The Yamashita Family’s ΦBK Legacy

Yamashita Family photo

By Paul Kiefer

When he learned that his daughter, Emily, would not be able to march at commencement at the University of Washington when she graduated this spring, Dennis Yamashita thought of his father. Seventy-eight years ago, Kiyoshi Yamashita—a ΦBK graduate of the University of Washington like his granddaughter and his son—was also denied the chance to march at commencement. Instead, he received an unassuming manila envelope containing his diploma while interned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a maximum security prison camp built by the US government in a dusty corner of northern California that held nearly 20,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast when Kiyoshi Yamashita graduated in 1942. 

Though Emily’s circumstances after graduation cannot compare to those of his father, Dennis found the parallel—the lost commencement—so poignant that he submitted a brief profile to The Key Reporter in August. Absent from that profile was an account of how Kiyoshi Yamashita rebuilt his life after internment. But both Dennis and Emily Yamashita said that he passed along some of the philosophy that helped him forge ahead; Emily said that philosophy has helped her steel her nerves for whatever future lies beyond the pandemic that denied her a chance to march at commencement. 

Kiyoshi Yamashita was born and raised in Auburn, a suburb midway between Seattle and Tacoma. Before 1941, Seattle and many of its semi-agricultural suburbs were home to one of the largest Japanese communities outside of Japan, at least partially because of convenience. “For most of the vessels that came from Japan,” Dennis explained, “Seattle was the first port of entry to the United States.” By the early 20th century, Japanese Americans played a substantial role in the economy of western Washington. Those who lived in suburbs like Auburn supplied most of the region’s vegetables and dairy. However, as was the case across the West Coast, Japanese immigrants were subjected to housing and employment segregation, and the federal government prohibited immigration from Japan entirely in 1924. Kiyoshi Yamashita, whose parents had immigrated before the ban, was part of the first large generation of Japanese Americans born in the country. 

After flourishing in high school, Kiyoshi Yamashita became the first and only of his parents’ seven children to go on to attend college. He enrolled at the University of Washington to study business and economics, joining some 400 other Japanese Americans enrolled at the University at the time. He and a notable number of other Japanese Americans at the school stood out for their academic performance, but when the US entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, hostility towards Japanese Americans soared in Seattle and across the country. That hostility became policy when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order on February 19, 1942 ordering the removal of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to a set of prison camps in the interior of the country. The military began enforcing the order several months later. The first Japanese American community they targeted was on Bainbridge Island, another Seattle suburb. 

Across the region, Japanese Americans, including Kiyoshi Yamashita’s family, were forced to abandon their homes, stores, and property under threat of punishment. Others, Dennis said, fled before the executive order was announced. “Two of my father’s brothers went to Idaho,” he explained. “Others went even further east to Chicago. The people who made it out weren’t interned.” That route offered an escape for some of his father’s classmates: a group of University of Washington faculty and administrators helped some Japanese American students transfer to universities in Ohio and Idaho. 

Kiyoshi Yamashita, on the other hand, was not able to escape. In May, just before the end of his senior year, he and hundreds of other Japanese American students were given only three- or four-days’ notice before they were forced onto trains and buses headed for detention camps. Kiyoshi was among the last of his graduating class to receive his diploma; in June, a University of Washington dean secretly brought a stack of diplomas to graduating students held at a temporary camp near Seattle, though camp officials only allowed a small and somber ceremony to mark the event. Kiyoshi was one of four Japanese American students awarded membership in Phi Beta Kappa in absentia that year, while another eighteen Japanese Americans received other academic honors

While interned at Tule Lake, a Japanese American professor from the University of Washington reached out to Kiyoshi. “My father wasn’t a Japanese language major, but his Japanese language ability was quite good,” Dennis explained. “The professor—his name was Tatsumi—had become a consultant for the federal government, which was looking for Japanese language teachers. Professor Tatsumi told my father that he could get him out of the camp if he became a teacher for executive officers in the military.” Kiyoshi accepted the offer, taking a position at the US Navy’s command school in Boulder, Colorado. “I don’t know why the Navy chose Boulder,” Dennis remarked, “but that didn’t matter to him.” Despite the injustice of internment, Kiyoshi was not the only one of his fellow Japanese American graduates from the University of Washington to work for the military during the war: for instance, one of his classmates, William Nakamura, was killed in combat in Italy and was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor in 2000. 

After the war’s end, Dennis said few Japanese Americans returned to the Seattle area, including his father. “Seattle, and particularly Auburn, was not a welcoming place for Japanese people after the war. After they were released from camps in Arizona, California, and Idaho, some Japanese families chose to stay near the camp rather than go back home.” Several key public officials in the Seattle area preferred it that way, including US Representative Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a fellow University of Washington graduate who opposed allowing Japanese Americans to resettle in the region. 

Instead, Dennis said his father did his best to avoid thinking of his past. He spent a brief period teaching Japanese for the US Army’s command school at Harvard, received a masters’ degree in economics from Columbia University, and then learned of another opportunity from professor Tatsumi: a chance to work in Japan, then administered by General Douglas MacArthur. “He wanted to be in Japan—he hoped he could find his extended family,” Dennis said. “There were actually quite a few Japanese Americans who made that move because the US occupying forces needed Japanese speakers, some for administrative tasks and some in intelligence roles. I’m guessing he was one of thousands.”

Dennis was born after his father returned to the US. He said his father never explained how he regained his footing after the trauma of internment, but his broader approach to life gave him some hints. “Of course an experience like that would affect someone emotionally,” Dennis said, “but my father didn’t dwell on the bad things that happened to him. In fact, he hardly ever talked about them. That’s something you’ll often find among Japanese Americans. There’s an old adage: bend like bamboo and don’t break. The past is the past, and you just have to do your best and look forward.” 

He added, however, that on the rare occasion his father did lament the past, he focused on the commencement he missed. “He told me how much it had hurt him,” Dennis said. “He only wanted to march at graduation in front of his family. They had worked so hard to support him.” Nevertheless, Dennis said his father generally didn’t wear his successes on his shoulder. “I didn’t learn he was in Phi Beta Kappa until I told him I’d been invited to join,” Dennis noted. 

While Dennis, unlike his father or his daughter, was able to march at his graduation from the University of Washington, he’s leaned on his father’s core values, resilience and gratitude, to persevere through several difficult periods. He lost his mother as a teenager, made a few challenging career leaps—including one that, like his father, landed him in Japan—and survived a battle with his health that nearly took his life. He, like his father, tries to pass on those values. 

For Emily, who is beginning a graduate program in urban planning at the University of Washington, the crisis that has upturned the world into which she graduated does not feel nearly as personal as the racist predicament her grandfather faced at the same moment in his life. That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t had to confront the overwhelming ugliness and despair of the present moment. “This moment may not exactly be personally traumatic, but it’s traumatic for us as a society,” she said. 

While her grandfather passed away years ago, Emily can still recall his philosophy. “A lot of what my grandfather imparted to me came from our family’s Buddhist beliefs,” she explained. “He taught me to remain grounded, to be self-aware.” The same lessons that helped her grandfather see a future past the grimness of internment, she said, are helping her remain hopeful as the pandemic wears on and the US edges towards a political crisis. “Those lessons are part of why I can believe that this will pass,” Emily said. “I’m trying to keep my eyes forward. If I can do that, as long as I just move ahead under the assumption that we won’t be in this position forever, I’ll be in a good place when we make it to the other side.”

Paul Kiefer earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.