BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Yoshio Fujimura, 67, says his family doesn’t know why his great uncle Matajiro Tsukuno immigrated to America in the first place.
Born in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture near Mt. Fuji in 1864, Tsukuno’s family was of the samurai class. With the fall of the samurai, the Tsukuno clan turned to cultivating leaf tobacco and apparently became wealthy doing so. So, as part of a wealthy family, why did Matajiro Tsukuno choose to leave for America?
Wanderlust, Fujimura figures, the thirst for adventure.
The first of three brothers to arrive in Seattle in 1889, descendants of Matajiro Tsukuno also assume he brought some of that wealth with him, for he founded the Oriental-American Bank, the first Japanese-owned bank in Seattle; and the Oriental Trading Company, a labor contractor for the railroads. As president of both companies, Tsukuno became one of the most prominent business and philanthropic figures in Seattle.
However, in 1907 at age 43, Tsukuno died suddenly and tragically during a train accident at Seattle’s Pier 90.
On the front page of the September 12, 1907 issue of The Seattle Times, the newspaper reported that Tsukuno “was instantly killed at 11:45 a.m. this morning by a Great Northern switch engine in front of the Great Northern Dock at Smith Cove. Tsukuno was on his way to deliver flowers to Judge Thomas Burke and M.F. Backus, commissioners from the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition to the orient, and to Thomas J. O’Brien, United States ambassador to Japan who were to sail this morning for Yokohama and to offer his compliments to the distinguished party. The steamship Minnesota sailed without Judge Burke, Mr. Backus and Ambassador O’Brien after being informed that the Japanese citizen who had come to bid them goodbye had been killed at the gate leading to the wharf.”
The Seattle Times story continued: “Among his countrymen he was a leader, his advice being sought and eagerly accepted on almost all matters that came up pertaining to the welfare of the race here. He came to Seattle 18 years ago. Tsukuno was regarded as one of the wealthiest Japanese residents in Seattle. He was progressive in his ideas, watched closely all business conditions in Seattle and for several years was a member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Assimilating into the business community he had many Caucasian friends in Seattle. Those who knew him well say that Tsukuno was one of the most charitable Japanese in Seattle. No one among his countrymen who were deserving of assistance ever went away from Tsukuno without obtaining the assistance needed. Matajiro left a widow. They had no children.”
Tsukuno is buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. In the October 19, 1962 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, there was a “Seattle Scene” column titled “Awaiting the Last Call at Lake View.” Columnist Frank Lynch wrote:
“Tsukuno was a Japanese merchant, and known and beloved from one end of these United States to the other. The family hired every available carriage in town for the funeral.
“That was not enough—and the overflow was brought to the cemetery in three street cars.”
In 1907, the city of Kofu honored Matajiro Tsukuno with seven granite lanterns to be placed around his grave. In 1965, due to problems mowing around the gravesite, the cemetery staff requested that the family remove two of the lanterns.
One of those lanterns now rests in the backyard of Fujimura’s Renton residence.
Following his brother Matajiro to America, Toyojiro Tsukuno immigrated to Seattle in 1896. He assisted Matajiro and others with establishing the Oriental-American Bank and at one time served as its vice president. That same year, he opened the Klondike restaurant and during the early 1900s operated the Niagara Café and Swiss Cafe, all in Seattle. Becoming president of the Japanese Restaurant Owners Association, he founded Tsukuno Brothers Company in 1917, an import-export business located in the Smith Tower. The company also operated as a ship chandler, providing supplies to the ships and crews of Japan’s NYK steamship line.
According to grandson Yoshio Fujimura: “My grandfather met my grandmother, Kiku Nomura, when her group from Japan made a stop in Seattle. She was a Christian missionary on her way to New York. She converted my grandfather, a Buddhist, to becoming a Christian and they got married. We don’t know the year.”
Tsukuno family histories also note that Toyojiro Tsukuno’s family “incurred more than their share of family tragedies.” Toyojiro lost his oldest brother, who was at the prime of his life in a train accident in 1907. With two daughters and four sons, the oldest son George, born in 1905, graduated from Brown University Phi Beta Kappa in 1927. Assigned to the Philippine branch of a Japanese bank in Manila, Filipino insurgents killed all Japanese employees including American-born George during the start of World War II.
Second son, Harold (Ham) born in 1915, volunteered for service with the U.S. Army joining the 232nd Combat Engineering Co. (all Japanese-Americans) which supported the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team in the European Theater during World War II. The 232nd repaired roads and bridges for the 442nd. During the Italian Campaign on April 11, 1945 Lt. Harold Tsukuno was wounded in action. His group was advancing on enemy positions when a tank from a supporting armored division ran over a land mine. He was wounded by the explosion and was subsequently awarded the Purple Heart. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the UW and was hired by the Internal Revenue Dept in the audit division after the war. He and his wife Kay (Nisei) lived in Chicago. They never returned to the West Coast.
At 3 a.m. on December 8, 1941, the FBI took Toyojiro Tsukuno from his Seattle home and was incarcerated at Missoula, Mont. As one of the few issei whose family hired attorneys to seek his release and protect his businesses, Tsukono remained remained interned and eventually joined his nisei children at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
Yoshio Fujimura, son of Toyojiro’s daughter Tomi and Rev. John Fujimura, was four years old when sent to Heart Mountain, 14 when driving from Chicago — where the family had relocated after the war — back to Seattle in a truck along with his grandfather. After the war, Toyojiro “didn’t do anything — just stayed at home,” Fujimura says, with one of his favorite pastimes being listening to Seattle Rainier minor league baseball games on the radio. The Tsukunos did own a house for some 70 years along Des Moines Memorial Drive near Boeing Field. Fujimura remembers that his grandfather loved working in his quarter-acre-large garden.
“The figs were delicious,” he says.
Fujimura also recalls driving his grandfather to the Japanese Baptist Church “every Sunday until he died” at age 85.
“In fact, he died on a Sunday morning in his sleep,” Fujimura says. “I lived with him and when I went to wake him up for church; he had already passed.”
An after word to a family biography of Tsukuno reads:
“In the early 1900s, Toyojiro Tsukuno was presented with a trophy for his accomplishments in the restaurant business. In the early ‘60s, great-grandaughter Stacey Fujimura would play with the trophy and polish it every time she visited her grandmother Tomi Tsukuno Fujimura. When Stacey was in the sixth grade, her grandmother gave the trophy for her for safe keeping because, according to grandma Tomi, she was the only one that polished it and took care of it.
“Today, after 95 years, it sits in Stacey [Fujimura] Takano’s living room but hasn’t been polished!”