Walter Tsukamoto

Name Walter Tsukamoto
Born September 15 1904
Died 1961
Birth Location Molokai, HI

Colonel Walter Tsukamoto (1904–61) served during the prewar years as a lawyer-lobbyist and influential president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). During the war, he struggled successfully for enlistment and the reactivation of his army officer's commission, and distinguished himself in the postwar years as a military counsel.

Before the War

Tsukamoto was born in Molokai, Hawai'i, on September 15, 1904. A few months later, the family moved to the mainland, and Tsukamoto spent most of his childhood in Sacramento, California. He attended Sacramento High School, graduating in 1923. In that year, he attended a meeting in San Francisco to form the American Loyalty League, a social and political organization of Nisei , and he formed a short-lived Sacramento chapter.

Following graduation from high school, he attended college at the University of California, Berkeley. There he became the first Nisei to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, achieving the rank of cadet major. After receiving his B.A., Tsukamoto entered law school at Boalt Hall. In 1929, he graduated from law school and was admitted to the California Bar.

In the decade that followed, Tsukamoto settled in Sacramento, where he built a private law practice, He and his wife Tomoye had six children. In 1937, he was made a captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's office. Meanwhile, he became active with the newly-founded JACL. Not only did he serve as Sacramento chapter president (1931-1936) but worked as unpaid executive secretary and special counsel in court cases. In this position, he led the organization's lobbying of the California legislature against more restrictive alien land legislation , and won a major victory by blocking passage of discriminatory bans on fishing licenses for Issei . In 1938, Tsukamoto was elected national president of the JACL. During his tenure in office, he continued to work to defeat discriminatory legislation against persons of Japanese ancestry in California, and he persuaded the school board in Florin to abolish racially segregated education and close the separate "oriental" school where Nisei had been forced to attend. He was honored in 1940 with the first Sansho Yamagata Award, created to honor the outstanding Nisei of the Year. During 1941, he contributed a regular legal advice column to the JACL newsletter The Pacific Citizen .

War, Incarceration, and Military Service

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Tsukamoto petitioned the army to move him from the reserve list and place him on active duty, though he was already 37 years old. Presumably on racial grounds, the army declined to act on the request. In April 1942, after the War Department barred enlistment by Nisei, Tsukamoto's request was formally refused. Meanwhile, he and his family were removed from their home under Executive Order 9066 and placed in the Sacramento Assembly Center . After several months, they were moved to confinement at the Tule Lake camp.

Shortly after arriving at Tule Lake, Tsukamoto again petitioned the army to mobilize him, noting that all the other (White) officers on the reserve list had been called up. He likewise applied unsuccessfully for the Military Intelligence Service . In November 1942, Tsukamoto received permission to leave camp in order to attend the Special Emergency JACL meeting in Salt Lake City. At that meeting, Tsukamoto reported on conditions in the camps. He likewise conferred with ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin about the case of Regan v. King , then on appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which involved a challenge to Nisei voting and citizenship rights. Once back at Tule Lake following the meeting, Tsukamoto volunteered to write an amicus brief on behalf of the JACL. Although his role in the actual drafting was limited, as a result of the lack of law libraries and secretarial facilities in camp, Tsukamoto was the main signer of the final brief in the case, which was quickly dismissed by the appellate court.

In part due to continuing harassment from anti-JACL inmates at Tule Lake, in early 1943 Tsukamoto and his family left camp and relocated to Cincinnati. Meanwhile, he petitioned the War Department again to place him on active duty. On March 1943, less than a week after his arrival in Cincinnati and several weeks after the War Department authorized Nisei enlistment, Tsukamoto was at last placed on active duty and ordered to report to Ann Arbor for training. After several weeks' service at the Military Intelligence Service school at the University of Michigan, on August 23, Tsukamoto was sent to Fort Snelling to serve as trial judge advocate at Fort Snelling. Although his request for overseas service in Asia was refused, on December 12, 1944, he was promoted to the rank of major.

Postwar Years

After the end of the war, Tsukamoto remained in the military, and did not return to work with the JACL. With help from an African-American former law school classmate, in 1946 Tsukamoto became probably the first Nisei lawyer admitted to the Supreme Court bar. Soon after, he was sent to Tokyo as judge advocate officer with the American occupation forces in Japan. During the Korean War, he served in the Tenth United States Army Corps, and then in the United States Army, Europe. In the late 1950s, Tsukamoto was faced with discharge on grounds of age. He applied successfully for an extension. In January 1961, not long after he was promoted to full colonel, Tsukamoto died of a heart attack.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Hosokawa, Bill. JACL in Quest of Justice . New York: Morrow, 1982.

Last updated July 7, 2020, 7:47 p.m..