Mary Tsukamoto


Name Mary Tsukamoto
Born July 17 1915
Died January 6 1998
Birth Location San Francisco, CA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Mary Tsukamoto (1915–98), a longtime educator and cultural historian, became an author and leading advocate of redress for Japanese Americans removed during World War II.

Mary Tsuruko Dakuzaku was born in San Francisco on January 17, 1915, the second of six children of Chosei Taro and Kame Dakuzaku. Her father had come to the United States from Okinawa at age 17 and had opened a laundry on Geary Street. Because his English was poor, Mary later related, he was often cheated in business. In 1925, he moved to Florin, California, with the family and established himself as a strawberry farmer, using his children as laborers. The young Mary attended the segregated "Japanese" Florin Grammar School, and then Elk Grove Union High School. With encouragement from Mabel Barron, a white teacher, she decided to become a school teacher. Barron secured for her a scholarship to attend the College of the Pacific in Stockton, and she enrolled there in 1933. However, due to poor health and insufficient money, she left before graduating and married Al Tsukamoto in 1936. The Tsukamotos settled in Elk Grove, where Mary's daughter Marielle was born. Mary Tsukamoto taught Sunday school in the local Methodist church and joined the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, becoming its executive secretary. In 1940, the Tsukamotos succeeded in persuading the Florin school board to do away with segregated schools.

The Tsukamotos were caught in the removal of West Coast Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066. In Spring 1942, as a JACL officer, she and her husband worked with the army's Wartime Civil Control Administration and the Federal Reserve Bank and Farm Security Administration to help Issei and Nisei in the Sacramento area register for removal and dispose of their belongings. The Tsukamoto family were themselves confined at the Fresno Assembly Center. While at Fresno, Tsukamoto worked teaching a summer course as a speech teacher and also taught an English class for Issei. In October 1942, the Tsukamotos were sent on to the Jerome camp in Arkansas. "It was a time of humiliation and despair," she later recalled.[1] However, she soon found sources of hope and inspiration. She was cheered when at Christmas 1942 the inmates were able to enjoy chicken dinners, and the children received presents donated by outside religious groups. She was further touched when in response to a letter of holiday greetings she sent to the White House, she received a personalized response from Eleanor Roosevelt asking about her plans for the future. She resolved to work to make the best of things. In collaboration with Mary Nakahara (later the celebrated radical activist Yuri Kochiyama), Tsukamoto became active in building YWCA and USO chapters in camp and organizing Nisei women to serve as hostesses for the visiting Nisei soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team training across the Mississippi border at Camp Shelby.

In November 1943, Tsukamoto and her daughter left camp to join her husband in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he had resettled and was working in a bakery. There they were reunited with much of his family. Although Mary Tsukamoto was grateful to be released from camp, she suffered painful arthritis and medical conditions that had been aggravated under camp conditions. In July 1945, Al and Mary Tsukamoto returned to Florin, much of which had been destroyed in a fire. In 1946 Tsukamoto enrolled at Sacramento State College (today's California State University, Sacramento) and began employment as a substitute teacher. Three years later she was hired as a permanent teacher, and she taught for a total of 26 years in the Florin schools. She remained active with the local JACL branch.

Although she had long refused to speak of her wartime experience, in the late 1970s Tsukamoto was inspired to join the Japanese American Redress Movement. When the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held hearings in San Francisco, Tsukamoto presented testimony. The following year, she gave an oral history that was included as part of John Tateishi's anthology And Justice For All. She thereafter decided to produce her own book of memoirs, which was published in 1987 as We the People : A Story of Internment in America (1987). In 1986 Tsukamoto was awarded the Nisei of the Biennium award by the JACL, and was invited to testify on behalf of redress before a House of Representatives Subcommittee. Because of her activism in obtaining redress, Tsukamoto was honored in 1992 by a National Humanitarian Award. She also was instrumental in persuading the Smithsonian Institution to establish an exhibition titled "A More Perfect Union," dealing with Japanese American wartime removal, and in consulting on artifacts for that exhibition. Mary Tsukamoto was further honored when the Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School, named in her honor, was inaugurated in Sacramento in 1993. She died on January 6, 1998, just short of her eighty-third birthday.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Howard, John. Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School website. http://blogs.egusd.net/tsukamoto/.

Tateishi, John. And Justice For All : An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. New York: Random House, 1984.

Tsukamoto, Mary, and Elizabeth Pinkerton. We the People : A Story of Internment in America. Elk Grove, CA: Laguna, 1987.

Footnotes

  1. Mary Tsukamoto and Elizabeth Pinkerton, We the People : A Story of Internment in America (Elk Grove, CA: Laguna, 1987), 133.