Rebel Girls From Bay Area History: Tsuyako "Sox" Kitashima, Reparations Champion

As part of Women’s History Month, KQED Pop is highlighting female trailblazers from the Bay Area’s past. Our fourth installment honors Tsuyako Kitashima.

On February 19, 1942, in response to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor two months prior, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This hastily enforced directive effectively sentenced 120,000 Japanese-Americans to an undetermined prison sentence. In the Bay Area, 8,033 men, women, and children were forced to abandon their homes and possessions, and move to an internment camp on the site of the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno.

120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to live in internment camps for three and a half years, during World War II.

At the time, Tsuyako "Sox" Kitashima (her nickname was born out of the difficulty most of her classmates in Hayward had pronouncing her first name) was 23 years old. Moving into a single horse stable -- hay and manure still present on the floor -- with her parents and five siblings was both a humiliating blow, and a far cry from the small, idyllic strawberry farm she had grown up on. Her neighbors at Tanforan that didn't end up in a stable were housed in either shoddily constructed barracks or the racetrack's grandstands.

After a few months, the family was moved to Topaz, Utah, to what was politely referred to as a "relocation center."  In reality, it was a glorified concentration camp. It was here that Kitashima found her feet as a force to be reckoned with. She acted as a messenger between residents and the camp's government officials, and, for the three years she spent there, she fought for better conditions for her fellow residents.

In 1945, upon release, her entire family volunteered to assist fellow camp survivors in getting relocated in San Francisco. As her family gradually returned to regular life, Tsuyako continued to fight hard for her community, becoming one of the most actively outspoken people in America when it came to talking about life in the camps. Knowing the pain that talking about it brought, she also helped to organize an annual day of remembrance every February 19, as a means to heal and unify the Japanese-American community.

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As the 1950s rolled around, and with a young son at home, Kitashima started a three-decade career at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center, in keeping with her desire to be of service.

By the 1980s, the retired Kitashima became the spokesperson for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. Her volunteer work was very literally hands on. During a letter-writing reparations campaign, she personally sent 8,046 of the over 20,000 letters that President Ronald Reagan received. "It has been very exciting for me," she said in an interview at the time. "I treasure every letter that I fold and put in the mail box."

After Kitashima had worked on the reparations campaign for almost a decade, President Reagan finally signed the Civil Liberties Act into law. It was a great victory for Kitashima and her fellow campaigners, but it took until 1990 for the first financial compensation to be received by Japanese-American families. President George Bush sent out checks for around $20,000, along with a letter of apology.

"A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories," Bush wrote. "We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II. In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. You and your family have best wishes for the future. "

After the Civil Liberties Act passed, Kitashima continued to be of service in the community by volunteering at Japantown's Kimochi Inc, which dedicates itself to assisting thousands of seniors, both in its facility and in their own homes. Kitashima took pride in working in the kitchen there every day, and also served on the city's Commission on Aging Advisory Council.

In 1998, Kitashima's lifelong commitment to her community earned her a Free Spirit Award from The Freedom Forum ("dedicated to free press, free speech, and free spirit"), as well as a respect and admiration that stretched far beyond the Japanese-American Bay Area community.

"I have often called Sox the godmother of San Francisco Japantown because she took care of so many people in the Japanese American community and the Asian American community," said Carole Hayashino, President & Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. "She was also an educator for our children. She spent a lot of time talking to students, sharing her experiences and the lessons of the Japanese American internment experience."

After her death in 2006 at the age of 87, Tsuyako Kitashima's memorial was held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. The online guestbook speaks volumes about the number of lives she touched during hers.

"I had the good fortune to meet Sox through an oral history program we developed at the school where I taught. Sox was a phenomenal resource," wrote Larry Boston.

Regan Young of Alameda said: "Mrs. K... will always be my Pack 58 cub scout den mother, and the person who made sure the Jigoku's/Wong's Bait Shop/Angel's softball teams never went hungry!"

Joane Chiedi sent best wishes from Washington DC: "Her energy and dedication to public service is an example for all to follow. She will truly be missed."

The "Rebel Girls From Bay Area History" series has also featured arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd; pioneering journalist Delilah L. Beasley; and Chicana activist Sofía Mendoza.

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