwar racial prejudice and a sluggish economy was difficult and discouraging.
In a 2011 interview conducted by her youngest sister and **Rafu Shimpo** contributor Sharon Yamato for Densho, Mikkuni revealed that she preferred to help people “who were happy to be going someplace rather than worried about finding a job.”
After the Yamatos moved back to Los Angeles in 1955, her father re-established his business at 312 E. First St. Mikuni, meanwhile, focused on expanding the travel services and made customer service her hallmark. By 1957, she was ready to open the Yamato Travel Bureau, becoming one of the first women and possibly the first Sansei to own a business in Little Tokyo.
Mikuni’s family roots reach back to 1893 when her grandparents emigrated to Hawaii from Japan. Her father, who was born in Hawaii, moved to Los Angeles in 1931 when she was still a baby.
Mikuni, known for her low-key demeanor and uncanny problem-solving skills, once stated that she preferred to remember the good things that happened in her life and not necessarily the bad. She said that she remembered little about wartime camp experience in Poston, Ariz. “It was harder on our parents than on us kids.”
Something she did remember was what it was like to attend junior high and high school during the war. “School in camp was difficult…because all the students were Asians,” she remarked. “They all seemed to study hard and had good brains.” She went to say that the instructors “turned out to be Japanese Americans that had gone to college and seemed to grade us very strictly.”
Her family moved to Denver after being released from Poston. It was then she experienced overt racism for the first time. She went into a coffee shop where they refused to serve her because the father of one of the staff had fought the Japanese. “They didn’t know the difference between Japanese Americans and Japanese,” she said with characteristic empathy.
Alan Kumamoto, who worked for Mikuni as a college student and ran errands for her uncle, insurance man Kiyo Yamato, commented that it was a great experience. “I went to the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962, took tours to Mexico, and went on a ship up to Vancouver.”
Just as durable as her U.S. relationships were Mikuni’s Japan connections. “Everybody knows her in Japan,” remarked Kumamoto, who recently took his family to Japan.
Andrew Lee, manager of the Kajima Building, where Mikuni maintained her travel headquarters beginning in 2004, became good friends with her as they commuted to and from the office. “She had lived a long life, traveled … and done so many things. I learned so much from her.
“She treated everybody with a lot of grace. We are definitely going to miss her,” Lee added.
Kim Nomura echoed Lee’s observations. She first met Mikuni in the 1980s, having taken several Yamato tours. Nomura’s sister-in-law, Lilly, worked for Mikuni as a travel agent. More recently, Nomura and Mikuni found themselves living in the same retirement complex, The Terraces.
“When I entered The Terraces, Peggy was there to greet and welcome me. Her thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity were very much appreciated. I (along with) The Terraces staff and many resident friends will miss Peggy very much,” said Nomura.
The brick-and-mortar legacy of the Yamatos may have ended with Mikuni’s passing, but the feeling of goodwill she embodied lives on.
Sharon Yamato, reflecting on her sister’s legacy, said: “In our family of nine children (eight of them girls), Peggy was its vigilant onee-san, ahead-of-her-time businesswoman, and consummate perfectionist. She took pride in doing things right, as evident in the Oshogatsu she painstakingly prepared every year (with the help of daughter Joanne). Taking a break from her nonstop planning of many unforgettable trips for others to Japan, she applied that same meticulous preparation to ensure every New Year’s Day was a family event to be remembered.“
Mikuni is survived by daughter, Joanne Mikuni Hong (Rev. Richard Hong); granddaughter, Naomi Hong; daughter-in-law, Cathy Mikuni; grandsons; Mathew Mikuni (Lily Der Minasian) and Michael Mikuni; and siblings Mary Jane Yasuko Tashiro, Betty Emiko Mikuni, Evelyn Akiko Shimada, Phyllis Keiko Kim, Susan Tomiko Yamato and Sharon Teruko Yamato.
A Celebration of Life service will take place on Saturday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. at Evergreen Baptist Church of San Gabriel Valley, 323 Workman Mill Rd. in La Puente.