Dr. George Tanbara and Kimiko Fujimoto Tanbara of Tacoma were partners in social justice, public health, community service, and the resettlement of Japanese Americans in the Pierce County city following World War II. As pillars of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, they served their Japanese American community through leadership and support, particularly with the Temple's youth. Among his many awards and accomplishments, Dr. Tanbara is credited with co-founding two key health-care resources for low-income families and youth in Pierce County: Community Health Care and Pediatrics Northwest.
A Founding Family
Kimiko (Kimi) Fujimoto, born in 1924, grew up in Tacoma, attending Stadium High School and the College (later University) of Puget Sound there. Her family, which included sisters Yoshiko (1919-2017) and Chiyeko Tadaye (1921-2010), was part of Tacoma's thriving pre-war Japanese American community. The family was involved in the establishment of the Tacoma Buddhist Church (later Temple) in 1915 and the sisters' father Masataka Fujimoto was an early Buddhist Church board president. The Fujimotos were also a founding family for the city's non-denominational Japanese Language School (Nihongo Gakko). After Masataka's death in 1941, the family continued to operate Capital Cleaners, a dry-cleaning business.
In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, Kimi and her mother and sisters were among the hundreds of Japanese Americans on the West Coast forced from their homes by the U.S. government. That May they were loaded onto a train at Union Station in Tacoma, a short distance from their childhood home, and taken to the Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresno, California. The Fujimotos were then moved to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
In the camp Kimi Fujimoto met George Tanbara -- a Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) more than two years older than her. According to later family tradition, she considered him too old for her and did what she could to avoid him. The Fujimotos were among the small portion of Tacoma's pre-war Japanese American community that returned to the city after the war. Their dry-cleaning business, in which Kimi worked, managed to continue in the face of ongoing anti-Japanese sentiment among some fellow Tacomans, exemplified by the city's active "Remember Pearl Harbor League."
An Early Path Toward Medicine
Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922, George Tanbara lived briefly with relatives in Japan after his parents separated when he was 9 years old. He then moved with his mother and his older sister Yoshie to southern California. He worked delivering papers in central Los Angeles, and then entered the University of Southern California. At USC, where he studied for a pharmacy degree, Tanbara was a star tennis player.
Before he completed his degree, Tanbara and his family, like the Fujimotos, were sent to an assembly center during the internment of Japanese Americans. There Tanbara taught 7th grade math but, hoping to complete his degree, he applied to schools outside the West Coast military zone from which Japanese Americans were excluded and interned. Tanbara got his undergraduate degree at the University of Idaho Southern Branch in 1943. However, facing extreme anti-Japanese prejudice of the time, he did not find work, and instead rejoined his mother and sister, who had been sent to the Heart Mountain camp.
Meeting and Marriage
When George met Kimi at Heart Mountain, he couldn't forget her and, for the next six years, sent her daily letters. George eventually got a position at the pharmacy at the University of Minnesota Hospital, where his boss said he should become a doctor. Drafted into the army, he served as a combat medic, and later as a counterintelligence agent in Japan. After his military service Tanbara entered medical school at the University of Minnesota, working part-time as a pharmacist. Once he received his medical degree in 1951, he looked for a residency in the Puget Sound region.
Kimi Fujimoto had agreed to marry him if he could find work near Tacoma. George began a residency at King County Hospital in Seattle and completed his residency the next year at Children's Orthopedic Hospital a year later. In 1951 they married at the Tacoma Buddhist Church, Kimi's home temple.
Their first child, son Gregory, was born two years later. Three daughters would follow: Diane in 1955, Susan in 1957, and Merilee in 1964. Due to the Fujimoto family connections to the site, the Tanbaras lived for a time in the basement of Tacoma's former Japanese Language School before they were able to build a house in North Tacoma.
Starting a Practice and Building a House
Unable to find a full-time position at a hospital, George Tanbara opened his own pediatric practice in 1954 at the former Tacoma Medical Center at 1212 S 11th Street. The demand for his services grew, "reaching up to 50 patients at its height, with a line often out the door" ("George Ayao Tanbara ..."). Kimi Tanbara worked as George's receptionist until the birth of their second child the next year.
In 1959, intending to build a new house, the Tanbaras bought a plot of land in the affluent North End of Tacoma -- despite the petition of some neighbors attempting to block the sale. They had difficulty locating an architect for the house, but eventually succeeded in hiring well-known Tacoma architect Alan Liddle. The resulting midcentury modern house attracted national attention when it was featured in Sunset magazine in 1962. Eventually the Tanbaras made "lifelong friends" with people in the neighborhood ("George Ayao Tanbara ...").
Because very few Japanese Americans returned to Tacoma after World War II, Kimi and her sisters Yoshiko and Tadaye missed their close-knit community. However, Kimi kept in touch with many friends from her childhood. In 1977 she and her sisters organized the first of several well-attended reunions of Japanese Americans from Tacoma, attracting hundreds of former Tacoma residents and their families from around the country. The Tacoma Buddhist Temple served as an important place of gathering and spiritual reflection for the reunions.
Founding of Community Health Care and Pediatrics Northwest
George Tanbara played a central role in the founding of the nonprofit Community Health Care. In 1967, seeing both the closure of Puget Sound Hospital and the need for quality medical care for low-income residents of Pierce County, Dr. Tanbara and Dr. Eugene Wiegman (b. 1929) called a meeting of 50 area physicians in the gymnasium of the Tacoma Community House. The meeting's purpose was to determine what kind of support would exist for a medical clinic serving low-income residents.
Support was heartfelt and widespread at the meeting. Two volunteer medical clinics resulted, one in the basement of Lister Elementary School on Tacoma's Eastside and later, in 1974, one in the basement of the School of Nursing at St. Joseph's Hospital. From these two clinics grew the nonprofit organization that eventually became Community Health Care, an organization with five medical clinics and three dental clinics across Pierce County.
In 1980 George Tanbara and his close friend Dr. Lawrence A. Larson (b. 1950) decided to form Pediatrics Northwest, expanding the care for children in the area. In the early years Dr. Tanbara focused on the clinical care while Dr. Larson focused on the business side of the practice. By 2018 Pediatrics Northwest had grown to become an expanded pediatric-care organization for the south Puget Sound region, operating main offices in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and Federal Way, while its physicians also scheduled appointments in locations including Chehalis, Centralia, Silverdale, Covington, Olympia, and Puyallup.
Honors and Recognition
Over Dr. Tanbara's long and distinguished medical career, he became a founder or an active or lifetime member of more than 40 medical and community organizations. He also received at least a dozen community-service awards from organizations including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Pierce County, the Tacoma Urban League, and the Washington State Medical Association.
Dr. Tanbara's values continue to resonate through the communities and clinics where he collaborated over the years. Lawrence Larson said in 2017, "We all know how to take care of patients, we were trained to do so, but George taught us how to take care of a community" (Chen). Tanbara's mantra of "putting the patient first" remained a guiding principle at Community Health Care, where as of 2018 it was printed on employee name badges at all clinics.
The Community Health Care clinic in Tacoma's Eastside has been named in honor of the Tanbaras since 2009. At George Tanbara's life celebration in 2017, Community Health Care President David Flentge recalled that "George would only agree to the [naming] if it included Kimi -- and if Kimi's name was first" (Nimura, personal observations). Family and colleagues alike remembered George's deep affection for Kimi. In the memorial booklet for her life celebration, her children wrote:
"She lived by several tenets ... be strong and do what is right; express compassion to others by showing up in their best moments and at their most difficult; and when faced with a demanding struggle be grateful and hopeful" ("Kimiko Fujimoto Tanbara ...").
George retired in 2006 from active patient care, but still went into the office nearly every day. Kimi continued to work at Pediatrics Northwest until she suffered from a fall in December 2016. Kimi Tanbara died in March 2017 at age 92, and George Tanbara followed her a few months later in July, at age 95.
That August, nearly 500 people attended Dr. Tanbara's life celebration at the Tacoma Convention Center. Greg Tanbara, the oldest child of Kimi and George, said of his parents and their relationship:
"What I want to share with you is something I know now about my dad, that I am only coming to understand. 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" (Nimura, personal observations).
In addition to the continuing work and community service of their children and grandchildren, the Tanbaras are now commemorated not only by the Eastside Community Clinic named in their honor, but also by the Kimi and George Tanbara, MD Humanitarian Award, given by Community Health Care.