NEW YORK » The last time that Keiko Nakamura saw her daughter, Mayumi, was last March after she had returned from studying art in Hawaii and was leaving their home in Japan to move to New York City to continue her studies.
But in a stream of phone calls and emails over the past year, Nakamura learned about her daughter’s new life in a foreign land that she did not want to leave. Mayumi shared photo after photo: piles of snow in a frigid winter; glittering lights against a night sky; corners of the city that caught her attention.
The photos stopped after Mayumi Nakamura, 34, was killed by the gas explosion in East Harlem last week that leveled two adjacent tenement buildings, including 1646 Park Ave., where she lived with roommates who were also Japanese. Mayumi Nakamura was one of five women and three men who died in the blast, some, like her, far from their homelands in Greece, Mexico and Japan.
"She was very happy in New York," Keiko Nakamura said softly in Japanese, her words translated by an interpreter sitting beside her at the Japanese American Association of New York in midtown Manhattan. "She said, ‘It’s very beautiful here and I like it.’"
Nakamura came to New York City to carry her daughter’s ashes back to Japan. Mayumi was the younger of two children of Nakamura, 63, a retired office worker. She was accompanied by her son, Taro, 39, a mechanic.
The Nakamuras declined to share any photographs of Mayumi and disclosed few personal details about her life, including where she had attended art school or the names of her friends. They spoke through translators and declined to be photographed themselves.
Nakamura said that Mayumi had started drawing with pencils, pens and crayons when she was just 3 years old, displaying an artistic side that flourished as she grew older. Her brother did not draw at all. Her mother, only a little. But they both encouraged Mayumi’s art.
She was an animal lover — she had a pet parrot when she was young — and they were often her subjects: rabbits, dogs, cats, elephants. Many of the animals, though, simply sprang from her imagination.
Mayumi Nakamura often asked her family what they wanted her to draw. One time when she was 5 or 6 years old, her mother said, "Draw me." She did. "The picture looked just like me," Keiko Nakamura said. "I looked really cute."
Mayumi Nakamura grew up in the prefecture of Yamaguchi, attended schools there and later worked as an assistant in a beauty salon. Her family said she had been a good student and had lots of friends. "Always she smiled," said Taro, who often stayed home and watched television shows with his younger sister.
But even as a teenager, she had been fascinated with American culture and wanted to experience it firsthand, her mother said. Her brother said she had liked American pop music. "She loved America, so she wanted to go," her mother said.
In 2001, Mayumi Nakamura moved to Los Angeles to study English. She stayed for 10 years. She left to study art in Hawaii for another year before moving back to Japan, her family said.
But last March, she decided to return to the United States, this time to New York. She attended art classes and painted. Her family sent money to support her. Her mother said Mayumi Nakamura had taken care of herself and eaten healthy, organic foods. She said she did not know how her daughter had come to live in the East Harlem apartment building.
Keiko Nakamura said she did not know how long she and her son would stay in New York. There are no plans for a memorial service for her daughter here.
Taro Nakamura said they wanted to know what had happened to his sister and who would take responsibility for her death.
"She came here to catch a dream in the United States," he said. "But this time, she lost herself suddenly in this accident. We are very sad."