Yo Hironaka. photo by Kahn Yamada
Yo Hironaka. photo by Kahn Yamada

Yo Hironaka, who served in numerous leadership roles in the San Francisco Japanese American community — including as a co-chair of the 100th anniversary of San Francisco’s Japantown in 2006 — passed away on Aug. 30, 2012 in San Francisco.

Incarcerated at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp during World War II, Hironaka in recent years received an honorary degree from City College of San Francisco as part of the California Nisei College Diploma Project — which provided honorary degrees to those whose education was interrupted by their forced relocation during the war.

“Yo as we all know was a community icon,” said Japantown community leader Allen Okamoto, who served with Hironaka on the boards of both the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC).

“I feel as though I knew Yo all my life but it probably goes back about 40 years,” said Okamoto, whose family bestowed the Kay Okamoto Volunteer Award — named after his late mother — upon Hironaka last year. “I feel sad as more and more Nisei are passing on but with Yo I felt it even more as we were so close.

“Yo had a wonderful bright personality and had a willingness to give and contribute,” added Okamoto. “I will miss her but the community will miss her even more.”

Perhaps an indicator of a passing era, Hironaka was the last remaining Nisei on the boards of both the San Francisco JACL and the JCCCNC.

“Yo was a true lady in every sense of the word — always impeccably dressed, she had class and style, but also a genuine warmth and caring about her,” recalled current JCCCNC President Dianne Fukami, who first met her in the 1990s when she joined the board. “Her contributions to JCCCNC are immeasurable. Not only did she and her late husband Taxy donate generously to the Center over the years, Yo would volunteer to help out at every event and was nearly always our top seller during our sweepstakes and raffle ticket drives. Her loyalty and dedication extended to CUPC (Christ United Presbyterian Church) and her JACL activities. We all knew we could count on her.”

According to Fukami, Hironaka was not afraid to evolve with the times.

“In her own way she was an adventurer, learning how to drive after Taxy passed, and learning the intricacies of getting online and having her own e-mail account,” she recalled. “There will always be only one Yo. Our lives were all richer for having known her.”

Current San Francisco JACL Co-President Judy Hamaguchi remembered Hironaka for her “love of community service,” her “always generous soul” and her “perky heart, mind and spirit.”

Hironaka organized the San Francisco JACL’s annual October health fair, “Kenko-No-Hi,” and played a lead role at their annual Crab and Spaghetti Feed held in December.

“(She had a) clear focus on our vision, (and) the respect she earned throughout her years with JACL which gave us credibility and support,” Hamaguchi said. “If people look at her track record, they will see that this is a woman who gave more than her time or money. She set an example of altruism at its best.”

In a statement the JCCCNC released prior to her receiving an award during the organization’s annual event last year — which recognized Hironaka for her “quiet determination and low-key leadership” — Hironaka herself reflected upon her community service.

“It has been important for me to stay involved over the years so I can help educate and shape future generations into community leaders,” Hironaka said.

Upon the news of her passing, JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki, now on medical leave, made a Facebook post in tribute to Hironaka: “You will be missed by an entire community who can’t imagine not seeing you again at a community meeting, an event, a fundraiser, a gathering, caring for others,” Osaki’s message read, in part. “You were an incredible lady that so many were fortunate enough to get to know and love.”

Hironaka was predeceased by her husband David “Taxy” Hironaka, daughter Marcia Hironaka, parents Konosuke and Rui Kiwata, and brother Kenichi Kiwata.

A public memorial service is being planned for a future date.

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