By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
Emiko Kato Yamada, 1952 Nisei Week queen known for her love of ballroom dancing and her ability to bring people together, passed away peacefully in her sleep on Nov. 19.
Known by friends simply as “Em,” Yamada was born to Shigema and Ikeno Kato at the Japanese Hospital in Los Angeles. She had two younger brothers, Goro and Hiro, and the family lived in various areas in the heart of Los Angeles.
Em was 10 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, requiring people of Japanese descent to be interned in relocation camps. The family lived in Little Tokyo then and she recalled walking from their home on Hewitt Street to First Street to sell as many pots, pans and other family belongings as possible before being taken to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
In camp, her father told her of all the places he would take her after they got out. Sadly, the family returned to Los Angeles at the end of the war without him as he died in camp.
She graduated from Polytechnic High School and attended college before taking a job as legal secretary. After the war, women of Japanese descent had difficulty getting good jobs due to racial discrimination. She became president of the Nisei Legal Secretaries Association and helped Japanese women obtain jobs with prominent law firms as she herself was almost not hired due to discrimination.
Her first boss explicitly stated he did not want a secretary who was of Japanese descent. The firm hired her anyway and this boss came to realize that Yamada was extremely capable, intelligent and had a sense of humor. They became good friends and he insisted on walking her down the aisle in place of her late father when she got married. She eventually worked her way to the position of office manager of a top law firm in Downtown Los Angeles.
She was not an athlete but became president of the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), which organized sports leagues (volleyball and basketball) for Nisei women’s teams. She changed the bylaws that helped increase participation in the organization.
In 1952, Yamada was nominated for Nisei Week queen. The competition was held at the Pasadena home of thecConsul general of Japan. The next night, she was crowned queen at the Nisei Week Coronation Ball. During the ’52 Nisei Week Parade, Rafu Shimpo and Kashu Mainichi columnist George “Horse” Yoshinaga drove the car she was riding. He mentioned her from time to time in his column throughout the years.
On Sept. 27, 1953, she married Henry Takashi Yamada, known by close friends as “Tak.” They had two children, Merilynn and Ron, and enjoyed family life. They enjoyed Saturday night hana with friends, Sunday drives and looking for the perfect home. In 1969 they found their perfect home in the Venice area.
She remained close with her mother Ikeno, who moved with the family throughout the years and helped to watch the kids. When the kids got old enough, she supported her mother as she became one of the first residents of Little Tokyo Towers.
In 1983, Yamada retired from work and she and Tak took up ballroom dancing. For two years, she was president of the Gardena Valley Nisei Club, a ballroom dance club with more than 500 members. Em was a top fundraiser for Taisho Club benefit dances and also volunteered at its health fairs. She studied dance with Harry Kanada and later with Glenn Yata’s ballroom dance group and helped organize his annual Le Grande Ball.
In 1984, determined to bring all former Nisei Week queens together, she successfully and single-handedly organized the first Former Queens’ Reunion Luncheon. The event has been held annually ever since. The former queens are grateful to her for bringing them together in friendship and support of Nisei Week. In 2016, the Nisei Week Foundation honored Yamada as a Nisei Week Pioneer.
Beyond their dance years, Em and Tak enjoyed their grandchildren Donji and J.T., and many pastimes including travelling, hanging out with family and friends at George’s Cafe and watching “Dancing with the Stars.”
Yamada made friends wherever she went in life and made a point to keep in touch with them throughout her life. She certainly leaves behind a legacy of leadership and friendship, and her strength and caring will be missed by all whose lives she touched.