By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
A builder, survivor, mentor, and friend.
On May 19, 2018, Seattle lost a vital member of the community, someone who cared for the city’s residents, especially its Japanese American residents, for more than four decades. A devoted family man, father, and husband.
Toshikazu Okamoto, known as “Tosh,” was living in Kent when the U.S. government sent him and his family to an internment camp. Soon after, in 1945, at the age of 18, Tosh was drafted into the United States Army. Tosh’s wife, Toshiko Okamoto (“Toshi”), marveled at a system that could imprison a person and then send him to war.
“How could they have drafted the boys from the camps?” she wondered. “They put them in the camps.
Then they took them away from their families.” Yet Tosh didn’t seem to hold any hard feelings from this wartime experience, even when, upon his return from military service, he struggled to find work in an environment of continuing discrimination. Told by the union that there “weren’t any openings,” when in fact there were (just not for a Japanese American), Tosh eventually gained employment with the local fire department, becoming the first minority to work there.
Tosh’s son, John Okamoto, explained how his father’s internment camp experience came across to Tosh’s family.
“He never talked about his camp experience until the reparation hearings. I heard him testify. I heard things I had never heard before. When Reagan signed the reparations bill [in 1988], he said, ‘I finally feel like I belong.’ He had little bitterness. He was gracious.” Nevertheless, Tosh’s daughter, Sheila Omoto, does feel that there was a struggle within Tosh, and probably many of those who were interned, to “prove” their “American-ness” and to “prove” their right to live and work in this country.
“We had to prove we were more than worthy to be Americans,” Sheila explained. The internment camp experience might have been part of what drove Tosh to be the hard worker that he was. “He was never going to fail,” said Sheila.
Holding no bitterness didn’t mean that Tosh didn’t care about what happened to Japanese Americans.
Quite the opposite. Tosh was a champion for Japanese Americans. In the 1970s, Tosh became aware of a disservice being done to the older generation of Japanese Americans in Seattle (Issei). Particularly, he was offended by the treatment of “Gold Star Parents” — Issei whose children served in the military. In those days, there were few services available for Japanese Americans in Seattle as they grew older, and oftentimes, tales of mistreatment came back to relatives and friends. Tosh and a group of like-minded friends called the “Magnificent Seven,” with the help of Tosh’s daughter, Joyce, in San Francisco, and many others, set out to create a retirement home tailored to Japanese Americans — a place where Issei could grow old in a familiar environment, surrounded by others from their own culture, enjoying their own habits and even their own food. Thus, Keiro (now called Keiro Northwest) was born.
Tomio Moriguchi was a participant in the project and a close friend. “People like [Tosh], when they ask for help, it’s hard to refuse, because they in turn have been scout masters, active parents, active in church. They did their share and they were very generous, so it was hard to say no … He was there when help was needed.” Tosh’s family, too, remembered how busy Tosh kept himself.
“He was a lifelong learner,” said John. “He was curious. He tried cooking, wood carving, golfing, wine making … He made Japanese pickles, fermented soybeans, ribs … [both children smiled and said “Yum.”] … He would try anything.” Over 40 years later, Tosh’s brain child is still a thriving senior citizen community. As friend Dale Kaku pointed out, “Keiro was the first big financial fundraising project for our community. Maybe the first community-wide Japanese American activity in the Seattle area, ever.”
Kaku met Tosh while helping with a renovation of the original Keiro nursing home, then came to know Tosh better through the Nisei Veterans’ Committee (NVC), with whom Tosh was active and served a stint as Commander. Tosh did not forget his fellow soldiers. In addition to many other NVC activities, Tosh helped raise $2 million for a renovation for the NVC in the early 2000s. Kaku echoed Moriguchi’s sentiments that Tosh was not one of those people that you turned down. He described how he became a member of NVC.
“I used to play basketball at the gym upstairs, until one day, Tosh came over and he said, ‘You’re a veteran. Why don’t you come down and join?’ I said to myself, ‘If Tosh asked me to join, then okay, I’m going to join.”’
There was nothing stopping Tosh from his goals. This revealed not only his love for his community, but also his faith. He knew the community could get things done. Daughter Sheila described her father and his friends as “courageous.” She said, “They had what it took to make something happen. Nowadays, if someone said, you need to raise $2 million to build a nursing home, not too many people would do that. But [Tosh] was determined and committed.” Son John added, “He was a connector of ideas and visions about whatever would be good for the community.” Moriguchi said, “I’m glad somebody like Tosh was around when we were doing our projects. We could use a few more Tosh’s.”
Tosh will be missed. Yet, when asked how the community will fare in Tosh’s absence, the response was optimistic. Kaku felt that the inclusive programs Tosh had encouraged at the NVC, such as joint activities with Jewish American or Black community members, would continue.
“Tosh pushed NVC to work with many other diversified groups in the community, and we continue to work together.” John said confidently of his father, “He had an ability to see a community need and then create a response. I think others will step up to play that role now that Tosh is gone, and already have.” Without a doubt, Tosh’s shining example will light the way for others well into the future.
Tosh received both a Congressional Medal from the U.S. government and the Rising Sun Order from the government of Japan. He is survived by his wife, Toshi, children John, Joyce, Susan, and Sheila, happy grandchildren, affectionate friends, and many appreciative community members.
A public celebration of Tosh’s life will be held on Sept. 22, at 2 p.m., at the Blaine Memorial Methodist Church, on 3001 24th Ave. S., in Seattle. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church, Nisei Veterans’ Committee, and Keiro Northwest.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.