Wilfred Tsukiyama

Name Wilfred Tsukiyama
Born March 22 1897
Died January 6 1966
Birth Location Honolulu
Generational Identifier


Second Japanese American to be admitted to the Hawai'i bar, first to seek public office in Hawai'i, supporter of the loyalty of Japanese in Hawai'i, and first to serve as a Supreme Court Justice in the United States.


Wilfred Chomatsu Tsukiyama was born in Honolulu on March 22, 1897, to Koken and Hide Tsukiyama, who immigrated to Hawai'i to work on the plantations . After graduating from Queen Ka'ahumanu Elementary School in 1914, he spent a year at a Japanese high school before graduating from McKinley High School in 1918 after completing a four-year curriculum in three years. At McKinley, he was the first Japanese American to play football and also was a baseball player and star sprinter. At graduation, he was one of the four honor graduates in his class.

Education and Professional Career

After enrolling in a course in government at McKinley, Tsukiyama decided to become an attorney. However, he first served in the Army during World War I where he was stationed at Schofield Barracks. Tsukiyama then attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he became fluent in Bohemian after living with a Bohemian family during his college years. Upon graduating from Coe College in 1921, he attended the University of Chicago Law School where he graduated in 1924. Tsukiyama then returned to Hawai'i and was in private practice until he joined the City Attorney’s office as a third deputy. He eventually rose through the ranks and Mayor Fred Wright appointed him City Attorney, a position he occupied until 1940 when he returned to private practice.

Activism in the Japanese Community

In spite of Tsukiyama's many successes, some Nisei criticized Tsukiyama for insisting on speaking standard English rather than pidgin or Hawaii Creole English (HCE), which had emerged from the plantations as a means for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another. [1] He was also the "nucleus" of the 1930s movement to encourage all Japanese with dual citizenship to change their citizenship to either Japan or America as part of his efforts to clarify the loyalty of Japanese Americans in Hawai'i. [2] Tsukiyama encountered challenges from both within the Japanese community—the procedure to surrender Japanese citizenship was complicated and cumbersome—as well as from others outside the Japanese community who questioned the loyalty of persons of Japanese ancestry. In response to this unwarranted suspicion, Tsukiyama reaffirmed the loyalty of Japanese Americans at a large public meeting in 1940 in Hilo:

If these haole Americans wish to help us, they should build and not destroy; they should show us kindly guidance and tolerance, and not criticize our every action . . . Even now I challenge them to show me wherein we have been disloyal . . . We American citizens of Japanese ancestry are ready to do anything for our country, the United States of America. [3]

As part of proving his loyalty to the United States, Tsukiyama also supported the Selective Service Act that Tsukiyama observed "has been a boon to the Americans of Japanese ancestry in demonstrating their loyalty." [4] Tsukiyama himself volunteered for military service in 1942 but authorities denied his application because he was forty-five years old. In January 1943, he again volunteered for military service three days before the drive to encourage Nisei to volunteer for Army combat units comprised of Americans of Japanese ancestry. He was the first Nisei in Hawai'i to volunteer, but authorities again turned him down because of his age. Thus, during World War II, he served as chief warden of zone one, Nu'uanu to Damon Tract (currently Moanalua) in the warden's division of the Office of Civilian Defense and was active in the Emergency Service Committee . [5]

Public Service

After the war, Tsukiyama, a life-long Republican, became a Territorial Senator in 1946, serving for thirteen years. During this period, he was also the president of the Territorial Senate twice, the first American of Japanese ancestry to be elected to this position. During his career, he was also a strong supporter of Hawai'i Statehood . [6] In 1959, he ran for the U.S. Senate against Oren E. Long. As they were good friends, political analysts described this election as a “gentleman's campaign” and Tsukiyama only lost by a small margin. [7] Later that year, Governor William F. Quinn appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He resigned shortly before the end of his term due to health complications, and passed away soon after.

During his career, Tsukiyama dedicated a great deal of his life to public service. He served three terms as president of the Young Buddhist Association and five terms as president of Kuakini Hospital. He was also the director of numerous organizations including the Hawaii Cancer Society, the Child and Family Service, the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and the Society for Crippled Children and Adults. He was a trustee of the Hawaii Heart Association and Leahi Hospital, and was a former president of the Japanese University Club and Hawaiian Japanese Civic Association. Tsukiyama also served as the chairman of the World Brotherhood and was a Hawai'i delegate to the International World Brotherhood. In 1952, the Retail Board of the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce chose him as American of the Week and eventually named him the 1965 Community-Wide Father of the Year. Eight years later, Tsukiyama visited Japan and was presented with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class, and had a forty-minute audience with Emperor Hirohito at a time when the average audience lasted only 10 minutes. During his career, Tsukiyama was a member of the Bar Association of Hawaii, the American Bar Association, and the Conference of Chief Justices. He also was a member and director of the American Judicature Society.

After a prolonged illness, Tsukiyama passed away due to cancer of the liver and common duct at Kuakini Hospital at the age of sixty-eight. He was survived by his wife Marian Misao; three sons Owen, Donald, and Roy; and three daughters, June, Doris, and Caren. Tsukiyama is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

". . . 'Few Have Helped Isles More,'" Honolulu Star-Bulletin , January 9, 1966, A-1.

"Leaders Mourn Tsukiyama’s Death," Honolulu Advertiser , January 7, 1966, E-2.

Nakatsuka, Lawrence. "'Call the Senator--he'll help you.'" Scene: the Pictorial Magazine , May 1951, 11-13.


  1. Kevin Kawamoto, "Wilfred C. Tsukiyama," Hawaii Herald , 5 October 2007, C-14.
  2. Harriet Gee, "Justice Tsukiyama Dies at Age 68," Honolulu Star-Bulletin , 6 January 1966, A-1.
  3. Gee, "Justice Tsukiyama."
  4. Gee, "Justice Tsukiyama.".
  5. Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 68.
  6. Wilfred C. Tsukiyama, "Why Statehood for Hawaii?'" Scene: the International East-West Magazine , June 1953 16-17, http://ddr.densho.org/ddr/densho/266/55/ .
  7. Gene Hunter, "Justice's Body Will Lie in State Today," Honolulu Advertiser , 7 January 1966, A-6.

Last updated Dec. 15, 2023, 6:37 a.m..