Mitsuye Tanamachi, World War II Internee, Dies at 97

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Mitsuye Tanamachi grew up during the Depression, moving every few years with her Japanese immigrant parents and six siblings in search of more fertile ground to farm in California’s arid Imperial Valley.

When she was still a teenager, the family was dispossessed altogether, expelled to a remote detention camp in Arizona where she was confined for three years during World War II as an enemy alien.

There, she converted to Christianity and found a husband, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

On the recommendation of his cousin, and with nothing left to lure them back to California, they moved to Texas on their release. They came to own a cotton farm near the Rio Grande where an early 20th-century irrigation project had transformed a mesquite and cactus-covered wilderness into a lush agricultural community. They raised their children there.

Mrs. Tanamachi died on Aug. 5 in Mesquite, Tex. She was 97. Her family said the cause was the coronavirus.

Mitsuye Nimura, who was called Mitzi, was born on Jan. 1, 1923, in California to Tomizo and Miyono Nimura. Her father farmed, mostly as a sharecropper, until the war. Initially, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, first generation Japanese-Americans, like her father, were evacuated from the West Coast and interned.

“They came and took Dad and, of course, I went running,” Mrs. Tanamachi told The Institute of Texan Cultures in 1979. “I ran out to the field and hid on top of a tree.”

Curfews and travel restrictions were placed on the rest of her family and other Japanese-Americans in California. In May 1942, they were uprooted from their farm in Holtville and arrived in the Poston Relocation Center in isolated southwestern Arizona, a few miles from the Colorado River and the largest of 10 such camps operated by the War Relocation Authority.

At the camp, she met Tom Tanamachi, whose family had been relocated from a celery farm in California; they married in March 1945. She had an artistic bent and, just out of high school, took lessons in drafting and pattern-making.

Released in September 1945, they eventually settled in Texas, where they also cared for their surviving parents “just like the old country,” she said.

Being confined to the camp and subjected to racial slurs took its toll, she recalled, especially on her brother Saburo Nimura, who survives her along with three sons, Cary, Art and Rodney Tanamachi; five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren; four great-grandchildren and five step-great-grandchildren.

“Being oppressed is all right,” she said, “but depressed is very bad.”

She remained upbeat, even toward the end of her life when her memory failed. “My knees are great,” she would say. She encouraged her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren “to aim high and to ‘Go for broke,’” the family said in an obituary.

Among her great-grandchildren is Dana Tanamachi, a 35-year-old Texas-born and Brooklyn-based artist whose stylized “Thank You” stamp was released by the United States Postal Service in August.

Recalling a tiny parasol that her great-grandmother crafted from cigarette wrappers in the Arizona camp, Dana Tanamachi said in an interview with Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News, “I think I got my creativity from her.”

“I’m a little sad she didn’t get to see the release of the stamp,” Ms. Tanamachi said. “To me, it’s just another way to honor her and say ‘Thank you,’ literally.”