BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Hitsuji and Sawa Beppu were ahead of their time. In the early 1900s, Hitsuji was the house-husband, staying home and taking care of the kids while his wife Sawa, an esteemed mid-wife within Seattle’s Japanese American community, went off to work. Did Hitsuji have to take his share of ribbing from other issei men?
“There was jealousy of Hitsuji, but he was man enough to take care of that situation,” says granddaughter Joanne Fujimura.
At his home, Hitsuji Beppu taught “utai,” an old style of Japanese singing sometimes used in Noh theater.
Born and raised in the city of Kochi on the island of Shikoku, Hitsuji Beppu belonged to a samurai family. After the end of the feudal era when the samurai class was abolished in 1867, Beppu’s family remained in the Japanese military.
From a family of well-known Tokyo wood carvers and artisans, Sawa Osawa graduated from a Tokyo university — unusual for a Japanese woman of that era — earning a mid-wife certificate. Hitsuji and Sawa married in Tokyo in 1908 and, hearing there were no Japanese-speaking mid-wives available in the Pacific Northwest, they immigrated to America in 1909.
According to a Beppu family history compiled by Joanne and Yosh Fujimura, Sawa Beppu was the first Japanese mid-wife in the Seattle area.
“In photos from 1916 and 1923, the Beppu family bought brand new Model-T Fords because Mrs. Beppu had a thriving business and needed transportation to visit her patients in Seattle and the Tacoma area,” the history states. “She might have been the only issei woman who knew how to drive a car at the turn of the century. According to people that have driven Model-T’s, they claim it was a very mechanically complicated car to drive compared to the later Model-A’s. She must have been very mechanically inclined.” Grandson Pat Abe of Seventh Avenue Service obviously inherited her skills, says Joanne Fujimura.
Sawa Beppu delivered over 1,000 babies, says her granddaughter Penny Fukui, whose husband Frank was delivered by Beppu. Sawa Beppu, also a seamstress, owned a dress shop on Jackson Street.
The Beppus soon had sons Taft, Lincoln, Grant, Monroe, and daughter Hiroko. Mrs. Beppu purposely named her sons after former American presidents.
Joanne Fujimura has photographs of her mother, Hiroko, as a young girl in action with Hatsune-kai, a dance and theater group that often performed at Nippon Kan, the main theater and concert hall in Nihonmachi. “Since she was tall for her age, she often had to play a boy,” Fujimura recalls.
Eldest son Taft attended Meiji University in Tokyo after being encouraged to do so by the university’s basketball coach whom Taft Beppu served as an interpreter for during the team’s visit to Seattle. While attending the university, Beppu organized a jazz band and became its vocalist. Becoming popular in Japan, he adopted the stage name “Johnny Taft” and signed a contract with Columbia Records of Japan.
According to a 1998 article in the Rafu Shimpo Los Angeles Daily News, Taft made his recording debut in August 1934 singing “St. Louis Blues,” the first verse in Japanese and the second in English. A Japanese newspaper review said of his recording:
“Beppu is young and ambitious; he does not exhibit the stereotypical Japanese American wildness. His speaking voice is a rich, low baritone … it is a charming voice. He still has no stage experience, but there is no one in Japan today whose voice compares with that of ‘Johnny (Taft)’… a status he will probably continue to enjoy.”
“Beppu became a popular entertainer in Japan,” the article continues. “Accompanied by the Columbia Records orchestra, he performed in theaters and at the ‘Florida,’ a celebrated Tokyo dance hall. In an advertisement of a gala show featuring Columbia recording artists, Taft Beppu was billed as ‘the new personality from America who will fulfill all of your expectations!’”
In the Beppu family history, Joanne Fujimura wrote of her uncle: “His appeal with audiences was due to a relaxed American style of singing complemented by authentic English diction. He was touted as the ‘Bing Crosby of Japan.’ Taft Beppu returned to Seattle around 1938 after a relatively short, but fulfilling career in show business. He did not resume a career in music in the States. He entered into a fishing-tackle partnership with his brothers.”
After the family was relocated to the Minidoka camp during World War II and returned to Seattle, Sawa Beppu never delivered another baby again. Taft and brother Lincoln opened “Linc’s Tackle” on Rainier Avenue. While his brothers were fishing enthusiasts, Grant was not. As Joanne and Yosh Fujimura tell the story: “Whenever his father Hitsuji, an expert fisherman, wanted to go salmon fishing in Elliott Bay, 13-year-old Grant had to row the boat. And then, with the day’s catch stuffed in a gunny sack, he also had to haul the sack onto a streetcar. By the time he arrived home, Grant “smelled like a fish market.” Grant was prone to sea sickness, which didn’t help.
Grant Beppu went on to become “a very popular Chevrolet auto salesman,” the Fujimuras say. Brother Monroe, also in the auto dealership business, sold Oldsmobiles. Hiroko, a career housewife, was married to Sho Imori, an electrical engineer with the Boeing Company for 35 years.