San Francisco poet and activist dies

Peter Kenichi Yamamoto. photo by Leon Sun

Peter Kenichi Yamamoto — a poet, community activist, volunteer and one of the last surviving tenants of the famed I-Hotel — passed away in San Francisco during the early hours of May 27, 2018. Yamamoto, who had just posted his final Facebook post beaming about having just met activist Angela Davis — a longtime hero of his — following a concert at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, reportedly called 911 from his one-room hotel in Chinatown, but paramedics were unable to resuscitate him once they arrived. He was 63.

A friend to many, Yamamoto is survived by his parents, Judith and Lawrence Yamamoto, younger sisters Naomi Yamamoto and Ruth Yamamoto, and niece Momoye Yamamoto.

“He knew everybody who worked in the restaurants and the cooks. He talked to his cab drivers. He talked to hospital personnel. He talked to bus drivers. He had conversations with them,” his mother told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

According to his mother, Yamamoto began studying Marxism as a high school student at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif. He was student vice president and led a student march protesting the Vietnam War. Soon after graduating, he moved into the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, protesting the eviction of mostly elderly Filipino men living in the hotel. Yamamoto was among the residents forcefully evicted during a police raid of the building Aug. 4, 1977.

He was hoping to move into the newly rebuilt I-Hotel.

“Manilatown honors Pete and his spirit and his love and fire with the highest respect,” Tony Robles, president of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation board and fellow poet, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “In the I-Hotel Center is a permanent installation — a replica of one of the original rooms of the I-Hotel. It is dedicated to Pete … He joins Al Robles and Bill Sorro and the manongs in informing Manilatown and our direction of love and respect in the community.”

Within San Francisco’s Japantown, Yamamoto was a longtime volunteer at the National Japanese American Historical Society. Rosalyn Tonai, its executive director, said he had volunteered with them for 27 years. Over the years he had become a regular in the neighborhood, hanging out at the counter in Benkyodo or at Forest Books where he discussed politics, Buddhism and social justice.

Tonai had taken Yamamoto to his final concert the evening before he passed. He had been celebrating his niece’s birthday in Japantown before heading to the concert.

“He couldn’t be happier, so it was such a surprise to hear from his mom the next evening that he had passed away,” Tonai said. “His gift to us was really his ability to talk to just about anybody who walked in our doors regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, disposition. Any single person, and then get to know them.”

The historical society erected a memorial wall for Yamamoto following his death at their 1684 Post St. location in San Francisco’s Japantown. His non-religious family does not plan to hold a memorial service. Streams of friends, fellow activists from the I-Hotel, the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, the Ehren Watada defense committee, Japantown Art & Media Workshop, LaborFest and even his former high school classmates have come by, Tonai said.

Yamamoto also enjoyed writing poetry. He published his first book of poems, “Journey,” in 2012. He was in the process of finishing his second book. Tonai said she hopes to work with his mother to finish the manuscript to publish the book.

“He was always living in things he wanted to do,” his mother said. “Everything for him was forward moving. He just got up in the morning and charged into life.”

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