A Tale of Two Visionaries—Harry and Harold
By ELLEN ENDO
ARLETA—Hidden in a quiet residential section of the northeastern San Fernando Valley, Nikkei Senior Gardens stands in silent tribute to two determined Japanese Americans: Harry Nakada and Harold Muraoka.
Unrelated by blood but united in their dream of an assisted living facility for Japanese American seniors in the valley, the two men tenaciously advanced their vision.
On March 15, at the age of 87, Harold Muraoka passed away following a lengthy illness. Just three and a half months later, on July 4, Harry passed away. He was 93. As family and friends began planning how to properly say goodbye, the story of Harry and Harold’s uncommon friendship emerged.
At the outbreak of World War II, when 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were unjustly removed from the West Coast and imprisoned in remote camps, the Nakada and Muraoka families were sent to Manzanar.
“Harry was a humble man who spent a lifetime serving the (Community Center),” Bud Sagara wrote recently in the Nikkei Senior Gardens newsletter. “In accomplishing this complex project, Harry did not have professional experience in finance, fundraising, real estate loans, zoning, or construction. What he had was the will to put the needs of others ahead of him.”
Muraoka, a retired City of Los Angeles employee and Associate State Coordinator for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), served three terms as Community Center president. Under his leadership, the Center was able to secure a grant to hire a manager, create a hot meals program, and launch a summer youth employment program (SPEDY).
Together, Nakada and Muraoka began the daunting task of fundraising.
“Establishing the Nikkei Senior Gardens wasn’t easy,” recalls Stan Date, current chairman of the NSG board of directors. Strong opposition was voiced when Nakada proposed that the Issei-built San Fernando Valley Japanese Community Center be used as collateral to help finance the senior facility.
People were suddenly questioning Nakada’s judgment and his motives. “That hurt him,” Date remembers. “He became very discouraged. But Harry refused to give up.”
Fortunately, Nakada didn’t have to fight the battle alone. Both he and Muraoka were Korean War veterans were accustomed to conflict. Nakada was a member of the Military Intelligence Service, and Muraoka was in the U.S. Air Force and Strategic Air Command. They became fast friends while helping to form Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4140.
Their friendship evolved into an unbreakable bond. Together, they defied their detractors, negotiated the deals to acquire the land, and began construction. Eventually, the loan secured by the Center was paid in full.
In addition, Muraoka assumed the chairmanship in the construction of the San Fernando Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Nakada was baptized as a Catholic but found his spiritual path at the Crossway Church of the San Fernando Valley.
After serving in Korea with the Military Intelligence Service, Nakada returned to Southern California and married his sweetheart, Helen Iwanaka. Harry and Helen were married for 61 years. They had five children, Gary, Patti, Lois, Will, and Doug. The family moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1956, and by 1960 Harry was able to open his own business, Nakada Nursery.
Muraoka and his wife, retired educator Shigeko “May” Mukai, raised three children, Russell, Cheryl, and Douglas. Harold and Shigeko started going steady as teenagers and stayed together a total of 69 years.
After Muraoka suffered a stroke in 2008, Nakada carried on with their mission to build the Nikkei Senior Gardens.
In 2010, Seniority Inc. began managing the 3.5-acre campus in partnership with Nikkei Senior Gardens, and Michael Motoyasu, a past president of the Community Center and former NSG board member, stepped in as Executive Director.
By 2011, Nikkei Senior Gardens had reached 100 percent capacity. Today, the facility accommodates about 100 residents and has a two to three-year waiting list. Average age of the residents is 91.
“When you have someone in the (leadership) position who understands the Japanese culture, it makes a difference,” Motoyasu observed.
As for the future, Motoyasu foresees a need for greater memory care. Also, as seniors age, they often revert to speaking their parents’ language, so we have nurses who speak Japanese.
A medication counter funded by a grant from Keiro was recently added to help assist residents, who also receive wellness monitoring and assistance with everyday activities such as bathing and dressing and other needs.
In the meantime, Motoyasu and the Nikkei Senior Gardens board of directors continue to draw their inspiration from the two men who dedicated themselves to serving others: Harry and Harold.
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HAROLD FUMIO MURAOKA:
Harold Muraoka was born on March 14, 1931 to Hattie and Eddie Muraoka, the oldest of eight children. Only two brothers have survived him, Victor and Mikio Muraoka. He married Shigeko Mukai on April 7, 1957.
Harold served in the United States Air Force from 1952 to 1956 and was a staff sergeant in what was then the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. He and Shigeko raised three children, Russell, Cheryl (Richard) Ito and Douglas (Cori) Muraoka. They have four grandchildren, Ryan and Nicholas Ito and Courtney and Kelsie Muraoka. Shigeko’s mother, Mrs. Setsuko Mukai, passed away last summer. She was 105 years old.
Harold was involved as president of the San Fernando Valley Japanese Community Center three times. Among his accomplishments, he applied and received a grant from the City of Los Angeles under the Community Center program, providing a management position for the Community Center. This grant also led the creation of the Hot Meal Program and the Summer Youth Employment Program (SPEDY) which involved our high school children under the employment of the City of L.A.
He was active in the VFW where lifetime friendships were made. He oversaw a VFW program to send 1000 Christmas cheer packages to servicemen in Vietnam. He assumed the chairmanship in the construction of the San Fernando Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, and with his good friend Harry Nakada also assumed a leadership role for Nikkei Senior Gardens and Nikkei Village.
Harold decided to create a facility for seniors when the Issei and Nisei were aging and had to go into assisted living. He visited one of the assisted living facilities and began to cry. “I couldn’t eat the food here,” he said to himself.
He was involved for over 10 years with AARP, serving as Associate State Coordinator, overseeing the safe driver program for seniors in the San Fernando Valley. He was also a three-year trustee for the North Valley Regional Center for handicapped children.
When he suffered a stroke, people from Catholic Church, Buddhist Temple, Mormon Church, all Christian Church all prayed for his recovery. Perhaps this is why he was able to survive for more than 10 years when his prognosis was that he would live for only two days.
To the very end, Harold always said he wanted to thank the many people who supported him and Harry. He will be missed.
His granddaughter offered the following eulogy:
My Papa (grandpa) was born in Redondo Beach, California. At an early age, he found himself in the role of a father figure as he took care of his younger siblings. Uncle Victor commented that Papa often had to cook dinner for him, but he did not like Papa's cooking because Papa always used tomatoes.
At the start of World War II, Papa's life was interrupted briefly when he was placed in the Manzanar Relocation Center as a teenager. Most people look at the camp experience negatively, but Papa had some fun memories of camp and was one of the youngest members in the Manzanar Fishing Club. My dad often listened to stories Papa would tell of when he and other fishermen would climb over the fence and sneak away to go fishing at creeks near the mountain at Manzanar. Papa always had interesting stories about camp.
Papa attended San Fernando High School. It was during that time that he met the future love of his life, my mama (grandma) Shigeko. Mama and her friends wanted to attend a Sadie Hawkins dance, but they needed a ride. So, Mama was forced to drive because he was the only one who had a car. Poor Papa. Obviously, things worked out because they spent the next 70 years together.
When Papa finished his service with the United States Air Force, he took a job with Trans American Airlines as a communication tech. Two years later, after Russell was born, Papa began work with the City of Los Angeles where he would stay for the next 29 years. Papa would playfully refer to Auntie Chery as his second tax deduction. This proved untrue as he received a third tax deduction when they brought Doug into the world five years later. Papa always playfully and sometimes not so playfully referred to my dad as the accident.
Papa had many passions in life. Among them were fishing, bowling and going out to eat. But one of his long-lasting passions was community service. From this time, until his death, Papa spent numerous hours both supporting, organizing and leading various community service projects around the San Fernando Valley. He was an active member of the San Fernando Japanese American Community Center, VFW and Judo Club.
Papa retired from the City of Los Angeles in 1990. He was busier in retirement than he was an employee. He began a project which became his crowning achievement. Along with the help of his good friend, Harry Nakada, he brought the dream of a senior assisted living home in the San Fernando Valley to reality. Papa worked a bunch of hours on this project by meeting contractors, approving plans, securing loans and deflecting criticisms about the project.
Unfortunately, Papa was unable to see the end of the project as he suffered a major stroke on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Papa remained home, living quietly under the care of Mama until he passed quietly on the night of March 15, 2018. He died a day after his birthday, but Mama and Auntie Cheryl were happy that he passed with a belly full of his favorite food and his two favorite ladies by his side.
Reflections by Doug Muraoka, Harold’s son:
Take a stroll in the Pacoima/Arleta area of the San Fernando Valley and you'll see a number of buildings intended to benefit the Japanese American community. The centerpiece is the Japanese American Community Center on Branford and Laurel Canyon. Built by the Issei shortly after World War II, the community center served as a meeting place and network center for Japanese Americans rebuilding their lives after the war. Adjacent to the original Community Center is Pioneer Hall. Once a vacant building at the Burbank airport, now serves as multi-functional facility on that property. Also sharing that property is the San Fernando Hongwanji Buddhist Temple as well as a public charter school. Journey a short way up Laurel Canyon and you will see Nikkei Village, a retirement home, and directly west of that on Arleta Street is Nikkei Senior Gardens, a state of the art assisted living facility.
What do all these places have in common? Each of these remarkable facilities saw direct involvement from either Harold Muraoka, Harry Nakada, or both. You would have a difficult time to find any Japanese American community organization or facility that did not have the influence of one of these remarkable community pioneers.
To be sure, Nikkei Senior Gardens is Harold and Harry’s crowning achievement. It is in this building that their legacy within the community will live forever. Starting as a dying wish a long time Community Center Member, Tad Namba, had lamented to Harold that there was nowhere for Japanese Americans in the Valley to peacefully live out the remainder of their lives. Facilities at that time were not equipped to accommodate JA customs. It was at this moment back in 1984, that the dying wish of his mentor became a lifelong dream for Harold Muraoka. Thus, the project began with Harold and Harry as co-chairs. Building NSG came with a price, both monetarily and personally. Supporters of the project were asked to make gigantic leaps of faith by funding tens of thousands of dollars to get the project going with only a tacit promise of a future payback. Mits Usui, a Community Center board member, became such a staunch supporter of the project that he donated a property in Palm Springs as collateral.
Additionally, the project was laden with personal costs. The project pitted community members against each other. A vocal minority insisted that such a project could never be successful. Accusations and innuendo stalled the project’s progress. Slanderous comments were made, questioning the actual motivations of Harold and Harry in their quest to build an assisted living home. Legal tactics and restraining orders became necessary in order to keep the project moving.
Despite all of these obstacles, Harold and Harry pressed on in gaining support for this remarkable endeavor. However, the stress combined with efforts to silence the opposition may have been contributing factors that caused Harold to suffer a major hemorrhagic stroke on January 1, 2008.
Harry continued on, keeping a close eye on the project and keeping Harold apprised of developments during his weekly visits to Harold's home.
Many people questioned why Harold and Harry continued to pursue this project despite the obstacles before them. If anyone had the opportunity to talk to Harold and Harry about their motivation, it would be found that the answer lies within each man's underlying faith of the community to come together when needed.
Through it all Harold and Harry had an unwavering faith that the Japanese American community would see the project to its end and make NSG as successful as they had imagined. Without a doubt this vision came true as NSG is not only a successful and economically viable institution, but it serves to benefit all members of the Japanese American community.
Harold and Harry insisted that the JA community would come through for them, and they did.
HARRY MASANAO NAKADA:
For those of you who don’t know me, I am Aaron, and Harry Masanao Nakada was my grandpa.
My grandpa lived a life that was full of faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ. He was born on August 16, 1924 in Boyle Heights and grew up in West Los Angeles. He was the oldest of six siblings: William, Tom, Dave, Bob, Lily.
In 1942, my grandpa, along with his parents and siblings, were ordered by the United States government to leave their home and were detained in a remote, military-style camp called Manzanar along with other Japanese American citizens. He made the best of a bad situation and became a productive member of the camp by taking the job of filling oil heaters in the barracks. To help pass the time, he began to play baseball and developed his love for the game.
Now, let me back track to my statement that my grandpa became a productive member of the camp. He confessed that he was a member of a group called the Vandals. Now I’m thinking is this really the name of a group or did he really mean a gang. I mean Vandals would be a pretty tough gang name. After a little interrogation, he admitted they stole some things. Now I’m thinking here comes the juicy stuff. He said they were called the Vandals because they stole the hearts of young ladies. lol
On November 21, 1945, Manzanar was shut down and my grandpa returned to West L.A. and resumed his education at Santa Monica College and Cal Poly Pomona. He then served in Korea with the Military Intelligence Service as an interpreter. After returning home from Korea, my grandpa’s time as a Vandal finally paid off. While at a friend’s house, a certain young lady, my grandma Helen, caught his eye and the rest is history.
In 1949, my grandpa and grandma got married and their family grew with the addition of their five children. Gary, Patti, my mom Lois, Uncle Will, and Uncle Doug.
In 1956, my grandparents made the life changing decision to move their family to the San Fernando Valley. Here, my grandpa worked as a landscape gardener to support his family.
In 1960, fulfilling a life-long dream of his mother’s, my grandpa and his brothers opened Nakada Nursery. Nakada Nursery was a family affair and it was a hot spot for the grandchildren to come by and play. Did I say play, I meant work. I don’t remember playing at the nursery, but I do remember it was hot while working during the summer. After 37 years of business Nakada Nursery closed its doors in 1997.
My grandpa loved my grandma with all his heart and more. His love was never more evident than when my grandma was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He made sure that he would be by her side always and he was for the entirety of their 61 years of marriage when my grandma made her way up to heaven to be with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
My grandpa had a passion for life that was evident in everything he did. It was this passion that led to his good friend, Harold Muraoka, sharing his vision of building a senior assisted living community for the Japanese community. This vision of theirs had many obstacles and after 10 hard fought years of keeping their vision alive, with the help of many individuals, Nikkei Senior Gardens was built and opened its doors in March 2009.
My grandpa was very active in the community serving as a board member for many organizations. His activeness in the community spilled over to his involvement with the San Fernando Valley Business Advisory Commission and serving as a representative for the small business bureau committee which would meet monthly in Sacramento.
In 2008, my grandpa was recognized and awarded the Community Center Lifetime Achievement Award, an award given to members for their lifelong involvement and dedication to the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center. But awards and recognition are not what made my grandpa a great man, my grandpa was a great man because when you talked with him, you were the one that ended up feeling great.
And on July 4, this great man passed peacefully to be with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his beloved Helen.