The story of John Tanaka’s graduation is the spark that ignited the Empty Chair Project. What follows gives information about what happened to him in Juneau and his life after leaving Minidoka Internment Camp. The details are provided by Kenichi Sato, John’s roommate while he was attending the University of Washington in Seattle:
“The life story of John Tanaka would not be complete without a few words of his stay at Synkoa House while he was attending the University of Washington in Seattle. Perhaps, one way to talk about John is to quote the citation in the Distinguished Alumnus Award given to John by the University Students Club, Inc. in 1996. (Our organization was incorporated as the University Students Club, Inc. in 1922. Following WWII, it became known as SYNKOA and currently it is legally known as the UW Nikkei Alumni Association.) The award reads as follows:
THE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS CLUB, INC.
1996 DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS AWARD
JOHN M. TANAKA, M.D., 1924-1978
John Tanaka was born in Juneau, Alaska, where his family operated the City Café. All the Tanaka children worked hard and kept the café so neat and clean that it earned the reputation as the place where you could “eat off the floor.” The family became a mainstay of the community and it devastated their friends when they were uprooted and interned in a camp in Idaho during World War II. John was the valedictorian of the class of 1942 at Juneau High School, but was not able to graduate with the class because of the evacuation. Therefore, a special ceremony was held in midyear at the school gymnasium where John received his diploma. It was a very moving ceremony as there was hardly a dry eye on this particular day in the gym which was filled to capacity as the community paid tribute not only to John, but to his entire family as well.
From camp, John volunteered for the U.S. Army and served with the 442nd in Europe. Following his discharge, he enrolled at the University of Washington and resided at SYNKOA House where he served as house manager. In his quiet way, John kept the house in shape. He spent many hours on the old and cranky boiler in the basement. John was an excellent cook, so he cooked many meals for the fellows. After he was through eating, he was usually the first one at the sink washing the pots and pans, and had to be forced out of the kitchen so others could finish their chores.
John was not one to shy away from projects involving the House. When it was decided that the lounge needed a new tile floor, John designed the pattern, got the material and estimated that it would take a week to complete. The work started in late afternoon and as more and more members showed up, the enthusiasm grew to a point where no one wanted to quit and the new floor was done overnight. On another project, the Fire Department stated that it was necessary to have an exterior fire escape. Here, again, John did the preliminary work and led in the construction of a sturdy fire escape. Although John carried a full academic load at UW and kept the House going, he was never too busy to help others with their school work. He tutored many members who would attest to the fact that he made it easier for them to get through some courses.
After graduating from UW, John attended and graduated from St. Louis University Medical School and became an anesthesiologist. He worked at Buien Hospital and Riverton Hospital and moved to Spokane and joined Anesthesia Associates PS.
John and Jeanne were married in Seattle on September 1, 1956, and raised five children. David and Richard became medical doctors. Catherine and Elizabeth became nurses and Edward is in business for himself. John would have been proud of Jeanne, their 5 children and 8 (soon to be 10) grandchildren.”