When Roy and then Miki Tsujimoto emigrated from Japan to the United States in the 1910s, they believed in the American dream, and they knew they would have to work twice as hard as nonimmigrants to attain it.
But that American dream was hard to come by. Their dairy farm went under when milk prices plunged during the Depression. Amid anti-Asian racism exacerbated by the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the family was forcibly relocated to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, where they spent two and a half years.
Now the couple – whose sons Josh ’49 and Harry ’51 found opportunity as students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – will be honored with the “Tsujimoto Family Plaza” on the Ag Quad.
To honor Harry and Josh, Harry’s wife, Grace Kase, made a $4 million gift to Cornell, $3 million of which will fund two new scholarships for low-income students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. As part of Cornell’s affordability initiative, a key priority of the recently launched “to do the greatest good” campaign, Kase’s scholarship gifts will be matched with an additional $1.5 million through the university’s challenge match program, increasing the impact of the newly formed endowments. The other $1 million will be used to support CALS programming, at the dean’s discretion, in honor of which Cornell has named a plaza on the Ag Quad the “Tsujimoto Family Plaza.”
“They were really grateful for the difference Cornell made in their lives; it really opened a lot of doors for them,” said Mark Tsujimoto, Josh’s son. “And there’s still an ongoing need for people who come to this country with hopes and expectations: There are opportunities here and you can become what you’re capable of becoming, but everybody needs a helping hand.”
When the Tsujmotos first emigrated, under U.S. and California law, noncitizen immigrants were not allowed to own land, and Asian immigrants were not allowed to become citizens. So when Josh, their first son, was born in 1920, they purchased a farm in El Centro, California, in his name. In the following years, the family added two more boys, Harry and Jim, and worked hard to grow a dairy farm.
When their dairy farm went under, the Tsujimotos started over again, this time with vegetables. It was a daunting task in the harsh desert climate near the Mexican border.
“One thing my grandparents really instilled in us was this ethic that you have to work twice as hard and expect half as much, because we’re immigrants,” said Mark Tsujimoto. “The American dream wasn’t guaranteed; you’d have to work really hard just to have a shot at it.”
After Pearl Harbor, a presidential executive order established internment camps that from 1942 to 1945 incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 70,000 of them American citizens, including the three Tsujimoto boys, who were then in their teens and early 20s.
During the years that they were interned, the family worried about their future, their sons’ lost educational opportunities and their farm. Many interned Japanese families lost everything: Their homes and farms were repossessed when they couldn’t pay the mortgage, or land was seized outright via eminent domain. The Tsujimotos fared somewhat better. A neighbor, Percy Schoonmaker, farmed the Tsujimoto’s land and turned the money over to them. He also made sure no one seized the land or stole the family’s hard-earned farm equipment.
In 1945, when the Tsujimotos were finally released, they were not allowed to return to El Centro; California, Oregon and Washington all passed “alien land laws” limiting immigrant families from returning to their homes and farms. A minister in Elma, New York, a small farming community on the outskirts of Buffalo, agreed to sponsor the family’s relocation to Elma. And thanks to Schoonmaker, the Tsujimotos still had their farm equipment, which they somehow managed to move to New York.
The family started over, yet again, with a new vegetable farm. Harry and Josh applied to and were accepted at Cornell. The experience became a turning point for both men.
After leaving Cornell, Josh returned to the family farm in Elma. He became a successful farmer, entrepreneur and, eventually, an agricultural missionary, traveling to Bangladesh, Haiti and Ethiopia to teach farming skills through a Christian relief agency. He died in 2013. Harry went on to a long and distinguished career as a plant scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he and Grace also made considerable donations. Harry died in 2012 and Grace, in 2019.
Kase, with Harry’s help, made her fortune buying and renovating apartment buildings in postwar California. She went by “G. Kase” and adopted an Americanized pronunciation of her last name to minimize the discrimination she faced as an Asian-American woman in a field dominated by white men.
The time the Tsujimotos spent in the internment camp did not define them, their grandson said. But it did offer lifelong lessons about how people choose to behave in the face of crisis, racism and political upheaval – and about how the Tsujimotos wanted to behave in their lives: with grace, humility and generosity.
“That time, it brought out the best in some people, and it brought out the worst in other people,” Mark Tsujimoto said. “I think that’s the other part of the American dream: Nobody makes it on their own. The self-made person is kind of a myth. It does take a community; it takes friendships. Good people have to care. Neighbors have to look out for each other.”
Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.