By Yukio Tazuma
In 1933, Kazuo Tanemura and I followed our older siblings to Bailey Gatzert elementary school.
This school was located in Seattle’s de facto segregated Japantown. The majority of the student body were ethnic Japanese. We never thought this was unusual. In fact, we thought all Seattle schools were like ours, including our area of immigrant Asians, Italians, and Jews. Of course, growing up with immigrant parents, our first language was Japanese. Since Kaz and I were most deficient in English, we were enrolled in a remedial class. This was the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous “English-as-a-second language” classes. When Kaz married Setsu, it was evident to me that she was speaking more like an average white. Not like Kaz and me speaking with a distinct ethnic accent, growing up within Japantown. This was due, I believe, to the fact that Setsu lost her mother during her adolescence and was raised in a foster home of a Swedish/English family in Portland, OR. They, of course, spoke the distinct West Coast English, avoiding the dialect of the South, New England, or the Midwest.
Recently, I was searching through some old family albums. To my surprise, I found a Christmas card from Kaz before World War II. Nothing special about this, except having had it for so long. Kaz must have been about 10 or 11 at that time. Now, of course, I’ve misplaced it and can’t find it.
In 1942, Kaz and I were incarcerated at Minidoka concentration camp with other Seattle Japanese Americans. We enrolled in high school. The school wasn’t like Seattle’s brick-and-mortar buildings. It used the same block of shiplap barracks that were built to confine us. Picnic-style tables with fixed seating boards on either side were our desks. When we filled out the enrollment sheet for freshman class, it asked for our choice of vocation. Kaz knew exactly what he was shooting for – engineer. I had no idea of ever going to work or what I wanted to become, so I copied Kaz, and wrote – engineer. (Today, by the 1st grade, millennials knew exactly what they wanted to be – computer programmers.)
Kaz and I were both enrolled in the same math class. The problem was that he and I were the only two boys in that class. The rest were girls. I had to bust my butt to keep from looking stupid next to Kaz, who was a wiz in math. But, I think when we first went down to Reno, I figured the odds in playing blackjack better than he did.
All of Kaz’s siblings were Nisei (U.S. born), except him. His pregnant mother had to make an urgent trip to Japan at the time, giving birth to Kaz over there. When they returned to America, Kaz of course, became an alien ineligible for naturalization. This restriction applied to all non-white Asian immigrants until 1952. This didn’t stop Kaz from being drafted. After he was discharged from U.S. military service, I thought he was automatically a U.S. citizen, as it is today. No, he told me he became naturalized only after passing the standard Americanization test.
Later, Kaz became an engineer at Boeing, and I was there as a graphic designer. I remember an assignment from Boeing Public Relations. It was to provide graphic support to Rainier Beach High School. It involved designing graphic patterns to fill up the blank walls of their hallways. Two of our artists laid out floor plans of all the walls, the mural designs based on the school icon “Vikings,” and the school colors. They provided full-size traceable layouts. After the mural design was approved by the school PTSA, members of their student body executed the project. They enthusiastically stenciled and painted the mural layouts on the wall, allowing them full involvement and proud ownership of the project.
How was this project initiated? Setsu, as Rainier Beach High PTSA president, wrote the letter that persuaded Boeing to support this project — no easy task, when most requests that they receive had to be declined by Boeing as a practical matter. After all, Boeing’s mission is to build airplanes. Setsu, showing great initiative, is most deserving of this credit. But, how did she pull it off? Most Japanese Americans incarcerated for three years in an American concentration camp had become extremely introverted like Kaz and I. Growing up as racial minorities, we began life being quiet, reserved and reticent. Whereas Setsu, raised in a white family, I believe reinforced her to think “white” and absorb the gumption to step forward to take leadership, in spite of also having been incarcerated. Very well done, Setsu. And, congratulations Kaz for marrying Setsu.
This is written in memory of Setsu Tanemura who passed away on March 26, 2017, and Kaz Tanemura who passed away on April 15, 2017.