SAN FRANCISCO — A Celebration of Life was held on March 26 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California for George Yamasaki, Jr., a fixture in the Japantown community, who died on Feb. 7 at the age of 86.
A native of Hawaii and a resident of San Francisco since 1959, he was also an attorney and the city’s longest-serving commissioner.
The San Francisco Human Services Agency Department of Benefits and Family Support said in a resolution, “Commissioner Yamasaki devoted his career in private practice of the law, since 1960, specializing in matters relating to immigration and nationality. Yamasaki was appointed by then-Mayor Joe Alioto in 1975 to the San Francisco Social Services Commission, which would later become the Human Services Commission. He would become the longest-serving commissioner in the city’s history, serving 46 years on the same commission — encompassing 10 mayors and 16 years as president of the body.”
A supporter of the foster care system, Yamasaki established a scholarship fund to help foster children attend college.
In Japantown, he was seen at annual events, including the introduction of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival queen candidates to the public and running commentary during the festival’s Grand Parade.
In addition to co-chairing the festival three times, Yamasaki served the Japanese American Citizens League as national legal counsel and president of the San Francisco Chapter, a director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, and a director of the Japan Society of Northern California, among other positions. Other organizations that he was involved with include American Cancer Society, World Affairs Council of Northern California, International Institute of San Francisco, and California League for the Handicapped.
His wife Anne, a noted calligrapher and community volunteer, died in 2010 a day before her 74th birthday. It was the second marriage for both of them.
The San Francisco Japantown Foundation said in a statement, “We mourn the loss of our beloved George Yamasaki, Jr., who was not only the longest-serving city commissioner in S.F. city history, but also the voice of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival for over 50 years. We will truly miss hearing your voice over the loudspeakers in the Peace Plaza every year, George.”
Robert Handa, host of NBC Bay Area’s “Asian Pacific America,” said, “George wore so many hats in the community, including the MC voice of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, long-time city commissioner, member of popular music groups and one of his favorite roles: playing the mood music at countless community events. We miss his presence — and that infectious smile — so much!”
Koto musician and instructor Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto said, “Very sad to hear of the passing of George Yamasaki Jr., who livened up many an event with his jazz piano music. I remember seeing him with his lovely wife, Anne, at many Japanese American community events. I believe we even played a koto/piano song together. He was always smiling and sweet. Now he has joined his Anne in heaven. Thanks for all the music and smiles, George.”
Origami artist Linda Mihara of Paper Tree in Japantown said, “This amazing man did so much for Japantown and he will be missed beyond words. He played a major role as the emcee at various events for the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, including the performances on the Peace Plaza stage and the Grand Parade. He was an accomplished musician, performing with his George Yamasaki Trio, a city commissioner, and a family friend who I will miss dearly. Rest In Peace, George. You have touched many hearts.”
Ryan Takemiya, who is serving as emcee of this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, posted the following tribute: “George Yamasaki, Jr., the man who MC’d the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival for over 50 years, passed away earlier this year. He was 86 years old. Every year, like clockwork, he would don the white jacket and get up on that stage and welcome the throngs of festival-goers with grace, humor, and style, even into his 80s and right up until COVID forced the festival to move online.
“No longer will we hear his smooth, calming voice keeping the show moving while we eat our takoyaki and teri-burgers, visit great community booths, dip into the mall for a snack, and meet up with old friends.
“Two years have gone by with no festival. In the meantime, Japantown has suffered greatly due to COVID. Over a dozen Japantown businesses have shut their doors for good. Our beloved cherry blossom trees on Sutter Street were vandalized in 2021. And on top of all that, we lose George, a pillar of our community.
“But Japantown has always been a neighborhood of resilience. We survived imprisonment, redevelopment, and we are going to survive COVID together … Once again we will rise to the challenge and adapt.
“Which brings me to the good news: The Cherry Blossom Festival will make its triumphant return to Japantown this weekend (April 9-10 and 16-17)! There will be no parade, and they have reduced it down to only one main stage (which they are renaming the George Yamasaki, Jr. Stage). But they are returning with zeal and tons of spirit. (They will also be doing a virtual component for those who wish to stay at home.)
“And now for even more good news: Along with Robert Handa from NBC Bay Area News, I have been asked to MC part of the festival!
“As a long-time attendee and supporter, I can’t tell you how incredibly honored I am to be asked to help MC this legendary event. 2022 marks its 55th year in operation, and it’s the second-largest Cherry Blossom Festival in the U.S. It’s also the one I’ve been going to since I was a kid. It’s a dream come true. Robert will be MCing some of the days and I will be MCing the others …
“George left some pretty big shoes to fill, and I hope I do him and the community proud. If you’re around, come out to S.F. this weekend and let’s witness yet another rebirth of this amazing neighborhood.”
Journalist, author and long-time community emcee Ben Fong-Torres posted the following tribute: “George Yamasaki, Jr., was a friend to many. He was an immigration attorney. He served 45 years on the S.F. Human Services Commission. He MC’d the Cherry Blossom Festival parade for 50 years. And he was a fine, fun jazz pianist.
“That’s how I knew him, and that’s how we became friends 20 years ago. He played for Larry Ching [of Forbidden City fame], served as arranger for the album I co-produced (with John Barsotti) in 2003, and when Larry died, he drafted me to do his shows for seniors at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church. Along with Kurt Huget on guitar, we performed shows for On Lok, Bread & Roses and the Broadcast Legends for about 15 years.
“George passed away early this month in the home he shared with his late, beloved wife Anne.
“Although he lived 86 years, his friends and associates are crushed. And while, along with son Paul, we plan a celebration of his life, I’m grateful that, after two years of musical inactivity, we had one last gig. It was aboard the U.S.S. Hornet in Alameda in December, for ‘Radio Day on the Bay’ with the Calif. Historical Radio Society and Broadcast Legends. It wasn’t easy for George, who was using a walker, to get on board and get around, but we had fun onstage — and elsewhere. Besides playing, he enjoyed Don Neely’s Royal Jazz Orchestra, lapping up the old songs from a front-row seat. And he posed for a souvenir photo.
“For all his community and professional activities, it was music that he dug the most. Music … and memories of Anne.”