Select a primary language to get the most out of our Journal pages:
English 日本語 Español Português

We have made a lot of improvements to our Journal section pages. Please send your feedback to editor@DiscoverNikkei.org!

A Remarkable Nisei Love Story: Tacoma’s Kimi and George Tanbara

Courtesy of the Tanbara family.

In past columns for Discover Nikkei, I’ve written about the challenges of finding Japanese American history in Tacoma. I know that, as with so many stories of Japanese Americans, there is much more to tell. So it was a pleasure and an education to be at Dr. George Tanbara’s life celebration on August 5, 2017. The Tanbaras represent an important part of Tacoma’s Japanese American history: not only before the war, but in their resettlement and community service. Although I did not know the Tanbaras well, I write this as a respectful tribute to them, using their first names in keeping with the tone of the family’s memorial program and history of their parents. I am grateful to Greg Tanbara and Diane Taniguchi, two of the Tanbaras’ children, for their contributions to this story.

Well into their early nineties, Dr. George and Kimi Tanbara worked at the Pediatrics Northwest office in Tacoma, Washington. For lunch every day, they would walk over to the MultiCare hospital cafeteria across the street. They worked together as husband and wife, as mother and father, as doctor and receptionist, as partners in a broad legacy of social justice and community service. Kimi died in March 2017, and George followed her a few months later in July 2017.

They had been married for 65 years. This is part of their story.

* * * * *

Kimiko Fujimoto was born in 1924, the youngest of three sisters. She attended Stadium High School and the College of Puget Sound. When war broke out in 1942, she and her sisters Yoshiko and Tadaye were teenagers; their father had just passed away. They were all part of the close-knit Japanese American community that was thriving just before the war. The Fujimoto family, in fact, was one of the founding families of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, which began its community in 1915 and built its temple at its current permanent location in 1931.

Along with more than seven hundred other Japanese Americans forcibly removed from Tacoma, Kimi boarded a train at Union Station, just blocks from where she grew up. They traveled to Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresno, California. From there, the family was transferred to Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

There, she met George Tanbara—a Nisei man two and a half years older than she. Family members now say that she thought he was too old for her and avoided him whenever she could. After the war was over, the Fujimoto family returned to Tacoma. Kimi helped out in the family’s dry cleaning business, which survived despite lingering anti-Japanese sentiment and the “Remember Pearl Harbor League.”

* * * * *

George Tanbara was born in Portland, Oregon in 1922. When he was 9 years old, his parents separated, leaving his mother to raise George and his older sister Yoshie alone. After his parents’ separation and a brief stay in Japan with relatives, George’s family moved to southern California. He began to work not long after, delivering papers to a diverse neighborhood in central Los Angeles. His older sister and mother supported him while he attended the University of Southern California (USC), where he worked towards a pharmacy degree.

George was just one year short of his bachelor’s degree when World War II broke out. At USC he had been a star tennis player—indeed, when the December 1942 curfew was imposed, General DeWitt himself wrote an order that enabled George to play a match against UCLA. Like Kimi, George and his family were also forced into an assembly center, this one at the Santa Anita race track. He taught 7th grade math at the assembly center and wanted to finish his degree, and so he applied to schools outside the military zone. He was able to finish at the University of Idaho, Southern Branch in 1943. Given the virulent nature of anti-Japanese sentiment of the time, he was unable to find a job—and so he rejoined his mother and sister in camp at Heart Mountain.

There, he met Kimi, and never forgot her. For six years, he wrote to her every day.

During those years, George applied for jobs outside of Heart Mountain and found one at the pharmacy at the University of Minnesota Hospital. The head pharmacist there told him that he should become a doctor. After a stint in the army as a drafted combat medic, and then another year as a counterintelligence agent with the MIS in Japan, he came back to Minnesota. He applied to medical school at University of Minnesota, was accepted, and worked half-time as a pharmacist until he received his medical degree in 1951.

Kimi said she would marry him, if he could find a position near Tacoma. He found a residency in Seattle.

The couple were married at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple in 1951.

* * * * *

In Tacoma, Dr. Tanbara opened his solo pediatric practice. His practice grew quickly, attracting a long line of patients out the door. Kimi gave birth to four children, one son and three daughters. Until the birth of their second child, Kimi served as receptionist at his office. For decades, she continued to work at Pediatrics Northwest until she suffered from a fall in December 2016.

Together the Tanbaras served their community in a wide variety of ways. George’s solo pediatric practice was open for 25 years. Then he decided to co-found Pediatrics Northwest with Dr. Lawrence Larson, hoping to provide pediatric health care for community. Pediatrics Northwest now has twenty-seven physicians, four main offices in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and Federal Way. With other concerned community members, he co-founded Community Health Care in 1987, determined to provide health care for low-income and uninsured residents of Pierce County. The first two clinics began with volunteer physicians for one or two nights a week; the practice now includes five medical and three dental clinics in Tacoma, Sumner, and Lakewood. In these times, Kimi Tanbara played an essential role as support and companion and partner. One of the Community Health Care clinics in Tacoma bears the Tanbaras’ name, but as CHC President David Flentge told the community gathering at Dr. Tanbara’s life celebration: “George would only agree to the [naming] if it included Kimi—and if Kimi’s name was first.”

Dr. Tanbara also played a large role in his children’s lives. He served as troop leader for the Tacoma Buddhist Temple’s Boy Scout Troop; all 15 of these members earned Eagle Scout distinctions. He coached basketball teams and tennis teams. One of his longtime neighbors and tennis partners, Rod Koon talked about the first time he played at the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club in 1954, the first racial minority to do so. Sunday morning tennis matches in Dr. Tanbara’s honor continue to be a tradition at the Tennis Club.

* * * * *

In early August 2017, close to five hundred people gathered at the Tacoma Convention Center to pay tribute to Dr. Tanbara. One table displayed his many awards for his medical practice; another table displayed his numerous athletic trophies. Still another table displayed the signs for his offices, his name tags, his medicine and health care. Other tables were devoted to his community work and his Buddhist church community.

There were many moments to remember at Dr. Tanbara’s life celebration. Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland had read a proclamation in his honor. His longtime co-founder of Pediatrics Northwest Dr. Lawrence Larson said simply, “He brought social justice in medicine to Tacoma.” His nephew Gary Kawasaki said that “he extended and amplified the good work of others.” The mother of one of his longtime pediatric patients, Tuyet Nguyen, said, “I have learned a lot about compassion from Dr. Tanbara, and I have used it in my capacity as a rehab counselor.” Sid Breckenridge, one of his pediatric patients—now 62 years old—praised Dr. Tanbara as “one of the only doctors in town who would see black children.”

In an emotional afternoon there were many memorable moments, but this one stood out the most for me. When the Tanbaras’ oldest child, Greg, came to the podium, he provided a perfect frame for the day. “What I want to share with you is something I know now about my dad, that I am only coming to understand,” he said. “He had a great love for my mother. It ran really deep and really wide, and it powered [his work] in Tacoma. It drove him to work tirelessly in her hometown.”

And in this context, I understood the Tanbaras’ life together as a Nisei love story. From what I could see, the Tanbaras’ story was highly private, highly unspoken, but it played out over a spectrum of activism, volunteering, service, philanthropy, generosity, and an overall devotion to the health of their community, broadly defined. “Please remember our father,” the family asked in a written tribute, “as you continue in your quest to serve others.”

Sources:

Brown, Jared. “His life stretched from an internment camp to being Tacoma’s No.1 doctor and beyond.” Tacoma News Tribune, July 7, 2017.

Ovel, Suzanne. “Living behind barbed wire: One Madigan family’s story.” US Army. Accessed August 8, 2017. 

“George Ayao Tanbara, M.D.” Memorial service pamphlet by the Tanbara family, August 5, 2017.

Kimiko Tanbara.” Obituary, Tacoma News Tribune, April 2, 2017.

In Memoriam.” Pediatrics Northwest. Accessed August 9, 2017.

 

© 2017 Tamiko Nimura

doctor George Tanbara heart mountain Kimi Tanbara nisei pediatrician tacoma Washington