BY NHIEN NGUYEN
Though Kojiu Kuniyuki never talked much about his struggles in life, he was proud to show evidence of his labor to his grandchildren: a missing middle finger on his left hand.
The missing finger was a mark of his early days in America, working several years in the sawmills, a common occupation of Issei in the States. Stories from Issei talk of the hard work in the lumbering industry — the 10 to 12 hour days and the pain in their fingers from the physical labor.
Kojiu was born in Yamaguchi-ken, Japan and came to the United States in 1898 after a year in Canada. At the age of 18, Kojiu was eager to make his way in the world. As the fifth son of agriculturists Hyoemon and Shika Kuniyuki, there was little land left to parcel out to Kojiu, so he left for the bountiful riches of the West with his youngest brother Sojiu.
In 1907, Kojiu returned to Japan to marry his bride, Seki, a marriage like many other Japanese that was arranged through a matchmaker.
Daughter Mariko recalled a story about her father’s first visit back to his native land where he was greeted with a welcome home party. Kojiu spotted a beautiful woman who he thought was his bride, but, much to his chagrin, was mistaken.
In 1908, as the Kuniyuki marriage prospered in America, the family entered the hotel business, operating many Seattle hotels, including the Oshima Hotel, Standard Hotel, Tourist Hotel and Wiltshire Hotel, according to an obituary in The Seattle Times.
Kojiu and Seki Kuniyuki went on to have five children – Yukio, Kaname, Tadashi, Mariko and Mieko, though Mieko died in infancy.
In 1918, Kojiu and his wife returned to Japan for a visit, bringing Mariko with them. As Mariko was only two years old at the time, with no one to help take care of her in America, the Kuniyukis left her in Japan under the care of her aunt and uncle. Son Kaname had been left in Japan a few years earlier in care of another childless aunt and uncle. Back then, it was customary for the Japanese to give their children to relatives who did not have children of their own. Kaname also remained in Japan, but later returned to Seattle at age 16; Mariko returned briefly before going back to Japan just prior to the United States declaring war with Japan. She would not return until after World War II to care for her parents.
As the Kuniyukis continued to build capital, they moved on to their next opportunity, and opened a barbershop and Japanese bathhouse. It was then that Kojiu Kuniyuki became the organizer and charter president of the Japanese Barbers’ Association.
Kojiu Kuniyuki continued to send money back to Japan and also wrote letters. In 1923, when Mariko was about seven years old, Kojiu came back to Japan. At first, when she saw Kojiu Kuniyuki, she had no idea that he was her father, since she knew him only through letters.
Kojiu was happy to be living in America, but kept close to his cultural ties through an active social and civic life. Japanese in America found mutual support in Seattle as each prefecture in Japan had a club in America. Kojiu was part of the Yamaguchi-ken-jin Kai. He also found a network through the Konko Kyo Church and the Seattle Japanese Hotel and Apartment Owners’ Association.
Though known to be a serious man, Kojiu hosted regular social gatherings at his home, with lots of guests and lots of drinking. Kojiu was often called upon to be in the forefront of the gatherings, giving speeches, toasts and statements.
For a break from the arduous work of helping her husband at the barbershop and hotels, Kojiu’s wife Seki sought enjoyment through socializing, being in the outdoors and watching Japanese movies at the Buddhist Church. Like many Japanese Americans, she liked to go matsutake-tori (mushroom hunting) and picking strawberries. She took pleasure in watching Bon Odori dancing. Her husband also loved Bon Odori and took Japanese Minyo Dance Lessons.
The Kuniyukis instilled cultural pride among their children, and took them to Japanese Language School. The children’s connection to culture and hard work led them to become successful adults. The oldest, Yukio, was considered the “most outstanding Nisei baseball player in Seattle high school history in the past 25 years,” according to an article in the Northwest Times printed in 1950. In 1956, Yukio ran for State Representative in the 33rd District. Kaname, also known as Kenneth Kuniyuki, became a legend in Judo (9th dan and highest ranking black belt in the United States prior to his death in 2003.) He was inducted in the Southern California Judo Hall of Fame in 2001.
During the Japanese American internment in World War II, the Kuniyukis were taken to Minidoka. Fortunately, Kojiu and Seki were able to store their belongings with a Caucasian friend, an attorney who also helped them receive market value for the sale of the Wiltshire Hotel, which they owned at the time. Unlike most other Japanese American families, the Kuniyukis were able to hold on to their assets. Son Yukio would serve with the E Company in the 442nd Combat Infantry Team.
Kojiu didn’t show resentment after the war, perhaps because his family didn’t lose as much as others had at the time. He returned to Seattle in 1946, and operated Tad’s Café on First Avenue South with Yukio, Tadashi and Mariko. During and after a citywide bus strike, business suffered in Pioneer Square and the café was vacant for a number of years. Today, it is the The New Orleans Creole Restaurant.
Kojiu never became fully fluent in English (though he spoke more than his wife) and communicated with his non-Japanese speaking grandchildren through nonverbal means. Grandson Y.K. Kuniyuki remembers his gifts of 50-cent coins and silver dollars, along with Hershey’s chocolates. A devoted grandfather, Kojiu would wait for his grandson to get out of Washington Junior High School and walk him home.
“He was always in a suit, cane, hat and neck tie,” says Y.K. Kuniyuki, who was often invited to sit on his grandfather’s knees.
Granddaughters Vicki Asakura and Irene Kuniyuki have faint memories of their grandfather. Irene, who recalls his habit of smoking pipes, is the photo memorabilia archivist. Vicki Asakura has maintained the family history documentation.
Kojiu Kuniyuki was a proud man, and loved sharing his birthday, April 29, with that of Emperor Hirohito. He died at age 84.