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A Yonsei's Reflections...

on Real-Life Soundtracks

I’ve always thought that our lives would be so much more interesting if it came with a soundtrack. Music adds so much in setting up the mood and tone of movies, TV shows, and plays. It also can prepare us when something bad is about to happen. I’m not advocating that we should break out in song like in musicals, but imagine how cool (and helpful) it would be if some sweet romantic song swelled in chorus when you meet the love of your life…or if a song could warn you to stay away from a loser.

But in a way I do…there are some songs that connect me with different events in my life.  Every time I hear them, they instantly transport me back to those moments.

When my Omoto Ba-chan (grandmother) died, we played Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite” at her memorial service because it was her favorite song. Now, whenever I hear of or even think of the song, I think of her…and often get a little teary-eyed, even fourteen years later. Back in March, I went to a Jero concert at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo where he sang the song during his encore. He wiped away tears as he sang because it reminded him of his grandmother. I teared up thinking of my own.

When my husband and I got married in Hawai‘i, we used Keali‘i Reichel’s song “Ka Nohona Pili Kai” for our wedding. Now, every time I hear it, I think back to that beautiful day. Actually, the entire album that the song is from, Ke‘alaokamaile , reminds me of our wedding, which took place at a former plantation house along the ocean near Lahaina on the island of Maui.

Now, a new song has entered the lexicon of my life soundtrack. It’s “You Raise Me Up” as sung by Josh Grobin. Whenever I hear that song now, and for the rest of my life, I will think of my father-in-law who passed away recently at the age of 74, just a few months shy of 75. Russel prepared a slideshow of photos for the memorial accompanied to Iz Kamakawiwol‘ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Grobin’s song.

Working on the slideshow for the memorial has been difficult. Good photos were hard to find at first because we were looking for pictures of him with others. Going through the many albums, stacks of pictures, and folders of image files, we realized there weren’t many because he was always the one taking the pictures.

But, I think even more than the tasks involved in making the slideshow, it has been emotionally difficult for my husband and his family to work on it—the photos are reminders of all that they have lost. For me, having entered their lives only ten years ago, it’s been a time of mixed emotions—grieving for the loss of a loved one, but also enjoying learning so many wonderful new stories about my father-in-law. Hearing the stories have added a greater appreciation for him, which also has deepened my sorrow.

It’s a testament to my father-in-law’s strength and will to survive that his death came suddenly and unexpectedly.  It may seem strange to say when he had been fighting an aggressive cancer that had traveled from his lungs to his brain, but we were really all caught off guard. He had fought so hard, so we all just believed that he would somehow overcome and survive it.

His passing came as a shock to all who knew him, partly because even a few months before, he still looked so strong. Even in the last few weeks of his life, prompted by the start of summer, when he became discouraged, it was due to his frustration from his lack of progress.

In the weeks that have followed his passing, so many neighbors came over offering condolences, along with assorted salads, desserts, and dishes; plants and flowers; and offers of help for whenever my mother-in-law needs it. Call after call from various family and friends, along with deliveries of bouquets of flowers and fruits, and cards and emails as the news spread. Relatives and friends came by to offer moral support (and more food!). So many stories were shared, not just about his death, but reminiscing about the past.

We found some really great photos of him and his family in an album that started with his childhood and went up through his army years. Roger Tsuda was born in Sacramento, California, but grew up in Dos Palos where his parents worked on the Koda Brothers rice farm. Photos from his early childhood in Central California looked like happy days.

In 1942, the family was at Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, but they weren’t there too long. By 1943, they joined relatives in Washington D.C. where his aunt found his father a job. His mother was hired by the CIA as a translator, ironic considering their previous address! She worked on secret projects that she was not allowed to talk about until after her retirement decades later.

The photos from Washington D.C. show him as he grew from a small and skinny young boy, into the man he later became. From middle school and scouting photos, high school, and into his army years, he grew into his long legs. He and Jane looked so happy in their wedding photos. He looked so content (although sometimes tired) in the photos with their young children as they started their family. Later, photos of him with his wife and kids as they grew up on family trips, graduations, and weddings. Then came the photos of proud “Poppa” with his grandkids, as they lovingly call him.

There were also the photographs and many, many medals from his track meets. If you do an online search of “Roger Tsuda,” you’ll find many links to various Masters and Seniors track & field events results. He ran with the Southern California Striders, competing in sprinting and long jump events. He was nationally ranked for his age group and competed in meets every year throughout California and in Hawai‘i. His kids even sent him to the National Masters Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana for his birthday in 1985, where he won a silver medal in the 4 x 100 relay. He ran his last meet in 2008 at age 72, when he had to take a break from running to have heart surgery. Not too long afterwards, he resumed running, but then came the fight with cancer, and he was never able to compete again.

Roger Tsuda. Circa 1980s (left) and circa 1990s (right).

Six years ago, both Roger and Jane retired and purchased a new home in Bakersfield, partly because it was cheap, but also because it was about the halfway point between their kids, and especially bringing them closer to their grandchildren in Northern California. They led an active life, forging many new friendships with their Bakersfield neighbors. They even re-connected with long-lost friends because of a mismailed Marukai ad!

Both have been active with the 60+ Club at Cal State Bakersfield where seniors volunteer in various capacities. He took a leadership role, being in charge of coordinating schedules for ticket-takers and swim meet back-up timers. He got permission to run on their track, where many of the students would see him running. They invited him to participate in an open track meet in 2008. There were no separate races for age levels, so he raced with everyone else where he even beat a high school kid! Jane later admonished him saying that the kid would never live down the fact that a 72-year-old out-sprinted him. He responded by saying, he just ran at his own pace and he couldn’t help it if the kid was too slow.

On May 3rd, he participated in Bakersfield’s Relay for Life event. Although he was weak from the chemotherapy, it was so important for him to be there. He ended up having to ride in a cart, but he was so proud to do the survivor/patient lap.  When we visited for Mother’s Day that weekend, he very proudly wore his Relay for Life t-shirt and insisted that Russ take a photo of him wearing his medal.

One of his track buddies called Jane with condolences and asked if it would be okay if he dedicated his next race to Roger. She said that Roger would have liked that and that he would be running next to the friend in the race. The friend said that since it was Roger, he would be running ahead of him.

It is inevitable that you only learn the details of a person’s life at the end of it. As we meet people through family, childhood, school, work, church, friends, and in so many varied interactions, it’s so difficult to keep track of everyone and every event. When we meet as adults, we rarely take the time to get to know each other’s pasts. Mostly, we begin shared histories from that point onward, and only occasionally find out the past in bits and pieces through anecdotes over time.

Sadly, it’s only at the end of a life that we learn and appreciate the totality of a person’s existence. But, I think that’s part of the grieving process…the summing up of one’s life.

But, even as the details of his life have begun to fill in, I realize that the important things about him, I already knew—his immense love, pride, and dedication to his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and extended family. He and his wife raised three children to be independent, caring, and responsible adults, and for that I am grateful.

As for my own memories of him, I will always be grateful for his gentle and genuine smile that greeted me every time I saw him. When Russ first introduced me to his family, everyone was so warm and welcoming, but it was a little overwhelming to meet them all at once. But Roger’s quiet smile reminded me so much of my own father, calming my nerves, and making me feel at home.

He was gone too soon, but he led a wonderfully full and rich life. For Roger, “You Raise Me Up” is a fitting tribute, and I’ll happily remember him every time I hear the song.

On one of his last trips to Los Angeles, we ate dinner at Toshi Sushi, then went to see Keali‘i Reichel in concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Roger and Jane stayed overnight and then went to the Japanese American National Museum the next day for the opening of Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids by Kip Fulbeck where they enjoyed the day, checking out the exhibitions, attending Kip’s reading, and getting books signed.

If you are inspired by Roger’s life, please consider making a donation in his honor to the Japanese American National Museum or one of the other organizations mentioned above. You can make a contribution online to the Museum at:

© 2010 Vicky Murakami-Tsuda

family identity music running southern california sports

About this series

Vicky Murakami-Tsuda is the Communications Production Manager for the Japanese American National Museum. She is a “self-proclaimed” yonsei from Southern California who comes from a large extended family who loves working at JANM (especially Discover Nikkei), eating good food, spending time with family, playing on Facebook, reading, and used to be an artist who explored Japanese American culture and history through her artwork when she had more time and energy. This column includes various reflections on her life and the world around her.