Ted Tsukiyama: Veteran, Lawyer, Arbitrator Dies at Age 98

Feb 15, 2019

Ted Tsukiyama in December 2018
Credit Sandy Tsukiyama

Attorney Ted Tsukiyama, a U.S. Army military intelligence translator during World War II who returned to Hawaii with other Japanese-American veterans to transform the political landscape of the islands, died Wednesday.

He was 98 years old.

Tsukiyama, whose fair and civil demeanor won him trust and respect in Hawaii's legal and political circles, is widely credited for his trailblazing work in establishing legal arbitration in the state.

Born in Kaimuki, he was raised with four siblings and walked to Ali'iolani Elementary School from his home on 7th Avenue, said his daughter, Sandy Tsukiyama, host of Hawaii Public Radio's The Brazilian Experience. She said her father had spent time in Japan in his early years and knew no English. So when he returned to the islands at 6 years old, he was held back a year.

He went on to Roosevelt High School and the University of Hawaii, where he joined the ROTC. He was a junior there when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, uprooting the lives of local residents and drawing suspicion down on Japanese-Americans. 

At the time of the 75th anniversary of the attack, he talked with HPR’s Noe Tanigawa about how that day changed his life—along with many others in Hawaii and on the Mainland.

"You had Japanese face and name, you had to go to concentration camps," he said. "I call them concentration camps. That's what they were." U.S. authorities described them as detention centers but Tsukiyama dismissed that label as a euphemism.

While members of the ROTC were made part of the Hawaii Territorial Guard, those of Japanese ancestry were disqualified as enemy aliens. Out of that came the creation of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, Japanese-American men who volunteered to serve as laborers for the U.S. Army. They later joined the famed 442nd Regional Combat Team, and Tsukiyama was among them.

But while training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, with a field artillery unit, Tsukiyama was pulled out because of his knowledge of Japanese to become a translator in the military's intelligence service. He tried to fail the language test, his daughter said, so that he could remain with his Hawaii buddies. But he was chosen nonetheless and would serve the war years in the Burna-India theater listening to the radio transmissions of Japanese pilots.

After the war, he returned to Hawaii, but was advised by one of his professors to finish his bachelor's degree on the Mainland, which he did at Indiana University. He was the first Japanese-American to attend the university, his daughter said, and it took a decision by the school's regents to accept him. 

Tsukiyama later attended Yale Law School on military medical benefits that he received for contracting malaria  in Burma. He would joke it was thanks to a mosquito that he received his law degree.

He was encouraged to run for office, but chose instead to work as a prosecuting attorney before entering private pratice. He married in 1951 and he and his wife, Fuku, would have three children.

While he never wanted anyone to think of him as a hero, his daughter said, Tsukiyama served as a spokesman for the Japanese-American veterans, those who were generally reticent and "those who never came back and never told their families their stories. He felt that was the story that needed telling."

He was the recipient of several awards, including a recent lifetime achievement recognition for his work on industrial relations and an Imperial Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver Rays for fostering positive U.S.-Japan relations through bonsai, a longtime interest of his.

He is survived by his daughter, sons Paul and Tim and five grandchildren. Services are pending.