Reflections of Lily Okamoto

Lily Okamoto February 20, 2008

Presented by Kathy Masaoka at the service for Lily Okamoto at Senshin Buddhist Temple

For the Sansei women in the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress or NCRR, Lily has been and still is a role model for us. Since the late 80’s she came to the monthly meetings faithfully.  Only a year or two ago did she stop coming after saying that she could not hear very well and did not feel she was able to contribute.  But we were always very glad to see Lily come and were happily surprised when she came to a meeting a few months ago using her walker.  We admired her positive outlook and her frankness even when her truthfulness was not always complimentary.  I remember some feedback she gave me after a Day of Remembrance program.  I was wearing a rather loose fitting and flowing top and Lily whispered to me that I should not wear it again since it was not flattering. Kay Ochi remembers Lily giving her some feedback on her speech noting that her voice had wavered and that she needed to overcome her nervousness with a little more practice.  Very helpful comments.  And I for one never wore that flowing top again!

Lily was also a fighter and willing to speak out for redress at press conferences and at the Day of Protest in front of 1,000 people in the JACCC Plaza.  Even though the Civil Liberties Act had been signed no money had been appropriated by Congress.  She was poised and clear as she talked about the over 2000 people who had died since the passage of the bill a year earlier.  Lily was willing to speak in public, something not many Nisei or Sansei men and women were willing to do.  She was a great spokesperson and looked at these occasions as a way to improve her speaking since she was a member of the Toastmistresses.  She was even interviewed on the Eastwind Program on KPFK.  NCRR honored Lily with the Fighting Spirit Award in 1992 along with her good friend Bernadette Nishimura and spokesperson Bert Nakano.

Lily had a schedule that many of us could not keep up with even after she gave up tennis when she was in her 80’s.  According to Evelyn, she could still beat her son and daughter. Instead of tennis she took up swimming at the Y twice a week.  While active in NCRR Lily was also the President of the Residents’ Council for three years at the Little Tokyo Towers from 1990 to 1992.  During that time, there were several issues that concerned the residents and Lily took their concerns to heart.  She was not one to keep quiet. Lily’s love of music found an outlet in the chorus that she led at the Towers. Bill Watanabe recalls Lily’s generosity. Knowing that she was on a fixed income, he especially appreciated the donations that Lily always made to the Little Tokyo Service Center whenever asked. She also helped to start the Little Tokyo Residents Association comprised of five housing facilities in LT.   Whenever LTSC, NCRR or J Town Voice gave a Little Tokyo Tour, a stop at Tokyo Towers was the highlight since the young people could meet people like Lily who would tell them about Little Tokyo and how great it was to live there.  She was also looking forward to her good friend, Elso Kanagawa, coming to live at Teramachi so that they could do things together.

Lily enjoyed a good time.  My sister Judy who loved to cook and had become close to Lily started a tradition of making dinner and seeing a play with Lily and her two buddies, Bernadette and Shirley Citroen at the East West Players then located in Silver Lake. During Judy’s illness, Lily gave her books on Buddhism since she knew that Judy might find some peace and comfort in the readings.  After Judy passed away, Lily continued to remember her daughter with birthday gifts each year. It was not unusual to receive a little note or card from Lily. 

NCRR was very lucky to have so many strong Nisei women and men and we enjoyed celebrating events and holidays with them. Lily was one of the Nisei honored at one of the many parties at the home of Yvonne and Alan Nishio.  We celebrated her birthdays on December 7 (although we later learned that her birthday was not really on December 7) and her 90th at the Empress Pavilion. Along with other ladies over 80, Lily enjoyed a special high tea at the Ritz Carlton Huntington, celebrating their long lives.  When Alan Nishio received the George Kiriyama Educator’s Award last summer, Lily was there to congratulate him and share in the celebration.  Lily had a twinkle in her eye and smile that lit up her face.

In the words of Suzy Katsuda, Lily was spunky, feisty and ready for anything.  At 94 years of age – what more could you ask for? 

Jan Yen has put together some photos of Lily’s time with NCRR.