2006 Honorees

Mary TsukamotoMary Tsukamoto
(1915 - 1998)

Educator and Cultural Historian
2006 Women's History Month Honoree

Mary Tsukamoto was born on January 17, 1915 in San Francisco, California, the second of five children to parents who had emigrated from Okinawa, Japan. Mary dedicated her life to ensure equal rights for every citizen of the United States.

When she was ten years old, the family moved to Florin, CA and grew strawberries and grapes despite restrictions that prevented Japanese-born people from owning the land they worked. Mary and her brother and sisters attended the segregated Florin Grammar School.  Mary’s ultimate decision to become a teacher was heavily influenced by a kind and caring high school teacher, Mabel Barron, who helped her attend the College of the Pacific in Stockton, CA.

In December 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the United States entered World War II.  Fear, panic, racism, prejudice, greed, and lack of political leadership resulted in the mass evacuation and internment of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast of the United States, most of whom were American citizens. Many lost their farms, homes and property.  The hardship and humiliation of the internment experience fueled much of Mary’s passion for justice as a teacher, community leader, and civil rights activist.

The consummate educator, Mary knew the power of learning from experience, knowing the history, and sharing the stories of people’s lives.  Mary taught in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California for 26 years. In 1982, her outstanding work as a teacher was recognized when the Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School was named in her honor as a tribute to Mary’s work in establishing cultural and educational programs.  Currently, Tsukamoto’s Time of Remembrance program continues at the California History Museum in Sacramento educating future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past.  The motto is “never again” should citizens lose their fundamental rights.

Mary Tsukamoto worked tirelessly for Japanese American civil liberties and played a crucial role in the grassroots effort that led to the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The passage of this legislation helped to rectify the injustice of the internment and authorized the U.S. government to apologize for “the grave injustice … to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry…” and to provide compensation for…

”the incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering … for these fundamental violations of basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry...”
To help ensure that all the citizens of the United States have the opportunity to learn about the Japanese internment experience, as well as the courage, resilience, and patriotism of the people interned, Mary Tsukamoto wrote about her experiences in her book, We the People: A Story of Internment in America.

She also worked with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to develop a special exhibition on the Internment. Her strong belief in the power of community, culture, and history, can be seen in her contribution to the Japanese-American Collection at California State University, Sacramento.