After speaking at Everett Community College about her mother’s wartime experience in Japanese internment camps Tuesday, Mayumi Tsutakawa (facing) is greeted by Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Writer speaks about mom’s experience in Japanese internment camps

Mayumi Tsutakawa’s parents, both U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, had vastly different experiences during World War II.

Her father, George Tsutakawa, a renowned sculptor who taught at the University of Washington, was drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1942. That was a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a month before President Franklin Roosevelt approved Executive Order 9066. Signed Feb. 19, 1942, the order authorized the forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast.

While at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, the Seattle man taught Japanese language to American officers in military intelligence school. His future wife, though, was a detainee of the U.S. government.

Ayame Iwasa, Mayumi Tsutakawa’s mother, was among 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during the war. She was held at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California, just south of the Oregon border.

Seventy-five years after Roosevelt signed the order, Tsutakawa is sharing her family’s wartime experiences.

The Seattle woman spoke Tuesday at Everett Community College in a talk titled “The Pine Tree & the Cherry.” Tsutakawa, 67, said the pine, matsu in Japanese, means longevity, power and virtue. The cherry, or sakura, represents spring, renewal, and the cycle of life.

Tsutakawa is among 31 cultural experts and scholars involved with the nonprofit Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau. A writer, she has focused on Asian-Pacific American history. She co-edited “The Forbidden Stitch: Asian American Women’s Literary Anthology,” winner of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. She also edited two books about pioneer Asian-American artists.

On Tuesday, she wove together her own family history with a painful chapter of our country’s past.

“My family has a 100-year history in this state,” she told students and others who attended the free program.

Her father, she said, was born here in 1910 but spent much of his boyhood in Japan. His father ran an import-export business. Tsutakawa said her father was disowned because he chose an art career rather than join the family business. George Tsutakawa died in 1997.

Long before World War II, Tsutakawa said, the United States enacted what she called “hate legislation.” The Immigration Act of 1924 barred immigration from Japan. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided that a man who was born in Japan but who had lived in the United States 20 years was ineligible for citizenship.

There were laws barring people of Japanese ancestry from marrying whites or blacks. There were strict rules about owning or leasing land, and real estate red-lining limited neighborhoods where Japanese-Americans could live.

“Wartime hysteria was not just because of Pearl Harbor,” said Tsutakawa, who shared old photos of her family’s life in what was known as Japantown in the Seattle International District.

Anti-Japanese sentiments also were fueled by business competition during and after the Depression. By 1940, she said, Japanese-Americans made up 2 percent of Seattle’s population, yet owned 17 percent of grocery businesses, made up 63 percent of produce growers, and ran half the produce stalls at Pike Place Market.

During the internment years, many Japanese-American families lost everything. “There was no due process whatsoever,” Tsutakawa said.

Her mother’s family tried to store their furniture and other possessions in a garage in Sacramento, California. When they returned after the war, everything was gone. Tsutakawa’s mother, 93, lives in an area retirement facility.

After the war, some families were welcomed back to their Northwest communities, but many were not. Signs went up with the message “No Japs wanted ever again,” she said.

Her family went on to thrive in the arts, Tsutakawa said. Her brother, Gerald Tsutakawa, created the iconic “Mitt” sculpture outside Safeco Field. Another brother, Deems Tsutakawa, is a jazz pianist, and brother Marcus Tsutakawa is director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras.

A bronze sculpture her father created to commemorate 7,890 Japanese-Americans detainees who were held at “Camp Harmony” — now the Puyallup fairgrounds — was dedicated at that site in 1983. When it was commissioned, Tsutakawa said, there was opposition from an American Legion chapter. She said some wanted the sculpture, called “Harmony,” installed in a parking lot rather than on fairground premises.

It was late — far too late — when an apology for incarcerating Japanese-Americans finally came. President Ronald Reagan signed a law in 1988 offering a formal apology. Each family received $20,000. It wasn’t enough, Tsutakawa said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

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