OBITUARY: Chiyomi Ogawa, Central Figure in ‘Six Weddings and a Dress’

FIVE GENERATIONS: Chiyomi Ogawa is pictured with daughter Donna (right); Michelle Nomura (left), Donna’s daughter; Keilani Nomura, Michelle’s daughter; and Laila Hernandez, Keilani’s daughter.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Chiyomi Ogawa, whose life story was told in the exhibit and documentary “Six Weddings and a Dress,” passed away on June 10 at her home, surrounded by her family. She was 97.

Born on March 9, 1924 on Terminal Island to Tomitaro and Fumi Marumoto, she was the eldest of five children. She had two brothers, Kats and Nori, and two sisters, Sae and June (who survives her). Her parents sent her to Wakeyama to attend school. There she lived with her father’s parents. She returned to the U.S. on the last boat before World War II broke out.

She met the love of her life, James Kaz Ogawa, on Terminal Island. He lived in the house behind hers. She and her family were relocated to the Manzanar concentration camp during the war. That is where the two got married on March 26, 1944. They were together for 47 years before James passed away nearly 20 years ago.

They had three children, Bob, Donna and Suzi; six grandchildren, Rick, Carrie, Michelle, Brian, Jason and Alyssa; nine great-grandchildren, Keilani, Kieran, Justin, Brandon, Ryan, Tyler, Valentina, Vitali and Avery; and one great-great-grandchild, Laila.

Chiyomi Ogawa’s Auntie Nui, a professional seamstress, designed and made the wedding dress for the bride’s special day. They sent away for the material to Montgomery Ward; her flowers were silk and the veil was borrowed. After the war ended and Japanese Americans worked to reclaim and rebuild their lives, the wedding dress was eventually worn by five other women on their special days. Harumi and Tad Fujihara (1947), Chiyeko (“Chickie”) and Yukio Hino (1947), Hasie and Yukio (“Inkie”) Ogawa (1948), Nattie and Bob Koyama (1948), and Kay and George Fujikawa (1950), like Chiyomi and James Ogawa, made their homes and raised their families in Pasadena.

The dress, along with a wedding photo taken by legendary photographer Toyo Miyatake (who was also the wedding photographer for the Fujiharas and Hinos), became part of the traveling exhibit, which was presented by Pasadena native Wendy Fujihara Anderson at various venues, including the Pasadena Museum of History, Aquarium of the Pacific and Santa Anita Racetrack, with Ogawa as the guest of honor.

The exhibit and film helped to educate the public about Manzanar and the Japanese American wartime experience.

The 8-minute documentary, created by Steve and Patty Nagano, was shown at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and at Pasadena High School for Fred Korematsu Day. It can be viewed online at:

Steve Nagano’s father, Rev. Paul Nagano, married two of the couples, the Fujiharas and Hasie and Yukio Ogawa, at Nisei Baptist Church (now known as Evergreen) in Los Angeles.

“It has been an honor and privilege to have made this film about Chiyomi’s wedding gown,” Steve Nagano said in remarks for Ogawa’s memorial service. “I feel special to have been able to know her through the making and subsequent showings of the film. I had the fortune to learn of her remarkable person. Besides her life experiences, of which I just know a sliver, to learn of her skills as a potter, seamstress, embroiderer, and cook.

“I was invited to one of her birthday parties at her home and upon arrival, she had a table full of various sushi, that she made for her own birthday. To me that typified her, doing things for others, even for her own birthday. Her resilience through the years, the camps, the resettling back to SoCal, and the putting behind all the difficulties and making the best of the situation, not only speaks of her life, but the lives of her generation.

“We, the Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei, have much to be thankful for. Our parents and grandparents sacrificed and scratched out a living and taught us to do the best we can with what we have, to work hard, and have hope for a better tomorrow. We have been blessed by the generations before us. They have laid the ground from which we have been able to flourish. As this generation passes, let us draw inspiration from them for a better tomorrow.”

Nagano told The Rafu, “In filming her story, we sat in her dining area and in the film, you can see one Japanese embroidered art piece, with fish swimming in turbulent waters, one of those that you might find in a Japanese home, and guess who made that and the one hanging on the opposite side of the room?

“‘Accomplished,’ ‘giving’ and ‘happy’ are words that come to mind when I think of Chiyomi. I loved her laugh, especially when she related the story of how she felt when she met her eventual husband in the backyard of their Terminal Island cottage: ‘I never felt that way’ (perhaps hormones were kicking in) as I asked if it was ‘love at first sight.’ Additionally, their family’s room (in camp) was next to her husband’s, so I seemed like fate that they should be together.

“She was the first bride to wear the wedding gown, and the last to pass away … Like many of her generation, she stands as a person for us to emulate, a person that we can only hope that we could have one-tenth of what she had to survive the hardships of camp, resettlement and health. She would be the first to tell you that her life was wonderful.”

Chiyomi looked stunning in her beautiful wedding dress as she and Kaz Ogawa were married at Manzanar on March 26, 1944.

Family’s Remembrances

Nephew David Hino shared these thoughts: “There are so many things I loved about Auntie Chiyomi; her smile, her perseverance, her patience, her grace and her beautiful pottery.

“I also loved how she embraced her recent celebrity status due to ‘Six Weddings and a Dress’ display and later, film. Many thanks to my cousin Wendy, who helped make this happen, and to Steve Nagano, who made this into a short film.  A couple of years ago, we were together at the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and Auntie was in great form as the celebrity of ‘Six Weddings and a Dress’ with many fans and interviews.

“The most defining moment with Auntie was when I was a young man sitting with her in the kitchen, just the two of us. She had just received some bad news that would have brought most of us to tears or anger. I was worried for her and wanted to say something, but didn’t. She spoke to me that everything was okay. Her words were filled with calmness, grace and humility and it calmed my spirit.

“Her ability to be positive when faced with negatives was amazing. That time was a deep learning moment for me and something I have never forgotten. Thank you, Auntie.”

At the service, daughter Suzi Shimizu provided these memories: “Chiyomi was a woman of many talents. Every hobby that she took up, she excelled at. She sewed, crocheted, knitted, did bunka embroidery, flower arrangement, made ceramics and Christmas ornaments and stockings, and even did upholstery. We lost count on how many wedding dresses she made, but it was somewhere in the double digits. She loved doing ceramics … She was most proud sharing them with her friends and family, but also proud that they were in the background of the show ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’

“More of her hobbies were fishing and gambling. Our parents invested with four other families and built a cabin up near Twin Lakes to support her fishing habits, because, let’s be real, our dad didn’t fish. He set it up so we kids and my mom could.

“Now let’s talk about her gambling — she loved it!!! She played friendly poker games with my friends, Eileen and Curtis Wong, with Rick Tropasso and Ted Martinez. We all got along so well that we also vacationed together, taking cruises to Alaska, Mexico and the Baltics. She also loved going to Las Vegas.  On her last trip there, she hit her first royal flush on the video poker machine.  She was so happy that she finally hit one. 

“She also loved to cook. She was famous for a dish we all labeled as Chiyomi’s Chicken. She even took gourmet cooking classes and I still make her famous Pineapple Cheesecake that she learned from that class. She also loved to make several different sushi. On one of her birthdays, she wanted to make sushi for her entire family. I believe Donna, Michelle and Carrie helped her and we feasted. She also made it for our poker dinner night.

“She loved making her family and friends happy by either feeding them or giving them things that she made, whether it was food, ceramics, Christmas ornaments, stocking or pins.

“Another proud moment in her life was when Steve and Patty Nagano heard about her wedding dress being worn by six different Pasadena brides. They made a documentary about it. It made her famous and she beamed with excitement whenever the video was shown …

“Besides being close to her family and her husband’s family, she was fortunate to have not just one best friend, but two: Yumi Worcester and Rosella Trujillo. Yumi and Chiyomi did many crafts together such as crocheting and knitting. Yumi was our Pasadena across-the-street neighbor and her daughter Pami was like our baby sister. Both families ended up moving away from Pasadena but continued to keep in touch until Yumi’s passing a few years ago.

“Later in life, Chiyomi became friends with Rosella. who lived in the same complex. Rosella took Chiyomi everywhere with her — shopping, movies, vacations and even Hawaiian cruises. They remained close until Rosella’s passing a couple of years ago.   

“After James passed away, Michelle, Darren, Keilani and Kieran moved in with her. Michelle became her chauffeur and companion. Darren cooked all her favorite dishes for her. Carrie lived close by and was also her constant companion and would help Michelle make sure their Grams had good meals to eat. Chiyomi was lucky to always have her family around her. 

“Chiyomi was on dialysis the last seven-ish years of her life. Her dialysis team always talked so highly about her being in her 90s, coming in three days a week, with no complaints. Donna took care of her 24/7 for more than four years. Carrie and Keilani administered Chiyomi’s medication for her and were God-sent blessing.

“Chiyomi said she was so lucky to have such a wonderful life with supporting families to help her. But actually, we were the lucky ones to have a wonderful, kind, patient mother/grandmother in our lives.

“Today, under her blouse, she is wearing her favorite article of clothing – a T-shirt. It has all of her grandchildren/great-grandchildren/and great-great-grandchild on it along with each of their names. She was most proud of them and the fact that there were five generations of Marumoto/Ogawa women.”

The service was held on June 16 at Kubota Mortuary with Rev. Mark Nakagawa officiating.