Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Honorable Stephen K. Tamura: Lawyer, Judge, Wintersburg Mission congregant

LEFT: The first Japanese American appellate judge in the continental U.S. and Orange County's first Japanese attorney, Justice Stephen Kosako Tamura (1911-1982), one of the "Sunday school boys" at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission.  (Photo, Japanese American Bar Association)    

   Many of the oral histories of early Wintersburg residents excerpted on the Historic Wintersburg blog were part of a larger effort during the late 1960s to 1980s to capture the memories of Orange County's Japanese American community.  

   The Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project* was named for Stephen Kosako Tamura "in recognition of his rise from roots in the local Japanese American community to appointment, in 1966, as the first Japanese American appellate judge in the continental United States."

   Stephen K. Tamura  also was a congregant of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission during his childhood.  Tamura was remembered, along with other notable Wintersburg congregants, by Reverend Kenji Kikuchi in his 1981 oral history interview for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project as one of "my Sunday school boys."

ABOVE: "The only attorney listed in 1940 Japanese American directories for Orange County," Stephen Kosaku Tamura opened his first law office at 202 E. Fourth Street, Santa Ana, in 1938. (Notation and photo, Preserving California's Japantowns,

The path to legal eagle
   Stephen K. Tamura first attended Pomona College, then the University of California- Berkeley, and finally Harvard University School of Law.  He was the first Asian American attorney in Orange County, opening his practice in 1938 and later serving as Superior Court Judge.  His law office building at 202 E. Fourth Street, Santa Ana, California, stands today.

   The law office building was listed as a historical structure by the Bower's Museum Japanese American Council's Historic Building Survey in 1986, and more recently by Preserving California's Japantowns.

   While the Tamura family was interned in 1942 at the Poston Arizona Relocation Center during World War II, Tamura was permitted by the War Relocation Authority to study at Harvard School of Law in 1943.  He enlisted in the Army in 1945, serving in Italy with the all-Nisei "Go for Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

ABOVE: The future Justice Tamura, far left.  From the War Relocation Authority files: "Legal staff at Poston Camp No. 1. These are all lawyers, and Mr. Kido is National President of the J.A.C.L. (L to R) Cap Tamura, Franklyn Sugijama, Tom Masuda, Elmer Yamamoto, Saburo Kido." (Photographer: Stewart, Francis, Poston, Arizona, January 4, 1943)

   In 1956, Tamura acted as Deputy County Counsel representing Orange Coast College in Orange Coast Junior College District of Orange County v. Henry Clinton St. John (  St. John, a teacher, was charged with not signing a loyalty oath regarding non affiliation with the Communist party as required then by the Education Code.  

   Tamura would have recognized the unsettling irony in a loyalty oath.   As relayed by Densho, The Japanese American Legacy Project, "In February 1943, the U.S. War Department and the War Relocation Authority decided to test the loyalty of all people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated in the WRA camps. They required all those 17 years of age and older to answer a questionnaire that became known as the 'loyalty questionnaire.' Their answers would be used to decide whether they were loyal or disloyal to the United States."

    In 1961, Governor Pat Brown appointed Tamura to the Orange County Superior Court, during which time he heard the highly contentious case in 1964 in which county supervisors blocked incorporation of the City of Yorba Linda.

   Justice Tamura was the first Japanese American and first Asian American to sit on the California Court of Appeal in 1966, and also served as Justice Pro Tem on the California Supreme Court until his retirement.  He then served as a member of the California Judicial Council from 1979 to 1981.  Justice Tamura passed away in 1982, after which the oral history project was named in his honor.

   In addition to his 43 years in the law, Tamura was a founding board member of the Orange County Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles.

   Fellow Appellate Court Justice John G. Gabbert, referring to him by his nickname, "Captain Tamura," during his during his interview for the California Appellate Court Legacy Project, said Tamura was "the most interesting fellow..." and "a very able guy and a wonderful personality and a great fellow to talk to...

A career interrupted
   Before enlisting in 1945 in the U.S. Army, Tamura and his wife are listed at the Granada War Relocation Center (also known as Camp Amache, in Colorado) before leaving in 1943 for Harvard School of Law.  The War Relocation Authority (WRA) documented, for public relations purposes, relocated Japanese Americans in often awkwardly staged settings. 

   The WRA reported "Mr. Tamura is a lawyer by profession, a member of the California bar, and had a private practice at Santa Ana, California. He received his education at Pomona College, and LL.B. from the University of California. At Granada he was employed in the project attorney's office. Mrs. Tamura is a graduate of the University of California and at Granada, she worked as librarian. Mr. and Mrs. Tamura arrived at Boston in October, 1943. 

   Mr. Tamura enrolled for graduate work at Harvard University and has carried on some research work in addition to his regular studies. Mrs. Tamura is employed at the law library in Harvard University. Inasmuch as both are busy throughout the day they have made their home at 32 Braddock Park, Boston, a boarding house with a fine reputation of Japanese and American cooking."

ABOVE: From the War Relocation Authority files: "Mr. and Mrs. Kosaku Steven (sic) Tamura (Granada) at the famous Minute Man statue on the battlefield at Concord, Mass., where the shot was fired that was heard 'round the world." (Photographer Hikaru Iwasaki, August 1944)

ABOVE: From the War Relocation Authority files: "Mr. and Mrs. Kosaku Steven (sic) Tamura (Granada), Ben Yashikawa (Tule), and Tsetsu Morita (Minidoka) at the Concord River where the Minute Men stopped in British April 19, 1775."  The WRA indicated their respective internment camps in parenthesis, including Tule Lake in northern California and Minidoka in Idaho. (Photographer Hikaru Iwasaki, August 1944)

ABOVE: From the War Relocation Authority files: "Mr. and Mrs. Kosaku Steven (sic) Tamura (Granada), Ben Yashikawa (Tule), and Tsetsu Morita (Minidoka) at the famous bridge of the Revolutionary battlefield at Concord, Mass."(Photographer Hikaru Iwasaki, August 1944)

The Tamura family
    Stephen Tamura's father, Hisamatsu Tamura, was remembered by another Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission congregant, Clarence Nishizu, in his 1982 oral history interview for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project as one of "the original Talbert (Fountain Valley) pioneer Issei who first moved into this area to farm various vegetable crops and they were the ones who, with the future in mind, purchased the land in Talbert to build the Japanese language school."   

ABOVE: Six-horse team hauling hay in Talbert (present day Fountain Valley).  (Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives)

   Hisamatsu Tamura--along with fellow farmer Isojiro Oka and other Issei--purchased "an old Standard Oil Company wooden building" to serve as the school and an old house to serve as the teacher's residence, moving both buildings to the school site.  

   Orange County pioneers Hisamatsu Tamura and Isajiro Oka's efforts to provide children's education is honored today: the Isojiro Oka Elementary School in Huntington Beach and the Hisamatsu Tamura Elementary School in Fountain Valley

   Hisamatsu Tamura also served as president of the Smeltzer Japanese Association (Smeltzer is part of present-day Huntington Beach), as had Charles Mitsuji Furuta (Historic Wintersburg's Furuta farm), Gunjiro Tajima (Junjiro Tashima, Wintersburg's Tashima Market), and Charles Kyutaro Ishii (an elder with the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Mission).

   Although Tamura's brother, Noboru, was the eldest, he stayed working the family farm in Talbert in order to fund Stephen's early college education.  For the Issei and Nisei, it was simply understood they would make a commitment for the next generation in the spirit of "kodomo no tame ni" or, "for the sake of the children."

   In his blog, My Visit to Manzanar - My journey to Japanese America and more, Taka Go explains "it is important to describe that...a sense of collectivism among a family was integral for Japanese American families and communities, and it meant that the Tamura family supported Judge Tamura to achieve his goal....In other words, filial piety toward their family was considered very important, and parents supported their son well. Then, the sons supported their grandsons well."

   When questioned about their experience, many Nisei talk about their belief in their country and their focus on the future, which gave them strength to endure.  It can be difficult for younger generations to understand, looking back today at the clear civil liberties issues faced by Issei and Nisei.

   During his 1971 oral history interview for the then California State College, Fullerton, Japanese American Oral History Project, Newport Beach resident Mas Ueysugi explained to his interviewer John McFarlane.

    "...the Sansei and the Yonsei question us and they bombard us with these things. You know: 'Why? Why didn't you resist the evacuation? If we went through the same process now, would we accept it?' Sure, hypothetically we can say this, and we can say that. Or if you get in a position where a person points a gun at you, or you point a gun at them, you can certainly rationalize and say things now, but you don't know what your reaction will be at the time when something happens for real,"  said Ueysugi.  

   "So the only rebuttal that I have for our children is that they'll have to make their own decisions. We all have to make decisions, small or large, every day of our lives...Decisions are not always something so catastrophical as the evacuation. We tell them, "Well, these are things that were accomplished through perseverance and tenacity..."

   Ueysugi pointed to Justice Tamura as an example.

   "Our Justice Stephen K. Tamura, he recalls when he was refused entry to a public pool; in fact, they asked for his birth certificate when he tried to enter the swimming pool here at Memorial Park--who carries a certificate to a pool--or he had to sit up in the balcony--Is this possible? In Orange County?--here at West Coast Theatre," recalled Ueysugi.  "People remember these things. Despite that, he has excelled because of his excellence."

 *The Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project was cosponsored by the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County, Japanese American Council and California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program, Japanese American Project.

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  1. My then husband clerked for the Justice in 1973. Tamura shared a story with him about gardening in his front yard one day when a car stopped and asked what his gardening fees were. With his most gracious and kind smile he said "just too busy".

    1. Thank you for sharing this story. Another insight into Justice Tamura's character and the stereotypes faced by Japanese Americans.

  2. An amazing man.and strong wife. A true benefit to the USA .
    America is founded on people like this. We can never forget that.
    G.F.B. 442


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