The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the ugly places in American history that our textbooks and popular culture would often prefer we forget. Without the lifelong struggles of Japanese American internment survivors and activists like Tsuyako Kitashima, that may well happen. It is a credit to her and those like her that it has not.
Tsuyako Kitashima was born in 1918 in California. She was one of six children of parents who immigrated from Japan. Tsuyako and her family owned a small strawberry farm in what is now Fremont, California. When she was 23, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Like 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Tsuyako and her family were "relocated," first to a temporary camp in California (where they lived in a stable for several months), then to a camp in Topaz, Utah. Responses on a loyalty questionnaire split up the family, with Tsuyako's mother and brothers being sent to another camp and Tsuyako staying in Utah with her sister and her brother-in-law.
Not long after her family's release, in 1945, Tsuyako married. She and her husband relocated from Utah back to California and she worked for 30 years at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, retiring in 1981.
After her retirement, Tsuyako focused her energies on achieving justice for herself and the thousands like her who were interned during the war. She helped organize participation in the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings and was a spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. In 1988, these efforts came to fruition when the Civil Liberties act granted a formal apology from the country to the interned Japanese Americans and began the process of issuing reparations.
Tsuyako was active in many other facets of the San Francisco Japanese American community aside from her redress related activism. She served on the city's advisory council on aging and volunteered at multiple organizations dedicated to helping Japanese American seniors, including Kimochi, Inc., with whom she helped to create a Japanese American elder care facility where she volunteered for over 25 years.
In 1998, Tsuyako was awarded a Free Spirit Award from The Freedom Forum for her efforts at redress.
Tsuyako died on December 29, 2006, of heart failure. She was 87 and living in a San Francisco care facility.