We met Mae Matsumoto this past June, during a field trip to the Santa Monica Pier for Japanese seniors organized by the Little Tokyo Service Center. She wore a colorful polka dot blouse, a lampshade hat and bright red lipstick that perfectly matched her nail polish. Her attitude belied her age. She was outspoken and confident: She told us what her age was before we even asked, and joked about how she still had some years left of life. Mae died Tuesday. She was 98.
“I’m as old as my church,” she said during the trip to the Pier, referring to Union Church of Los Angeles, where she volunteered for more than two decades. “I must live a little longer still, so we can have a big party for both of us!”
The youngest of 11 kids, Mae was a “Nisei,” a first generation Japanese American. She was born in a dairy farm in Washington state during the Great Depression, and as a teenager, she and her family moved to Hiroshima in the buildup to World War II.
The Matsumotos returned to the States at a time when the government forced thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps. In 1942, she, too, was forced into a camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where her first son was born.
“I’ve lived a long time and seen it all,” she simply told us, without wanting to go into too much detail about her long life.
As she waited for the whole group to gather outside of the Little Tokyo Towers, where she lived, Mae stood on her own two feet but held on tightly to the arm of a younger friend.
She didn’t wear reading glasses, nor did she like using a cane to walk. During the field trip, she led a lot of her younger peers into a pricey seafood restaurant in the Santa Monica Pier because, she earnestly said, “you only live once.”