Aki Kurose, Seattle teacher and peace activist, spent her adult life translating the lofty ideals of pacifism and social justice into practice. Her work spanned six decades and included housing desegregation campaigns, anti-war protests, peace curriculum development, and rebuilding housing in Hiroshima. Through her remarkable empathy for all people and dedication to her students, Kurose influenced many to work for peaceful solutions and an end to injustice, and to embrace differences.
Heritage and Early Days
Aki Kurose was born Akiko Kato on February 25, 1925, in Seattle, Washington. Her parents Harutoshi (ca. 1882-1952) and Murako (Okamura) Kato (ca. 1898-1990), had recently moved to Seattle after immigrating from Japan to California. Harutoshi had immigrated after attending the Yokohama School of Commerce. Murako went to California to attend college. After mutual friends introduced them, they married and moved to Seattle.
Her parents leased an apartment building, which they were not able to purchase because the Washington state constitution prohibited alien residents from owning property. Kurose's father worked as a porter at Union Station while her mother helped manage the apartment building. They had four children, of which Kurose was the third.
Kurose remembered a happy childhood in a diverse neighborhood. Her neighbors in the Central Area included blacks, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Jewish families. While it made for a vibrant and varied community, the neighborhood diversity also reflects the housing segregation that existed in Seattle. Neighborhoods outside of the Central Area and Japantown and Chinatown (both part of the neighborhood known today as the International District) actively excluded non-white residents through discriminatory housing covenants and individuals' discriminatory practices.
For Kurose, the diversity had the effect of making her comfortable around a wide variety of people. She maintained lifelong friendships with the children she met while attending Gatzert Elementary, Washington Junior High, and Garfield High School.
Her parents also instilled a sense of inclusiveness through their own friendships. The Kato family celebrated different cultures' holidays and welcomed many people into their home for social gatherings. The Katos differed from many Japanese American immigrant families in that they did not emphasize Japanese values or cultural connections. Whereas many Japanese American children attended Japanese school every day after public school, the Kato children only went on Saturdays. Likewise, they generally did not participate in Japanese social clubs.
In an interview recorded by The Densho Project, Kurose recalled having fun with friends in her neighborhood. They played volleyball, basketball, and baseball, and they rollerskated up and down the sidewalks. Street intersections made perfect baseball diamonds -- each corner serving as a base.
The Day Everything Changed
Kurose's typical American childhood continued through high school, until the fall of her senior year. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and on December 8th everything changed in Kurose's life. One of Kurose's teachers looked at her that Monday and said, "You people bombed Pearl Harbor!" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 5).
Kurose realized that although she had been born in the United States and did not think of herself as anything other than American, many of her fellow citizens only saw her ethnicity. Kurose recalled that her, "Japaneseness became very prominent to me ... in a scary way" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 13).
A short time later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens who lived on the West Coast.
This expression of wartime hysteria would have a profound effect on Kurose's life. Overnight she went from being a teenager who played the clarinet in the high school band, belonged to the dramatic club, and was "just having a good time," to one of the more than 110,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II (Aki Kurose Interview II, Segment 4). Kurose went first to a temporary camp at the Puyallup Fairgrounds and later to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.
The internment was a "rather frightening experience" for Kurose. (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 16). She realized as they entered the fairgrounds that an armed guard was watching them from a guard tower. The fairgrounds were surrounded by barbed wire and the families were squeezed into small rooms with thin plywood walls separating them from their neighbors. Because their stay at the fairgrounds was temporary, the barracks were very rudimentary, with no insulation.
At Puyallup and Minidoka, Kurose had to overcome her modesty and share communal showers and common bathroom facilities. For someone who, like many Japanese Americans, had been taught to be extremely modest, sharing public showers and restrooms was "devastating" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 5).
In response to their situation, Kurose did not focus on the violation of her constitutional rights, but instead resented being Japanese and turned her frustration on herself. Her parents offered another perspective, one that focused on the injustices that result from war. They told Kurose and her siblings, "This is war ... people do crazy things ... so think about not having war, work for peace" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 5).
Learning Pacifism and Empathy
Kurose's father, although not formally affiliated with pacifist organizations, taught his children about pacifism. He told them about the Japanese pacifist Kagawa Toyohiko (1888-1960) and other Japanese pacifists. Looking back later, Kurose expressed gratitude that her parents had introduced her to pacifist ideas.
Decades later, when Kurose was interviewed about her interment experience, her ability to empathize with the difficulties faced by a camp guard at the Puyallup internment camp illustrates her deeply held pacifist ideals. She describes him as a young Southerner who had never seen a Japanese or Japanese American person before. She recalled that he was afraid of them and that he was lonely.
At Minidoka, near Hunt, Idaho, Kurose became involved with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Friends, or Quaker, organization. The AFSC sent books to the camps. Floyd Schmoe (1895-2001), a University of Washington forestry professor who would become a prominent Seattle pacifist and Kurose's life-long friend, visited the camps as part of the AFSC programs and helped organize the college-aged internees who would be eligible for the student relocation program.
Schmoe helped Kurose go to Salt Lake City, Utah, to attend the University of Utah. Her living situation proved less than ideal and after some moving around she went to business school at the LDS Business College. Upon her return to Seattle, after the interment order was lifted, Schmoe arranged for Kurose to live with his wife's family while she attended Friends University, a Quaker school in Wichita, Kansas. Kurose traced the roots of her dedication to pacifism to her time in Kansas.
In 1948, once again in Seattle, Kurose married Junelow (Junx) Kurose (1919-1991) at the Japanese Baptist Church. Junx was Kurose's brother's best friend and Kurose was Junx's sister's best friend. He was living in Chicago, where his parents had relocated during the war, so the newly married couple settled there.
In 1950, not long after the birth of their first child, Hugo (b. 1950), the Kuroses returned to Seattle. Junx missed the Northwest and did not want to raise children in Chicago. In Seattle, the Kuroses lived with her parents while looking for their own housing. Due to discriminatory housing practices, the area that was open to them was quite limited and finding a place to live was difficult.
At the same time, Junx had difficulty finding work as an electrician. The electrician's union in Seattle did not admit Japanese electricians. Instead, Junx found work as a machinist at Boeing. This was somewhat ironic, given that 10 years earlier Junx's older brother Hugo (1917-ca. 1940) had gone to Japan after graduating from the University of Washington because he was unable to find work as an engineer. Boeing was not willing to hire Japanese Americans at that time. Hugo had been forced to join the Japanese Army and died fighting in Asia. Junx worked for Boeing for 30 years.
Working for Peace and Justice
In 1950, at the age of 25, Aki Kurose had a number of reasons to be angry, frustrated, and bitter at the limitations and hardships she had experienced. Her brother-in-law had died while fighting in an army he had been forced to join, she had been interned in a concentration camp and endured miserable conditions, the electrical union was closed to her husband, they had difficulty finding housing, and they experienced racism and outright hostility from their fellow Americans, all because of prejudiced attitudes toward Asian Americans.
Instead of becoming angry or bitter, Kurose chose to work for peace, which she believed could only be achieved through justice. After her foray into pacifist activities during the war, Kurose turned her efforts to housing issues. In the 1950s she joined an open housing movement that was led by the AFSC. Later, in the 1960s, she joined Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) efforts to desegregate schools, housing, and construction unions, and to end employment discrimination.
Family and Community Life
Meanwhile, the Kurose family was growing. In the 1950s they would add five more children: Ruthann (b. ca. 1951), Guy (1952-2002), Roland (1954-1988), Marie (b. 1958), and Paul (b. ca. 1960). In the coming years they would also add foster children to their brood.
Kurose led a Girl Scout troop, served as den mother to a Cub Scout troop, and took early childhood education classes to develop her understanding of child development. In the early 1960s she was part of the effort to establish a Head Start preschool program in her neighborhood. She remembered, "We were very concerned there were a lot of kids that were just being ignored ... not being cared for properly" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 21). A group of parents in the neighborhood worked together to start a preschool. In 1965, they became an official Head Start program associated with Seattle Public Schools, with Dorothy Hollingsworth serving as the first director. It was the first Head Start program in Washington.
During these years, Kurose realized she loved working with children. She recalled, "I would get so excited because I wasn't teaching them, they were teaching me! And all the excitement and discoveries that they would make made me feel that they were the facilitators helping me learn" (Aki Kurose Interview II, Segment 20). In 1972 she completed her Bachelor's degree in Sociology at the University of Washington.
Aki Kurose the Teacher
After some time spent as a curriculum consultant for the Seattle school district, Kurose started teaching kindergarten at Stevens Elementary in 1974. The next year she moved to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary.
At this time Seattle Public Schools was working to desegregate its schools. In 1975, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) reviewed Seattle's voluntary desegregation plan and found that the district's teaching staff was segregated, with minority teachers assigned to schools with predominately minority populations. HEW mandated that minority teachers be moved from "minority-impacted" schools. In 1976 Kurose was sent to the predominately white Laurelhurst Elementary.
Kurose faced the same situation experienced by many who were the first of their ethnic group to work in a previously segregated school. Parents and fellow teachers focused on her differences and their fear of what was unknown to them.
Before the school year started, a group of parents held a meeting with Kurose and the principal at a parent's home in Laurelhurst. They asked her questions about her qualifications and fretted about her ability to meet the needs of their children. Again, Kurose revealed her remarkable ability to empathize with others when she talked about her first years at Laurelhurst. She could see that they were losing a well-loved teacher who had been at Laurelhurst for years and was transferred to a Central Area school, whereas Kurose was an unknown entity.
Despite having to accommodate two parents in her classroom each day (they were there to observe her and ensure she was doing what they considered a good job), Kurose settled in to teaching her first graders. Soon her enthusiasm for teaching, her effectiveness as a teacher, and, certainly, her patience with her fellow teachers and the parents won over the school community and they came to embrace her.
Kurose's effectiveness lay in her ability to engage all students regardless of their backgrounds. Each day, class started with exercises outside. They students sent their angry, frustrated, or sad feelings into the atmosphere to clear the way for learning. She often told people, "Without peace, real learning cannot take place. Real interaction with others ... meaningful interaction, cannot take place" (Aki Kurose Interview I, Segment 30).
After finding peace within themselves, the students would go into the classroom. There they began with a greeting song sung in seven different languages. This was followed by chanting "peace" in each of those languages. In this way she exposed them to different languages as different but equally effective ways to express ideas.
The word peace, written in different languages, adorned the walls and a world map was painted on the floor. The map gave the students the perspective that Seattle and the United States were but parts of a larger world.
Kurose took every opportunity during the day to help the students learn to resolve conflicts. Instead of sending children to the office for misbehavior, they worked out issues in the classroom. She told students, "making a mistake is the most natural thing to do. Everybody makes mistakes. The thing to do is to learn from our mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the more you're learning, so don't worry about that" (Terkel, 56).
This attitude toward conflict and misbehavior ameliorated one of the unintended consequences of desegregating the schools. After 1978, a number of minority children were bused to Laurelhurst as part of the mandatory busing program. They experienced the same things she had upon arriving in the nearly all-white school. They also experienced anxiety due to being in a new school. As children will often do, some of them acted out and misbehaved. They were often sent to sit in the hall. Kurose abhorred them being sent out by themselves and worked to prevent that from happening in her class.
Honors and Continuing Work
In 1981 Kurose went to graduate school at the University of Washington and earned her master's degree in education. Her passion for teaching science and its usefulness for teaching children about the world in a non-sexist, multicultural way, led to numerous awards. She won the Seattle Public Schools Teacher of the Year Award in 1985.
In 1990 she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Math and Science. She traveled to Washington, D.C. for a ceremony. There she politely declined a photo with the president and reminded him, "You call yourself the education president, but one Stealth bomber could fund how many good teachers? You talk to us about the importance of education, even as you cut the education budget. I hope you remember that education is our top priority" (Prophets of Human Solidarity, 145).
Kurose believed in education as a means to teach peace and to foster social justice. According to an essay written about her after her death, "Aki always believed that peace begins with children and with just social and economic conditions that allow children, here and around the world, to reach their full potential" (Narasaki).
Working for Peace, Redress, and Justice
Kurose also worked for peace amongst adults. In 1962 she signed an open letter the AFSC placed in The Seattle Times during the Cuban Missile Crisis that was titled, "An Appeal to Reason." In 1978 she helped organize Seattle's Day of Remembrance, an event held by internment redress advocates around the country. On November 25, 1978, more than 2,000 former internees and their families gathered at Sicks Stadium in Seattle to ride in a caravan to the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Aki helped organize a potluck, which the organizing committee wanted to include because it would ensure it was a family event and it would "diffuse any political tension" (Shimabukuro, 43).
Japanese Americans would finally receive an apology and restitution from the United States government with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Day of Remembrance programs continue to be held each year on February 19, the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066.
In 1997 Kurose joined a protest against the arrival of the USS Ohio, a Trident submarine, in Elliott Bay for Seafair. The submarine, a key part of the United States nuclear deterrent strategy, arrived in Seattle on August 6, the anniversary of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. Although the coincidence appeared to be unintentional, many were appalled at the Navy and Seafair organizer's insensitivity. They planned protests. Kurose joined the protests and was said, "I think it is an outrage that we would bring an instrument of death to celebrate Seafair. It doesn't make sense. It's a bad message" (Kenny).
Later that evening Kurose attended a dinner given by Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. She was seated next to the Ohio's commander. Kurose was, according to Floyd Schmoe, "lecturing him." The officer told Kurose that his was a peaceful mission, serving as a deterrent to possible nuclear war. Kurose told him, "We like you, but we don't like your business." As Schmoe said later, "Not many people would have done that" (Schmoe interview).
Last Years and Legacy
Kurose continued teaching, even after she turned 70. She also continued to receive numerous awards and honors. The Seattle chapter of the United Nations Association paid tribute to her with their Human Rights Award in 1991. She received a Living Pioneer award from the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation in 1997. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Mothers Against Violence in American also bestowed awards on her. Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) proclaimed January 30, 1997 Aki Kurose Day.
Upon her retirement in 1997, Laurelhurst Elementary students and parents dedicated a peace garden on the school grounds. In September 1999, South Shore Middle School moved to the Casper W. Sharples Junior High School building. The school was renamed Aki Kurose Middle School Academy in November 1999. The school's mascot is the Peace Cranes. It was the first public school in Seattle named for an Asian American woman.
In 1998, the first phase of a family-friendly, low-income housing development in Seattle's Northgate neighborhood was named for Kurose. Sharon Lee, director of Low Income Housing Institute, the owner of Aki Kurose Village, spoke at the opening of the second phase in 1999: "We hope to honor Aki Kurose with housing that is friendly to children" (Mangat, 1).
Sadly, Kurose did not live to receive and enjoy some of these honors. She died on May 24, 1998 after a 17-year battle with cancer. Ever devoted to her students she talked with them about her hair loss during cancer treatments and let them examine her head as the hair regrew. A parent of one of her students said, "It was her way of letting these kids know that sometimes bad things happen and you just keep going, you get through it" (Bock, A11).
Kurose's legacy continues in scholarships given in her name by the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, physical spaces named for her, and the thousands of people who she taught in classrooms and through her actions.