Saturday, June 22, 2013

Herb Tsuchiya, Actor & Retired Pharmacist


Herb Tsuchiya's trying early life ignited a drive that fueled him through school and into a secure job as a pharmacist and eventually launched him into a second life as an actor in plays performed internationally.

Photo by Madeline Crowley

My first pet was a dragonfly that I caught and tied a thread around; it was alive for just a short time. Some of my first recollections of Minidoka Camp were that it was dry, dusty and hot in the summer, very muddy when it rained and very cold in the winter.





Herb on the Central Area, before the Japanese-American Internment Camps:

What do you remember about the neighborhood (before 1942) when you were sent to the Japanese-American Internment camps?

I remember we were very poor so we lived in a rented a house. It was a diverse neighborhood: Blacks, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino.  I was the youngest of 7. All my siblings were born at home by midwives. I was the only one who was born in a hospital, at Harborview Medical Center.

Collection Herb Tsuchiya

One recollection of childhood was that our after-school snack was one slice of Wonder Bread sprinkled with sugar, one slice only.  Dinnertime was soup, often salt water with boiled potatoes, carrots, celery, onions and a soup bone, a beef bone that had been gotten from the butcher for free. That bone gave it flavor.

That was your standard dinner?

That was standard with probably rice or bread.

What did your father do?

He worked on the railroad as a gandy-dancer, a laborer. I didn’t learn anything about this ‘til I was an adult. My Dad was trained as a schoolteacher but after the Russian War in Japan there was an economic depression. He was recruited by the railroad to come to America where the streets were paved with gold, where money grows on trees. 

Gandy-Dancers

 His father at work on the RR. Collection Herb Tsuchiya

Herb's father and sister. Collection Herb Tsuchiya.

This was after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in America. Since the corporations couldn’t go to China for inexpensive labor anymore they then went to Japan and the Philippines. My father worked in Montana on the Railroad. It was hard labor done by the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants. 


Did your mother work? 

She worked as a waitress at a Japanese restaurant on Main Street. She also had to wash our clothes by hand on a washboard with apple soap. We had a hand-crank wringer in a big galvanized tub to get the water out of the clothes.

The big event of the week was to be outside when the Ice Man came so you get free chunks of ice to chew on. We had an icebox in the window with a great big block of ice to cool the food. We didn’t have refrigerators then.

So my mother, as was typical of immigrant families, had to handle everything: childrearing, laundry, cooking, cleaning house and grocery shopping.  This on top of having a very authoritative husband who’d say, ‘I worked all day, my meal has to be on time. Where is it?’ I remember her stories from Montana [where they lived before the Central Area] she’d always have to tell my brothers not to play by the railroad tracks. Every time she heard a train, she’d have to run down to the tracks and pull her sons off the tracks.  They wanted to be close enough to see the caboose man because he would always wave to them and he’d had that lantern. That was fun for them to do.

The Caucasian girls would always ask my mother if they could carry her Japanese baby because it was a treat to see an Asian child. Her doctors always thought she was going to have twins because she was very petite, less than four feet tall, in proportion her tummy looked big to a Caucasian doctor. She only had one a time but she did have six boys in a row. She also had one daughter who was left in Japan.


In 1942, you were 10 years old, did you have any real idea of what was happening?

No, not really. All I knew is we had a curfew, we had to be in our house by 8:00 every night and we were restricted to areas between certain streets. I remember waiting on a street corner for a teacher to bring our report cards from Bailey-Gatzert School. Our teacher made arrangements for us to meet her to get our report cards

Authorities came and checked all our radios to make sure we didn’t have any short wave capabilities and we had to give them any knives or weapons. Our home was one of the pickup points for the bus to take people to the first place of assembly [for internment] at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. People could only bring only two suitcases for their possessions. They’d ask to use our bathroom during the week while they waited. I remember that.

Do you remember the emotional tenor of that time?

No, really since I was a child, it was something we were supposed to do and we just did it.

It was my first bus ride. I saw all these Japanese-American families, they’d assemble at the Japanese Buddhist Church on Main Street and we were in a caravan to Puyallup. It was called ‘Camp Harmony (Images)’ by the Government but it had barbed wire fence all around it with guard towers, searchlights and men armed with rifles and bayonets.

At that point did it begin to dawn on you that this wasn’t summer camp?

Right away. We were told to pick up bedding bags and then to go to stuff them from bales of hay. We stuffed our bags and that was to be the mattresses over army cots in barracks. Next, everything required lining up: you’d line up for the bathroom, for the showers and in the dining area for food. The bachelors were kept in the parking lot across the street and armed guards escorted them to the showers and to their three meals each day in the mess hall.

I remember people’s friends coming to visit. They’d meet at the barbed wire fence and talk.

Did any of your friends come?

No, they were too young and there was no transportation. 

You were sent to the Internment Camp, Minidoka?

That was my first train ride but all the windows were covered with black blinds that had to be drawn all the way down. I guess they were afraid we might signal to the enemy.

How long were you there?

3.5 years. I was 13.5 years old, ready for middle school when we left.

Minidoka American Concentration Camp. Herb, first row, middle. 5th grade. Collection Herb Tsuchiya

What else do you remember about Minidoka?

That’s where we went to school. Now, as I reflect back one thing that amazes me is now that most of the Caucasian teachers at the camps accepted that position fresh out of college. At one of the national reunions [of internees] a couple of the former teachers told their stories. They didn’t know what they were getting involved in. They volunteered to go to the camps and teach. They didn’t know for how long it would be but they were still willing. They had some very moving stories about how they appreciated the chance to get to know and teach Japanese-American students in the ten different camps.


In your teens one’s identity becomes a big concern. Did you think about being an American being in this camp and that meaning somehow you weren’t regarded as an American anymore?

I didn’t think about that. I just thought it was a normal thing that just happens to people. We lived with people who looked like us, were like us and we were all sort of stuck together in a big huge community.

Were there pleasant parts to living in the camp?

For me as a youngster, yes. My first pet was a dragonfly that I caught and tied a thread around; it was alive for just a short time. Some of my first recollections of Minidoka were that it was dry, dusty and hot in the summer, very muddy when it rained and very cold in the winter. Comics were drawn of students walking to school and their shoes would get stuck in the mud because it was so thick.        

I remember our potbelly stove in the barracks. Each compartment had just one stove that burned coal and wood and one light bulb. Outside on the coal piles the boys would play King of the Mountain and that would turn our clothes nice and black. Our mothers would have to wash our clothes on the washboard in the laundry room and at that time everything was rationed, soap, toilet paper and food too.

Returning from Minidoka Camp

When you came back to the Central Area were you able to return the same place you’d lived before?

When we came back the government gave us $25 to start life all over again. Some of us came back to Seattle but others scattered all over the country. Our family returned to Seattle and were housed at the Seattle Japanese Baptist Church in the Missionary Home. It’s where the Caucasian women missionaries had a place a couple of blocks from the church. We shared living quarters upstairs and a kitchen and a bath and facilities. That was temporary until we could find housing through the Seattle Public Housing Authority for low-income families. Others went to the Japanese Community Center (Hunt Camp History) on Weller Avenue off Rainier Avenue. They slept in the classrooms for temporary housing. They called that school space, Hunt Camp, after the mailing address for Minidoka.

So how long before your family found housing of their own?

It was several months before we found housing in the Central Area. We first stayed at Stadium Homes on what is now Martin Luther King Way, which was temporary housing built for the War Workers in industry. Those houses used wood burning stoves for heating and cooking and for heating the hot water, they had pipes that heated the water up – hot water.

After Minidoka did that feel kind of luxurious?

Yes, because these are nice little small homes, little barracks too. Then we moved from there to Rainier Vista housing which as far as we were concerned was even nicer, it was low-income homes on Martin Luther King Ave near Columbian Way.

Did you stay close to the people you knew in the camps or did the dispersion prevent that?

I think we were close to the people in our block. The camp was divided into about 36 blocks, army style with barracks, a central mess hall, laundry, toilet and shower area. The living quarters were on both sides. Our family address in Minidoka was block 13, barrack 6, apt C. The middle sections were for larger families while the ends were for couples or single people.

So you stayed in touch with people who were in that Block?

That was kind of our universe because the camp was quite scattered, I think there were over 10,000 people in Minidoka.

When you came back how did the Central Area seem to you?

I missed Pioneer Bakery as it was close to our old home. They used alder logs to bake all their goods. As kids we loved to go there on Halloween because we’d get good baked goods for our trick or treating. We loved the aroma of the fresh baked goods.

I was at the old Washington Middle School, then at Franklin High School. For one year after high school I worked at Seattle University as a janitor. So I always thank the Jesuits for providing my tuition to attend the University of Washington, which was very ecumenical of them.

In the book “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” the father is a rigid Chinese nationalist because of the war in China. Did you experience in your family that feeling that Japanese and Chinese people should be separate?

Yes, the exceptions were that we had friends that were Chinese and Filipino; it just depended on your friendships. Yet, for the adults there was that tension and that separation. During the post-Pearl Harbor time almost all Chinese wore the button that said, “I am Chinese,” to differentiate themselves because they did not want to be mistaken for Japanese.

Falling in Love and Getting Married

When you got older you fell in love with someone of Chinese ancestry?

That resurrected some of the old feelings because my mother was an immigrant from the countryside of Japan and that was a big ‘no-no.’ I was basically marrying an old-time enemy from her point of view. Her standards, her memories and her beliefs were based on her childhood and the conflicts those countries had at that time. I think rural people in every country are more traditional in their beliefs.

So, my mother woke me up in my bedroom when I was still a bachelor and dating… She had a knife at her throat and said, ‘If you keep dating that Chinese woman, I’m going to kill myself.

I can understand it now. Looking back, it was because she had a hard time raising seven children by herself. The father doesn’t contribute much to the child rearing due to male dominance. In addition the woman I was dating, who later became my wife was widowed and had four small children. So, to my mother this was her innocent youngest son.

Also, she had prevented my father taking me from our family on the last boat from Seattle to Japan. My father was going to take me back to Japan. My mother said, ‘No, you’re not splitting up the family. You go by yourself.’ Now, I understand why he wanted me. In Japan the law of inheritance mean the farmland and the house was only inheritable by a male. The only child he had in Japan was a girl, my oldest sister, so she didn’t qualify so [that was why] he wanted me. Later on, he adopted my sister’s husband and had the courts change his [the son-in-law’s] last name so he could inherit the land. Then, he had all six of his sons renounce their interest in the land by court order. Two times we had to get a lawyer and get it documented that we release and have no interest in the property in Japan so my sister’s husband could inherit land.
Tsuchiya Farm, now. Hiroshima, Japan. Collection Herb Tsuchiya

Tsuchiya Farm, then. Hiroshima, Japan. Collection Herb Tsuchiya

Your mother was fighting against some real forces, the dominance of the husband, the authority of the husband… She must have been a very strong woman.

And she divorced him too. That’s kind of groundbreaking too. And of course the value of property and what that means to farming people.  She divorced sometime during camp or right after camp [approximately 1944] so she truly was a single mother.

She had four sons in the military during the War, two sons in the 442nd fighting infantry in France and Germany and Italy. The oldest son was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts. Another son was in Military Intelligence and served in Korea as Japanese translator. While the fourth son volunteered out of camp to be a machine-gun tail gunner but was told, ‘We don’t want a Jap machine-gunner. ‘ So he asked, ‘What about being a paratrooper?’ They said ‘Oh, you can jump out of planes,’ so he went to Fort Benning GA and then made several jumps in Europe.

The Most Decorated Fighting Unit, The 442nd Infantry Regiment

Did all your brothers make it home?

Yes, but I’m sure that was a great burden to my mother. So many mothers received American Flags and Gold Stars [gifts from the government when their sons died in combat].

[After the camp] my mother had to come back to Seattle. She had a nervous break down and had to get electric shock treatments.

What would you guess was the source of that, was it the dissolution of the marriage?

Not the dissolution of the marriage, it was the camp experience and then the stress of worrying about her boys in the military. Her Japanese culture says to internalize, to be stoic, to have the philosophy of ‘gaman.’ That means perseverance, patience and persistence despite hardships and suffering. There’s also in the culture of ‘kodomo no tame ni,’ which means to benefit the children you sacrifice everything. You sacrifice yourself to benefit your children; that’s the parental culture of Japan.

When she came back from camp, she would travel on the bus to work as a domestic and clean other people’s homes.

When you came back did you immediately fall in love with the Chinese woman?

No, well, they were always trying to get me married off, but I think I was 38 before I married. My mother wanted me to marry a nice, single, never-been-married-before Japanese girl. She used to hook me up with a Japanese girl. So every other weekend, I was dating the girl my mother had hand-picked for me and every other I was dating Bertha, the woman who would become my wife.

After we were married for a couple of years my wife told me, ‘I knew you were dating that other woman.’ I thought I was being cool but she had interviewed one of my staff workers at the pharmacy so she knew. She was a good detective, an analyst. Women are good investigators; they have a sixth sense. Their antenna are up. And we men, we think we’re being cool and smart and smug.

Besides your mother did you get any push back from your brothers or your friends?

No. no.

When did you get married?

In 1970.

So intermarriage wasn’t as big a deal as it had been.

Not like it used to be. But for my mother who was an original immigrant from Japan it was a big deal. She refused to come to the wedding. But she was counseled by a Taiwanese/Chinese Pastor and friend from the Japanese Congregational Church and he said, ‘You must go to the wedding of your son.’ She reluctantly came.

And did she come to eventually accept your wife?

Yes. After our daughter was born, she got to babysit her granddaughter and then everything was ok. Marriage was ok. She got so much joy and happiness.

She probably always wanted the daughter she had to leave behind in Japan.
Did you ever find that lost daughter?

Yes, her grandparents raised her. Later, I talked my sister into coming to America as an adult. That was her first trip out of Japan, her first airplane ride and her first trip to America. We had a wonderful reunion. She met the rest of the family. In Japan, our family was rice farmers in the mountains of Hiroshima Prefecture.

Yes, when I brought my Mother to Japan to meet her daughter that was a very emotional day. Her hands, her whole body was shaking. She hadn’t seen her.

How old was her daughter then?

Middle-aged, I don’t know exactly. It was a very emotional reunion. There must have been all sorts of guilt feelings going on there.

And so much loss, you can’t reconstruct lost years.

She claimed her husband said, ‘That’s not our daughter.’

Because she was a girl?

I don’t know.

Did you stay close to your father after the divorce?

No. Only one brother stayed in touch, kept close by corresponding [through the mail]. My father had wonderful handwriting, he read a lot; he was like a scholar. He corresponded with one brother.

The Influence of Gordon Hirabayashi

As you were growing up, did you think about how you were American and yet you were treated differently?

That’s why I became involved in theatre to tell some of these stories to the community, to our own people, to other Americans. So, ‘Breaking the Silence’ is a readers’ theatre play by Ricky Nogima Louis. She also lived in Minidoka in a block far far from our block. On her 4th birthday, her father was taken by the FBI to be interrogated by the Dept. of Justice in Santa Fe, NM. They had Five Department of Justice (DOJ) camps for single males. These were only Buddhist Priests, Christian Ministers, commercial fisherman with boats, businessmen who went frequently to Japan and Principals, schoolteachers, anyone who was a leader in the community. Immediately after Dec 7th 1941, (the attack on Pearl Harbor) and on Dec 7th these individuals were interrogated by the FBI, and whisked away to these DOJ camps.  Often, their families didn’t know where these men, their fathers, were for six months.

Then were they released and allowed to go with their families to the camps?

No. They were kept there and from their families.

They were separated from their families the entire three and a half years of the camps?

Yes, that was the strategy. They wanted to get rid of all the leaders, that was the strategy.  And all their mail was censored. So they’d get mail that was opened and portions of it were blacked out.

There were 10 war relocation authority camps for the families.

That’s why I’m motivated to be in this play commissioned by the National Civil Rights group Japanese American Citizens League at their National Convention at the University of Washington 20 years ago. It was for a fundraiser for Gordon Hirabayashi’s legal trial by these young Asian activist lawyers of all nationalities: Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean who decided to get his conviction overturned.

Gordon Hirabayashi was one of three major dissidents who decided to disobey President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on the basis that they did not think it was constitutional so they were going to test the constitutionality of it. Gordon was an attorney or student so he intentionally got arrested. The irony of that story is that the judge convicted him then he had to hitchhike to the penitentiary. So, there’s a Japanese-American hitchhiking the road with the face of ‘the enemy.’

He was put into prison. Later, he got three degrees at the University of Washington then he taught mostly in Canada. Then, 20 years ago at this National Convention we did the play. They had to hold off beginning the play for 20 minutes because Nisei veterans were coming in their wheelchairs, with their walkers and their canes to attend. Some of them cried because of the stories were based on oral histories that the play demonstrated. During the intermission of the play one of the actors said, ‘Who’s that guy sitting in the front row asleep?’  It was Gordon Hirabayashi, because they had had him on a tight schedule, he had been asked to speak all over the place; he was just tired. But also he was that kind of person, just very relaxed, very casual. The Japanese call it, ‘nonki,’ it’s means like Hawaiian style, very low-key.

So you started breaking the silence not just for yourself but also for your community about 20 years ago when you were about 60 years ago. You held onto those stories until you were about 60. Was there a kind of unspoken pressure to keep those stories quiet? Can you tell me about that?

None of my older sibling would talk about it. That was very common. That was the way the whole Japanese-American community did not talk about the camps and yet it’s what totally defines all of us. We all had that common thread of experience.

Can you explain to someone who doesn’t know about Japanese culture why that was?

In Japanese culture you do not stick out, if you stick up you get pounded down. Everybody has to conform. In Japan, you travel in groups, you wear the same uniforms, you all follow the flag of the leader. You behave uniformly like the mother quail and the father quail and their covey of quails, when they go left, you go left. We are all uniform. We don’t deviate from that uniformity. We are quiet, respectful to authority, and we are respectful to elders, to our fathers, mothers and older siblings. We don’t rock the boat. We don’t talk, we internalize, we have ‘gaman,’ patience, perseverance persistence in spite of suffering and pain. I always kid the mentorees I counsel that pain and suffering are good for building character.

Herb’s Brothers and their Experiences

When your brothers heard you were doing this play did they try to dissuade you?

No. No.

Did their feeling about keeping quiet change after seeing the play?

They never came to it.

How did you feel about that?

That’s ok with me. That’s the way they handled things. My oldest brother was very bitter. He came back from war a very bitter changed man. My mother kept this note from his teacher in Montana saying, ‘I’m so proud and so happy to have your son in my class because he’s so a wonderful speaker, wonderful student and very serious about learning. You should be very proud of him because he does wonderfully in class. He’s a very good student, so intelligent. She kept that note from his teacher for decades.

Do you think he became bitter because he served his country and still was treated as less-than?

Yes, his term was I hate those Ketos [literally hairy Caucasians]…
Joe Joezo Tsuchiya. The 442nd Regimental Combat. Collection Herb Tsuchiya

Well, those feelings must have come from bad experiences.

He was wounded twice. His platoon was segregated, all Japanese, the 442nd. They rescued the lost Texan battalion with great casualties. The Germans were holed up in the hills with machine gun nests all around. The 442nd were told to go rescue the Texas battalion on the other side of that hill. They did and they lost, many men. Many men wounded. And then when the Commander called for the assembly of the troops [after the battle] he got mad, and said, ‘I told you I wanted the whole group here!’ They could only say, ‘Sir, that’s all we have left.’ Oh!


So your brother probably felt that loss wasn’t felt or appreciated.

No. They usually got the worst assignments. The orders no one else would want to take. They were in the service so they just did it. When the 442nd rescued the Jewish prisoners camp at Dachau, the prisoners were starving so they gave them all their food rations.  Then, all the prisoners vomited because they hadn’t eaten for so long that they couldn’t handle solid food. The 442nd were reprimanded by the troops who came later because they weren’t supposed to rescue them. The Caucasian troops wanted to rescue the prisoners and have their pictures taken. They wanted the news stories to be about them. So they were very upset and angry at the 442nd who had only managed to get there before the other troops. And the Jewish prisoners thought the Japanese had won the war.

Joe Joezo Tsuchiya & his two purple hearts. Collection Herb Tsuchiya
Oh, of course they would. From their point of view these were Japanese soldiers. What did your brother do after the war?

He wandered around town, kind of a lost soul, going to the taverns. He was being angry and upset. He worked hard labor, mostly as a gardener, back-breaking work. He came to my house and planted shrubbery and trees for me and for my family, for his niece, our youngest daughter he planted this Japanese apple pear tree. It died because our soil was hard pan – so he got another tree in her honor and it grew. He also planted rhododendrons and weeping pine tree for her.

So he loved her.

Yes. My oldest brother was a boxer too.

Was he good?

Well, he thought so. And he played football and he worked at fish canneries; he did a lot of hard physical labor.

He’s gone?

He died all alone in his apartment. My other brother found him. It was sad because he had a lot of respect for his two youngest brothers because we got college degrees and he didn’t – he never did.

I think in some ways you were lucky that you were young. I think it’s harder when you’re older because you understand what’s happening around you.

Because you see the injustice.

[Herb Tsuchiya came to this project via Yosh Nakagawa, who was referred by Densho.org]

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 


This project was supported in part by
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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The CentralAreaComm.blogspot.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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