October 16, 2020

T. K. Pharmacy was one of few Japanese American businesses that remained open during World War II. Operating out of Denver—outside the so-called “exclusion zone”—it offered a lifeline to Japanese Americans in Topaz, Heart Mountain, Gila River, and other camps by fulfilling requests for hard-to-come-by items like arts supplies and medicine. But the fact that this collection was preserved at all was a lucky accident.

T. K. Pharmacy was owned by Thomas K. Kobayashi and run by his brother-in-law, Yutaka “Tak” Terasaki, during WWII. Because the business was located in Denver, Colorado, it was able to avoid the fate of Japanese pharmacies on the West Coast forced to shutter after Executive Order 9066. In 1942, Tak started receiving letters from Japanese Americans incarcerated in WRA concentration camps.

A letter sent to T. K. Pharmacy from Minidoka concentration camp, requesting Kokusui sake. Courtesy of the T. K. Pharmacy Collection, Densho.

Most of the requests were for items that seem mundane today. Hair dye. Note pads and sumi ink. Antacid tablets. Cod liver oil. Japanese herbal medicines. Rouge in “shade Siren.” There are also letters asking for film (“as much as you can spare”), chocolates, gum. And of course, the most popular item: gallons and gallons of sake.

But these ordinary, everyday items tell us a lot about what life was like in the camps. How Japanese Americans passed the endless time, coped with the conditions of confinement, and above all, survived.

There are also requests for things we don’t often see in archives—condoms, diaphragms, and other forms of birth control. Mugwort (or “mogusa,” as the Issei called it), which has long been used as an herbal remedy to relieve menstrual cramps and, sometimes, as an abortifacient, was another popular item.

Episode two of Campu digs into the ways these letters refute the common misrepresentation of Issei and Nisei women “as passive bystanders left to deal with the aftermath of the business of men.”

In an interview with the podcast’s producers, Densho Digital Archivist Caitlin Oiye Coon says, “To me, it just shows agency on the part of women in the camps to say, ‘I still want to be able to control how many children I have in this environment and when I have them,’ whereas so much of everything else was not in their control anymore.

Seven decades after WWII, a Denver couple who had purchased the former pharmacy started renovating the building. They stumbled across these long-forgotten letters and receipts hidden behind a wall. They were remarkably well-preserved, and thanks to the efforts of Caitlin and the rest of Densho’s collections team, they’re now digitized and viewable in our archives. But the fact that it almost didn’t happen—that these stories could have just as easily been lost or destroyed somewhere along the way—is a reminder of the valuable work that archivists do. 

Stacks of papers from the T. K. Pharmacy, taken when Densho’s archives team began digitizing the collection in 2016. Courtesy of Natasha Varner.

As we celebrate American Archives Month, we’re feeling especially appreciative of the work being done by Densho archivists, as well as professional and home archivists everywhere. There are many more hidden histories and untold stories out there to be found, and we applaud you all for doing that work! And that’s why we keep digging.

Do you have a “hidden history” or family collection you want to see preserved? Reach out to our collections team and tell us about it!

By Densho Staff