Mizukami, Robert Taro (1922-2010)

  • By Tamiko Nimura
  • Posted 10/29/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21116
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Robert "Bob" Taro Mizukami (1922-2010) was a Japanese American World War II veteran, recipient of a Purple Heart, and member of the founding city council (1957) of Fife, Washington, where his family owned and operated Gardenville Greenhouses. Mizukami became Fife's second mayor in 1980, and from the 1950s to 1980s was one of the very few elected Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) officials in the Pacific Northwest. His dedication to civil rights and community service spanned the majority of his lifetime. 

Early years

Robert Taro Mizukami was born in Star Lake, Washington, in the hills near Kent. His parents -- Naonobu (1884-1972) and Isami (1896-1966) Mizukami -- were immigrants from Japan. His father's family was from the Toyama-ken prefecture; his mother was part of a close-knit set of eleven Hirabayashi households in Japan. From his mother's side, Mizukami was cousin to Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who became well-known for his principled dissent to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Mizukami family began with oldest daughter Lillian (1919-2010). She was followed by Robert in 1922, and then William "Bill" (1923-1944), Frank (1925-2018), and Esther (19280-2007). Though Naonobu was Buddhist, he believed that his children should have some other form of religious training. The family attended a Sunday school in Renton, and Robert was baptized at a Baptist church in Seattle. Later, he and his family attended the Whitney Memorial United Methodist Church in Tacoma and Puyallup. 

Because of the Depression, as well as anti-Japanese sentiment in Washington, the Mizukami family moved often in the 1930s. During this period, Naonobu and some friends ran the Star Lake Lumber Company in Federal Way, a business venture that failed. The family moved from the Renton area to Auburn, back to Renton, and then to Fife, where they settled in 1937 and purchased the Gardenville Greenhouses that same year. The nursery grew chrysanthemums as its main crop, a few vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer, and bedding plants in the spring for wholesale flower operations and flower shops. Before World War II, Gardenville Greenhouses was one of several Japanese American-owned floral businesses in the Fife area; after the war it would become the only one.  

At Fife High School, Mizukami enjoyed history and mathematics, but joked that "the intelligence stopped" with his sister Lillian, who graduated valedictorian of her class at Renton High School. Robert's 90-pound lightweight status made him ineligible for most high school sports teams, so he became the student manager for Fife's baseball and basketball teams and played basketball and baseball in the Japanese American Courier League, which was organized by Seattle newspaperman James Sakamoto (1903-1955) and brought together Japanese American teams from Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, Kent, Auburn, White River, and Fife. As the eldest son, Robert worked in the family business and began to attend social functions of the Puyallup Valley Japanese American Citizens League. He became a member of the JACL in 1939. He graduated high school in 1940.

"Shock, Fear, Humiliation ..."

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mizukami was with other young Nisei at a bowling tournament at Broadway Bowl in Tacoma. Shortly thereafter, President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Decades later, in his testimony for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Mizukami recalled the emotional impact of that order: "Shock, fear, humiliation, confusion and embarrassment are but a few words that can be used to describe the emotional waves that swept over us at this announcement," he said (Mizukami, "Testimony"). "[An] eighteen year old grows up pretty fast under those kind of circumstances," Mizukami recalled in 2000 (Mizukami interview with Magden).

In May 1942, the Mizukamis loaded their business truck and asked a friend to drive them to Area C of Camp Harmony, a temporary "assembly center" at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup. Because evicted Seattle Japanese Americans had arrived in Puyallup the week before, the Mizukamis had already visited relatives in Areas A and B, bringing them groceries. Mizukami noted dryly "one week you're on this side of the fence, next week, you're behind the fence ... it's quite an experience" (Mizukami interview). From Puyallup, the Mizukamis were transferred by train to the concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho. It was the first time Robert had left Washington, and it was a drastic change from the evergreen landscape and fields west of the Cascades -- "nothing but sand and sagebrush there," he recalled (Mizukami interview). 

Not long after their arrival in Minidoka, a call went out in camp for farm relief workers in Aberdeen, Idaho, to help with the potato and sugar beet harvest. Wanting to be outside of camp and grasping at the "home" connection between Aberdeen, Washington and Aberdeen, Idaho, Mizukami and a few friends left to harvest from early October to late December 1942. Meanwhile, efforts to find a caretaker for the greenhouse for the duration of the war were unsuccessful, so while imprisoned in Minidoka, the family sold the business through the War Relocation Authority for "about ten cents to the dollar [what it was worth]" (Tucker).

Volunteer with a Purple Heart

From Minidoka, Mizukami volunteered for the newly formed 442nd Regiment, an all-Nisei volunteer military unit. He remembered "a little cabin fever ... any opportunity to get out of camp" as one reason to join the service. The need to counter the narratives about Japanese Americans as being disloyal to the United States was another. "We had a point to prove that we were just as good Americans as anybody else," he said. "And so here was our opportunity to do so." (Mizukami interview). 

Mizukami told his younger brother Bill to stay home and take care of the rest of the family, but to his surprise, Bill joined him at training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The two Mizukami brothers were sent overseas in different platoons within the same company: the Second Battalion, H Company. The youngest Mizukami son, Frank, also joined the 442nd, 3rd Battalion, making the Mizukamis a family with three sons enlisted in the U.S. military. Tragically, in July 1944, Bill Mizukami was killed in action during a campaign south of the Arno River in Italy. Robert remembered speaking with his younger brother the night before he was killed: 

"[Bill] says, 'Boy, some of these shells are getting awful close.' So I make a smart remark, like, I said, 'Well, what do you want me to tell them when we get home?' I still remember that. I feel bad, like, gee, what a smart-aleck I was, to say something like that" (Mizukami interview). 

The 442nd would become the most decorated combat unit in U.S. history for its length of service and size. It suffered a high number of casualties during campaigns such as the rescue of the Lost Battalion in France. Robert Mizukami participated in the Allied liberation of the town of Bruyeres, France, the rescue of the Lost Battalion, and the breaking of the Gothic Line. At Bruyeres, Mizukami suffered facial wounds from mortar shrapnel; after medical attention, he was back on the line two days later. For his valor, he received a Purple Heart. He was discharged at Fort Lewis, Washington, and went to Spokane, where most of his family was working on furlough at a greenhouse. 

Life After the War

In 1947, Mizukami married Lily Yonago (1920-2007) in Spokane. Though they had corresponded briefly during the war through the Methodist Church, their first meeting was in 1947. They later had two children, Gregory (b. 1948) and Rebeccca (b. 1952). On their honeymoon trip through Idaho, not long after their wartime incarceration, the newlyweds sought a hotel room in Bonners Ferry. In Mizukami's 1981 testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, he recounted the incident:

"Our first nights [sic] stay was in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where the lodging clerk showed us a room. She asked if we were Chinese. I of course replied that we were Japanese. Her immediate reply was that we could not stay there, that they only catered to 'whites' and that it was her privilege to rent or deny housing as she saw fit. Unless you have been faced, point blank, with discrimination of this type, it is difficult to describe the emotional scarring that is left by so few words. After just returning from a war where the rights and freedoms of this woman and hundreds of thousands like her was bought with the blood of my brother and many more like him, there was nothing I could say that would change her mind and heal my shattered spirits and broken heart" (Mizukami, "Testimony" 4).

From Spokane, the Mizukamis decided to take a family trip back to Fife and visit their home. They heard that their old greenhouse business was for sale. Though it was in disrepair, they decided to purchase it once again. Though Gardenville Greenhouses was the only Japanese American-owned flower growing business in Fife after World War II, the Mizukami family was able to work with wholesale Washington Floral Services and other retail operations. After another generation of operation under Robert's son Gregory, the Mizukami family eventually sold the greenhouse land in 1999.

Civic Engagement, Civil Rights, Politics

Upon resettling in Fife, Robert Mizukami dove into civic engagement and activism. A major focus of his efforts was the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). For Mizukami and others after the war, the function of the JACL changed from a social network to a civil rights organization. He served as president of the chapter in 1954 and 1959. Along with other JACL chapters, the Puyallup Valley Chapter worked to overturn the 1921 Alien Land Bill in Washington state and to pass the national McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952. The Alien Land Bill prevented non-white immigrants from owning, leasing, or purchasing land. In Washington this was used primarily to target Japanese immigrants. It was not overturned in Washington until 1966. 

According to Mizukami's son Gregory, the elder Mizukami's JACL work in these legal arenas was his father's "first taste of activism" (Gregory Mizukami interview with author). Robert continued his work in civil rights for decades -- he would later receive national awards from JACL, including the Pearl Pin (for being chapter president), the Sapphire Pin, and the Ruby Pin, for levels and lengths of service at the local, district, and national levels. One year, he attended the JACL national convention with a friend by flying a Cessna plane from Puyallup to Los Angeles. He also joined the Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle and the Fife Lions Club, remaining an active member of both organizations for the rest of his life. 

As a small and closeknit multicultural community, including several immigrant settler populations, Fife welcomed the Mizukami family back after the war. In 1956, rumors started circulating that the city of Tacoma wanted to incorporate the Fife area. Along with local leaders Joe Vraves (1917-1989), Louis Dacca (1913-1993), J. E. McElhiney, Charles Foisie, and Frank Schneider (1924-2019), Mizukami sought to preserve Fife's autonomy and prevent the annexation effort. He said that "[at] the time I didn't know up from down as far as politics were concerned, but it was quite interesting" (Mizukami interview). The group filed for incorporation on February 11, 1957, and its members became elected as the first City Council. At the time, Fife numbered 850 residents.

Mayor Mizukami

As a member of the newly formed city council, Mizukami became the first Nisei elected as a councilman in the Pacific Northwest. He served for 30 years. He also served as Fife's first Police Commissioner. Councilman Joe Vraves was selected as mayor and served from 1957 to 1980; when Vraves left to become Pierce County Commissioner, Mizukami took up the last part of Vraves' unexpired term as deputy mayor and became the city's second mayor from 1980 to 1983. He was then elected for another term. "At the end of 1987," Mizukami recalled, "I was 65 at that time, I decided that's enough. During that period, there was no other Nisei elected to a political office in the state of Washington" (Hirabayashi).  

As mayor, Mizukami worked with the growth of Fife and the pressures of industrialization on an agricultural community. He cited Vraves as one of his mentors in government, and worked to build financial security for the city. "We did a lot of building as far as industry is concerned there," he reflected. "Fife has a very high tax value there. Financially we've been very well off ... we were able to do things that small cities our size would never have been able to tackle ... I think because of the expansion during my tenure there, that I feel I left the city in pretty good stand[ing] there" (Mizukami interview). 

Mizukami attended Association of Washington Cities conferences regularly, building relationships and serving on panels. "I always felt that it's best to be on the inside of these kinds of groups," he said, "because they would affect us directly" (Mizukami interview). In 1987, his final year as mayor, he was elected as president of the Puget Sound Council of Governments.

An Active and Vocal Retirement

After his retirement as Fife mayor, Mizukami continued to serve his community through several avenues. He was involved in early discussions to establish the University of Washington Tacoma. (Robert Mizukami interview, Segment 19). Since the city of Fife resides on the Puyallup land reservation, he was also part of the discussions which led to the Puyallup tribe land claims settlement in 1990. "When we look back about the kinds of denials that we went through and what the Indians go through too, to this date, so we do have some kind of common bond actually there," he reflected. "And being asked to participate on the committee, I really enjoyed that part of it, to get to know more about the history of our area" (Mizukami interview).

For his efforts to strengthen ties between Japan and Washington, including the establishment of a sister-county relationship with part of Japan, he was awarded a Order of the Sacred Treasure/Silver Rays from the emperor of Japan in 1991. In 1992, he ran for elected office again, placing finalist as one of several candidates for a vacant seat on the Port of Tacoma Commission in 1992. The race was a contested one, including minority candidates such as African American leader Lyle Quasim (b.1943). The campaign was unsuccessful, even for someone as locally known and respected as Mizukami; the Port of Tacoma would not elect its first person of color on the Commission until the 2019 election of Kristin Ang. Mizukami was also an active member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Board Economic Development Board,an organization dedicated to recruiting and retaining businesses within Pierce County. 

For decades after his military service and wartime incarceration, Mizukami frequently spoke out about his experience as a Japanese American veteran to local schools and organizations. As early as 1969, he spoke at Fife High School's Human Relations Day along with Joseph Kosai (1934-2008) as members of the Puyallup Valley JACL. He provided written and oral testimony for the national redress hearings, the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in Seattle in September 1981. He saw parallels between Japanese American history and contemporary events: "When the Iranian hostage thing was going on, the first thing was, 'Let's round up all the Iranians and put them into concentration camps ... So this type of mentality still is out there" (Mizukami interview).

He remained a spokesperson for Japanese American history in his city, working in 1994 to restore a plaque at Fife High School, which commemorated the gift that Japanese American community members gave to the high school's library and study hall. He spoke out when cherry trees gifted by area Japanese Americans were removed from several areas in the Fife school district. At the 1998 Day of Remembrance at the University of Puget Sound, he noted that he had been speaking to different classes and schools about the incarceration for more than 50 years. He remained steadfast in his resolve to share the story of incarceration with the public, stating in a 1999 interview, "[People] ask me, 'Bob, how many times will you tell this story? ... I'll have to tell it for another 50 years if that's what it takes" (Sullivan). 

Robert Mizukami died in Tacoma in 2010 after suffering a heart attack. He was 87. Preceded in death by his wife Lily (d. 2007), he was survived by his two children (Gregory and Rebecca), a grandchild, and several great-grandchildren. His name is on the Nisei Veterans Memorial Wall in Seattle.

"I think dad had a very strong belief in the rule of law and basic fairness as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution," said Gregory Mizukami. "'With liberty and justice for all' to him meant just that. He was not a preachy sort of person at all. Rather, he definitely walked the walk and let his actions speak for themselves" (Gregory Mizukami interview with author).


Robert T. Mizukami interview with Ronald Magden, April 11, 2000, Densho Digital Archive, Transcripts copies in possession of Densho Digital Archives, Seattle (www.densho.org); The Associated Press, "Camp Harmony Story Unfolds." The Columbian, September 14, 1999, p .B2; O. Casey Corr, "Regional Light-Rail System Gets the Nod from Puget Sound Government-Council," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 28, 1987, p. D1; "NVC Lifetime Member, Robert T. Mizukami." Nisei Veterans Committee Taps, May 2010, https://www.nvcfoundation.org//newsletter/2020/5/NVC.taps, accessed September 24, 2020; Densho Encyclopedia, "442nd Regimental Combat Team," "Immigration Act of 1952," http://www.densho.org/, accessed September 10, 2020; James Hirabayashi, "Four Hirabayashi Cousins: A Question of Identity," Discover Nikkei website http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2008/5/17/enduring-communities/, accessed March 10, 2020; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History. "Washington Governor Louis Hart signs stringent Alien Land Bill on March 8, 1921" (by John Caldbick), "Puyallup Land Claims Settlement 1990" (by Miguel Douglas), http://www.historylink.org, accessed September 10, 2020; Susan Kaelin, Images of America: Fife (Arcadia Publishing, 2011); Ronald Magden, Furusato: Tacoma/Pierce County Japanese, 1888-1977 (Nikkeijinkai: Tacoma Japanese Community Service, Tacoma, 1998); Anthony K. Albert, "Missing Fife High Plaque Is Back After 53 Years -- Japanese Americans Can Point With Pride Again." The News Tribune, May 4, 1994, p. B12; Rob Carson, "Painful Day of Remembrance -- Ceremony Marks Anniversary of Order to Intern Americans of Japanese Descent," Ibid. February 20, 1998, p. B1; Paul Chavez, "Fife Mourns Founding Civic Leader Louis Dacca," Ibid., May 24, 1993; Sandi Doughton, "Tacoma, Seattle Programs Tell Internment Camp Story," Ibid. February 16, 1992, p. B1; Addy Hatch, "Port Commission Names 9 Semifinalists," Ibid., May 8, 1992, p. C8; Steve Maynard, "Fife's Robert Mizukami -- A Legacy of Community and Military Service," The News Tribune: Blogs, Word on the Street, April 27, 2010; Matt Misterek, "Don't Forget Us, Nisei Veterans Plead -- WWII: Special Medals Come Too Late for Many Who Fought," The News Tribune, October 8, 2010, p. A001; "Obituary: Fife's Robert Mizukami Leaves a Legacy of Community and Military Service," The News Tribune: Web Edition Articles, April 27, 2010; Sean Robinson, "Loss of Trees Angers Fife Man -- Gift from Japan: District Says Cherry Trees Were Diseased," The News Tribune, July 24, 2004, p. B1; Paula Lavigne Sullivan, "History's Sad Chapter on Display -- Fair Exhibit Recalls WWII Days When Japanese Americans Were Imprisoned on Grounds," Ibid., September 13, 1999, p. A1; Rob Tucker. "He Loved His Country, Even in Its Dark Days," Ibid., November 10, 2006, p. A1; Rob Tucker, "Reporter's Notebook: Fife Wants to Retain a Sense of Its History," Ibid., October 11, 2000, p. B4; Gregory Mizukami, email to Tamiko Nimura, September 20, 2020, in possession of Tamiko Nimura, Tacoma, Washington; Gregory Mizukami, email to Tamiko Nimura, September 24, 2020, in possession of Tamiko Nimura, Tacoma; Robert T. Mizukami, "Testimony to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians," typescript dated August 13, 1981, copy in possession of Densho Digital Archives, Seattle (www.densho.org); Mizu Sugimura, "Nomination Essay for Former Fife Mayor & Councilman, Robert Taro Mizukami (1922-2010) [City of Fife Memorial Park Foundation Nomination]" Fife, Spring 2018, in possession of Tamiko Nimura.

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