Satoru Tsuneishi was born in 1888 in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku Island in Japan. He was the oldest son of a small farm family. At age 19, his best friend said, “Let’s go to America,” and they did. A conversion to Christianity shortly after his arrival, and a desire to become a Christian minister, led him to seek a formal education. He found an opportunity after meeting the principal of the Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte (MAD) High School. The principal tested the young Japanese and found his math and science knowledge appropriate and Satoru became the first Japanese American to graduate from MAD. It was 1914, the same year that Julian Fisher, an African American, also graduated from MAD, the first of his race to do so. Satoru returned to Japan to marry Sho Murakami and brought his bride back to Monrovia.
They settled on Euclid Avenue, an unincorporated area south of the Santa Fe tracks. The couple grew chickens and children -nine children, one of whom died in infancy. The family relied on truck farming during the Depression years, planting rhubarb, strawberries, boysenberries, raspberries and other vegetables and selling them from a stand Huntington Drive, then Route 66. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Tsuneishi family, like others of Japanese decent on the west coast, were forcibly relocated to an internment camp.
Satoru wrote in July of 1981, “Selling my strawberry crop at $700, I went to Pomona Assembly with my wife and seven of my children; the eldest boy had already been in the army. We stayed in the Pomona Assembly Center exactly for three months, and then we were sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming by train. As soon as we settled down in Block Two of the center, the Administration told us to select Block Heads form each block. I was chosen as the Block Head of our block, and I served in that position for one year. After serving for one year as the Block Head, I retired and I took care of a Japanese Language Library.” Satoru and Sho would have four sons who volunteered or got drafted into the World War II military: Hughes, Warren, Paul, and Noel. Warren was a recipient of the Bronze Star for his service in the Philippines and Okinawa. Arthur had physical disabilities and was exempt. Sisters Florence and Frances were civilian employees of the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) in Tokyo. Younger brother James would serve in the Korean War and was on disability for the rest of his life. And yet it was Satoru who openly supported the conscientious draft resistors that were headquartered at Heart Mountain camp, the Fair Play Committee. These Japanese American young men refused to join the military while their civil rights were being violated by the U.S. government. This stance remained highly controversial in the Japanese American community for decades.
Satoru wrote, “Since I am an alien enemy, I am not in position to express my opinions on the policy of the war of the U.S., but when I was young I went to the American schools for several years and learned about American history, as well as Constitution of U.S. I know why the colonists revolted against England. The Niseis also know about them. I can understand why some of them refuse to be loyal to U.S. and refuse to serve American army, while rights of citizenship have been denied to them and put into the concentration camp without doing anything wrong.”
After Heart Mountain, Satoru and Sho returned to Monrovia where they lived next door to the family compound of Louis and Lucinda Garcia in the 500 block of Almond Ave. Satoru planted strawberries again and warned the Garcia children that they could eat all the strawberries they wanted on the first row, but only from the first row. The Garcias also remember fondly the mochi rice cake that the Tsuneishis would share.
Written by Susie Ling