George Yamasaki Jr., San Francisco’s longest-serving city commissioner and the longtime “voice” of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, passed away in February. He was 86.
“He was the ‘voice’ of the Cherry Blossom Festival for the decades of time he spent as the Grand Parade main stage announcer and the Peace Plaza stage,” recalled Steve Hirabayashi, a longtime organizer of the festival. “He was an incredible master of ceremonies since he had such a deep and wide range of knowledge of the Japanese American community and the cultural arts in San Francisco, and a great appreciation of the Japanese performing arts with its regional differences.”
“He always had that great voice and spoke so eloquently,” said Allen Okamoto, another long-time leader of Sakura Matsui, Inc. the fiscal sponsor of the Cherry Blossom Festival.
“He was the senior diplomat of the festival, being asked to represent the Cherry Blossom Festival at various functions,” added Benh Nakajo, who has been on the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Queen Program Committee and Executive Committee for decades. “(He) will be deeply missed and his loss cannot be calculated now and in the future.”
Nakajo called Yamasaki the “head” and “heart” of the festival.
Yamasaki, who was born in Hawai‘i, had resided in San Francisco since 1959 where he raised two children, said a Feb. 17 resolution by the San Francisco Human Services Agency Department of Benefits and Family Support. He earned both his undergraduate degree in economics and juris doctorate from Stanford University.
“Commissioner Yamasaki devoted his career in private practice of the law, since 1960, specializing in matters relating to immigration and nationality,” the resolution stated.
Yamasaki was appointed by then-Mayor Joe Alioto in 1975 to the San Francisco Social Services Commission, which would later become the Human Services Commission, the resolution stated. He would become the longest-serving commissioner in the city’s history, serving 46 years on the same commission — encompassing 10 mayors and 16 years as president of the body.
During his tenure on the Human Services Commission, he created the Employee of the Month program in the department. A staunch supporter of the foster care system, he established the George Yamasaki Scholarship fund to help foster children attend college, and regularly attended events related to foster care.
According to the resolution, Yamasaki also served as the secretary and general counsel for National-Braemar, Inc., the developer of what was then known as the Japanese Cultural and Trade Center in San Francisco’s Japantown, from 1969-1973.
“(He) was a true Japanese American renaissance man,” said Hirabayashi. “He was an accomplished musician and was an intellectual in Japanese American issues.”
Yamasaki performed on the piano at various community events. “He lived in a world of music, which I believe was his passion,” said Okamoto.
In addition to the Cherry Blossom Festival, Yamasaki was involved with myriad other community-based organizations. He served as the president of the San Francisco chapter of Japanese American Citizens League’s San Francisco chapter from 1971-72, as well as the organization’s national legal counsel from 1974-75.
According to the resolution, Yamasaki was the co-chair of the Cherry Blossom Festival in 1974, 1977 and 1978, and served as a director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, a director emeritus of the Japan Society of Northern California and a member of the Japantown Task Force Peace Plaza Committee.
He was also involved with other nonprofits, including the executive committee of the American Cancer Society California Division, and served as a director or trustee of the California League for the Handicapped, International Institute of San Francisco, CO-RO Foundation, World Affairs Council of Northern California, San Francisco History Museum and the Asian American Bar Association.
“His passing was a tremendous loss for the community and there will not be anyone who can fully replace his contributions,” said Hirabayashi.
“The community will miss him greatly.”
Yamasaki met his would-be wife, Anne Sakamaki, in the seventh grade at Punahou School in Honolulu. He married her on Thanksgiving Day in 1985 after their first marriages ended in dissolution and they reconnected at a mini-reunion earlier that year.
Anne Yamasaki passed away in 2010 after a bout with cancer.
A celebration of life for Georeg Yamasaki Jr. will be held March 26 at 1 p.m. at the Japanese Cultural Center of Northern California at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.