Steven Alan Yamaguma

October 25, 1951March 5, 2023
Obituary of Steven Alan Yamaguma
Steve Yamaguma was born to Joe and Kimi Yamaguma on October 25, 1951. He grew up in an ethnically diverse and tight knit community in San Mateo, along with his siblings Cheryl, Rich, and Lisa. Although Steve always jokingly said that he grew up in the ghetto of San Mateo and that it was a rough neighborhood--most likely to try and enhance his street cred and portray himself as a tough guy--it was not very convincing. First, Steve was definitely not a tough guy. He was a cub scout and later a boy scout. Secondly, the stories that he shared of his escapades with his friends growing up sounded more like Leave it to Beaver, rather than Lord of the Flies. They were rascals at times, but basically they just had good, innocent, fun. Steve attended Turnbull Elementary, College Park Junior High, San Mateo High School, College of San Mateo, and graduated from San Jose State University with a B.S. in Graphic Design. Throughout his schooling, in addition to getting an education, Steve forged friendships that lasted a lifetime because he was all about friendship. He had more friends than pretty much anyone around because unlike most of us who lose touch with friends as we progress through life, Steve kept most of the friends that he made, and added to the list at every level of his education, and later throughout his life. His posse of friends in elementary school stayed close through middle school, high school, and many even went to San Jose State with Steve. Even after graduating, although his friend group naturally got busy with their lives and careers, Steve and his friends made attempts to stay in contact. When they saw each other or talked on the phone, it was just like old times. At San Jose State, Steve met students taking Asian American Studies and made many friends through these classes. It is also where Steve, who like many of his generation was trying to find his identity, discovered what it meant to him to be Japanese American, and he developed a true sense of pride in his heritage. He therefore became active in various cultural activities at that time, and throughout his life, emphasizing his heritage. Foremost amongst these activities was taiko drumming. Although Steve always had a love of music--playing the clarinet and ukulele in grammar school and playing the guitar in several bands with his friends in high school--he developed a true passion for music when he first heard the San Francisco Taiko Dojo led by master Sensei Seiichi Tanaka, its founder, and a pioneer of taiko in North America.. He was blown away by the percussion, the rhythm, and the beats, which were unlike anything he had heard before. His excitement made him really eager to learn more about it. The opportunity to play taiko presented itself when Rev. Hiroshi Abiko, Roy Hirabayashi, and Dean Miyakusu started a YBA taiko group as a youth activity at the San Jose Buddhist Temple in 1973. Using monies obtained by a fundraiser, Roy and Dean went to LA to purchase drums from taiko group Kinnara. Rev. Abiko and Roy then invited members of the community to participate. Steve and his band, comprised of Jose Alarcon, Gary Tsujimoto, Arnold and Tadashi Kameda, Les Miyashiro, and Dave Minamishin responded. They and other members of the community were soon jamming on the taiko drums. Their first public taiko performance was at the San Jose Buddhist Church Obon Festival in 1974. Russel Baba, a member of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo made an audio recording of that performance and played it for Tanaka Sensei who, after hearing it, asked to meet them. When asked if he would teach them taiko, he generously agreed. Steve and about 18 others were extremely fortunate to get the opportunity to train with Tanaka Sensei and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1974. After a short time, however, only 7 of the group, Steve, Ellen Bepp, Gary Tsujimoto, PJ Nakanishi (later Hirabayashi), Joyce Nishio, Dorothy Kawaoka, and Jose Alarcon continued to attend the rigorous, twice weekly sessions in San Francisco for a year, learning not only how to play the drums, but also the history, tradition, and art of taiko. It was Tanaka Sensei’s teachings that gave his students the skills and understanding to perform taiko not only with technical proficiency, but also with strength and spiritual power, also known as ki. Steve and his friends brought what they had learned back to San Jose where they began to incorporate their own unique style and diverse musical influences such as jazz, Latin percussion, and African beats into their music. This gave their taiko playing its signature sound. Inspired to create their own music, Steve, Gary, and Jose also began writing the early songs, many of which are still being performed by San Jose Taiko today. Steve, Ellen Bepp, Gary Tsujimoto, PJ Hirabayashi, Joyce Nishio, Dorothy Kawaoka, and Jose Alarcon, therefore became the original, founding, performing, members of San Jose Taiko Group. Steve performed with the group throughout the country for approximately 5 years, before he left to focus on his own graphic design business. Even though Steve left the taiko group, music was still very much one of his loves and he connected with friends Mike Okagaki, Sam Takimoto, Keith Inouye (Yes Rev. Keith Inouye in a former life), Peter Horikoshi, and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, who had a band called Yokohama California. Steve was one of the producers of their 1977 self-titled album that included songs that spoke about the Asian American experience and identity, and also encouraged community involvement. Steve played bass on a few tracks and Rick Takahashi played the drums on the album. Steve also knew the members of the band Hiroshima and was credited in the liner notes for his help on their album, “Odori.” He also introduced them to his friend Allan Tate, who became their road manager. Steve was naturally gifted in not only music, but in art as well. In school, although Steve played baseball in elementary school and excelled in gymnastics on his high school team, eventually becoming proficient enough to do an iron cross on the rings and earn the title “Outstanding Gymnast” in a county wide competition, Steve was no jock. Instead, when his friends were out playing basketball, Steve preferred to stay indoors and draw or paint. This is how his love of art was born. Steve’s love of art caused him to decide to major in graphic design in college and make it his career. Upon graduating, although he worked for the City of San Jose’s Planning Department for a brief time, he left to start his own graphic design/marketing business called Yamaguma and Associates. Eventually, he changed the name of the business to Design2Market. He focused on advertising, marketing, branding, and web design for a wide variety of clients, from high tech to small business and everything in between. Although Steve’s talent, imagination, and creativity resulted in him winning many awards and accolades throughout his career, what he was prouder of was the fact that many of his clients and collaborators often became good friends. One such client was Music at the Mission, an organization that promotes classical chamber music. Steve developed a deep interest in the organization and formed close ties with its leadership and staff while he used his marketing and graphic design skills to produce two of its fundraisers and promote the organization. Steve not only used his graphic design skills in his business, but also to help the many charitable organizations that he supported. His interest in community involvement and service started when he was in college and continued throughout his life. Steve was always volunteering to provide free design and other services to a multitude of organizations, many of which were related to the Japanese community. For example, he designed the T-shirts for Yu Ai Kai’s annual Japantown Fun Run for many decades. He was an advisory board member of the San Jose JACL, and he formatted quarterly newsletters and designed various brochures and programs for it over the years. He was Co-Chair of the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest that was founded by Duane Kubo. Steve helped the film festival promote and screen compelling AAPI artists and films from around the Bay Area, the US, and Canada. He was co-founder, along with Jerry Hiura and Miki Hirabayashi, of Contemporary Asian Theater Scene, aka CATS, a non-profit organization whose mission is to mentor Asian American artists of all types, including authors, playwrights, filmmakers, acting ensembles, comedians, etc. He volunteered his services to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose in various ways including with its film festival. About one year after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Steve and Music at the Mission put on a fundraiser to raise money for an orphanage in Tohoku, Japan. When he later had the opportunity to visit the orphanage, Steve found it to be a profoundly moving experience. He was also a founding member of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce of Silicon Valley. He also served as a former Board Member of the Silicon Valley Charity Ball Foundation for 9 years. In his final year of involvement, the ball raised 1.7 million for 65 non-profits in one night. Additionally, there were many other smaller organizations to which he donated his time and talents. In terms of family, Steve met his wife, Lynn Reiko Toma when he moved into the office next to hers. She knew that he was interested when they encountered each other as she was coming out of the bathroom in the hall, as he was about to go in. They ended up talking outside the bathroom for about 30-45 minutes, which meant that he was willing to hold his pee for that long to talk to her, a clear indication of romantic interest. Steve, being the decisive person that he was, only took 7 years after that fateful meeting to pop the question. They would have been married for 30 years this October. Their greatest joint achievement and the center of their universe was Grant, their son. Anyone who knows Steve can attest to the fact that he was always talking about Grant and was extremely proud of him. Steve had always hoped to see Grant get married and have children, which Steve sadly did not get to do. However, he did get to see Grant mature into an amazing, caring, young man with a great job that he loves. Steve was elated knowing that Grant is happy, successful, and positioned well for the future. Steve also has a large family comprised of his parents who are both 99, this three siblings, and his numerous nieces and nephews on both sides of the family that he loved to see during the many family get togethers. Although Steve thought that he would be able to continue his beloved pursuits of music, art, and community service, and spend many more years enjoying family and friends, fate had other plans. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the lungs, liver, and bones in June of 2020, shortly after the start of the pandemic. Steve thereafter endured numerous complications that required many extended hospitalizations. Steve fought valiantly for almost three years against the disease through multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation that often left him too weak to respond to emails and texts. Being private about his illness, he chose to tell only immediate family and a handful of friends about the cancer. A few days before Steve passed, he said that he wished that he had told more people and had made an effort to see his dear friends, who meant so much to him. This is why Steve hoped that even though he could not be present, his memorial service would provide his many friends the opportunity to get together, re-connect, and re-new their bonds of friendship. Steve was taken from us too soon, but in his 71 years, he made a huge impact on all that was important to him—family, friends, music, art, and community service. It was a life well lived. A memorial service/celebration of life will be held on April 29, 2023 at 3:00 pm at Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose. Given the number of anticipated attendees and the size limitations of the church, the service will also be live-streamed for those who prefer to attend remotely at:

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Saturday, April 29, 2023

Memorial Service