Tatsuo Nakata, Seattle councilman's chief of staff, dies at age 29

For years, Tatsuo Nakata had been searching for home. It wasn't Cincinnati, where he grew up half-white, half-Asian and where people shouted racial slurs at his family.

And it wasn't Hawaii, where he was born.

He found it here in Seattle, where the Asian-American community embraced him and groomed him to become a political leader. To honor his Japanese-American roots and newfound identity, he took the name Tatsuo, dropping his given name Matthew, when he took his first job in the Legislature.

On Tuesday (Nov. 14), 29-year-old Tatsuo Nakata died after he was hit by a car in West Seattle. He was on his way to his job at City Hall, where he served as chief of staff for Councilman David Della.

Leaders called him a rising star in the community.

"As a young man he accomplished more than his years on earth," Della said. "We have to carry on his legacy of fighting for social justice and a city that will bring people together."

Mr. Nakata was born in Hawaii to a Japanese-American father — a Pepsi service technician — and a Caucasian mother who scraped together jobs at convenience stores and restaurants.

When he was 5, his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Cincinnati. The city's deeply scored racial divide and his family's working-class struggle fueled his sense of social justice.

His sophomore year in college, Mr. Nakata transferred to Seattle University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science. Despite his lack of political experience, Rep. Velma Veloria hired him as a legislative aide. She said he calmed her excitable nature.

"He was specifically trained" to run for office some day, Veloria said. "When I hired him, I wasn't hiring a legislative assistant, I was hiring the future of the Asian-American community and the future of the country."

Mr. Nakata later worked as a public-information officer for the state House Democratic Caucus and in the nonprofit world on Nikkei Concern's endowment fund. He was the youngest president of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. His friends called the elderly members of the JACL board "Tatsuo's Fan Club."

In 2004, he joined Della's office as chief of staff and the councilman leaned heavily on his advice on issues relating to city parks, education and Seattle Center. He aspired to run for public office, locally or at the state level.

"He was always very socially aware," said his brother, Christian Nakata. In grade school he was class president, his brother said.

Friends said Mr. Nakata's humor and gentle charisma helped him relate to old and young alike. He could regularly be found singing karaoke with civil-rights-era activists at Bush Garden in the Chinatown-International District.

His signature songs will remain "Knockin' Da Boots" by H-Town, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder and, with friends, "End of the Road" by Boys II Men.

Mr. Nakata is survived by his father, Gene Yoshi Nakata, in Honolulu; his mother, Nannette "Sue" Nakata, in Cincinnati; brothers Christian Nakata in Dallas and Joshua Nakata in Honolulu; and a sister, Bernadette Warner, niece Kayla Warner, and nephews Jackson and Vincent Warner in Corbin, Ky.

A community memorial service will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Seattle Center Pavilion, Room A, at Seattle Center. Donations can be made to the Tatsuo Nakata Memorial Fund, account no. 313-108130-3, at any branch of Washington Mutual Bank.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com