By GARY KOHATSU
GARDENA — Last Wednesday began as any other Wednesday. The spry Nisei grandmother piled into the family car and the group motored from her Torrance home to the Gardena Buddhist Church for a morning of socializing and activities. But this was no ordinary day.
Yoshiko Miwa recorded a rare milestone when she reached her 109th birthday on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2023.
Miwa tried her best to downplay the occasion.
She smiled politely, acknowledged all the well-wishers in the church’s social hall and accepted leis of red ruffles, and candies and ribbons.
“Yoshi,” as she is affectionately known to loved ones, waved off the media that wanted to snap her photo: “Please, no pictures,” she said kindly.
A family member apologized with a chuckle.
“My mom has always been a private and quiet individual,” said youngest son, Alan Miwa, 71, of Torrance. “She doesn’t like to be the center of attention. This probably has a lot to do with her Japanese heritage.”
With that said, Yoshi Miwa, the matriarch of a family that includes three sons, 10 grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren (with another on the way) and a great-great-grandchild “arriving any day” was not getting off so easily at this celebration.
She sat stoically in front of her Rummikub game tiles as GBC minister Rev. John Iwohara and his predecessor, retired Rev. Nobuo Miyaji, blessed her in a ceremony and with affectionate greetings.
The Gardena Police Department, led by Chief Michael Saffell and Capt. Vince Osorio, showered Miwa with a bundle of department gifts, including a small police Teddy bear and a certificate of recognition.
Field Deputy Ara An, from L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell’s 2nd District office, presented her with a scroll of amazing achievement. The scroll featured artwork of vibrant cherry blossoms and was signed by the county’s five supervisors.
Former Gardena city councilman and GBC member Ron Ikejiri arranged for Miwa’s county recognition.
“[Longtime] Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, 2nd District, and Mrs. Miwa’s family were very close to each other, particularly because Kenny Hahn in the 1950s and ’60s recognized and supported the Gardena Valley Japanese Gardeners Association,” he said.
Ikejiri has known Miwa for more than half a decade, through her association with his mother.
“Mrs. Miwa and my mother enjoyed flower arrangement, ikebana,” he said. “Unfortunately, my mother died when she was 53 years old and when Mrs. Miwa was 106, I chatted with her and told her, ‘You lived twice as long as my mother,’” Ikejiri said. “Mrs. Miwa said, ‘Oh, I really miss your mom. We had such a good time, especially doing flower arrangement together.’”
Ikejiri, who serves on the 2nd Supervisorial District Oversight Board, said he is now reaching out to Miwa’s favorite sports team.
“I am working on getting the L.A. Dodgers to recognize their most oldest fan,” Ikejiri said.
Difficult Start to Life
Born Yoshiko Tanaka on Feb. 28, 1914, in Guadalupe, Calif., she was fifth of seven children. Her father was a farmer who boarded several laborers when in 1918, the Spanish flu broke out. Yoshi’s mother and her uncle nursed many laborers back to health at the cost of their lives.
Her mother died when Yoshi was age 4, which prompted her father to place the family’s five girls in a children’s home, Alan Miwa said.
Yoshi remained in the home until she graduated from Santa Maria Union High School in 1932. She then attended UC Berkeley, where in 1936 she earned a degree in business administration.
Unable to find work in the business field, Yoshi then went to work for a family member’s wholesale produce business. She served as the company bookkeeper.
“Most places weren’t hiring people without experience,” her son Alan said. “During that time she [also] received a few, polite ‘We do not hire Japanese.’”
She met Henry Miwa in the late 1930s and they married in 1939.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, within 48 hours her father was removed from his home without explanation.
“The family didn’t know his whereabouts ’til several months later,” Alan Miwa said of his grandfather. “He had been sent to the Bismarck Detention Center (in North Dakota).”
On May 6, 1942, Yoshi and her siblings were “picked up, given a family number and taken to the Santa Fe Railway Station,” Alan Miwa said. “They were then transported by train to Parker, Ariz. From there they were taken by bus to [an internment camp in] Poston, Ariz. — Block 13, Building 12, Apt D.”
Yoshiko Miwa recalled that there were three camps inside Poston, which was referred to by the incarcerees as “Roastin’, Toastin’ and Dustin,’” due to the heat and dust.
She remembers that “the (camp) apartments were furnished with an Army cot and one blanket… There was no furniture or privacy. It was disheartening,” Alan Miwa said.
“Each camp had their own fire and police departments. Employment was offered to anyone who was willing to work. The monthly pay ranged from $12 for unskilled and $19 for skilled [workers] and professionals,” Yoshi shared with her son.
Toward the latter part of World War II, Henry Miwa served as an interpreter with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.
Yoshi and her family and relatives were released from camp in September 1945. Many settled in Hawthorne, where the weather was favorable and the opportunities abundant, Alan Miwa said.
The post-war attitude toward Nikkei, however, was anything but welcoming.
“No one would hire them and they were too proud to go on welfare, so they, along with my aunt and uncle Kay and Mike Mitsunaga, decided to pool their resources and experiences to start a nursery,” Alan Miwa said. “The Prairie Nursery [was born].”
Mike Matsunaga was an experienced gardener and taught the trade to Yoshi’s husband Henry.
“They used the gardening money to live and to grow the nursery business,” Alan said. “They sold the nursery in 1963.”
At age 45, Yoshi enrolled in the California Vocational Nursing School in Los Angeles. After receiving her vocational nursing license, she got a job at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles.
She left the VA in 1968 and took a position at Memorial Hospital of Gardena, from which she retired in 1984.
Besides her vast work history and education accomplishments, Yoshi has a resume of personal attainments, such as still driving at age 100; speaking three languages (English, Spanish and Japanese); taking daily four-mile walks early in her retirement; and after taking furniture refinishing and reupholstery classes, she refinished a cabinet and reupholstered four vinyl chairs and an overstuffed chair, according to Alan.
“One day in looking over an adult education catalog, she found an interesting class called ‘Write Your Own Life Story,’” Alan said. “Most of the information being shared with (with the newspaper) is extracted from her personal autobiography from that class.”
These days, Yoshi takes life a lot slower. She enjoys meeting with friends and spending time with her family. And she might not say, but her “Life Story” closes with “To be continued.”
Photos by GARY KOHATSU
What an impressive story! Happy Birthday!