Discover Nikkei

Tribute to Amy Uyemastu: After — Part 5

As we continue to pay homage to the great Amy Uyematsu, we wanted to feature a special collective poem that was just presented last weekend at the Japanese American National Museum at Amy’s Celebration of Life by five friends of Amy - her best friend Lynn Taise and four writers from Amy’s class in Little Tokyo — the Women Word Warriors (Nina Chan, Kathy Masaoka, Keiko Miya, Janice Yen). We provided prompts and questions for the group to consider, including a few favorite lines from Amy’s poems, and collectively crafted this piece for the gathering to honor and celebrate her. We’re honored to share it here.

— traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * *

Women Word Warriors was a poetry class and group started in 2015 in Little Tokyo by Amy Uyematsu. They met regularly even through the pandemic via Zoom, and when Amy was sick, she encouraged the group to meet without her and they heeded her call.


Amy says: A poet is both mother and father 

Nina: Writing with her always felt safe, no matter how unpolished a work might be,
She was so open
you would never be afraid to share it

Nina: She never pushed,
gave guidance in small suggestions
always told you what she liked
was generous with her compliments 

Kathy: She would tell me gently “there is another poem in here - write some more” 

Janice: She was always patient with us even as we, her students, veered astray from the writing assignment. (as we often did!) 

Keiko: She remembered birthdays, sending a special card with
her own design, a hug and a big Kampai

Lynn: Amy’s open heart and unwavering support were two qualities that made you know you were in the company of someone who cared deeply and unconditionally 

Amy says: Poets are mad, I tell you, mad. My teacher tells us to fill the sky with so many poems, there won't be room for bombs 

Lynn: Purple was her color - a hue that reflected her spirit and that she surrounded herself with - from irises and orchids to her socks and her bridesmaid dresses.

Janice: Amy had a keen sense of historical wrongs - She wrote “Slaughter and plunder/slavery and prison camps/ask any Native/or dark-skinned victims —the price of not being white” 

Amy loved discussing
politics, had an insatiable
desire to know what was
going on in Little Tokyo and beyond

She could make you feel gritty,
And motivated,
or content and peaceful 

Amy says: I teach math for a living. I write poems to survive. Both train me to cultivate the empty field

Lynn: Amy found beauty in patterns and numbers - seeing how certain numbers would show up in her life. Like 47 and its reverse 74 - She was born in 1947 and her son in 1974. In the year she turned 74, her son turned 47. 

She loved sudoku and so
do I. I was often tempted to
ask her for some of her
secrets to solving them but
I just never could. 

Lynn: A blackjack player at heart, she found joy in the game where strategy, mathematics and luck intertwined 

I admired her knowledge of math - she used it to make a living and it helped to shape her poetry.

Nina: Each week with Amy was a lovely collection of little vignettes to create from our minds, our senses, our feelings.

Kathy: She would tell us to walk outside
Keiko: Write things by hand
Janice: Write about what you know
Kathy: Observe what is around you

Lynn: Amy and I loved just hanging out and talking about the small things

Nina: A plain bowl of white rice and Japanese pickles
Keiko: TV shows like “a million little things” and “America’s Got Talent”
Kathy: being called “Gum Gum” by grandsons who could not pronounce Grandma

Lynn: celebrating the big events in our lives. Amy had a traveler’s soul that took her on many adventures in Portugal, Brazil and Spain

Nina: Glimpses of romance, dancing, and music

the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, 

Nina: Beautiful images of nature and the ocean

Lynn: China, Tibet and Japan

Janice: Her love of STONES— She said: “And I have long called myself a stone lover somehow knowing my unfinished story is also carried in the wordless stones that fill my path” 

Nina: Amy could say so much with so little

Kathy: We thank you, Amy.

We shared a history - my father
worked for your grandfather in the 1930’s

I will take with me:
your smile
your humility

your flexibility
your tenacity
your courage 

You always made me feel welcome
You told me how you appreciated my perspective.
It always felt special when my words captured an image you liked.
What I loved about you:
You were humble
You were so interesting, so cultured, not just in your own heritage but others too
Amy, you were kind and incredibly thoughtful
You had a hard time with origami - but tried anyway!
Thank you- you taught me to embrace my heritage!

Amy, you told me to write about what we know…
To think about my family history and
my long journey of activism in Little Tokyo

I’ll always think about:
Your quiet sense of humor
Your urging us to journal more - for reflections, observations and new poems…

And the camellias at Descanso Gardens and their Uyematsu legacy

You contributed so much- through writing, mentorship of students, and your willingness to speak truth to power 


Thank you for being the “big sister” I
lost -
sharing advice and trusting each
other with our dilemmas
I will remember -
Your grounded presence and
steadiness, yet how surprisingly
nervous you were around technology!

your deep sensitivity to people’s
feelings, often agonizing over how to
handle a situation.

always responding to a message no
matter how short or inconsequential
the message may have been.

Amy, you and I could talk for hours about our dreams, our plans, weighing life choices. Our friendship was based on honesty, sincerity, and trust . You had the ability to find humor and the silver lining in situations - sharing laughs together. The history we built is a testament not only to our friendship, but to the supportive, thoughtful, and powerful person you are. You are a forever friend.

* * * * *

Amy Uyematsu Celebration of Life at the Japanese American National Museum

© 2023 Nina Chan, Kathy Masaoka, Keiko Miya, Janice Yen, Lynn Taise

Amy Uyematsu Japanese American National Museum Japanese American National Museum (organization) literature poetry poets Women Words Warriors (class)
About this series

Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column is a space for the Nikkei community to share stories through diverse writings on culture, history, and personal experience. The column will feature a wide variety of poetic form and subject matter with themes that include history, roots, identity; history—past into the present; food as ritual, celebration, and legacy; ritual and assumptions of tradition; place, location, and community; and love.

We’ve invited author, performer, and poet traci kato-kiriyama to curate this monthly poetry column, where we will publish one to two poets on the third Thursday of each month—from senior or young writers new to poetry, to published authors from around the country. We hope to uncover a web of voices linked through myriad differences and connected experience.

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About the Authors

Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka was born and raised in multicultural Boyle Heights. The Vietnam War and Asian American Studies at University of California, Berkeley in the late ’60s were important influences on her values. Since the 1970s, she has worked on youth, workers, and housing issues in Little Tokyo, and Japanese American redress. Currently Co-chair of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), she served on the Editorial Team for the book, NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations, helped to educate about the camps through the film/curriculum, Stand Up for Justice, and worked on the NCRR 9/11 Committee to help build relationships with the American Muslim community through programs like Break the Fast and Bridging Communities. 

She represented NCRR to support the rights of Korean and other minorities in Japan and is involved with Nikkei Progressives, Vigilant Love, and the Sustainable Little Tokyo project, and working on issues such as reparations for Comfort Women and Black folks, the rights of immigrants, and Little Tokyo’s future. 

Married to Mark Masaoka, she has a daughter, Mayumi, and a son, Dan, and grandsons, Yuma, Leo, abd Keanu. 

Updated February 2024

Nina Chan is a Chinese-American family doctor who enjoys writing. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her husband, her dog, and her two children. She writes poetry in her spare time with inspiration from her writing group, the Women Word Warriors.

Updated August 2021

Keiko Ikari Miya’s upbringing both in Kesennuma, Japan and in the US (New York City and Southern California) has made her keenly aware of the differences in societies. She was able to enjoy being a classroom teacher at an elementary school in Maywood, CA for 11 years, then at Roosevelt High School, Boyle Heights as a teacher of Japanese for 17 years. The 23 years in NYC and 35 plus years in SoCal have afforded Keiko experiences working with people of many races and ethnicities, and she finds joy in working with people emphatically. Keiko has been enjoying volunteering at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) since 2017, especially helping the offspring of Issei and Nisei families research their ancestors’ roots, mainly in the U.S. The Hirasaki National Resource Center of the Museum offers this opportunity for research.

Updated August 2021

Janice Iwanaga Yen is a retired retailer and long-time community volunteer. She is a founding member of NCRR (National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) and continues to be active in Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, the successor organization to NCRR. Janice is the Recording Secretary of NCRR and is a member of the Education and Archive committees. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband John.

Updated December 2018

Lynn Taisei is a Sansei community member who was born and raised in Los Angeles. She taught with Los Angeles Unified School District for 38 years.

Updated October 2023

traci kato-kiriyama is a performer, actor, writer, author, educator, and art+community organizer who splits the time and space in her body feeling grounded in gratitude, inspired by audacity, and thoroughly insane—oft times all at once. She’s passionately invested in a number of projects that include Pull Project (PULL: Tales of Obsession); Generations Of War; The (title-ever-evolving) Nikkei Network for Gender and Sexual Positivity; Kizuna; Budokan of LA; and is the Director/Co-Founder of Tuesday Night Project and Co-Curator of its flagship “Tuesday Night Cafe.” She’s working on a second book of writing/poetry attuned to survival, slated for publication next year by Writ Large Press.

Updated August 2013

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