The Reparations Champion Who Became “Godmother of Japantown”

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A senior woman of Japanese descent with cropped white curly hair smiles at the camera.

The Kataoka family managed to hang on until May of 1942. It was then—three months after Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066—that they were forcibly removed from their home in Alameda County and thrown into an internment camp. Across the United States, 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans were suffering the same fate; more than 8,000 of them from the Bay Area.

The Kataokas were strawberry farmers from Centerville—a region that, today, is part of Fremont. Mom Yumi and her six children—three girls, three boys—had grown even closer since the death of her husband, Masajiro, just two years earlier. But their indefinite incarceration would test the family like never before.

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

Yumi’s fifth child, Tsuyako, was 23 at the time of their imprisonment and already a hard worker—she worked on the family farm, a local apricot farm, and in a doctor’s office. Tsuyako had earned the nickname “Sox” as a child—the result of her peers pronouncing her name incorrectly. For her, the family’s arrival at the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno, where they would be forced to sleep in filthy horse stables, was the most humiliating moment of her life. Sox shared one stable with her mother and brothers; while her sisters and their families moved into a neighboring one. Before their imprisonment had even begun, the family had been forced to euthanize their dog and sell off their most prized possessions—including Sox’s beloved piano.

After four months in Tanforan, the Kataokas were moved to Block 16 of a “relocation center” in Topaz, Utah. Conditions were dire in Topaz too, but it was there that Sox found her feet and first became a real force to be reckoned with. She became an assistant block manager and 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.

Within the first year, however, her entire family—except for one sister—was transferred to a different camp at Tule Lake in Oregon. But the separation served to strengthen the relationship between Sox and her boyfriend, Tom Kitashima, who was also imprisoned in Topaz. On August, 11, 1945, the couple married in the camp. And just over a month later, they were finally released.

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With little to return to in Centerville, the newlyweds moved to an apartment on Bush Street in San Francisco. Sox’s new lines of work reflected her continuing desire to be of service. She worked at both the War Relocation Authority and the San Francisco Veteran’s Administration, stopping only to raise her son during the 1950s.

But it was after her 1981 retirement, having lost her husband six years prior, that Sox threw herself even further into public service.  She began volunteering with local organizations that were dear to her heart. One of her favorites was Japantown's Kimochi Inc, which, to this day, dedicates itself to assisting thousands of seniors, both in its facility and in their own homes. Later, Sox also served on the city's Commission on Aging Advisory Council.

It was when she became the spokesperson for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations that Sox's dedication to good causes began to have a national impact. She made lobbying trips to Washington D.C., made public speaking appearances to talk about life in the camps, and she spearheaded letter writing campaigns. During one, she personally mailed over 8,000 letters to both President Ronald Reagan and Congress. "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."

It took years of non-stop pressure, but President Reagan finally signed the Civil Liberties Act into law in 1988. Two years later, the first financial compensation was received by Japanese-American families. Checks for around $20,000 arrived, along with a letter of apology from President George Bush.

"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 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 "Sox" 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."

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here