|Born||October 15 1896|
|Died||July 7 1984|
|Birth Location||Okayama, Japan|
Japanese immigrant (Issei) woman who became a community leader in Hood River, Oregon, as well as an internationally recognized poet.
Born in Okayama, Japan, on October 15, 1896, Shizue Imai was a self-described tomboy as a young girl. After her dismayed mother saw her leading classmates in physical skills at a school exhibition, she enrolled her daughter in cultural arts lessons. At a time when only six years of schooling were required in Japan, Shizue graduated from Ashimori Entei Girls' High School and learned practical crafts for marriage, including sewing, doll making, and flower arranging. Independent and eager to see America, nineteen year old Shizue married twenty-nine year old Kamegoro Iwatsuki and joined him when he returned to Hood River, Oregon, in 1916.
Her new home was not the "flowery America" Shizue had imagined, where even farmers wore shirts and ties in the field. The newlyweds lived in a barren shack on ten acres that Kamegoro and an Issei co-owner had cleared and planted with young apple seedlings and strawberries growing between the rows. When she joined her husband at his work on a large strawberry farm, the owner decided Shizue's delicate hands were not well suited for farm labor. Her job instead was to punch tickets and refill empty strawberry carriers, tasks that became boring for the ambitious young woman. Hired as a housekeeper for a prosperous white family, she quit after a nine-year old boy chided her for being slow carrying out ashes. As her husband's health suffered and the couple (now with three children) faced debt and the failure of two consecutive orchards, Shizue's gaman (perseverance) surprised her: "I worked so hard that I was amazed at myself." She even became the first local Issei woman to gain her driver's license so that she could purchase farm tools and run errands.
As anti-Japanese sentiments rose and a 1920 legislator's report for Oregon governor Ben Olcott identified Hood River as the site where "the Japanese Question" was most acute in the state, Shizue Iwatsuki sought ways to support newly arrived Issei. In 1923, the year that Oregon's Anti-Alien Land Law prohibited Issei from owning or leasing land, she co-organized the Japanese Women's Society to help local Issei women learn American customs, including table manners, cooking, house cleaning, and child care methods. With the family auto, Iwatsuki drove throughout the valley to assist those in need and make deliveries. In 1926 the Iwatsukis became founding members of Hood River's Japanese Methodist Church.
During World War II, when Americans of Japanese descent were forced to leave their West Coast homes in 1942, the Iwatsukis and youngest daughter Josie were incarcerated first at Pinedale (temporary incarceration camp), then at Tule Lake in north-central California and finally at Minidoka in southern Idaho. Still dedicated to serving others even in the concentration camps, Iwatsuki enrolled in a home nursing course and volunteered as a nurse's aide as well as a teacher of needlework and calligraphy and a member of the school board, church, and women's society.
After the government's exclusion order was rescinded, the Iwatsukis returned in 1945 to a hometown community that had gained national notoriety for the extent of its anti-Japanese actions. Though Iwatsuki did not speak about her feelings of dejection, she wrote about it (in Japanese):
He was kind to us before,
But now – the shopkeeper
Nervously refuses to serve us.
Fate was not kind to the Iwatsukis. In 1952, once her husband became permanently paralyzed after falling from a tree, Iwatsuki took charge of operating her family's twenty-acre orchard. While managing the laborers, equipment, and finances as well as caring for her husband and daughter Josie, she was still committed to "help my people" after the war. A dedicated Christian, she continued her service with the Japanese Christian Women's Society, which she organized in 1948, and she became president of the Northwest Women's Society. In 1954, after she took a naturalization class, studied American government, and learned to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Iwatsuki, along with her husband, became an American citizen.
A naturalized citizen now
I have the right to vote.
So today I climb
The steps of this building.
While Iwatsuki gained strength through her service to others, she also attained inner peace through the traditional arts her mother had encouraged in Japan. After studying with Madame Kiyomi Otani of Seattle, the sole Pacific Northwest master teacher of Japanese flower arrangement and tea ceremony, Iwatsuki founded the Hood River Saga School. She taught classes and demonstrated the elegant seika-style of flower design as well as the tranquil ritual of tea ceremony. In 1965 Iwatsuki earned her Master's Certificate from Kyoto's Saga School of Japanese flower arrangement.
A self-taught poet, Iwatsuki wrote tanka poems, more prized than haiku in Japan for their five lines of thirty-one syllables arranged 5-7-5-7-7. Studying with master Seiki Ota in Japan, she mailed seven tanka poems to him each month for his appraisal. In 1950 she joined the Seattle tanka club. Twenty-three years later, Iwatsuki's tanka was selected by Emperor Hirohito as one of ten award winners from 32,000 worldwide submissions. The only woman, the eldest, and the only honoree from outside Japan, she and the other nine poets were feted at the Imperial Palace on January 10, 1974. That year Iwatsuki received multiple honors: The Japanese government gave her the Sixth Class, Order of the Precious Crown for her cultural achievements and community service, not only the first woman but the first Japanese American to receive this decoration from the Emperor. And in 1974 Hood River County named her their Woman of the Year.
Shizue Iwatsuki died on July 7, 1984. But her poems appear as tributes to her legacy along two rivers in Oregon: on granite boulders at Portland's Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland beside the Willamette River and on a marble column in front of the History Museum of Hood River in view of the river that she wrote about in her award-winning poem:
In the light of the morning sun
On the Columbia River
Sails a wheat-laden Japanese ship
Led by a tugboat.
For More Information
"History of Mr. and Mrs. Chas. K. Iwatsuki." Hood River County Historical Society, History of Hood River County, Oregon, 1852 – 1982. Hood River: Hood River County Historical Society, 1982, 244-245.
Ito, Kazuo. Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America. Translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard. Seattle: Executive Committee for Publication of Issei, 1973.
Iwatsuki, Shizue. "The Making of an American." Oregon Historical Quarterly 103.4 (Winter 2002): 510-29.
Sherman, Mark and Katagiri, George, eds. Touching the Stones: Tracing One Hundred Years of Japanese American History. Portland, Ore.: Oregon Nikkei Endowment, 1994.
Tamura, Linda. Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon's Hood River Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
———. "The Making of An American: A Woman Ahead of Her Time." Oregon Historical Quarterly 103.4 (Winter 2002): 510-29.
———. "Shizue Iwatsuki." The Oregon Encyclopedia. oregonencyclopedia.org.
Tsutakawa, Mayumi, and Alan Chong Lau, eds. Turning Shadows Into Light: Art and Culture of the Northwest's Early Asian/Pacific Community. Seattle: Young Pine Press, 1982.
- "History of Mr. and Mrs. Chas. K. Iwatsuki," History of Hood River County, Oregon, 1852 – 1982 (Hood River: Hood River County Historical Society, 1982), 244-45; Kazuo Ito, Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America, translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard (Seattle: Executive Committee for Publication of Issei, 1973), 497; Polly Timberman, "Pancakes to Palaces: A Valley Oldtimer Tells of Her Past," Hood River News (Oct. 14, 1981), 11; Linda Tamura, "The Making of an American: A Woman Ahead of Her Time," Oregon Historical Quarterly 103.4 (Winter 2002), 512.
- Ito, A History of Japanese Immigrants, 497-99; "History of Mr. and Mrs. Chas. K. Iwatsuki," 244; Timberman, "Pancakes to Palaces"; Shizue Iwatsuki, "The Making of an American," Oregon Historical Quarterly 103.4 (Winter 2002): 520-21; Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 512-13.
- Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 513.
- Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 513-14; Iwatsuki, "The Making of an American," 527.
- Tanka translated by Stephen W. Kohl in Mayumi Tsutakawa and Alan Chong Lau, eds. Turning Shadows Into Light: Art and Culture of the Northwest's Early Asian/Pacific Community (Seattle: Young Pine Press, 1982), 64.
- Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 515-16.
- Tanka translated by Stephen W. Kohl in Tsutakawa, Turning Shadows Into Light, 64.
- Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 516.
- Tamura, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 517; Iwatsuki, "The Making of an American," 528.
- Linda Tamura, "Shizue Iwatsuki," The Oregon Encyclopedia, accessed on May 12, 2015 at http://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/iwatsuki_shizue_1897_1984_/.
- Tamura, Epilogue, "A Woman Ahead of Her Time," 528.