Stories of American culture can be full of twists and turns. Ketchum resident Rod Tatsuno, 76, is a walking, talking example of why to not judge a book by its cover.
Born into captivity during World War II at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, Calif., he was soon transferred along with his parents and spent the next three years among 9,000 Japanese in the Topaz Internment Camp in southern Utah.
“It fit the description of a concentration camp,” Tatsuno said. “There were no trees, bushes or grass. We lived behind barbed wire and there were guns in towers pointed toward us. One senile old man was shot for wandering too close to the wire.”
Ironically, Tatsuno’s father had attended the University of California, Berkeley, business school, along with Robert Strange McNamara, an American businessman who would serve as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. Tatsuno’s father taught high school classes in the camp.
“About two-thirds of us in Topaz were U.S. citizens, including my family,” Tatsuno said. “I still have an aversion to desert environments. At the Minidoka Interment Camp [70 miles south of Ketchum near Jerome], at least they had a river to fish in.”
Tatsuno grew up in San Jose. He loved the music of black musicians in San Francisco as a kid, and avoided any identification with his Japanese heritage while growing up.
“It was bad enough that I looked Japanese,” he said. “The kids would spit at you and give you abuse.”
Though Tatsuno’s parents had both been born in the U.S. and went to a Protestant church and their son was American through and through, Tatsuno was nevertheless sent to learn Japanese at a Buddhist school in San Jose. But the lessons didn’t take.
“The whole experience was very alien to me,” he said. “The teacher had halitosis and I never even went into the sanctuary of the church. I kept saying, ‘I’m a Methodist!’”
It was 1963 before Tatsuno took any interest in the traditions of his forebears, traveling to Tokyo as a member of his college judo team.
“We landed at the airport and there were Japanese people on the runway steering the plane in, Japanese people carrying baggage, Japanese people everywhere. It was weird,” he said.
Despite the injustice of being held captive in his own country, Tatsuno held no animosity toward the U.S. military. He grew up about a mile from a National Guard base and saw tanks rolling through town every Sunday.
“I was intrigued, and grew fascinated with the stories of World War II, especially with Gen. George S. Patton,” he said.
When Tatsuno was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965, he sought work on armored vehicles, training on an M-48A3 Patton tank in Germany. Standing 5 feet 3 inches, he grew accustomed to giving orders to men much bigger. He retired from the military in 1969 as a first lieutenant.
“I sent a photograph home to my grandmother of myself in uniform, and she was very proud of where I had gone in my life,” he said. “She died the very next day. This is a lesson on why not to procrastinate when it comes to doing what you need to do in life.”
In 1970, Tatsuno moved to Ketchum and joined the Sun Valley Ski School, where he worked for 40 years, raising a son and becoming more of an Idahoan than most people in town. He has even performed at the Yellow Pine Music and Harmonica Festival, if that’s any indication.
About 20 years ago, he took interest in Native American culture after meeting some Blackfeet Indians during a ceremony at Boundary Creek campground on Trail Creek Road, near Sun Valley.
“They called themselves the ‘off-rez Indians,’ and I went with them to a pow wow,” he said.
Tatsuno was so taken by the traditional dancers that he gathered the makings of his own homemade Native pow-wow regalia: a buckskin shirt from The Gold Mine thrift store, colored ribbon fringes, magpie feathers for a headdress and turkey feathers painted to look like eagle feathers.
“I tried to make a bustle from a dead porcupine I found at Redfish Lake, but it didn’t work out,” he said.
Tatsuno showed up at the annual Fort Hall Reservation pow wow in eastern Idaho, in full regalia and wearing dark sunglasses. He studied the dance moves and stood in line with other dancers before an intertribal dance.
“One of the traditional pow-wow dancers looked down at me and said, ‘What tribe are you, anyway?’ I pulled down my glasses and looked up at him and said, ‘Mongolian.’”
Tatsuno explained that all American Indians apparently came from Asia at some point across the Bering Sea during the ice ages. “I might be from your tribe’s ancestors, I told him.”
Tatsuno lives in downtown Ketchum with his wife, Monique King Tatsuno, and their three dogs.
Some years ago, a guy in a business suit at the Sun Valley ice rink asked Rod Tatsuno where he was from.
“I said, ‘California, just like my parents and grandparents.’ It turned out his grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. So, I said, ‘Well, welcome to America!”