It was a sweet yet perhaps a somewhat unexpected surprise to those who gathered to pay their respects to Frank Kitamoto, the longtime leader of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American community who passed away March 15.
A crowd of more than 500 people packed the gymnasium at Woodward Middle School on April 6 for his memorial service. Clarence Moriwaki, looking out over an audience filled with people in festive Hawaiian shirts or the blue-and-gold of the University of Washington — a sight that would surely prompt one of Frank Kitamoto’s legendary smiles — quipped, “It’s kind of like a Husky luau or something.”
Frank Kitamoto was 74 when he died.
Known to many as a devoted family man, or the local dentist with the treasure box for patients, he was familiar to many more as the man who tirelessly worked to preserve and share the history of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Kitamoto and his family were among the 227 Bainbridge Japanese Americans to be taken from Bainbridge Island on March 30, 1942, and sent to internment camps.
Later in life, he shared his memories of life in the camps, and made many, many visits to classrooms across Washington and beyond to talk about the history of Japanese Americans. A message that could have been rightfully been delivered with indignation over the injustices suffered by Japanese Americans was instead given with grace, and education as the inspiration.
But for all of his accomplishments, and there were many, enough to fill a book, the beautiful surprise of his memorial was a turn from what has become traditional at life celebrations, where a microphone is passed among the crowd and random stories are shared. Instead, Debra Grindeland and Aaron Chun read written recollections from his nieces and nephews.
“He would ask me profound questions while I sat in his dental chair. I could not answer with my mouth numb, full of dental implements.”
“I remember he was a good sport, pretending to be a customer at our pretend businesses. He dined at our fake food restaurants, he even came to our pretend spa and let us brush his hair.”
“My visits to Uncle Frank as a patient were entertaining. I looked forward to the library of books and magazines he and Aunt Sharon offered. There were puzzle posters on the ceiling, great music, and a treasure chest full of fun stuff. I got my first mood ring over 40 years ago. And recently, I chose a bandana. Though there are a lot of things to treasure from those visits, I’ll always treasure his smiles, bright eyes and laughter. He was the greatest prize.”