Manzanar Committee Loses Long-Time Leader Tak Yamamoto on November 9, 2012
November 16, 2012 1 Comment
Yamamoto, 74, died of natural causes, according to long-time partner and Committee supporter Karl Fish.
Growing up in a large family, Yamamoto was among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from the West Coast as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.
Yamamoto’s family was sent to Poston, Arizona, one of ten American concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. His family spent three years in the Arizona desert, behind the barbed wire.
After the war, Yamamoto left Poston, and returned to Los Angeles. He joined the United States Army after completing high school, and served in Germany. He went on to work as a supervisor in the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office.
Yamamoto served as president of the Asian and Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality, as well as president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Citizens League (SFV JACL).
During his tenure with the SFV JACL, Yamamoto was open about his sexual orientation, refusing to allow it to be an obstacle to his work, and in 1994, he was instrumental in pushing the National JACL to support same-sex marriage.
Yamamoto was also one of the founders and a long-time president of the Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays (now Asian/Pacific Gays and Friends) in Los Angeles, an organization formed to fight discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islanders. It remains the oldest active group of its type in the United States.
Yamamoto is best known for his leadership in the Manzanar Committee, sponsor of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, and more recently, the Manzanar At Dusk program since 1997.
Yamamoto served as treasurer, but did so much more, working hand-in-hand with long-time Committee chair, and co-founder of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
“It was great for me to be part of the group since 1976 or 1977 when I joined,” Yamamoto said during a 2009 interview. “My getting involved was the fact that I met her at the Asian Studies Group at Cal State LA. She came to a class and I was so taken by her. I had to find out who she was. I was taking evening classes at the time.”
“They were meeting on Weller Street [in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo] at the time,” Yamamoto added. “So that’s where I went. I thought, ‘this was kind of a strange place.’ But she was there, and I thought she was dynamic. She had this kind of sit-back appearance, but when she had an idea, she’d go forward with it. I thought, ‘this woman has a lot of power for being a person of such small stature.’ I was really taken by that.”
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey also praised Yamamoto in remarks made in 2009.
“Tak’s great,” he said. “I can remember when the Manzanar Committee was pretty damned small, and there were a handful of people. Tak would take on hours of work in the blazing sun [at the Pilgrimage] with a couple of other people to put on this program year after year because he had that inner strength, tenacity and the understanding.”
“We had a dinner for Tak when he retired,” he added. “Reverend Paul Nakamura—Tak asked him to say a few words. He got up and said Tak Yamamoto is one of those individuals, in times of crisis and hardship, who stands up and takes on the work and tasks that others haven’t, can’t or won’t. [Reverend Paul added] that in the Bible, those were men of valor, and Tak is a man of valor.”
“I think that was really a beautiful summation. Tak and others like him took up the call to take on recognizing what happened, breaking the silence and doing what they needed to do to make sure [the Pilgrimage] happened every year so that people could come—those who were able, those who were willing to learn and to heal, and to build these alliances and bonds.”
Bruce Embrey added that his mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and Yamamoto played a key role in the Redress and Reparations struggle by keeping the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage alive.
“Without the annual Pilgrimage, and without Tak and my mother organizing it every year, regardless of who came and regardless of the political climate, the community would not have undergone the transformation it needed to go through to confront its past and demand that it be redressed,” he stressed.
“Tak was a fighter, firm in his convictions and eminently patient,” Embrey added, after learning of Yamamoto’s death. “He was one of the first who took on the struggle for redress and civil rights for the LGBT community, and that’s why, to those who knew him, Tak is a hero.”
A private memorial has been scheduled. A public memorial service is tentatively scheduled for mid-January 2013. Further details will be announced as they become available.
The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site.
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