2020 has been a year of extraordinary loss and suffering. As The Rafu presents its annual listing of passings in the community, we offer our condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in this most difficult of years.
Following, in alphabetical order, are some of the notable individuals who passed away during the past year.
Sumako Azuma II (Janice Aiso Edesa), 61, on July 24. The North American representative to Azuma Ryū in Japan, she taught Japanese classical dance for 45 years, training 14 students to earn the natori degree and one to earn the shihan degree.
Elsie Hanako Chung, 88, on Nov. 14. She was a founder of Nisei Widowed Group, volunteered at San Francisco’s Kimochi Home, and was a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander community, acting as a surrogate mother for those whose families rejected them.
Ron Deaton, 77, on Aug. 4. As chief legislative analyst of Los Angeles in 2003, he sided with the Little Tokyo community to prevent a jail from being built adjacent to Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.
Steven J. Doi, 92, on Aug. 3. The only Japanese-English bilingual attorney in San Francisco for many years, he was a president or board member of several Japanese American community organizations.
Kiku Hori Funabiki, 95, on Oct. 12, 2019. Active with National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, she testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee in 1984. She helped put together “Strength and Diversity,” an exhibition about Japanese American women at the Oakland Museum, and organized an exercise class for seniors in San Francisco Japantown.
Bob Hanamura, 96, on Jan. 6. An artist, curator and activist, he was gallery director for the San Francisco Art Commission and a volunteer for the National Japanese American Historical Society.
Lane Hirabayashi, 67, on Aug. 8. A renowned scholar, lecturer and author in the field of Asian American studies, held tenured faculty positions at San Francisco State University, University of Colorado at Boulder, UC Riverside, and UCLA. He actively sought ties to community-based organizations as one of the foundations to his academic work.
Jerry Hiura, 72, on Dec. 26, 2019. An active advocate for multicultural arts, he served as chair of the San Jose Arts Commission and as president of the Arts Council of Silicon Valley, and co-founded Contemporary Asian Theater Scene and Japantown Community Congress of San Jose.
Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite, 92, on May 4. She was part of a team known as the Monuments Men and Monuments Women, who preserved cultural treasures and artworks during and after World War II. She worked in Japan after the war and in 2015 was one of four living Monuments Men and Women who received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Chizu Iiyama, 98, on Aug. 26. Bay Area educator and civil rights advocate who was active in the redress movement, co-founded JACL Women’s Concerns Committee and chaired National Japanese American Historical Society’s Women’s Exhibit Committee.
Klete Ikemoto, 52, on April 2 from COVID-19. A member of Yonsei Basketball Association, he served as a board member of Norwalk Youth Sports at Southeast Japanese School and Community Center and was active at Orange County Buddhist Church.
Momoko Iko, 80, on July 19. A Nisei writer and pioneer of Asian American literature, she was best known for her 1972 play “Gold Watch,” which was also produced for television. Her other plays included “When We Were Young,” “Second City Flat,” “Hollywood Mirrors,” and “Flowers and Household Gods.” She was active with Pacific Asian American Women Writers West.
Grant Imahara, 49, on July 13. He co-hosted The Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters,” competed on Comedy Central’s “BattleBots,” was a model maker and animatronics designer for Industrial Light and Magic, created a robotic sidekick for “The Late Late Show,” played Sulu on the fan-produced series “Star Trek Continues,” and was a consultant with Walt Disney Imagineering.
Georgette Imura, 77, on Dec. 17. A longtime Sacramento civil rights activist and Capitol staffer, she co-founded the Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project and helped California’s Japanese American Community Leadership Council pass legislation to save the three remaining Japantowns.
Irene Hirano Inouye, 71, on April 7. She served as CEO of the Japanese American National Museum and developed ties between Japanese and Japanese American leaders as president of the U.S.-Japan Council. She was married to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.
George Izumi, 99, on Aug. 2. A baker, business owner and community leader, he established Grace Pastries in the Crenshaw District and eventually had 14 outlets throughout Los Angeles County. He won the National Association of Retail Bakers’ Gold Cup awards in all 14 categories.
Michiko Kato on Jan. 10. Born in 1970, she was a Los Angeles-based activist with the Pacific Asian Nuclear-Free Peace Alliance and a survivor of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Helen Kawagoe, 92, on April 6. She was the second woman elected JACL national president, serving two terms, and was city clerk of Carson for 37 years. After a campaign by her supporters, the City Council Chambers were named in her honor.
Hideo Bill Kikuchi, 97, on May 2 due to COVID-19. He devoted his life to entertaining the community through ondo, karaoke and Nisei Week. He was president of the Southern California Karaoke League, a leader of the Taisho Club and a volunteer for Keiro.
Hana Kimura, 22, on May 23, apparently by suicide. Japanese professional wrestler who appeared in the latest season of Fuji TV and Netflix’s reality show “Terrace House: Tokyo.” Daughter of wrestler Kyoko Kimura.
Lilllian Kimura, 92, on April 23. A civil rights leader who became the first female national president of the JACL (1992-94). During her tenure, JACL was one of the first non-LGBTQ organizations to support marriage equality. She was also associate executive director of the YWCA of the USA.
Junko Ruth “Ruthie” Kitagawa, 83, on Nov. 16. Known for her love of arts and crafts, she was a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum since its opening and taught origami at Oshogatsu and other JANM events.
Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa Llewellyn, 80, on March 8. As a little girl in a photo taken by Clem Albers in 1942 at Union Station in Los Angeles, she became a symbol of the wartime uprooting of Japanese Americans. She later worked for the University of Illinois and gave many interviews about her camp experience.
Arnold Maeda, 94, on Sept. 10. A former Manzanar incarceree, he was a charter member of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument Committee, which erected a monument in 2017. The text includes a quote about his WWII experience.
Toshikiyo “Andy” Matsui, 85, on Dec. 11. He was a top-quality flower grower in the Salinas area and guided Matsui Nursery through multiple product transformations. He pioneered the sale of potted orchids in grocery stores.
Eddie Moriguchi, 91, on Sept. 7. A long-time San Francisco Japantown CPA, he led many community organizations, including Japanese Benevolent Society of California and Hokka Nichi Bei Kai (Japanese American Association of Northern California).
Dean Murakami on Dec. 23. Born in 1952, he was scientific director of a space shuttle mission, a leader in teachers’ unions, including California Federation of Teachers, research scientist at UC Davis, and professor of psychology at American River College.
Nobuhiko Obayashi, 82, on April 10. Japanese director, screenwriter and editor of films and commercials. He was a pioneer of experimental films before transitioning to more mainstream media. He is best known for the 1977 horror film “House,” which has garnered a cult following.
Takayo Rose Matsui Ochi, 81, on Dec. 13. An attorney, civil rights activist and political strategist who was the first Asian American woman on the Los Angeles Police Commission and first Asian American woman assistant U.S. attorney general, she played a major role in the redress movement and the designation of Manzanar as a historic site.
Vince Okamoto, 76, on Sept. 27. A Vietnam veteran who received 14 combat decorations, he was a driving force behind the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Wall in Little Tokyo. He served as an L.A. County deputy district attorney, Gardena city councilman and L.A. County Superior Court judge.
Yukio Okamoto, 74, on April 24 from COVID-19. A Japanese diplomat and fellow at MIT, he was a special advisor to Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto and Junichiro Koizumi and worked vigorously for better understanding between the U.S. and Japan,
Alan Parker, 76, on July 31. An English director known for several films, including “Come See the Paradise” (1990), a drama about the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, starring Tamlyn Tomita and Dennis Quaid.
Richard Reeves, 83, on March 25. A writer, syndicated columnist and lecturer at USC, his books included “Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II” (2015).
Glenn Roberts, 73, on Aug. 20. As legislative director for Rep. Norman Mineta, he drafted H.R. 442, the bill that became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided redress and an apology for Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII.
Masako Rodriquez, 85, on July 13. She co-founded a Bon dance class at San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center and developed it into the Meiji Ondo dance group, which performs regularly at Obon festivals and other community events.
Cherie Mieko Sakai, 85, on April 1. As an early trailblazer in holistic health, she helped several people overcome ailments. She was also a prolific writer and journalist.
Lawson Sakai, 96, on June 16. A veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and a survivor of the rescue of the Lost Battalion, he founded Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans, which organized annual get-togethers in Las Vegas and trips abroad to European battlefield sites for WWII veterans and their families.
Noboru Don Seki, 96, on July 28. A veteran of the 442nd who lost an arm in the rescue of the Lost Battalion, he received a medal from the French government and appears on the cover of “The Go For Broke Spirit,” a book of portraits of Nisei veterans, and in exhibits of the photographs.
Thomas Shigekuni, 90, on Dec. 10, 2019. He opened Centrose Nursery and a law practice in Torrance where he represented Japanese companies entering the U.S.; focused on estate planning and educated the public on elder law issues; served on the board of Keiro Retirement Home; was the first Japanese American on the State Board of Food and Agriculture; was incorporating attorney and board member of Amache Historical Society.
Cedric Shimo, 100, on April 1. Drafted into the Army during WWII, he protested discriminatory treatment and was assigned to the 525 Quartermasters Corps and 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion. He later became an executive at American Honda Motors USA.
John Shimoda, 100, on May 25. He served as president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and director of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Western Region Crime Laboratory in San Bruno. His cases included the Zodiac serial killings in the Bay Area.
Ken Shimura, 70, on March 29 from COVID-19. A comedian who has been referred to as the Robin Williams of Japan, he was a fixture on Japanese television for decades and was reportedly set for his first starring role in a feature film — the Yoji Yamada comedy “God of Cinema” — before falling ill..
Larry Shinagawa on Aug. 18. A professor at Sonoma State University, Ithaca College and University of Maryland, where he was director of the Asian American Studies Program, he was known for his research in the social demography of racial groups in the U.S., intermarriage, multiracial identity, and Asian American culture and community.
Gerald Shiroma, 56, on April 8 from COVID-19. He overcame addiction, homelessness and the loss of his parents and became a resident and driver at Union Rescue Mission in L.A.’s Skid Row.
Jon Shirota, 92, on July 26. Making use of his Okinawan roots, his many works reflected immigration, war, and struggles with self-identity. His plays, including “Lucky Come Hawaii” (from his novel of the same name), “Leilani’s Hibiscus” and “Voices from Okinawa,” have been produced in Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo.
Naomi Tagawa, 100, on May 19. She donated her family’s property to the China Alley Preservation Society to restore the building to become a museum and learning center to honor Hanford’s Japanese American history. She was a lifetime member of the Kings Art Center Guild, to which she donated Henry Sugimoto’s art,
Kenzo Takada, 81, on Oct. 4. A Japanese fashion designer living in France, he founded Kenzo, a worldwide brand of perfumes, skincare products, and clothes, and was the honorary president of the Asian Couture Federation.
Kumiko Tanaka, 80, on May 24. Artist and wife of San Francisco Taiko Dojo founder Seiichi Tanaka. She created poster art and happi coat designs for the group, whose movements were inspired by her love for qi gong and tai chi.
Ezra Vogel, 90, on Dec, 20, A leading American expert on Japan, China and Asia, and professor emeritus at Harvard University, The professor of social science was widely known for his 1979 book “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America,” which became a best-seller in Japan.
Kellye Nakahara Wallett, 72, on Feb. 16. As Nurse Kellye, she appeared in 169 episodes of the popular TV show “M*A*S*H” (1973-1983), a comedy-drama set during the Korean War. Her film credits included “Clue,” “She’s Having a Baby,” “3 Ninjas Kick Back,” and “Dr. Doolittle.” She was also a spokesperson for IBM in commercials and her artwork has been featured at Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena City Hall and the White House.
Frank Hajime Watase, 96, on Sept. 7. Chairman of Yum Yum Donuts and Winchell’s Donuts, which together became the largest chain of donut shops in California; a major supporter of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, and Japanese American Nationall Museum, which named the Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center in his honor; also assistant secretary of state of California under March Fong Eu.
Dennis Yamada, 75, on April 12. He served six terms as a Hawaii state representative from Kauai and held such positions as chair of the House Judiciary Committee and House majority leader. He was also a University of Hawaii regent and chair of the Public Utilities Commission.
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, 95, on Dec. 13. He was president of Japanese Community Pioneer Center and Nanka Kagoshima Kenjin Kai, led the Southern California branch of Ogasawara-ryu (tea ceremony), helped to establish Homecast, a Japanese-language radio broadcast company, and served as president and CEO of Fax Mainichi.
Hiroshi Yamauchi, 67, on Sept. 21. He started Little Tokyo’s first ramen restaurant, Kouraku, which was open seven days a week and opened branches in Nevada, Sherman Oaks and Torrance. He became an advocate for other Little Tokyo merchants in the early days of Metro’s Regional Connector, which disrupted car and pedestrian traffic, and when the pandemic hit, forcing restaurants to do take-out only.
Hatsuye “Hatsy” Yasukochi, 80, on March 27 from COVID-19. She and her husband Moses founded Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, a bakery in San Francisco Japantown known for its Coffee Crunch Cake. With Moses as the baker and Hatsy as the cake decorator, the Sweet Stop was added to the city’s Legacy Business Registry.
Shigeru Yokota, 87, on June 5. The father of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted at age 13 from Niigata Prefecture in 1977, he was an advocate for families of Japanese nationals taken by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, and led a movement to pressure the government to retrieve 17 confirmed abductees. Five were repatriated in 2002, but Pyongyang claimed Megumi was dead..