October 14, 2012 by Admin
By Shirley Kuramoto
“Mukashi, mukashi, o – o – mukashi, ahnmari mukashi de wasuremashita!” I said in one breath at the front of the classroom. As a shy youngster of 11 in the sixth grade Japanese school, I mustered all the courage I could to give a short speech in the Japanese language of “A long time ago, a very, very long time ago, it was so long ago that I have forgotten everything!” I thought that this speech was quite short and humorous to share with my classmates; I soon found out, however, that this wouldn’t help me scholastically and that I couldn’t hide my shyness by replacing it with any comedy act in a classroom, especially in a strict Japanese school environment at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1944.
The Japanese teacher, with his long, pointed “stick” by his side, didn’t say anything. His significant “stick,” which often found its way to the top of my head for a tap , was kept “mute.” This time, I didn’t receive the usual tap on the head, which could mean “Sit up straight!”, “Don’t cross your legs!”, “Pay attention!”, or “Be still!” I’d like to think that the teacher saved his breath by having his “stick” do the “talking” for him. Even with the occasional taps I received, I still respected my teacher by being a “good Japanese student.”
Several weeks later, the teacher visited my parents at our family barrack room for a parent-teacher conference. My parents, no doubt, were anxiously waiting to get a good report about their seemingly dutiful daughter. Listening beneath an open window outside the room, I can still remember what the teacher said to my parents: “Your daughter, when she grows up, is destined to become a very good clown!” This remark, in Japanese, didn’t sound flattering.
A brief, stunned silence followed, indicating to me that this report was an embarrassment for my parents. Mama was the first to apologize in Japanese. She was “surprised” and “couldn’t believe Toshiko would act like a clown.” Born a Nisei, yet connected to the Japanese culture as she had lived in Japan for ten years, my mother knew that it was important to make a good impression of the family. I could tell Daddy was obviously upset by the grave tone of his voice when he finally responded. He did not apologize like Mama did, but quickly asked the teacher, “How are Toshiko’s academic skills?” He obviously wanted to get past the subject of my comedic skills.
When Daddy found out from the teacher that I needed improvements in my kanji writing skills, I wondered what I had got myself into. Would I get a scolding or tongue lashing? Much to my relief, my parents did not have much to say after the teacher left.
Returning inside to face my parents, I felt an uneasiness as they just looked at me without saying anything. I looked away, sat on my bed and quietly watched my three-year-old brother Robert playing with his wooden car on the floor.
In subsequent weeks, my Issei father took it upon himself to tutor me closely so I could become an honorable Japanese student. In the evenings, Daddy would have me sit in front of a large sheet of paper and drill me repeatedly in writing Japanese calligraphy with a black pen. The drills were intense and mistakes were out of the question. I felt disciplined by my drills and felt closely watched by my parents as I tried to keep up with my studies as a serious student. I could no longer play with my friends after supper or sneak into the mess hall to watch American movies with other kids.
“You sure have strict parents!” a friend remarked. The Japanese school did not allow students to see American movies, but many kids were allowed to see them, if they did not attend Japanese school. I was especially crushed when I was unable to see a Tyrone Power movie! This was torturous punishment!
Weeks after getting over the embarrassing parent-teacher conference, I was able to regain some self-respect by continuing my ritual as a serious and productive student.
Every morning on a school day, I would get up early with my long, nail-protruding stick to skewer the paper litter and clean our block. After this task, I met with my classmates to join pro-Japan Hoshi Dan adults, wearing white head and arm bands, in a big open field. We would listen to a Hoshi Dan leader who stood up on a high box, giving some kind of heated-up pro-Japan “pep talk” in Japanese. I didn’t understand everything he said, but I did understand that when the leader gave us his “Sai Kei Lei!” command, we should bow down low for a few seconds to honor the Emperor and the country of Japan.
In winter, during our silent bow downs, I heard a chorus of “sniffles” from my classmates. I found it challenging when I had to stifle my giggling, but we had to remember to act nobly through our serious ritual and be polite as possible in an honorable way.
Following our physical exercises with the Hoshi Dan group, I happily led a group of younger school children to march in unison behind me. Wearing white head and arm bands, we joined other school children in our long, marching parade. When the signal was given, our head and eyes locked in place. We looked straight ahead with stoic gazes as we swung our arms forward and backwards. We synchronized our arm motions by moving forward with the thighs of our legs moving up and down — forward left leg, forward right leg. Our marching goose steps pounded the dry, dusty ground as we moved in unison left, right, left, right on the parade route, passing by several blocks of black barracks. Mothers of students watched us in the coolness of the morning, and I felt exhilarated by marching under the cloudless, blue-grey sky. Licking the dust from our lips, we disbanded, removed our arm and head bands, damp from perspiration, and then reported to our Hoshi-Dan regulated, musty-smelling classrooms.
We bowed at the threshold of a door leading to our classroom, stood in front of our desks and bowed again toward the teacher. We then sat down to commence with our Japanese lessons, which were taught only in the Japanese language. The ever- present “stick” the teacher carried came in handy to take good control of the class and to discipline us kids. The teacher watched us with his stern face at all times. I do recall, however, that he could not keep us in control the time that a mother cat ran into our classroom, in the process of having a kitten. All the girls screamed at once upon seeing this rare sight. Our combination of piercing cries, followed by laughter, deeply unsettled the teacher. He yelled “yakamashi-i!”, hit his stick several times on the top of his wooden teaching podium, and glared at us. We quickly turned back into disciplined students again. I don’t remember what happened to the poor trembling cat, but the teacher probably chased it out of our classroom. This incident happened weeks after the conference with my parents, so I tried to stay on my best behavior despite all the commotion.
In addition, we memorized and sang several military songs. I can still remember the tune to “Katte kuru zo to isamashiku,” which had a theme about fighting hard and winning the war for the country of Japan and for the Emperor.
We sang all the military tunes in an uplifting way. I practiced all of them by myself in an energetic, clear, and loud operatic voice before going to school. In the classroom when called, I reverted back to my shy self, and sang inaudibly in a strained voice, disappointing not only the teacher, but myself.
In the afternoons, I went to an American School, located in a different area from the Japanese Schools. I saluted the American flag, and I pledged my allegiance to the United States with lots of other students. Some of the students did not attend Japanese school, but many of us did attend both schools. I remember singing “God Bless America,” “My Country tis of Thee,” “Anchors Aweigh,” the National Anthem and other patriotic American songs. We sang these songs in unison in an uplifting way. I could continue my studies in the English language and not get tapped on my head.
Pledging allegiance to Japan in the morning and pledging allegiance to the United States in the afternoon in one day was quite a task! The intensity I endured in Japanese school during the first half of the day disappeared in American school during the second half . The American school teacher, who was a Nisei, actually smiled more than the Japanese teacher and showed warmth, encouragement or discipline with only the sound of her voice. Even with two different styles of teaching methods during a school day, I adjusted well to attending both schools. My quiet Toshiko Japanese identity in the classroom setting in the mornings was replaced by a more relaxed Shirley with a Japanese American identity in the afternoons. I felt more comfortable learning in an English-speaking environment.
The advantage of going to school as a youngster in Camp was that not only were we acquainted with a lot of classmates, but we were acquainted with a lot of playmates from different blocks. My school days and my time spent with classmates kept me occupied as we studied together and entertained ourselves during recess. Patty cakes were popular as well as our string games, playing Hide-and-go-Seek or tag.
After school and on weekends, we engaged in snow fights and played war with our block friends. We used our imagination to create games, walking on high wooden stilts, playing with paper dolls cut out from catalogues, drawing hopscotch on the dusty ground, and playing house outdoors. We told each other scary ghost stories and played spooky games, asking a spirit to answer our questions on a three-legged cardboard table, which would tip a “yes” or “no” answer. In another game we used a round ring tied to the end of a string held by a finger and dangled inside the middle of a glass cup. We would concentrate on the ring to make it swing and sway into the side of the glass for a “yes” or “no” answer.
My mother, however, forbade me to play these games. “I don’t want to catch you playing Monopoly or cards with your friends, do you understand?! These gambling games are bad for you!”
“Yes, Mama,” I would reply, but Monopoly was still my favorite game, and I continued to play it at another friend’s place. Fifteen years later, I finally received a Monopoly game from my husband for a Christmas gift. It remains my favorite board game.
Beyond all the games we played, we were drawn to boys as we got older. Noticing cute boys was the beginning of a new awareness, which was another subject us pre-teen girls loved to discuss. Whenever cute boys would pass us by, we would be too shy to engage in a conversation; the best we could do was a lot of giggling, followed by more giggling. When we became bold, we would ask them, “Will you join our game?”
I loved to read comic books such as Wonder Woman and Superman and especially loved to read Nancy Drew mysteries. Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew served as female role models to me. They had intelligence and equal powers like Superman and other male heroes of the time. The “good” always won in the end.
Once I had a fever, which gave me the same recurring dream for three nights in a row. As I walked in a dark closet, a man lifted me up high and said, “I am your grandfather.” I woke up in a cold sweat. Later, I found out that this grandfather who appeared in my dream had died that same week in Japan. I had never met him. A spiritual friend pointed out to me that my grandfather had appeared in my dream to reassure me that “Everything would be all right” and “to not be frightened.” I followed my friend’s suggestion to go into my dark closet at night to thank my grandfather for appearing in my dream.
Mukashi, mukashi, o-o-mukashi, a long, long time ago . . . it was so long ago, and I have forgotten many things. I have overcome some of my youthful shyness and can share some thoughts with more than one breath with others. While I attended two Tule Lake schools, in classrooms with two contrasting teaching methods, all teachers were united in trying to turn out good students. In both classes, I learned about allegiance, honor, and respect of others.
My interaction with teachers and other youths helped me to grow up. I could still be a kid, think and act like one, yet I learned to mature. I did not endure hardships as my parents did during camp life. I clowned around, practiced calligraphy, marched and sang, pledged allegiance, and invented games. I can only remember that my father and mother tried to make everyday life bearable for me and my little brother, Robert, while we were incarcerated at the camp in Tule Lake . . . mukashi, mukashi, a long, long time ago.