Tamie Tsuchiyama

Name Tamie Tsuchiyama
Born May 18 1915
Died May 12 1984
Birth Location Kauai, HI
Generational Identifier


Dr. Tamie Tsuchiyama (1915–84), a Nisei born in Kaua'i, Hawai'i, was the only Japanese American woman to work full-time for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Because of various constraints, including the then clandestine nature of the project, Tsuchiyama suffered a great deal of anxiety and stress while carrying out research in the War Relocation Authority camp known as Poston (Colorado River) . By 1944, she resigned from JERS, left camp, and volunteered for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps [WAAC]. Although she never published anything on mass incarceration, Tsuchiyama kept an extensive "sociological journal," and generated a series of short ethnographic reports that have been utilized by later generations of scholars.

Before the War

Tamie Tsuchiyama, was the youngest of three siblings, born on May 18, 1915 to Issei immigrant parents who lived near the town of Lihue on the island of Kaua'i, then Territory of Hawai'i. Although somewhat sickly as a child, Tsuchiyama was scholastically oriented and did well in her studies. After graduating from Lihue Grammar School, she attended Kauai High School where she pursued an academic track and graduated in 1933.

Starting her undergraduate studies at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa campus, she discovered anthropology there after studying with Dr. Felix M. Keesing. When Keesing encouraged Tsuchiyama to apply to UCLA to continue her studies, she transferred in 1936 and worked with Dr. Ralph Beals. But because Beals had just started the anthropology department, Tsuchiyama decided to transfer again to the University of California, Berkeley campus because it had one the largest and most established programs on the West Coast. Arriving in the fall of 1937, Tsuchiyama finished her B.A. "with honors" in one year, and then was admitted to graduate school in anthropology in 1938. She studied with some of the top anthropologists of the day, including A.L. Krober, Robert H. Lowie, and Paul Radin. When the war broke out, Tsuchiyama was an advanced Ph.D.-level student who only needed to complete her dissertation to finish her degree.

Working for JERS

When the war broke out, Tsuchiyama decided not to return to Hawai'i. Observing the impending crisis, she told her mentor Robert Lowie that she felt a great sympathy for the Japanese Americans who were being removed. Lowie recommended her to Dorothy S. Thomas as a possible fieldworker for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Tsuchiyama decided to let herself be incarcerated, partly with the idea of studying first-hand what was going on.

Removed from Los Angeles in May 1942, with her good friend Edith Kodama's family, Tsuchiyama was sent to and did an initial stint of fieldwork in Santa Anita , a Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) camp (a.k.a., "assembly center"), writing up brief reports on different topics. In the process, she decided to work for JERS full-time, and start fieldwork at one of the ten more permanent War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.

Assigned to the WRA camp known as Poston (a.k.a., The Colorado River Relocation Center), she arrived there on August 11, 1942.

Briefly recruited by Alexander Leighton for the Bureau of Sociological Research , Tsuchiyama considered working for both research units. After a three month trial period, however, Tsuchiyama found that she preferred JERS, and so she re-confirmed her status as Dorothy Thomas's full-time researcher in Unit I of the Poston camp.

For the next year, Tsuchiyama did extensive fieldwork in Poston's Unit I; kept a wide-ranging sociological journal; and composed a number of topically-specific ethnographic reports for Dorothy Thomas. During that period, she ran into one of her elder sister Hisako's acquaintances: a younger oya-no-yobiyose Issei (or an Issei who had been called to America by his parents) named Richard Shigeaki Nishimoto .

A bilingual, biliterate Issei, Tsuchiyama recognized Nishimoto's great potential as a research associate so she formally hired him to work for her in April 1943. Between them, Tsuchiyama and Nishimoto did a great deal of useful documentary research for Thomas having to do with daily life in Poston. Because they wanted to avoid being labeled as spies for the government or the WRA, Tsuchiyama and Nishimoto kept their research activities a secret.

Despite their constant level of data production, by 1943 Tsuchiyama's letters to Thomas began to delineate the tremendous stress that she was experiencing as a clandestine fieldworker in Unit I. Tsuchiyama began to complain about the intolerable Poston heat, the pressures of getting access to inside information, and having to write high-quality reports. Eventually, the pressure became too much. Tsuchiyama send in her letter of resignation in July 1944, and sought release from Poston in order to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps [WAAC]. Initially sent to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, Tsuchiyama studied Japanese intensively, and then worked translating materials for the United States Army at the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Richie, Maryland.

After the War

After release from service, Tsuchiyama returned to Berkeley where between 1946 and 1947 she finished her Ph.D. dissertation. A treatise on Athabascan folklore, Tsuchiyama became the first Japanese American and the first Asian American to complete a doctorate in anthropology at Berkeley, one of the leading departments in the country.

In late 1947, Dr. Tsuchiyama sought employment with the U.S. government overseas operation run by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). She spent three years working for SCAP as a researcher in occupied Japan. In that capacity she carried out extensive fieldwork, some of which was published by Arthur F. Raper in a study titled The Japanese Village in Transition .

Returning to the U.S.A. in late 1951, Dr. Tsuchiyama was unable to find a job in academia. She thus decided to return to school, again to UC Berkeley, this time earning a master's degree in library science in 1954. After taking a series of different jobs as a university librarian, in 1956 Dr. Tsuchiyama decided to move to Texas. There she joined her older sister, Hisako, who was married and living near Austin. Because of her language skills, Dr. Tsuchiyama was able to secure a position at the University of Texas, where she oversaw what was then called the "Oriental Library" that held the campus's large Asian language collection. She remained there until she retired in the mid-1970s. Almost ten years later, nearly blind, and still in Texas, Dr. Tamie Tsuchiyama passed away on May 12, 1984.

Because she never published anything based on her JERS research, Tamie Tsuchiyama's Poston fieldnotes and reports had been largely forgotten. In the 1980s, encouraged by the late Yuji Ichioka , scholars began to re-consider the vast amounts of data that had been generated by JERS fieldworkers in various WRA camps, including Richard S. Nishimoto and Tamie Tsuchiyama's Poston research. Specifically, Ichioka encouraged Lane Hirabayashi to research and write biographies of both Nishimoto and Tsuchiyama since nothing biographical had even been published about either individual by the late 1980s.

Publishing a short critical biography, The Politics of Fieldwork , Hirabayashi proposed that Tsuchiyama's relationship with Thomas and JERS could well stand as an example of how race, class, and gender operated in terms of the traditional relationship between a Euro-American professor and researcher, and an aspiring person of color who was hired as an assistant: typically the data collection efforts of the latter were never really acknowledged, either in print or in terms of facilitation into a professional career. Hirabayashi also echoed Ichioka's caveats: while it is easy to condemn JERS researchers for lapses, especially if one adopts today's ethical standards, one needs also to assess the quantity and quality of JERS data before throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Authored by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi , University of California, Los Angeles

For More Information

Hayashi, Brian M. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo. Politics of Fieldwork: Research in an American Concentration Camp . Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Raper, Arthur F. The Japanese Village in Transition . General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, 1950.

Last updated Oct. 16, 2020, 3:45 p.m..