Tsuguo “Ike” Ikeda. • Image from a Densho oral history video. Click here to watch.
Tsuguo “Ike” Ikeda. • Image from a Densho oral history video. Click here to watch.

Tsuguo “Ike” Ikeda, long-time Nisei activist and respected non-profit social service leader in Seattle, passed away on December 2 after a brief illness at the age of 91.

“He had a good life,” his widow Sumiko “Sumi” Ikeda said. “He was an unusual Nisei. Nisei did not rock the boat. He was one who did. He was very outspoken. I’m glad he was happy doing his work, devoting many hours to the community and the church.”

Wing Luke Museum Director Beth Takekawa, who worked with him in 1991 on a major exhibition on the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, called him a “community giant.”

Long-time social justice activist Al Sugiyama called him “one of the most amazing persons I have ever met,” a wise mentor to a budding generation of minority students interested in careers in community and public service in the 1970s.

Ikeda, a genial, but feisty crusader for civil liberties throughout his life, was one of the first Asian Pacific Americans to serve as executive director of a non-profit agency in the United States, working for the Atlantic Street Center from 1953 to 1986. During his tenure, he embraced partnerships with minority activists, bringing new energy and purpose during the turbulent Civil Rights era to a storied agency founded in 1910 as a settlement house for Italian immigrants. He provided a space for the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program and later for the Dat Moi newspaper, the first Vietnamese newspaper in the United States.

According to Sumi, the government’s unjust treatment of his family—and other Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II—deeply affected his career path. Ikeda was born on August 15, 1924 in Portland, Oregon. In May, 1942, he and his family were incarcerated in a converted livestock exhibition pavilion in Portland before being transferred to a desolate concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho.

“He was only 17 when he was incarcerated,” Sumi recalled. “At the time he walked into the camp, he vowed he would devote the rest of his life working for those who didn’t have a voice. That was his life.”

Ike Ikeda (left), Ron Chew (center), and Sumi Ikeda (right) in August 2014. • Courtesy Photo
Ike Ikeda (left), Ron Chew (center), and Sumi Ikeda (right) in August 2014. • Courtesy Photo

In an interview with the International Examiner in April 2015, Ikeda said, “I made a promise to myself when I entered the camp and there were soldiers with rifles pointed at us that I would fight for social justice,” he said. “I promised that I would fight to never let this kind of nonsense happen to any other group of people.”

After World War II, Ikeda earned his bachelor’s degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland. He moved to Seattle to pursue his master’s of social work degree at the University of Washington. He was employed as a social worker at Neighborhood House before his stint at the Atlantic Street Center.

Sumi said that she first met Ike, a lifelong Methodist, at Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church in Seattle. The two were married in 1951. She said Ike had started a college social group at the church which he named the “Duzzers,” after a popular detergent soap called Duz. At the time, she recalled, Duz was advertised as “the soap that does everything.” “Because we decided we would do everything, the name of our group was the Duzzers,” she said.

Among his many achievements, Ikeda was one of the founding members of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County (MEDC). “For many years, MEDC played a major role in advising the City on minority issues,” Sugiyama said. Ikeda also helped organize the first Minority Inmate Coalition of Monroe Reformatory.

In 1991, during the creation of the Wing Luke Museum’s landmark Executive Order 9066 exhibition—a community organizing project that catapulted the tiny Museum to national prominence—Ikeda worked alongside third generation Sansei to help shape themes and gather historical objects for display. His forthright manner, easy laugh and sound judgment helped the team of novice museum curators maintain harmony during a very tight 12-month schedule.

“He not only had the memories, he also had the news clippings and documents,” exhibition team member Bob Shimabukuro said. “He acted as if he was just a record keeper, but a wealth of first-hand knowledge and insight came from his own experiences. Like many of the Nisei, he just didn’t give himself credit.”

Ikeda was especially proud of his book, Ike’s Principles, a small self-published booklet describing 11 successful management style concepts, explained in the form of Japanese words and traditions. The book took him 30 years to bring to print and he frequently promoted it among friends and colleagues in the non-profit field.

Ikeda is survived by his widow Sumi; four daughters: Wanda Ikeda, Helen Ikeda-Gomes, Julie Oshiro, Patricia Matsumiya; and seven grandchildren.

A “celebration of life” memorial service for Ikeda will be held on Monday, January 18 at 11:00 a.m. at Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church. Memorial gifts are recommended to Densho or the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington. 

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