Coping with Grief
We would like to offer our sincere support to anyone coping with grief. Enter your email below for our complimentary daily grief messages. Messages run for up to one year and you can stop at any time. Your email will not be used for any other purpose.
Yoji Julius Matsushima passed away while in Hospice Care in his Portland home with family at his side on April 29, 2023. He was one of the last remaining Nisei (first generation American born citizens) who lived in Portland’s Nihonmachi (Japan Town) when it existed. He now moves on to rejoin his parents (Umata and Fumi), siblings (Masaki, Shigeko, and Hiroshi), and his many friends who have passed on before him.
Born in Portland in 1933, he spent six of his first eight years growing up and being educated in or near Nihonmachi (historically encompassing the current Chinatown/Old Town neighborhood). It was there he met and formed a lifelong friendship with George Nakata. As was typical for their generation, they attended “regular” school (Couch Street School) during the day and Japanese language school afterward. Founded in the same year as Fred Meyer’s, the family business, the Teikoku Trading Company, was successful and poised for bigger things to come.
The 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor by the Armed Forces of the Japanese Empire was a bewildering shock to the generation of young Nisei. Angered and horrified their county had been attacked, made worse by the fact that the enemy looked like the person staring back at them in the mirror, spoke the same language used within their community, and many had close relatives or even immediate family members living in Japan. Few could have guessed of the coming turmoil and hardship.
Yoji’s father and many other community leaders were arrested and held without cause and in isolation for two years. The family’s business license was revoked by the City of Portland, followed shortly by a US Government forced liquidation and seizure of all resulting assets. Internment followed. First to the Portland Assembly Center at the Portland Livestock Exposition site (the current Portland Expo Center). Then on to the desolation of the Minidoka War Relocation Camp in Central Idaho in whose irrigation canals he learned to swim. Unlike the many other families at Minidoka, their wartime journey was not over. A secretive 1943 train ride to New York for a reunion with his father, but the shock that the US Government intended to deport them. Saved only by a chance administrative error, they became a historical footnote, temporarily housed in the then unused immigrant holding area at of all places, Ellis Island. Their final wartime destination, the United States Enemy Alien Family Internment Camp, Crystal City, Texas. There they remained, under constant threat of deportation until they were finally released in April 1946, nearly a full year after the return of most other Japanese American internees.
Yoji resumed his “regular” schooling, first at the Vanport School, then back to Couch School a few months later. His parents struggled to restart the business, further hampered by a ban of the use of the word Teikoku which when translated means “Imperial”. Only through the generosity of several non-Japanese fellow first-generation immigrant grocers with whom Umata had a fostered good working relationships with prior to the war, a bit of pre-war legal maneuvering that had allowed the family to retain the store property at SW 2nd and SW Davis, and a good friend in Japan who lent him his company’s name to use, Anzen Importers was created.
Anzen Importers was a family business, centered not only on retail sales, but also addressing the unique needs of the Japanese American community. In the immediate time after reopening, Yoji gained his lifelong devotion to public service as the family and those working for them set about helping fellow returned Nihonmachi community members send tailored aid packages to relatives in post war Japan. Hard to source Asian food staples and merchandise made way to critically needed American made foods, medicines, clothing, and other needs. After the initial waves of individual aid, the efforts grew to cross cultural lines as the family and Anzen played a major role in Portland Metro area wide organization and coordination of large-scale supply and funding relief drives to benefit the Japanese people as a whole as their nation worked to rebuild.
Yoji graduated from Lincoln High School, lettering in swimming. Inspired towards a future in foreign service, he enrolled in the University of Oregon with a partial athletic scholarship granted for collegiate swimming. To cover the rest of his college expenses, he spent his summers in Alaska fighting wildland fires with the USDA Forest Service. After having enough college related fun, he graduated from the University of Oregon with a lifelong loyalty to his Ducks and a degree in East Asian History in 1956.
Having no luck in finding a foreign service job and realizing his draft number was rapidly approaching, Yoji enlisted in the United States Army. In his active-duty time, he was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Hawaii. Once the Base Commander found out about his swimming skills, he was immediately assigned to the base pool as the primary lifeguard and to teach swim lessons mainly to the base’s dependent children. During off hours, the unit’s Hawaiian Japanese American contingent took him under their collective wings and into their homes; an honorary Islander. He fondly called Hawaii his most favorite place to go back to whenever he could. He separated from active service in 1958, returning to Portland and finishing out his duty obligation in the United States Army Reserve in early 1962.
Upon his return, he went to work for Anzen Importers in earnest. He was also not so subtly informed that he was already far older than his parents and many of his peers then when they married. With George and Keiko Nakata’s timely assistance, he courted Martha, a farmgirl who became his wife.
In 1970 Anzen Importers moved to its iconic location at 738 NE MLK (Union) Boulevard. Umata went into retirement from the day-to-day business operations, turning it over to sons Yoji and Hiroshi. The business did well, and in a reflection of the Metro area’s growing and demographically changing Asian community, branched out from strictly Japanese goods to a pan-Asian selection. Under the umbrella of the Anzen Pacific Corporation, the business grew ultimately to four retail locations and a central warehouse that supplied not only those stores, but also the Asian based needs of stores and restaurants in the region.
Throughout, Yoji was an active member of a number of professional business organizations and associations (Portland Chamber of Commerce, Portland Business Alliance, United Grocers, etc.). He was often called upon as a facilitator between regional and local businesses in the United States who wished to do business in Japan, and vice versa. The Japanese Counsel General of Portland’s Office often requested his assistance for the promotion of cultural exchanges and strengthening ties between the two nations. Yoji was later recognized for this work, receiving a relatively rare Commendation from the Japan Foreign Ministry.
He was also active in a number of national and local service clubs and organizations (Benthem Lion’s Club, Scouts USA, etc.), and supported many others via donations.
He did this while maintaining his close ties, service, and personal obligations to the Japanese American community (the Japanese Ancestral Society of Oregon, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Japanese American Citizens’ League, Nichiren Buddhist Temple, Oregon Buddhist Temple, Epworth Methodist Church, Japanese Garden Society, etc.). In retirement he scaled back his obligations to focus on volunteering at the Iko No Kai Senior Lunch Program and the Portland Public School Japanese Magnet Program at Richmond Elementary School.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon (formerly the Nikkei Legacy Center) several years ago realized that many of Yoji’s generation were passing on without any formal record made of their unique life experiences. In partnership with Portland State University, the Museum recorded interviews of the surviving area original Issei and Nisei residents to compile an oral history of the Japanese American community from its earliest beginnings to the dissolution of Nihonmachi during and in the wake of World War II. He wholeheartedly supported and participated in the project, and we are fortunate that his recollections and those of his peers are publicly available for free via the Museum online.
Yoji is survived by his wife Martha, their two sons, their wives, five Grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. Per his request, he was cremated shortly after his passing. In June 2023, a portion of his ashes were interred at the Matsushima family gravesite in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. The remainder to be interred at the historic Japanese Section of the Rose City Cemetery in a private family ceremony in the near future.
He requested no public memorial services be held, but that in lieu of flowers or other remembrances, instead donations be made to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Iko No Kai Program, and/or the PPS Japanese Magnet Program.