As my cousin Wendy Tokuda Hall and I talked about our recently departed Tama, it was like seeing a totally different person than the one I knew. I wasn’t aware of all of her writing and reading throughout her lifetime. But then it made sense when I realized that I am a person of the written word, like her, and now I felt more connected. Tama passed away on Saturday, Aug. 31 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her death comes only a month and a half after the sudden death of her son, Kip Tokuda, who suffered a heart attack on July 13. She was born at home in the summer of 1920, in a wooden house her parents rented on Yesler Street, not far from Nikkei Manor in the International District where she spent her last years.
I wish I had been able to talk to her about our similarities. I know I would have learned so much, as she kept a journal throughout most of her life, documenting her time at Minidoka, Idaho, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II, and also when my mother was very ill in the hospital. I knew Tama as my mother Michiko’s older sister, who took care of me and my younger sister, Suzie, when my mom and dad went to Europe as chaperones for three weeks, and other times when we were too young to travel with them. She didn’t mind at all, having us around, along with her already large family. I don’t remember much at that age, but I know it was a good experience and I’m sure I absorbed so much of her warmth, care, humor and Japanese culture during those times. And I’m sure she read to us, and probably encouraged us, in her nice demeanor, to pick up a book once in a while or maybe even write down our thoughts on paper.
But as Wendy was reading to me recently from her mother’s many journals, my Auntie Tama was transformed into this amazing, dynamic — yet quiet and beautiful — artist. To me, she was like a second mother, but so much more.
“The interesting thing about Mom, was that she was totally devoted as a mother,” said her daughter, Wendy. “As a person, she really developed into her own person in her 60s. When dad died, she developed her own interests, and it was so fascinating to see that happening.”
Auntie Tama ushered at Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT), became a docent at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and talked about the internment at the Wing’s 1992 exhibit, “EO 9066: 50 years before and 50 years after.”
Wendy describes her mom as a person of the written word, majoring in literature of the University of Washington (UW) before they were forced to leave during World War II: “She read like a fiend and saved her papers. She has aspirations.”
A professor at the UW encouraged her to write and document her experience at the Minidoka incarceration camp in Idaho. “Even Floyd Schmoe (a Quaker, pacifist and writer from Seattle) said [to Tama], ‘You will need to write this. You’re living it,’ ” remembered Wendy.
But after college, she got married and raised five children. Her husband George Tokuda ran the iconic pharmacy in the International District, so a lot of the upbringing duties fell on her shoulders.
Her first child, Floyd Tokuda, was born developmentally disabled in 1945.
“Butchie (Floyd) was central to her life,” said Wendy. “She had to be his advocate, because this was not something that was talked about at that time, especially in the Asian community.”
“It was painful for her, to love him so deeply,” Wendy added.
She constantly worked with each child in her family differently.
“She lived through her children,” continued Wendy. “She made me think really hard. We would talk for hours at night and would say things that were insightful, deeply thoughtful and original.”
One of the children that she worked with was her youngest, Marilyn Tokuda, who currently heads arts education programs at East West Players in Los Angeles.
“Mom was a dancer and she always supported my arts. She understood and valued arts,” said Marilyn. “She knew what it meant to be an artist. Growing up, she encouraged me because she thought I’d be good at it.” In high school Tama made Marilyn’s dresses for prom and the plays that she performed in at Franklin High School, such as “West Side Story,” where she played the lead character, Maria. In 7th grade, Marilyn saw a drama class that she wanted to take at the UW, so her mom drove her there for 12 weeks and would wait two hours in the car.
“She was always dedicated to whatever we needed,” recalled Marilyn.
Tama was involved in a lot of theater in the Asian-American community. In one production, she and her husband George helped Maria Batayola, who was playing a Japanese Nisei woman, and Bob Lee, who was cast as the husband to Maria’s character. The play, written by Philip Kan Gotanda, was “A Song for a Nisei Fisherman.” The two young actors, Filipina and Chinese American, respectively, spent a few hours at the Tokuda house observing, talking and absorbing what it was like to be a Nisei couple for their play. George took Bob to the basement of their home so he could show him his fishing equipment, since George was very fond of fishing. “We wanted to pick up the nuances of what a Nisei couple was like,” said Maria. “Tama was very graceful, had efficiency of movement as she showed me photos of when she danced at the Nippon Kan Theatre. I just remember her being so quiet, graceful and stately … an artist and a mother. Very impressive.”
Ron Chew, former director of The Wing, got to know Tama when she was a docent there, telling her story about being in the camps during World War II. She had written a few stories for the International Examiner, said Ron, remembering when he was editor of the International Examiner in the 1980s. She was always entering into another phase in her life. “She was rediscovering herself, being reborn,” he said. “Tama was a bridge between the Issei, Nisei and Sansei,” putting her in the group with other Nisei women pioneers as Shigeko Uno and Cherry Kinoshita, added Ron. She grew up in the old Nihonmachi (Japantown) but was contemporary and able to communicate with young people.
“She talked openly about the camp experience and she opened the doors with her involvement in the [museum’s “Executive Order 9066”] exhibit,” he said. “Her sharing allowed the Sansei and Yonsei to embrace their past, understand their place in American history.”
He added: “She had an understated sense of humor, with her smile, the way she rolled her eyes,” Chew continued. “She was very gracious and a gifted storyteller. Her passing is like the ending of an era.” She is survived by her children Floyd Tokuda and Valerie Tokuda Chin of Seattle, Wendy Tokuda Hall of Oakland, Calif. and Marilyn Tokuda of Los Angeles, as well as several grandchildren.
A memorial will be held at 3 p.m., Saturday, September 21, 2013 at Japanese Presbyterian Church, 1801 Twenty-Fourth Avenue South in Seattle.