September 15, 1904 – January 20, 1961

by Doris Tsukamoto Kobayashi, Charles Kobayashi, and Laura Kobayashi Ashizawa
June 15, 2002

MAJ Walter Tsukamoto at Camp Savage
in Minneapolis, Minn approx 1943

Walter Tsukamoto was born on September 15, 1904 in Molokai, Hawaii in Pelekunu Valley in the late Mayor and Mrs. John Henry Wilsons’ home. He was baptized by Father Thomas Geloen, SS CC. When he was six months old, the family moved to Reno, Nevada to escape a typhoid epidemic and a few years later they moved to Sacramento, where he attended Lincoln Grammar School and Sakura Gakuen. Tsukamoto then attended Sacramento High School and in his junior year (1921) he was awarded first place at the first University of California Japanese Alumni Association’s oratorical contest in San Francisco. This was an omen of what was in store for him in the future. The following year while Walter was a senior at Sacramento High School, he attended the initial meeting of a group of older Niseis at the YMCA building in San Francisco where the American Loyalty League was organized. The same year he helped organize a Chapter of the American Loyalty League in Sacramento but the organization withered away after he left for a college education.

Walter and his family ~1938
(back l to r) Frank, Alice, and Walter
(front l to r) Mitsue and Tatsujiro

After graduating from high school, Walter entered UC at Berkeley, where he served 4 years with the University of California ROTC and was a cadet Major just prior to graduation. He was the first Nisei to receive a commission from UC Berkeley in both the ROTC cadet corps and the Reserve Officers Training Reserve Corps of the United States Army. Walter graduated in 1926 and was admitted to the UC Boalt Law School in August 1926. Upon graduation from law school he passed the bar and the same year was admitted to the California Bar.

In late 1929, Tsukamoto opened a private law office in Sacramento in an area basically known as Japanese town. Although the opening coincided with the stock market crash, this was the start of what would become a very successful law career for Walter Tsukamoto. In the meantime, he had met Tomoye Eda Kasai of Berkeley while they were attending the University of California. Then in March of 1930 Walter Tsukamoto and Tomoye were married in Portland, Oregon and they settled down in a new home at 1800 Vallejo Way, which they thought would be a perfect place to start and raise a family. Tsukamotos had their first child, Richard, followed by Donald, then Doris, David and Diane.

Walter with his wife and children in
Sacramento, CA ~1939
(back l to r) Richard, Tomoye, Walter, Donald
(front l to r) David, Diane, Doris

At the same time he began in earnest his commitment to make America a better place for Americans of Japanese ancestry by becoming a super zealot of the JACL and leading the organization in all of its causes. In 1931, Walter Tsukamoto became the first president of the Sacramento JACL and was re-elected five more times until 1936.

In 1933, the predecessor of the current Northern California-Western Nevada District Council was formed and Walter was appointed as Sacramento’s representative. Thereafter the Sacramento Chapter became actively engaged in a number of matters affecting the welfare and rights of persons of Japanese ancestry. In early 1934 the Sacramento JACL, through a committee comprised of Walter Tsukamoto and Drs. Akio Hayashi, Joseph Kawahara and George Takahashi, protested the practice of the Sacramento County Clerk requiring all Niseis seeking to register as voters to produce expatriation papers proving that they are not dual citizens. After a meeting with the District Attorney and the County Clerk, Sacramento County agreed that the practice would cease as it was unconstitutional as singling out Niseis.

Just about that time there was a bill in the US Congress to permit children born of American women and foreign men to have the same citizenship rights as those given to children of American men and Foreign women. However, when an amendment was introduced to exclude children whose fathers were Chinese or Japanese nationals, Congresswoman Kahn from San Francisco vigorously and successfully led the fight to kill the amendment. The Sacramento JACL strongly supported the bill without the amendment.

In May 1934, Walter was getting involved in the movement to secure citizenship to those Isseis who had served for the United States in WWI. When Congress passed the law granting citizenship to aliens who had served in WWI, the bill did not specifically mention "Orientals". As a result, they were denied the right to seek citizenship. The case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court which ruled against the "Orientals".

In 1935 Walter Tsukamoto was re-elected president of the Sacramento Chapter and his first act was to head a committee to oppose Assembly Bill 1002 and Senate Bill 1061, which would have made it a crime for farmers to hire aliens as farm laborers. At the same time he was leading a JACL committee to oppose new alien land laws as well as Assembly Bill 307, which would bar any person ineligible for citizenship (specifically Isseis) from being issued any fishing license. The Sacramento JACL also was raising money to assist Japanese (Issei) veterans, who had fought for the United States in World War I to become eligible for naturalization.

On March 27, 1935, Tsukamoto, who was delegated by the National JACL Headquarters to combat anti-Japanese measures pending before the Legislature (that is, as a lobbyist as that term is known today), attended the meeting of the Senate committee which was considering a bill to put Japanese fishermen out of business. If the bill succeeded it would have jeopardized the livelihood of thousands of Japanese fishermen and their families, mostly in San Diego, San Pedro and Monterey. Walter also led the opposition to other bills (AB 981, 1958 and 453 and SB 444) which discriminated against those of Japanese ancestry.

At the same time the JACL chapters of San Jose, Walnut Grove, Alameda, Watsonville, San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and other smaller communities were able to gather over 3000 signatures objecting to the various anti-Japanese bills. Tsukamoto presented copies of these petitions to various Assemblypersons and Senators. And on June 16, 1935, at the close of the 51st session of the Legislature, every anti-Japanese measure was quashed. A Japanese American newspaper reported that "Through the able efforts of Walter Tsukamoto, Sacramento Nisei attorney, understanding was wrought and offensive measures were tabled or quashed at the Capitol." Assemblyman Kenneth B. Dawson, 22d District in San Francisco, a member of several important Assembly committees, including the powerful Judiciary committee, was quoted as follows: "As Chairman of the elections committee, I quashed the Oriental registration bill in the State Legislature because I believe the measure to be inimical to the good relations existing between this nation and Japan. I count among friends Dr. Terry Hayashi…..I also know Walter Tsukamoto well. I have had many talks with him while in Sacramento."

And it was during this time that the United States Congress enacted and President Roosevelt signed SB 2508, which granted citizenship to Issei veterans of World War I. The fight for the bill was waged for four years under the unrelenting leadership of Tokutaro Nishimura Slocum.

In 1936, Walter Tsukamoto was re-elected as Sacramento JACL president for the sixth time (1931-1936). At the same time he was elected as the chairman of the Northern California-Western Nevada District Council and in September at the National Convention he was elected as the executive secretary of the National JACL. At that time the executive secretary was not paid but was responsible for the ongoing operation of the National JACL, including the maintenance of the records, minutes and attention to its day-to-day needs, all of which entailed the expenditure of a great deal of time and a substantial sum of unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses. (Incidentally, at the 1938 National Convention Walter proposed that the National Executive Secretary’s position be paid and his proposal was adopted the following year by the National JACL.)

In 1936, the California legislature continued to introduce a number of bills detrimental to persons of Japanese ancestry. These so-called anti-alien bills purportedly would safeguard the defense of the nation and increase work for American citizens. In fact, however, the bills were meant to prevent Japanese from working in the California fishing industry, to restrict residential areas to aliens and to control Japanese language newspapers. When these bills again were defeated, some of the most vocal anti-alien legislators were discussing the use of the initiative process rather than legislation in the future.

Walter Tsukamoto was the first Nisei to be offered an appointment in the Judge Advocate General’s Department of the United States Army. The appointment was effective on July 29, 1937.

In addition to the ceaseless battle against discriminatory bills, the Sino-Japanese war was beginning to have some affect upon the Japanese in this country. In August 1937 the JACL flatly refused the request of the San

Francisco Japanese Association to participate in the drive to raise money to assist the Japanese government in its Sino-Japanese war. The JACL declared that it would not participate in any activities of the Japanese government, either military or political in nature. Short while later, the Northern California-Western Nevada District council adopted a resolution urging Americans as a whole not to boycott services offered by and merchandise being sold by persons of Japanese ancestry in this country. Also another subject causing concern among politicians and newspaper editors was that of dual citizenship. Because of the Sino-Japanese war, the issue of loyalty to the United States continued to besiege those persons of Japanese ancestry. At the same time the JACL continued to firmly pledge its loyalty to the United States.

In 1938 at the biennial National JACL convention, Walter Tsukamoto was elected as National president. In his acceptance speech he succinctly expressed the goals of the JACL: "We believe in this organization because it is dedicated to all Americans, be they members [of the JACL] or not; because its purpose is entirely unselfish and because it seeks to instill in the minds and hearts of all Americans of Japanese ancestry a deep love and appreciation of this great country of which they are an inseparable and integral part."

Thereafter Walter continued to work tirelessly in his lobbying efforts at the Legislature. In 1939, eleven separate measures which were intended to discriminate against those of Japanese ancestry were introduced. Because the Sino-Japanese war was creating great resentment against the Japanese government, Tsukamoto had to deal with an inordinately large number of bills adversely affecting persons of Japanese ancestry living in California. Tsukamoto explained that although the Niseis were legal Americans, their businesses and their livelihood often depended on the businesses operated by the Isseis who were ineligible for citizenship and that it would be disastrous for them to be driven out of their livelihood.

Fortunately not one such bill was enacted. At the conclusion of the session, Walter praised the Assembly as a whole for its fair-minded attitude in not passing any of those bills. At the same time Walter continued to stress the importance for all the Japanese American communities to develop friendly relationships with their elected representatives and for each JACL chapter to invite civic and political leaders to their dinners, bazaars and other public functions.

After the legislature had adjourned in 1939, Walter Tsukamoto sought support to eliminate dual citizenship among the Niseis because of the belief of many Americans that people of Japanese ancestry would always be loyal to Japan. The JACL was also fighting the barrage of misinformation being presented by the California Joint Immigration Committee, which was making unfounded charges about the loyalty of the Japanese in this country.

In the meantime the JACL had formed a committee to study discriminatory practices against persons of Japanese ancestry. The committee found that two major insurance companies treated Japanese differently from other Americans, after refusing to sell them auto insurance; many cities had residential restrictions; many cities refused to allow Japanese children in community swimming pools; and some communities had segregated public schools. Walter continued to push for the elimination of discriminatory practices against the Japanese; he continued to make the Nisei aware of the need of an organized minority group to maintain its American rights and privileges. During the term of his national presidency, Tsukamoto traveled throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho and Utah, attending various JACL functions, always advocating for the people of Japanese ancestry in this country. He did this at a tremendous financial sacrifice of his family.

By the time the national convention was held in 1940, Walter made clear the Niseis’ universal allegiance to the United States. The two leading Portland newspapers, the Oregon Daily Journal and the Oregonian, warmly welcomed the JACLers and hailed the able, industrious, law-abiding and patriotic Niseis. Both newspapers deplored the fact that though the Niseis have declared their loyalty to this country and were becoming an integral pattern of the American way of life, they were unfairly stigmatized because of the Japanese militaristic government. At the convention, Tsukamoto stated in no uncertain terms that the Nisei are prepared to protect, defend and perpetuate the American way of life and are fully committed to conscription into the armed services. No person spoke out more vocally and eloquently on this subject as did Tsukamoto. At the 1940 National Convention, where over 500 persons were in attendance, Walter Tsukamoto stated:

"It is the duty of every American, and that means all of us who cherish the ideals of our democratic institutions, to be prepared to protect, defend and perpetuate our form of government and our way of life… This love of country and duty is not, and must not be colored by any thoughts of foreign ties. [That is ties to Japan] The JACL, skeptics, ill-wishers and minority opposition groups to the contrary notwithstanding, makes no compromise on the one and only reason for the existence of this organization, the program and activity as a patriotic body of American citizens to perpetuate forever our American ideals and institutions".

During 1941, as the JACL continued to grow both in terms of local chapters and membership, Walter Tsukamoto and other JACL leaders continued to declare over and over at various public functions to which local civic, community and political leaders were always invited, that Niseis have no country but the United States. At the same time many newspapers were urging the American public to disregard the unjustified charges which were being made against the Niseis and Isseis who were loyal, productive persons.

But the hysteria which followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor severely damaged the years of good will and good work which had been developed through the JACL.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II Walter, who was an active United States Army Reserve Officer, had requested to be placed on active duty although he was over 37 years old at that time. But the US Army refused to act on his application because the US Army either had failed to or refused to enunciate a policy on the activation of Nisei reserve officers. Several months later on April 11, 1942, the army formally rejected Walter’s request for active duty status.

Not knowing what would happen to his commission, on June 11, 1942 Walter asked for reappointment as a US Army officer. The Army responded that there will be no reappointment of his commission but there also will be no termination of existing commissions. Undaunted Walter again asked on October 15, 1942 to be activated and in his request he mentioned that all others in his position in Sacramento (meaning all other Caucasian reserve officers) had been activated. Almost a month later he received another notice of rejection. Still refusing to give up on his military quest, Tsukamoto this time in November 1942 applied for the Military Intelligence Service but it too rejected him. Not one to give up, Walter Tsukamoto again requested activation on January 29, 1943 unaware that on the day before Secretary of War Stimson announced that the US Army was opened to Niseis. And around February 15, 1943, Tsukamoto received a letter dated February 10, 1943 from the War Department that his request for activation was being considered in Washington, DC. While wondering what was transpiring in Washington DC, Walter made arrangements to leave Tule Lake for Cincinnati, Ohio and left the camp on February 27, 1943. After several threats were made against him, for the sake of the safety for his family and himself from possible attacks by certain Tule Lake inhabitants who despised him for his pro-American stance, it became necessary for the Tsukamoto family to leave Tule Lake. Then on March 3, 1943, Tsukamoto received a telegram from the War Department to report for a physical. And on March 5, he was placed on active duty and ordered to report to the University of Michigan for training. On May 31, Walter was assigned to MIS Language School and on June 5 was appointed as Legal Assistance Officer. On August 23 he was appointed also as Trial Judge Advocate at Fort Snelling. A year later on October 22, 1944, Tsukamoto volunteered for transfer to overseas in the Far East for military intelligence but the offer was rejected. And on December 12, 1944, he was promoted to Major.

In the meantime after the outbreak of WWII, Walter Tsukamoto became a part of the JACL Coordinating Committee, which was formed on January11, 1942, to keep the Japanese American community informed of all governmental developments pertaining to them. Walter also was working on behalf of the Japanese Americans as a group – for example, on January 7, 1942 he contacted the California Railroad Commission regarding the problem Japanese Americans were facing in obtaining insurance for their cars; Walter Tsukamoto continued to write articles in the Pacific Citizens Legal Forum column on a monthly basis. On January 23, Walter sent a telegram to Mike Masaoka, National JACL Secretary, that there should be no attempts made to reopen the Japanese language schools during that time.

Because of the evening curfew (8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) the military imposed against all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast, it virtually became impossible for the Sacramento JACL to convene meetings. As a result, in early 1942 Walter broke the curfew hoping to challenge the constitutionality of the curfew imposed only against Americans of Japanese ancestry. However, some of his friends advised him against taking any further action as it might jeopardize his officer status in the United States Army Reserve. At that time, Tsukamoto also had considered moving himself and his family outside of California to Idaho, Utah, or elsewhere because he had developed many friends, both Japanese and Caucasian (including political leaders), through his many trips to Idaho, Utah and elsewhere in his missionary work to establish new JACL chapters and to observe their development. In fact, it was Walter Tsukamoto who was the first person to encourage and convince Mike Masaoka to become a part of the JACL movement. However, Walter quickly gave up such thoughts because he felt he was needed by the Japanese American community in those early difficult and confusing days after Pearl Harbor. (As a matter of fact, March 29, 1942 was the last day for voluntary evacuation from the military zone and a number of Japanese Americans actually did remove themselves from the Pacific Coast States.)

In early April, Walter Tsukamoto and his family were interned first at Walerga and then at Tule Lake. On July 21 he received a letter from a friend and colleague, Sacramento attorney Connie O’Neill, who wrote that the reason he was rejected from the military service was his activities of the JACL. (Of course, this was hearsay but it did have a sense of credibility.)

After settling down somewhat in Tule Lake, Tsukamoto began to write to a number of his friends and acquaintances, most of who were still active in the JACL. In October 1942, Harry and Takeshi Masaki, who relocated from the internment camp to Brigham City, Utah, reported that the Caucasian’s attitude toward them was excellent and that the people on the streets were friendly, and that the conditions in Ogden and Salt Lake City were similar in nature. On the other hand, JACL Vice-President George Inagaki, who was checking on the situation of Niseis working on the farms in Montana and Idaho, reported that the citizens of Missoula, Montana were very intolerant toward them. There were "No Japs" signs on restaurants and barber shops, and movie theatres allowed them to attend only on a special Sunday matinee held exclusively for them. Because of the general hostility and failure of the farm employers to consider the welfare of the Niseis, the latter expressed a desire to return to the camps. Inagaki also mentioned that the young Niseis working in the agricultural fields were surprised that the JACL cared about their welfare at this point.

On October 22, Tsukamoto wrote to JACL President Saburo Kido explaining the general malaise at Tule Lake and the abuse he had been incurring from a small group of insurgents. He felt that since he could not do much more at this point for the Japanese Americans at Tule Lake, he was contemplating asking for permission to relocate outside of the West coast. He also expressed his belief that the JACL should continue its work and place emphasis on a resettlement program and encourage all Niseis to settle themselves out of the camp. By this time Tsukamoto was in a deep quandary. He had been rejected repeatedly for activation in the armed services and as late as November 1942, the army administration in Washington, DC, advised him that there was little chance of his being ordered to active duty because of his Japanese ancestry. At the same time he was having a very difficult time being considered for private employment because he was a reserve officer (theoretically) subject to active duty at a moment’s notice. He also applied for a federal civil service or appointed position. However, at the end of 1942 his application was still sitting somewhere in the offices of the Civil Service Commission, which merely had informed him that his application was under consideration.

In the meantime on October 23, 1942, the JACL Headquarters in Salt Lake City wrote to Tsukamoto to alert him about General Bendetsen’s letter R-197 to many Niseis informing them they had been considered for "repatriation" (sic) to Japan. They also asked Walter to advise the Niseis to write to Bendetsen disclaiming any desire of going to Japan. Tsukamoto also was asked to obtain an estimate of the number of Tule Lake Niseis who would volunteer for the army and whether the Niseis preferred to volunteer or to be drafted.

Because of the importance of the issue, Tsukamoto recommended that a councilman from each Tule Lake block contact each eligible Nisei to ascertain his feelings about volunteering or being drafted for the Army rather than asking the questions at a general meeting in the camp. Tsukamoto also had called a general meeting of the JACL and had invited both members and non-members to attend. The meeting was held on October 30 with a large agenda including the sending of two delegates to the November 17 JACL meeting in Salt Lake City. (Tsukamoto had written earlier to the JACL in Salt Lake City explaining that anyone leaving Tule Lake for a trip must be accompanied by a guard to Reno, Nevada and that the expenses for the guard must be paid by the person taking the trip). Approximately 200 persons representing 7 former chapters attended the Tule Lake JACL meeting. With respect to who would be attending the Salt Lake City meeting, Walter wanted to insure that there would be an opportunity for input by all interested persons.

In November, Walter Tsukamoto and Ted Nakamura, the two elected delegates for the JACL meeting, departed for Salt Lake City. Although the trip to Salt Lake City went as scheduled, on the way home when they arrived late and left the train and went to the bus station in Reno, an unknown citizen called the police to report that two "Japs" were violating the curfew law. A short time later the police took Tsukamoto and Nakamura to the Reno City Jail where an officer telephoned the FBI, who examined their traveling papers and then gave them a choice of staying at the jail or returning to the bus depot – they elected to stay at the jail.

During 1942 and early 1943 correspondence had been taking place between Walter Tsukamoto and attorney A. L. Wirin of the ACLU regarding the Wakayama case and the JACL filing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the case of Regan v. King, which was pending in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the latter case John Regan, San Francisco resident, sued Cameron King, the San Francisco Registrar of Voters, to force him to drop all Americans of Japanese ancestry from the voters’ rolls. The District Court had rejected Regan’s request and dismissed the lawsuit in July, 1942. As a result Regan appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Since Tsukamoto had no legal research resources available in Tule Lake, he so informed Wirin but also asked that he be allowed to join in with Wirin’s amicus curiae on behalf of the JACL. On February 20, 1943, the appeals court affirmed the decision of the district court. Regan then filed a request with the United States Supreme Court that it review the case but that court summarily rejected the petition on May 17, 1943. (134 F 2d 413; 49F. Supp.222) Shortly thereafter when Tsukamoto was placed on active duty, he resigned his position as special counsel to the national JACL.

There is no doubt that the sacrifices of the Nisei GIs during World War II on both the European and Pacific fronts made possible many of the early post-war gains for the Americans of Japanese ancestry. The JACL had taken the position in 1942 that it would not support individuals who resist the internment order and, by the same token, those who later resisted the draft. It is ironic that Min Yasui, who had resisted internment, would later laud Walter Tsukamoto as the Nisei who contributed the most to the causes of the Nisei before World War II.

During most of the World War II, Walter was stationed at Camp Savage. At the end of the war, Tsukamoto decided to remain on active duty rather than resume a law practice because of his age and the financial needs of his family where his children were nearing college age. Then in 1946 he was transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco and shortly thereafter to General MacArthur’s Headquarters in Tokyo. When the Korean conflict erupted, the army assigned Tsukamoto to preside over several cases in Korea where the battles were being waged, literally in close proximity to his location, so much so that on several occasions he was in the line of fire of Communist snipers, all of which culminated in the award of the Bronze Star at the age of 47.

Then in 1952 Major Tsukamoto was reassigned to the Presidio of San Francisco until June, 1955, when he (who was a Lieutenant Colonel by then) was transferred to Europe to assume the position of the Chief of the USAREUR Judge Advocate Military Affairs Branch at Heidelberg, Germany.

In February 1957 the US Army informed Lt. Colonel Tsukamoto that he would have to be terminated from service because of his age (he was about 53 and had less than 15 years of active service). However, because of his expertise in military law, acquired over the years and because of his well deserved reputation for his legal skills and knowledge, Walter Tsukamoto was encouraged to apply for an exemption from the termination policy. He did and remained on active service.

Then, in December 1957, General George Hickman, the Judge Advocate himself, selected nine of the best senior Judge Advocate General officers to become permanent law officers for general court martial to assume the role of "the counterpart of an autonomous Federal Judge." Lt. Colonel Walter Tsukamoto was one of those selected. In this new prestigious assignment, Tsukamoto advocated the scrupulous protection of the rights of the accused. As a law officer, Walter Tsukamoto essentially had the final word on all questions of law, much like judges in the civil courts.

In October 1960, Lt. Col. Tsukamoto was promoted to the rank of full Colonel, a promotion which was recognized by his colleagues as having been long overdue.

Unfortunately, Walter Tsukamoto was fatally struck with a myocardio-infarction at the age of 56 on January 10, 1961. He died in Heidelberg, Germany and was buried at the Presidio of San Francisco Military Cemetery with full military honors. He also received the highest award given to any Judge Advocate officer, the Legion of Merit, posthumously presented by the Office of the President of the United States.


This brief biography was based mostly on excerpts from various newspaper articles (Japanese American newspapers, Pacific Citizens and general public newspapers), personal correspondence, and Bill Hosokawa’s book, JACL: In Quest of Justice