Community philanthropist Tomoye (Tami) Takahashi dies at 100

Tomoye Takahashi. courtesy of Paul Osaki

Tomoye Takahashi. courtesy of
Paul Osaki

Tomoye (Tami) Takahashi, co-founder and owner of the Takahashi Trading Company, passed away peacefully Saturday, June 4, 2016, just short of turning 101 years old.

Takahashi was known by many as a walking encyclopedia and had a wealth of knowledge and stories about the history and people of the Japantown community going back to its founding in 1906, following the Great San Francisco Earthquake. This year marks the 110th anniversary celebration of Japantown in the Western Addition.

Born Aug. 16, 1915 in San Francisco, she was the eldest daughter of Tomoyuki Nozawa and Masano Ozawa, both of whom immigrated from the Yamanashi Prefecture in Japan. Takahashi’s father was a well-known Japantown businessman — he owned the Starlight Laundry, as well as being part owner of the Nichi Bei Bank and the Nichi Bei Securities Company.

Takahashi attended Gratton elementary school and the Girls School at the Polytechnic High School. She graduated from University of California, Berkeley with two majors, Oriental studies, with an emphasis on ancient Chinese and modern Japanese, and decorative arts.

She met her husband Henri Takahashi on a double date in 1938 and after a three-year courtship married in 1941. A few months later following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they were forcibly removed from their home to the Tanforan Detention Center and then to the Topaz, Utah concentration camp along with many other Japanese Americans throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II, two-thirds of them Americans citizens.

While living in the Topaz concentration camp, they gave birth to their two children, daughter Masako Martha and son Norman Tomoyuki.

In 1945, following the closing of the camp, they returned to San Francisco to raise their family. Eventually, they were able to purchase a building at 1661-1663 Post St. and started a small neighborhood dry goods store, Takahashi Trading Company, getting an export license to ship pharmaceuticals and other staples to war-torn Japan. These care or mercy packages were sent by locals to friends and relatives living there to help alleviate the dire living conditions.

Although they made no monetary profit, they made this community service a priority, which resulted in the shipping of tens of thousands care packages to Japan within a 10-year span.

During their time in camp, they dreamed of bringing high quality, well-designed items from Japan, to introduce the American public to the arts and crafts of a country previously known only for cheaply made imitations of Eurocentric goods. They hoped by putting beautifully designed things into the hands of American parents and children, that could help to build good feelings among a new generation, and diminish the prejudice and racism that had put Japanese Americans behind barbed wire during the war. After receiving their import license the first things they imported were origami materials, tea ceremony articles, musical instruments and folk arts and crafts.

At the peak of their success they had several retail stores in the Bay Area and one on 57th Street in New York City. They had popular Takahashi stores in downtown San Francisco on Grant Avenue off the corner of Geary Boulevard, in Ghirardelli Square, on Main Street near Market, in Sausalito, Calif. on Bridgeway, and most recently on 15th Street in the Design Center area. They also had a wholesale warehouse located on Rhode Island Street out of which they sold to retail stores throughout the country.

In 1985, Takahashi established the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation with her late husband and sister, Masako Martha Suzuki, to further develop and encourage an understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture, values and arts.

Throughout the past 30 years, she supported numerous nonprofit organizations across the country to promote the goals of the Foundation. For example, many traveling museum exhibitions, including one that showed items crafted in concentration camps. The Foundation donated funds for the Japanese wing of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and continues to sponsor the annual bell-ringing ceremony at New Year’s, plus other programs there. Additionally, several films that document the history of Japanese Americans, which are often seen on PBS, have received support. Also worth mentioning is her support of the Nichi Bei Weekly Japanese American newspaper, plus a scholarship fund for high school students to visit Japan, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco’s Japantown; the Japanese American cultural centers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the establishment of the Stanford Takahashi Lecture Series at Stanford University.

In 2010, the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco honored Tomoye Takahashi and her sister Martha Suzuki with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays for their contribution for promoting Japanese culture, history and the arts in the United States and for their contribution to preserving and educating the public on the history and culture of Japanese Americans.

She is survived by her daughter Masako Martha and son Norman Tomoyuki. Her death is preceded by her husband Henri, mother (Masano) and father (Tomoyuki), younger sister Martha and husband (Risaburo Suzuki).

A celebration of life service will be held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Nisei Community Hall Sunday, June 26 at 2 p.m. The JCCCNC is located at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information call (415) 567-5505.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to made to the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

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