THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Recounting ‘Sushi and Sourdough’ author and WWII vet Tooru Kanazawa’s life


bioline_Greg RobinsonTooru Kanazawa, an early Nisei writer and journalist, distinguished himself as a community activist and soldier during World War II. At the end of his long life, he achieved widespread attention in literary circles with the publication of his autobiographical novel “Sushi and Sourdough.”

Tooru Joe Kanazawa was born Nov. 12, 1906 in Spokane, Wash., one of four children of Matajiro Kanazawa, a barber, and his wife Yaso. The family moved around Seattle and Yakima, Wash. in the following years. In 1912, Matajiro decided that they would relocate to Alaska. The family settled first in Douglas, then moved to Juneau. Tooru grew up as part of the small Japanese community in that gold-mining and salmon packing town.

In “Sushi and Sourdough,” he described the conflicts he experienced there, facing racial prejudice as a Nisei, but also tasting the freedom of Alaska frontier life. From age 12, Tooru went out on his own, and held jobs in salmon canneries, shops and warehouses. While at Juneau High School, he pursued creative writing. In 1921, he read a composition, “Alaska, the Great Land,” for an Alaska Day celebration.

In 1922, Matajiro Kanazawa returned to Japan for medical treatment, and the rest of the family relocated to Seattle. Tooru enrolled at Franklin High School, and graduated in 1925. In the months that followed, he enrolled in the University of Washington’s bachelor’s program in journalism.

In 1928, editor James Sakamoto hired him as a reporter for a new Nisei newspaper, the Japanese American Courier. In the next years, Kanazawa rose through the ranks of the Courier, serving as sports editor, city editor and ultimately, associate editor.

In 1932, following his graduation from UW, Kanazawa went to Los Angeles, where he was recruited by Rafu Shimpo. He served as Rafu’s sports editor during that summer’s Olympic games in Los Angeles, and wrote a regular column, “The Other Side of Sports.” After some months of working at a market in Santa Monica, he returned to Seattle and to the Courier.

In September 1934, not long after his father’s death, Kanazawa left the Courier (he was succeeded by the young Bill Hosokawa) and moved to Juneau, where his brother Bob had established a business. Over the following years, he drove a delivery truck for a Japanese laundry. He also worked as a freelance journalist. His 1934 article “Two Castaways Who Made History,” which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, told the interrelated stories of Ranald MacDonald and Manjiro Nakahama, the first American and Japanese nationals to live in each other’s respective countries. It was among the first articles by a Nisei journalist to appear in a mainstream newspaper. Meanwhile, he tried his hand at writing fiction for popular magazines. A pair of his short stories appeared in Larry Tajiri’s Sunday literature page in Kashu Mainichi. “Death Preferred” followed the thoughts of a dying man. “Mona Lisa Smile” dealt with the feelings of an artist who destroys his own prize painting.

In early 1940, Kanazawa finally made a breakthrough: He sold a football story, “Flagle to Slade,” to the pulp magazine Thrilling Sports, which ran it in their March 1940 issue. In the wake of the sale, he moved to Los Angeles, living with his widowed mother. There he completed a survey of Nisei sentiments across the West Coast. He sent his findings to Rafu Shimpo, while in an accompanying article, he trumpeted the Americanism of the Nisei and called on them to remain loyal to the United States. Kanazawa expressed his case with eloquence: “Put us to the test and we shall prove our mettle as American citizens!” This credo was picked up and reprinted in dozens of newspapers nationwide.

Late in 1940, Kanazawa moved to New York. He lived with a fellow Washingtonian, the budding Nisei photographer Toge Fujihira, and briefly with writer George Furiya. He accompanied Furiya and Larry Tajiri to sessions of the left-wing American Writers Congress (and played on a bowling team with them). He and Tajiri helped found the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, and Kanazawa ultimately became its recording secretary.
In April 1941, Tajiri was assigned by the Asahi news to cover the American Peace Mobilization’s meetings. Kanazawa accompanied his friend. At the meeting, he met Emilie Aldridge, a white student activist from University of Kentucky. They hit it off, and Kanazawa traveled to Kentucky twice in the next months to see her. The two were married in Baltimore on Dec. 3, 1941. (The new Mrs. Kanazawa immediately returned to Kentucky to complete her studies).

Tooru Kanazawa was in New York City at the time of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of the Pacific War. He contributed an essay, “After Pearl Harbor,” to the pro-immigrant quarterly Common Ground. In it, he described his work with the JACD following the declaration of war, sending resolutions of support to the nation’s political leaders and working with city officials to obtain support for community residents, notably Issei, whose jobs and businesses had been ended by the coming of war. “It is our grim jest that those on Ellis Island and those destined for concentration camps may be better off than the rest of us. They will at least have their three meals a day. However, reports from the West Coast indicate that slowly the Issei and well as the Nisei are resuming their businesses, though these are reduced fifty to seventy-five percent.” Although as a New York resident, Kanazawa was not subjected to official removal, his mother, two sisters, and their children were confined in the Poston, Ariz. camp — one brother remained in a tuberculosis sanitarium on the West Coast. Another brother was brought down from Alaska and incarcerated at Lordsburg, N.M., where he died shortly afterward.

In July 1942, Kanazawa moved to Washington, D.C., where he was joined by his wife. There he was hired by the Japanese American Citizens League. As the JACL’s Eastern representative, Joe Kanazawa’s (as he was known) main task was to lobby for enlistment of Nisei soldiers. He achieved his goal in early 1943, when the War Department announced the formation of a segregated all-Nisei volunteer combat battalion.

By this time, Kanazawa was 36 years old and married. However, he felt it his patriotic duty to serve, and also part of his responsibility to the community. Therefore, in May 1943, Kanazawa resigned from the JACL and enlisted at Fort Myer, Va. He was the oldest member of the 442nd. As he put it years later in a documentary on Nisei soldiers: “We were trained to go over there and fight and prove our loyalty… That was the main consideration. I think we all felt that once we did this, things would change back home. Some of it did. Some of it didn’t. “According to one account from the period, Kanazawa was so convinced that he would be killed in combat that he sold or gave away most of his belongings.

Ironically, after leaving the JACL, Kanazawa agreed to leave the organization’s files stored in his apartment, where his wife was still living. In June 1943, staffers from the House Unamerican Activities Committee (aka Dies committee) raided the apartment and seized the files. Kanazawa was then called back from military training to testify. In July 1943, wearing his Army uniform, he appeared before the committee. Newspaper reports trumpeted his testimony that the War Relocation Authority had provided the JACL with “confidential” information on its operations. Emilie Kanazawa, also called to testify, told the Dies Committee that she had thought it a bad idea for WRA officials to share such information.

After his training period, Tooru Kanazawa was assigned to Cannon Company. Despite his college degree and journalism experience, he was not placed in communication services. Instead, he worked as a radio operator, carrying heavy radio equipment through Italy, and later was assigned to write citations. In 1945, he received a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

After a recorded 245 days in combat, Kanazawa was discharged from the army. By then divorced from his wife, he returned to Washington, D.C. and attempted without success to find a position. In the end, he resettled in New York City, where he met and married Masako Mae Hara. The couple had three children.

In the 1950s, Kanazawa served as English-language editor of the New York Japanese newspaper Hokubei Shimpo (a generation later, his daughter Teru would edit the newspaper, by then called New York Nichibei). To make a living, he became an executive for a New York travel agency.

In later years, Kanazawa returned to literature, and began writing the story of his younger years in Alaska. Following advice from editors, he transformed the memoir into a novel. While it centers on the Kanazawas (renamed the Fuse family), it also tells a broader story of Issei bachelor communities of gold miners, fur traders, trappers and shopkeepers in early 20th century Alaska. It was accepted by University of Washington Press, which published it in 1989 under the title “Sushi and Sourdough.”

Following this success, Kanazawa pursued his life narrative with the story of his military service and the heroism shown by the Nisei soldiers in his unit.

“Close Support: A History of the Cannon Company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team,” was published in 1993, when the author was 87 years old.

Tooru Kanazawa died in Los Angeles on Oct. 2, 2002, at the age of 95.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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