PICTURED: Tomie Katsuda with Sharon Kloeris, instructor for the Sharon’s Sizzlin’ Senior Exercise Class. Photo by Judy Darley

by Alicia Doyle

alicia@aliciadoyle.com

At 100 years old, Tomie Katsuda’s secrets for longevity are simple, starting with waking up every day at 7 a.m.

“Some people sleep all day — no,” said the centenarian, who celebrated her 100th birthday on Feb. 4.

Even if it’s Sunday, she doesn’t stay in bed, said her niece, Ruby Ishimoto of Oxnard.

“She’s on a regular routine,” Ishimoto said. “She gets up in the morning, has breakfast and goes about her day.”

Regular exercise is also part of her routine.  

“She’s been coming to exercise class for about three years and she’s always waiting for me to pick her up,” said Ishimoto, who drives her aunt to Sharon’s Sizzlin’ Senior Exercise class at the Orvene S. Carpenter Community Center in Port Hueneme.

Barbara Jelinski (right) wishes Tomie Katsuda happy birthday during Sharon’s Sizzlin’ Senior Exercise Class at Orvene S. Carpenter Community Center in Port Hueneme. Photo by Alicia Doyle

During the class, which takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Katsuda sits in the back of the room in her walker, where she moves her body to the beat of the music. The free class, offered through the City of Port Hueneme, draws up to 70 students at a time, with the medium age being 73.

“Tomie is an inspiration, a mentor and positive role model for all ages because at the young age of 96, she decided to attend my fitness class along with her niece,” said Sharon Kloeris, co-founder and instructor of the class. “The best instrument you will ever own is your body — one needs to keep it fit. Her age has not faltered her desire to better herself physically, interact with other seniors and increase her physical and mental fitness.”

Katsuda loves the music and gamely goes through the motions from her seat, working her upper torso to “Uptown Funk” or moving her legs to the music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

“If she can do it, anybody can,” Kloeris emphasized. “Her philosophy of life is to wake up at 7 a.m., get dressed and keep moving. Her dedication and commitment to attend is inspirational in and of itself. She has a tremendous love of life, movement and friends, which is so important in one’s life, whether you are 60 or 100.”

Life under internment

Katsuda was born Tomie Murahashi on Feb. 4, 1920 in Laguna, California. She was sent to Mie, Japan, at an early age to receive her formal education. As the second to the oldest of 11 brothers and sisters, her main language is Japanese.

“She has very strong Japanese cultural sensibilities and practices,” said her son, Richard.

In 1937, at the age of 16, she married Lester Katsuda in Mie. Soon after, she and Lester, who was also born in California, returned to California as newlyweds. They began their life together as farmers and had a daughter, Suzy, who was born in 1941.

“In early 1942, their lives were turned topsy-turvy as Suzy became very ill, and they frantically sought medical help,” Richard recalled.

Then, as Suzy was barely recovering from her illness, Tomie, Lester and Suzy were removed from their Los Angeles home and incarcerated at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, in Inyo County, where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were confined during World War II from 1942 to 1945.

“They had to get rid of all their belongings within a couple of weeks and could take away only what they could carry,” Richard said. When the Katsuda family was being transported to Manzanar, “she thought that the guards were going to take everyone out to a field and shoot them all down. That was the extent of her apprehension and fear of the unknown.”

A birthday banner signed by students in Sharon’s Sizzlin’ Senior Exercise Class for Tomie Katsuda’s 100th birthday, which took place Feb. 4, 2020. Photo by Alicia Doyle

He said his mother recalls the tough time being imprisoned behind barbed wire trying to ensure that Suzy’s welfare was taken care of, as Suzy was weak after her illness.

“In fact, Suzy had to remain under nurse care at the infirmary for a prolonged period,” Richard noted. When she was released from the infirmary, “Suzy refused at first to be taken into Tomie’s arms as Suzy had been away from her for such a long time.”

“Trial by fire”

In early 1943, the government administered a loyalty questionnaire, which asked the incarcerees whether they swore unqualified allegiance to the government that had so egregiously violated their constitutional rights and held them prisoner at internment camps for the duration of the war.

 “For many, replying ‘no’ was their only way to express their discontent,” Richard said. “Tomie and Lester, who were utterly stunned at being incarcerated at Manzanar and were preoccupied with keeping Suzy alive and well, joined those who said ‘no’.”   

Tomie, Lester, and Suzy were later sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center near the California-Oregon border. Because Tomie and Lester were so distraught about returning to the U.S. to start their lives together after being treated like enemies and imprisoned, they said to each other, “If they don’t want us here in the U.S., we might as well go back to Japan,” Richard said.

“They were preparing to go back to Japan when a close friend of the family told them, ‘Japan is in a shambles. If you go back, you will only be a burden on your family in Japan,’ ” Richard said. “Tomie and Lester decided to stay in the U.S. to try to restart their lives in a country that had deprived them of their constitutional rights and imprisoned them without due process of law.”

It was tough.

“They took the $25 the government gave them when they left Tule Lake and sought refuge wherever they could,” Richard said. They were able to land briefly with friends in Colorado to help on a farm, then they lived in Solana Beach near San Diego for some time. “Finally, they were able to return to Los Angeles to try to do their own farming.”

Life was hard for Katsuda, her son said, as she worked side-by-side with her husband and others on the farm. At the end of the day, she then had to cook for the men, and also had to do the laundry for several of them on the weekend.

“Because she was so young and not trained to cook, she had to endure all the complaints by the men about her cooking,” Richard said. “But Tomie survived the tough trial by fire and became an excellent cook.”

Farmworkers movement

In addition to Richard and Suzy, Katsuda has another daughter, Sally, who was born in 1956. That year, the family moved to Oxnard, where Lester’s brothers had begun farming, and the family started to grow celery.

But before the Katsudas could really get settled, disaster struck again in 1959, when their farm was one of the first to be impacted by the emerging farmworkers movement.

“They were perhaps targeted because of their limited English-language proficiency and poor ability to effectively negotiate the situation,” Richard noted.

They were pressured by the growers association not to back down, which led to a prolonged strike and financial devastation for the Katsudas.

“They borrowed money from relatives and were in debt for over 30 years,” Richard said. “It was all the sadder because Tomie and Lester, over their many years farming and growing flowers, treated their workers with respect, and their workers were very loyal to them.”

They tried to make a comeback by growing tomatoes and other vegetables for some time, then strawberries, which they continued for several years. Finally, they turned to growing flowers.

Tomie Katsuda’s fellow students in Sharon’s Sizzlin’ Senior Exercise Class in Port Hueneme gifted her with handwritten notes for her 100 birthday. Photo by Alicia Doyle

“They tried raising gardenias at first but then settled into growing pompoms, which they did until 2004, when Lester passed away at age 90. Tomie was 84,” Richard said. “It was tough for Tomie — she and Lester had spent 24 hours a day together for 67 years.”

“A full life”

Katsuda’s children did their best to keep their mom from feeling alone.

Meanwhile, she “fiercely took it upon herself to keep her mind and body active,” said Richard, adding that his mother did jigsaw puzzles every night and walked regularly.

“Luckily, her niece, Ruby Katsuda, lived nearby and came by regularly to do puzzles with her, take her to the senior center to do exercises, and be a regular buddy,” Richard said.

While his mother talks about how hard her life has been, “she feels so fortunate that she has been able to enjoy her golden years with her children, Ruby, and so many younger people who affectionately call her Auntie or Obachan, which means auntie in Japanese,” he said. “Hers has certainly been a full life.”       

While Katsuda doesn’t remember specific details about milestones in the last 100 years, such as the invention of television in 1927, she holds fond and vivid memories of her loved ones, especially her children, her niece added.

“She says her children are so good; they never got into any kind of trouble and they’ve all gone to college,” Ishimoto said. “She’s very happy with her children and they all take care of her.”

In honor of Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of the ratification (on Aug. 18, 1920) of the 19th Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote, the Ventura County Reporter will be emphasizing stories about women all throughout March. Check back next week for continuing coverage of local women that interest, engage and inspire!