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Orange County West Justice Center to be renamed after Justice Stephen K. Tamura

On April 16, 2020, in the middle of statewide stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, the California Judicial Council approved the re-naming of the West Justice Center of the Orange County Superior Court in Westminster, California, for Stephen K. Tamura. An effort led by Presiding Judge Kirk H. Nakamura, Central Justice Center, County of Orange, Superior Court of California, a supporting document in the package requesting the name change is a 2012 feature about Stephen K. Tamura from the Historic Wintersburg blog, The Honorable Stephen K. Tamura: Lawyer, Judge, Wintersburg Mission congregant.

Tamura is an alumnus of Huntington Beach High School class of 1928 and served with the “Go For Broke” 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He was posthumously was awarded in 2011 the Congressional Gold Medal along with the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence Service.

"It was a real privilege to submit the application to name West Justice Center in honor of the late judge,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura, about the application submitted by Orange County community members to the Judicial Council of California, which owns and oversees all Court facilities throughout the state. “He was a man of many ‘firsts’ and I am very proud to have followed his footsteps to the Bench".

An excerpt from a letter included in the re-naming application from Stephen Tamura's daughter, Susan Tamura Kawaichi, referencing the support her father had to pursue law from Reverend Kenji Kikuchi, M.Th. of the Wintersburg Japanese Church. In his 1981 oral history, Reverend Kikuchi referred to Stephen Tamura as one of "my Sunday school boys."
Pastor for the Wintersburg Japanese Mission from 1926 to 1936, Rev. Kikuchi had witnessed Tamura's path from youth to young adult. In 1930, Rev. Kikuchi penned a brief history of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission at a time when there were about 150 Japanese American families in the immediate vicinity of Wintersburg Village.

From a 1982 tribute for Justice Tamura in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. The signatures include his brother, Noburu, and fellow justice, John Aiso, who married, Sumi, the daughter of goldfish farmers Henry and Masako Akiyama, who were related to Charles and Yukiko Furuta of the Furuta farm at Historic Wintersburg. (Photo, M. Urashima) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

"... Most of them are dry chili pepper farmers-they raise half million dollars a year production from peppers," wrote Rev. Kikuchi, " Also there are fish farms owned by our church members." These would have been the gold fish farms of C.M. Furuta--who donated the land for the Mission--and the Asari and Akiyama families.

Tamura's father, Hisamatsu Tamura, arrived in California in 1901 and was a prominent farmer in Smeltzer, north of Wintersburg Village. He was president of the school board in Smeltzer, a member of the board of directors of the vegetable marketing division of the Orange County Farm Bureau, and a director of the Japanese Farming and Growers' Association. Hisamatsu Tamura was remembered by another Wintersburg Japanese Mission congregant, Clarence Nishizu, in his 1982 oral history interview* as one of "the original Talbert (Fountain Valley) pioneer Issei who first moved into this area to farm various vegetable crops and they were the ones who, with the future in mind, purchased the land in Talbert to build the Japanese language school."

The building that was home to the original law office of Stephen Tamura still stands on East 4th Street, Calle Cuatro, in Santa Ana, California. (Image, Google Earth)

Hisamatsu Tamura--along with fellow farmer Isojiro Oka and others--purchased "an old Standard Oil Company wooden building" to serve as the school and an old house to serve as the teacher's residence, moving both buildings to the school site in Talbert (off Bushard Avenue). By 1935, they had 100 students. These pioneers are honored for their many efforts supporting education in Orange County with the Isojiro Oka Elementary School in Huntington Beach and the Hisamatsu Tamura Elementary School in Fountain Valley. Hisamatsu Tamura passed in 1936, not knowing his son, Stephen, would become one of California's legal icons.

In 1949, Tamura became Deputy Counsel for the Orange County Counsel’s Office, before elevated to County Counsel in 1960. He served the County of Orange for 12 years before his appointment to the Superior Court in 1961 by Governor Pat Brown. He was the first Japanese American and first Asian American to sit on the California Court of Appeal in 1965. After his appointment as a Superior Court judge, he was elected presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court. In 1966, Governor Brown elevated him to the Fourth District, Division Two, and in 1979, Tamura was appointed to the State Judicial Council.

Tamura was a founding board member of the Orange County Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in 1935, which held its first meeting in the Wintersburg Japanese Church. In December 1941, the Orange County JACL chapter denounced the attack by Japan. As an attorney, Tamura was assisting those documenting U.S. birth up until days before the forced removal of Japanese Americans from Orange County in May 1942. Incarcerated at Poston, the Colorado River Relocation Center near Parker, Arizona, Tamura was permitted to leave to attend Harvard Law School in 1943. He enlisted in the Army in 1945, serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, for which he was awarded posthumously a Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. (Image, Santa Ana Register, December 11, 1941)

In addition to his 43 years in law, Tamura was a founding board member in 1935 of the Orange County Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. He was serving as a justice with the Court of Appeals when asked to serve as chairman for Disneyland's Community Service Awards in 1966.

Among his recognition and awards:

• Orange County Press Club, 1965
• Disneyland Community Service Awards, 1966
• Orange County Bar Association Franklin G. West Award, 1972
• Pomona College Honorary Doctor of Civil Laws, 1976
• California Trial Lawyers Association Appellate Justice of the Year, 1977
• Japanese American Citizens League, 1981
• Orange County Board of Supervisors, 1981
• California State Assembly Resolution, 1982
• California State Senate Resolution, 1982
• Congressional Gold Medal, 2011

Recognition as Appellate Justice of the Year for 1977 presented to Justice Stephen K. Tamura by the California Trial Lawyers Association. One of the cases that attracted media interest when he was the presiding Superior Court judge was a complaint in February 1962 filed by NASA astronaut John Glenn regarding a San Clemente apartment development investment. This was at the same time Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. (Photo, M. Urashima) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

We're grateful to Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura leading this effort and for the opportunity to support the re-naming of the West Justice Center for Stephen K. Tamura with historical research.

* The California State University Fullerton Center for Oral History collection of oral histories with Orange County's Japanese American community is named after Stephen Tamura, the "Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project".

Office nameplates and a law book belonging to Stephen K. Tamura are among the artifacts collected in 2018 by historian and Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach author Mary Adams Urashima. These and other items are safeguarded for a future exhibit in the Stephen K. Tamura West Justice Center. (Photo, M. Urashima) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



*This article was originally published on the Historic Wintersburg blog on June 9, 2020.


© 2020 Mary Urashima

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