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Volunteer Profile: Tsuru Tuenge

Tsuru Tuenge, a beloved volunteer at Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Beloved Volunteer Has Donated 1,000 Hours of Service to Portland Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden could not pursue its mission of Inspiring Harmony and Peace without its remarkable group of volunteers. More than 180 individuals from a diverse group of backgrounds help the organization in innumerous ways, including providing richly detailed tours, guiding guests through artwork on display in our exhibitions, and tending to the physical landscape itself. Among those who have been generous in donating their time is Tsuru Tuenge, who has been a member of Portland Japanese Garden since the late 1970s and has been a highly admired volunteer since 2017. As Tuenge reached 1,000 hours of service with the organization, she sat down to talk with us about her past and time with the Garden.

In 710, the Empress Genmei established what would be Japan’s first “permanent” capital: Heijo, today known as Nara. Established during a time when Chinese culture had a particularly significant influence on Japan’s governance and cultural pursuits, the city was laid out with the desire to emulate the grandeur of the Chinese Tang dynasty’s capital of Chang’an (today known as Xi’an). On its gridded streets, alongside a palace and government buildings, important cultural sites would be founded: the Buddhist Todaiji and Toshodaiji Temples and the Shinto Kasuga Taisha Shrine being just a few. Its time as Japan’s capital would end in 784 when Emperor Kammu moved the capital temporarily to Nagaoka before eventually establishing the longer-lasting capital of Heian-kyo in 794 (today, known as Kyoto). However, while the imperial court would move, its cultural pursuits would continue on. To this day, the people of Nara keep the ancient and celebrated traditions of Japan alive and vibrant, even when they leave its borders to cross an ocean. Case in point: Tsuru Tuenge.

Tuenge is one of Portland Japanese Garden’s beloved volunteers, who has devoted 1,000 hours to the organization leading tours, monitoring Garden grounds, being a docent on its Ellie M. Hill Bonsai Terrace, and helping prepare and support its cultural events, such as Tanabata (the Star Festival) and Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Day). Tuenge is a daughter of Nara, having lived there for the first 18 years of her life before moving to the United States. “Our daily life was marked by traditional events and seasonal foods,” she recalls. “It was before the days of television—these events would bring a lot of excitement. We would visit temples and shrines, many of which had beautiful gardens.”

Learning About America in its Heartland

The Natural Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

However, when Tuenge reached the age of 18, she felt the need to venture out. “In those days, women had an equal opportunity when it came to education, but limited choices for careers,” she notes. “I didn’t want to be a housewife.” Her first home in the United States would be the small farming community of Greenwood, Wisconsin, where she would repeat her final year of high school and learn more about American life. “The whole town welcomed me,” Tuenge shares. “I was invited to homes for dinners, parties, and get-togethers to make maple syrup or go on hayrides. Something I learned was how incredibly hard American teens work. They were always helping around the farm and home—I formed a great respect for these hardworking Americans.”

After Tuenge finished high school she would stick around in the Midwest, earning a bachelor’s in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and a master’s in statistics from Iowa State University. “I was able to finance school with scholarships and part-time work,” Tuenge notes. “I am very grateful that I, a penniless foreign student, was given this opportunity for my education.” While an undergraduate, Tuenge would gain even more insight into the American experience when she worked in a Chicago hospital on her school breaks. “I met many people of many different backgrounds,” she recalls. “My time there deepened my appreciation for the diversity offered in the U.S. It was so different from Japan’s monoculture.”

In 1975, Tuenge married her husband, Richard Tuenge, a fellow student at Iowa State. The pair would move to Tempe when Richard was accepted into a post-doctoral research program at Arizona State University. Her work as a programmer for American Express and hikes in the desert would conclude in 1978, however, when Tuenge’s husband was offered a job by Tektronix, an electronics manufacturer headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon. The move to the Pacific Northwest would be the right one for the pair. “When we arrived in Oregon, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is it. We are staying,’” Tuenge recalls.

Building a Life in Oregon

The Kashintei Tea House, which was built in 1968 following donations from Sony and Tektronix. Photo by Aaron Lee.

Eventually Tuenge would join her husband at Tektronix and would work in its I.T. and finance departments until her retirement in 2012. Tektronix co-founder Howard Vollum is an instrumental figure in the history of Portland Japanese Garden. Notable among his generosity was the donation of money that helped the Garden build its cherished Kashintei teahouse in the Tea Garden, an authentically designed structure that has hugged its nearby Washington Park hillside since 1968. Tuenge has fond memories of the local business leader. “Howard was Board Chairman by the time I began working for Tektronix, but he visited us often and would talk with us,” she remembers. “He was such a humble person who treated everyone with respect. Tektronix encouraged its employees to get involved in the community—Howard and his family set great examples.”

The late 1970s would also mark the first time Tuenge visited Portland Japanese Garden and became one of its members. The attraction was still in its formative years, only having been open to the public for 11 years. “The Garden was still ‘in progress,’” Tuenge recalls. “Trees and bushes were smaller, the Pavilion had not been built yet, and there were still some bare patches across the grounds. Yet, it looked and felt like an authentic Japanese garden in the making. Over the years, the Garden kept improving and becoming more and more beautiful. When my mother visited me, we would always come here. On one visit, she was snapping away, taking photos. I told her, ‘Stop taking pictures! Everybody will think you went to Kyoto, not the United States!’”

Over the course of her professional career, Tuenge and her husband would buy a vineyard and started growing wine grapes. On her land, she gardened fruits, vegetables, and flowers—noting that she has a special appreciation for English gardens. “We also adopted a child from South Korea,” she says. “He happened to be developmentally disabled. I became a semi-expert in disability benefits so I could help our son. I started volunteering for nonprofits that educate, encourage, and advocate for disabled people and their families so they can achieve meaningful and independent lives.”

Inextricably Linked to Portland Japanese Garden

Tsuru Tuenge, volunteer (right) assists Kelsey Cleveland, Cultural Programs Manager, in unboxing hina dolls for the Garden’s celebration of Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Day) in 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Eventually, after more than 35 years of hard work, which included one more degree earned (an MBA from the Oregon Executive MBA Program), Tuenge retired in 2012. Despite a busy post-retirement schedule that included working her vineyard, gardening, and doing disability volunteer work, she decided she wanted to donate her time to Portland Japanese Garden when the organization put out an advertisement requesting applicants to become volunteer tour guides. “It was in 2017 when the Garden was getting ready for the opening of the Cultural Village,” she shares. “I successfully completed the class and started giving tours in the spring of that year.” Tuenge, with her wealth of knowledge on Japanese culture, sharp and immediately obvious intelligence, and dedication to her community, became a highly respected volunteer who is now entrusted with training newcomers. Her contributions have not gone unnoticed.

“It is shocking to me that Tsuru Tuenge has only been a volunteer at Portland Japanese Garden for seven years because in my mind she is inextricably linked to the organization,” Sarah Lynch, Volunteer Programs Manager shares. “She is an example of all the qualities you could ask for in a volunteer – dedicated, caring, curious, and fully invested in making us better. Tsuru often serves as a mentor for new volunteers because of her innate ability to make them feel welcomed and comfortable and to impart her tremendous passion and wisdom onto them. We are so lucky that the Garden is special to her. She lifts everybody in our community up through her humor, enthusiasm, and no-nonsense authenticity.”

Though Tuenge was born and raised in Japan, she has spent the majority of her life in the United States. Noting she has “totally assimilated to American life,” Tuenge shares that the Garden helped her rediscover her appreciation for Japanese culture. “For nearly 50 years I did not speak Japanese at all, unless I was visiting Japan or talking to my mother on the phone,” she shares.

A Passion for Sharing Japanese Culture

Tsuru Tuenge, volunteer, takes a photo of a guest to Portland Japanese Garden’s Tanabata celebration in 2024. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“It was fun to meet other Japanese people at the Garden and have a chance to speak Japanese, though I have gotten rusty,” she continues. “Portland Japanese Garden gave me a newfound appreciation for the Kansai region [an area that encompasses multiple cities including Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka]. Volunteering here made me realize that my experience growing up in Nara in the era following World War II was quite unique and rich—it is a city steeped with old traditions. Growing up in Nara is quite different from growing up in Tokyo. I found myself brushing up on Japanese history—which helped me enjoy our cultural events even more. I get to share my experiences with our visitors; not only customs and foods, but the meaning of these events.” To say that Tuenge’s contributions to the Garden’s festival celebrations are valued would be an understatement.

“Tsuru is passionate about sharing Japanese culture with guests and staff and her enthusiasm is contagious,” shares Kelsey Cleveland, Cultural Programs Manager. “She loves supporting our cultural festivals. During my time, I have worked with her on O-Shogatsu [Japanese New Year], Hina Matsuri, Children’s Day [Kodomo no Hi], and Tanabata. She embodies the Japanese concept of omotenashi, whole-hearted hospitality, by adding her own special touch to her role.”

“For example, for Hina Matsuri, Tsuru brought in a magazine with pictures of the 2018 coronation ceremony of His Majesty, Emperor Naruhito so guests can compare the outfits worn by current day royals and the dolls,” Cleveland continues. “On Tanabata, after a young guest has written their wish in the Yanai classroom, she’s escorted the family to the Crumpacker Bamboo Allée, hangs their wish, and then takes their photo with their wish. I always look forward to working with Tsuru.”

“Tsuru is someone I aspire to be,” seconds Mayuko Sasanuma, Director of Cultural Programs. “She is extremely generous with her time. She has always devoted herself to the causes she believes in, even when life leaves her little extra time. Portland Japanese Garden is fortunate to be the recipient of her precious service.”

“The Best Place to Volunteer”

Tsuru Tuenge, volunteer, hangs tanzaku (wish strips) at Portland Japanese Garden’s Tanabata celebration in 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Tuenge has become an irreplaceable contributor to the Garden whose care and devotion are only matched by her brimming vitality. She is loved by those in her orbit and the love is shared right back. “The main reason why I enjoy volunteering with Portland Japanese Garden is the people,” she emphasizes. “My mother has always said, ‘You are lucky with people.’ She is right. Over my nearly 60 years lived in the U.S., I can honestly say I’ve never experienced hate or harassment—instead it has been respect and kindness. I especially feel this at the Garden. The volunteers here are the most wonderful group of people, all with varied backgrounds and from different geographic origins.”

“Our visitors are also from all over the world are very interesting as well,” she continues. “They are open-minded, inquisitive, and appreciative of the beauty the Garden offers. I enjoy how they will share their lives with me, whether it’s showing photos of their own gardens or bonsai, their travels in Japan, or the Japanese garden in their hometown.”

She strongly encourages anyone considering becoming a volunteer to do so. “We’re extremely well-managed by the staff here—we are appreciated and valued—and the volunteer system is flexible and easy to navigate,” Tuenge affirms. “The staff here is a wonderful bunch of people. They are all hardworking and dedicated, I have enjoyed befriending them and getting to know them better and am honored to be a part of their work. Portland Japanese Garden is the best place to volunteer—you spend time in beautiful surroundings, get good exercise, and are surrounded by friends and interesting people.”

Written by Will Lerner, Communications Manager for Portland Japanese Garden and Japan Institute.

Related: Learn more about Portland Japanese Garden’s volunteer program