Umeko Mamiya Kawamoto

Umeko Mamiya Kawamoto: Staying Involved
by Mich Himaka

“As long as I can move, I will stayed involved but I am tapering off little by little.” Slowing down, maybe, but not much.

Staying involved is the lifestyle of Umeko Mamiya Kawamoto, one of our 2003 Kansha Award recipients, despite a stroke she suffered in January 1990.

I guess I’ve known Meko and her family all my life. That would include her parents, Yoshigoro and Tami Mamiya; and her brothers, Yosh and Tats. She was the youngest in the family.

The Mamiyas operated a barber shop and bath house on Island Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Papa usually gave me my haircuts but when I needed a “nice one” – not a bowl haircuts – got to sit in the Mamiya Barber Shop chair, the ones that whirled around and went up and down and leaned backward. Obasan used to let me operate all those devices.

And when she finished cutting my hair, I got to choose the colored hair stuff they used to put on the customer’s hair. Boy! Did that stuff smell nice! Or so I thought. My sisters’ reactions usually was, “Whew!”

Meko was born in San Diego Nov. 16, 1920. She grew up in what we might have considered Nihon-machi. There were a lot of Japanese families living in the downtown area between Fourth and Sixth Avenues and Market to J Street, in what might be considered the heart of the present Gaslamp District.

The area was so friendly, Meko remembered, recalling the downtown area as we knew it. “You walk down the street and we were taught that if we saw Mr. Kuratomi fixing a shoe, we would bow and say, Konnichiwa.

“Everybody was just friendly,” she remembered. “When Japanese farmers came to town, they would go to the Kawasaki’s grocery store. They would leave all of the things they bought at the five-and-dime and leave it there while they went to eat at a nearby Japanese restaurant or to a movie. Everybody was like family.”

World War II changed all that, though.

With the outbreak of the war, all of the community leaders were rounded up by the FBI and incarcerated – except for Meko’s father.

To make a long story short – and someday, we will follow up on this – when the FBI agents came looking for Mr. Yoshigoro Mamiya, the night of Dec. 7, 1941, they asked to see “Yoshi Mamiya.”

Meko’s oldest brother, Yoshio, answered, “That’s me.” And off he went to join the group of Issei fathers who had been rounded up in the federal jail downtown.

“My brother knew they made a mistake,” she recalled. “My father being so old then, Yosh decided he’d just play dumb and that he would go instead of my father.”

Like so many Issei fathers, her father had been involved in numerous community activities, like Nihonjin-kai, kendo club, judo club.

Her father didn’t get picked up until two or three months after the war started.

On April 8, 1942, along with other San Diegans, Meko, her mother and brothers were evacuated to the Santa Anita Assembly Center.

Four months later, the San Diego group was relocated to Poston, Camp III, Arizona. The Mamiya family settled in Block 329.

Meanwhile, her father had been moved from one camp to another like other fathers, eventually moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Meko said that the family decided that to be reunited with their aging father, they had best leave camp and move to an inland location, which might hasten her father’s being release from internment camp.

Yoshi and a friend, the late Paul Hoshi, purchased a small hotel in Denver, Colorado. Eventually, their father joined them in Denver.

On Jan. 27, 1946, Meko married Harry Kawamoto, another San Diegan, who had served in the U. S. Army with Co. E of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Harry was drafted in February 1942, a couple of months after WWII started. He saw action during the campaigns in Italy and France and participated in the rescue of the Lost Battalion.

To my knowledge, the jovial Harry Kawamoto never publicly talked about his war experiences.

But Meko credits Harry for her getting involved with the community.

“Harry was such a good example of being a person who was so community minded,” she said. “I think it just rubbed off on me.

“I think Harry was more deserving of this award then me.”

Harry was active in the San Diego JACL, the San Diego Buddhist Temple, the Japanese American VFW Post 4851, the San Diego Gardeners Association and did volunteer work with other community organizations.

Meko followed in his footsteps and went beyond, which led to her being selected for the Kansha Award this year.

The VFW Post did not have an auxiliary unit but she volunteered in numerous fund-raising activities for the post; she has been active in the Buddhist Temple Adult Buddhist Association; she is always helping out at the annual temple bazaar, food festival, Obon Odori festivities – and even continues to dance in them. She has been volunteering at the Ocean View United Church of Christ’s annual bazaar and numerous other church activities. She has been a volunteer during the early years at the Japanese Christian Church senior nutrition program, a volunteer worker at the San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park since it opened, and she still serves on the board of the JACL Credit Union.

Meko continues to work on the mail crew of the Buddhist Temple’s monthly newsletter, and helps with the folding of the Ocean View Church’s monthly newsletter.

When her sons, Gary and David, were active in the Buddhist Temple’s Junior Young Buddhist Association, she and her husband often chaperoned groups of young people on treks to the Los Angeles and Orange County areas.

“I’m truly surprised that I’m being honored with this award,” Meko said. “Like I said, Harry was much more deserving of this. He set such a good example of being so community minded, it just rubbed off on me. I am happy that Harry’s being so involved has set a good example for us. David and his wife, Carol, are carrying on his good acts.

“As for me, as long as I can move, I will stay involved. However, I am tapering off little by little.”