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When Roy and then Miki Tsujimoto emigrated from Japan to the United States in the 1910s, they believed in the American dream, and they knew they would have to work twice as hard as non-immigrants to attain it.
Roy & Miki Tsujimoto
Roy & Miki Tsujimoto

At the time, under U.S. and California law, noncitizen immigrants were not allowed to own land, and Asian immigrants were not allowed to become citizens. So when their first son, Josh Tsujimoto ’49, was born in 1920, the Tsujimotos purchased a farm in El Centro, California, in their infant’s name. In the following years, the family added two more boys, Harry ’51 and Jim, and worked hard to grow a dairy farm.

When the Depression hit, milk prices plunged and the dairy went under. So the Tsujimotos started over again, this time with vegetables. It was a daunting task in the harsh desert climate near the Mexican border.

“One thing my grandparents really instilled in us was this ethic that you have to work twice as hard and expect half as much, because we’re immigrants,” said Mark Tsujimoto, Josh’s son. “The American dream wasn’t guaranteed; you’d have to work really hard just to have a shot at it.”

Anti-Asian sentiment had been growing in the U.S. for decades, but the worst came after the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack. A presidential executive order established internment camps that from 1942 to 1945 incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 70,000 of them American citizens, including the three Tsujimoto boys, who were then in their teens and early 20s. The family was forcibly relocated to a camp in Poston, Arizona.

Grace Kase & Harry Tsujimoto
Grace Kase & Harry Tsujimoto

During the 2.5 years that they were interned, the family worried about their future, their sons’ lost educational opportunities and their farm. Many interned Japanese families lost everything: Their homes and farms were repossessed when they couldn’t pay the mortgage, or land was seized outright via eminent domain. The Tsujimotos fared somewhat better. A neighbor, Percy Schoonmaker, farmed the Tsujimoto’s land and turned the money over to them. He also made sure no one seized the land or stole the family’s hard-earned farm equipment.

Mark Tsujimoto remembers his father taking the family to visit Schoonmaker in the 1970s.

“I don’t think I appreciated it at the time the way I do now, but my dad wanted to make sure we met him; he wanted us to understand what this man had done for our family,” he said. “He was just a simple guy; he was just a farmer, but he said, ‘I knew you and your family weren’t the enemy.’”

In 1945, when the Tsujimotos were finally released, they were not allowed to return to El Centro; California, Oregon and Washington all passed “alien land laws” limiting immigrant families from returning to their homes and farms. A minister in Elma, New York, a small farming community on the outskirts of Buffalo, agreed to sponsor the family’s relocation to Elma. And thanks to Schoomaker, the Tsujimotos still had their farm equipment, which they somehow managed to move to New York.

The family started over, yet again, with a new vegetable farm. Harry and Josh applied to and were accepted at Cornell, studying in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). The experience became a turning point for both men, providing opportunities and lessons they would carry for the rest of their lives.

To honor Harry and Josh, Harry’s wife, Grace Kase, made a $4 million gift to Cornell, $3 million of which will fund two new scholarships for low-income students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. As part of Cornell’s affordability initiative, which is a key priority of the recently launched “to do the greatest good” campaign, Grace’s scholarship gifts will be matched with an additional $1.5 million through the university’s challenge match program, increasing the impact of the newly formed endowments. The other $1 million will be used to support CALS programming, at the dean’s discretion, in honor of which Cornell has named a plaza on the Ag Quad the “Tsujimoto Family Plaza”.

“They were really grateful for the difference Cornell made in their lives; it really opened a lot of doors for them,” Mark Tsujimoto said. “And there’s still an ongoing need for people who come to this country with hopes and expectations: There are opportunities here and you can become what you’re capable of becoming, but everybody needs a helping hand.”

Mark Tsujimoto remembers hearing about the fun and sense of community that Harry and Josh discovered at Cornell. The brothers had a contraband hot plate in their dorm room that they used to make rice. The cafeteria rarely made rice, “and when they did cook it, it wasn’t very good,” so many Asian students would head to the Tsujimoto’s room “to get their rice fix,” he said.

He also remembers a lesson his father shared from an impactful government class at Cornell: The professor held up a piece of rope and asked every student in the class to guess its length. All the answers were compiled and averaged, and the class as a whole correctly guessed the length, to the inch.

“It was a lesson about democracy – if everybody’s opinion matters and everyone is allowed to participate, then the right answer will emerge,” Mark Tsujimoto said.

After leaving Cornell, Josh returned to the family farm in Elma. He became a successful farmer, entrepreneur and, eventually, an agricultural missionary, traveling to Bangladesh, Haiti and Ethiopia to teach farming skills through a Christian relief agency. He died in 2013. Harry went on to a long and distinguished career as a plant scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, where he and Grace also made considerable donations. Harry died in 2012 and Grace, in 2019.

Kase, with Harry’s help, made her fortune buying and renovating apartment buildings in postwar California. She went simply by “G. Kase” and adopted an Americanized pronunciation of her last name to minimize the discrimination she faced as an Asian-American woman in a field dominated by white men.

The time the Tsujimotos spent in the internment camp did not define them. But it did offer lifelong lessons about how people choose to behave in the face of crisis, racism and political upheaval – and about how the Tsujimotos wanted to behave in their lives: with grace, humility and generosity.

“That time, it brought out the best in some people, and it brought out the worst in other people,” Mark Tsujimoto said. “I think that’s the other part of the American dream: Nobody makes it on their own. The self-made person is kind of a myth. It does take a community; it takes friendships. Good people have to care. Neighbors have to look out for each other.”

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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