The Trunks

January 29, 2012 by Admin

By Reiko Fujii

As my mother, aunts, uncles and I rummaged through the boxes and musty- smelling trunks in the barn and under the tractor shed, I was thrilled to discover relics from my mother’s family’s past.  Still tied to one of the trunks was a worn out tag, which read “ MISSOURI PACIFIC LINES–COMPANY MATERIAL–HURRY THROUGH .“

Although faded, my grandfather’s name and address were clearly printed on the lines below.  The trunks were filled with old baby clothes, worn and faded little girls’ dresses, boys’ mended coveralls, a woman’s threadbare dress, and old-fashioned one-piece bathing suits.  I was witnessing the truth of the words I had heard throughout my life, “ Grandma never threw anything away.”

Grandpa had passed away in December 1979.  After Grandma died in May 1984, one of her twenty-three grandchildren decided to stay on the farm and raise his family there.  Our beloved Inaba farm continued to stay in our family, extending this legacy to a total of four generations and eighty years.  Grandpa had built the barn and the chicken houses and worked in the fields until he was seventy.  Grandma had collected eggs, weeded the fields, and cleaned the chicken coops from dawn until dusk everyday since she came over from Japan to marry Grandpa in 1924.   Their seven children had been brought up on the land.  The oldest ones had been born in their small home, which was a remodeled chicken house.  Grandpa had added on a bedroom, closet, and a small bathroom.  The family took their baths in a Japanese style bathhouse called an ofuro, which had been located outside the main house.  Eventually, the old house was replaced with a new modern house but everyone still took baths in the ofuro.

In 2002, the unimaginable happened.  The farm was sold to a developer and was to be completely demolished, making way for a new housing tract.   Almost everything had to be given away or sold.

“Where did these trunks come from?” I wondered out loud.  Aunt Haru remembered, “The metal ones were ordered through the Sears Roebuck catalog.  Grandpa made the wooden trunks.”  Uncle Aki, looking over the rim of his glasses, remembered, “My dad was not only the camp barber, he was also a talented carpenter and handyman.  He was called the ‘Fix-it’ man in camp because he had a shop set up in a small trailer.”

I crouched over the old trunks, keepers of forgotten memories from sixty years ago.   As I examined every piece of tattered clothing, my seventy-five-year-old mother and Haru, her sister who was two years younger, recalled their experiences as prisoners in Manzanar concentration camp and Crystal City “family” prison camp.  I discovered a wadded-up brown, red, and multicolored hand-knitted sweater-vest buried beneath the old children’s clothes.  This should be thrown out, I thought.  My mother held it up and then turned it right side out.  “Mom made this in camp,” she recalled.  “She kept adding to it, using up leftover yarn.   She even wore it after she returned to the farm because it kept her warm in the wintertime. “   With loose ends of yarn poking out here and there, I could see that my grandmother meticulously mended her frayed vest over and over again.  We had better keep this vest after all.  It was not only a part of Grandma’s life but also American history, I reflected.

Aunt Haru, a spry seventy-three-year-old, commented on a pair of worn-out young boy’s coveralls with tattered straps attached by safety pins:  “Oh, I remember, Tony used to wear these kinds of coveralls when he was little.  He sure got good use out of these!”  Uncle Tony was born one month before Grandma and her seven children were forced to leave their farm to live in the desert at Manzanar prison camp.  Grandpa and his brother, Hideo, had been arrested on the streets of downtown Riverside as highly suspicious “enemy aliens” weeks before Uncle Tony was born.

Aunt Haru and Mom (Midori) graduated from Crystal City Internment Camp High School.

How did my non-English speaking, eight-month pregnant grandmother feel when the FBI agents, for no understandable reason, took her husband away in their black car?  How did she and her children prepare to leave their chickens and farm for an unknown amount of time?  How were they going to be able to keep their property?  Aunt Haru had heard her father explain, “After the war broke out, we still owed half the payment on the farm.  We had about 5,000 chickens when we were forced to leave.  We sold all of the chickens.  We sold almost everything and paid off the rest of the land. This was how we were able to keep the farm.”

Almost a year and a half passed before the government allowed Grandpa to be reunited with Grandma and their seven children at Crystal City “family” prison camp in Texas.   Grandpa met his youngest son, Tony, for the first time when he was a toddler.

Uncle Aki, Grandpa, Uncle Mits, and Uncle Tony in Crystal City Family Internment Camp.

As they rummaged deeper into the trunks, Aunt Haru and Mom found old-fashioned bathing suits at the bottom of one of them.   “Crystal City had a swimming pool that everyone helped to build.  We all went swimming there.  It was the only way to cool down from the intense summer heat.  One day, two of the Japanese Peruvian girls drowned,” Aunt Haru sadly remembered.  “Japanese from South America were imprisoned there because they were kidnapped by the U.S. government to be used in hostage exchanges with the Japanese government.  After the war, they were not allowed back into their former countries and the United States did not want them to stay here because they were considered illegal aliens.  Most of the Japanese from South America lost everything, including their country.”

I later found out that, according to the book Japanese Americans:  From Relocation to Redress,  “During WWII, the U.S. was a co conspirator and participant in a program that seized, shipped and interned 2,264 Latin-American Japanese, against none of whom was a charge of espionage, sabotage, or subversion ever revealed” (Daniels et al. 142) An article that I read, “A Short History of Latin American Internment and the Fight for Full Redress” by Shigueru Julio Tsuha, explained the post-war dilemma of many Japanese Latin Americans who, when the war ended . . . could not return to their respective countries in Latin America.  In the case of Peru, the Peruvian government was strongly opposed to the return of these individuals and their families. Many returned to Japan either through the prisoner exchanges or out of their own volition, but the majority were deported back to Japan.   (Discover Nikkei Journal) 

The knitted garment, the coveralls, the bathing suits–all these old clothes worn by my mother, aunts and uncles in prison camps–were pungent reminders of a dark slice of American history.   I could now look at and touch the loose threads and fabrics, a tapestry symbolizing the experiences of 120,000 Nisei and Issei–and the Japanese Latin Americans imprisoned with them–in deserts where they were forced to live.  Although my grandparents’ family was one of the few who did not lose their property during the war, they suffered racial prejudice, monetary loss and theft of their personal belongings.

As the trunks were closed, sealing my family’s history in darkness, it became clearer to me that the ramifications from my family’s unjust imprisonment, especially the psychological trauma, were continuing to haunt not only them but also my generation.  I, too, am haunted: by worn threads of a torn past.

Works Cited

Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, Harry H.L. Kitano, editors.  Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1991.

Tsuha, Shiguero Julio.  “A Short History of Japanese Latin American Internment and the Fight for Full Redress.” Discover Nikkei Journal  22, Oct. 2008: n pag.   Web.  19 June 2012.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
%d bloggers like this: