The Family Secret

October 14, 2012 by Admin

Mom visiting at the birth of our son.

By Kazue Nakahara

She wouldn’t get out of the car.  “I don’t like this place.”  Her hands clenched into fists on her lap, her back rigid with bitterness.  She looked straight ahead into the tragic past: “We lived in a horse stall here.”

It was 1975.   Just a half an hour earlier, I had picked up Mom from the San Francisco Airport after she flew in from Seattle to attend Bachan’s memorial service.  (A native San Franciscan, after World War II Mom relocated to Seattle with Dad.)  I spotted her petite, fashionably-dressed figure as she walked primly behind the tall hakujins hurrying through the gateway.  Mom was wearing her wavy-coiffed wig with hair as dark as mine though she was nearly 60 years old.  She didn’t say anything about my usual casual attire, but I noticed for a keen moment the difference in our dress and manner.  I hugged her, knowing she was still in shock that, only a couple of weeks ago, drug addicts had followed her mother home from the bank and murdered Bachan for the money that she had just withdrawn.

On the way home, I thought it would cheer us up to check out the newly opened Tanforan Shopping Center near the airport.   As I drove the car into the parking lot just past the mall sign, she gasped loudly at the metal statue of the jockey on a race horse.   That’s when she wouldn’t get out of the car and said hoarsely, “I don’t like this place . . . We lived in a horse stall here.”  Her violent reaction stunned and bewildered me.

“What are you talking about?”  Shock and fear raised my voice half an octave.   “When did this happen?”

She turned and looked straight into my wide-open eyes.  “During World War II, after Pearl Harbor.”  She pointed at the stark white capital letters on the San Bruno hills:  SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY.  “We could see that sign from behind the barbed wire.”

“Why were you behind barbed wire?”  I asked, astounded.  I had never heard about this before.

“The Government put us all into prison camps:  your Grandpa, Grandma, Auntie Hisae, Uncle Nobi and me.” Mom’s round mahogany-colored glasses brought into sharp focus the hardness in her dark brown eyes, now squeezed into slits of bitterness.

I couldn’t believe my ears.  “Why would they do that?”

“Because they thought we were the enemy–ever since Pearl Harbor.”  She pressed her lips together hard.  “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”  Silent, Mom sat there in the passenger seat , her head turned away from me as she stared out the side window, her white-knuckled fists resting uneasily at attention on her lap.

I drove home, my head swirling with questions and recriminations.  What have I done?  I didn’t mean to cause her such pain.  How could I have known?  Like Pandora, had I opened a forbidden box to disturbing events she was now reluctantly reliving?  How could I get her to tell me more and would that help to heal the wounds she suffered so long ago?  How could this have happened here in America?!

We arrived at our little white house across the bay just north of Berkeley.  After Mom was settled in our guest room just across the narrow hall from our master bedroom, and I had put down one-year old Hidekazu for a nap, we sat down in the living room on the overstuffed couch Bachan had given us when she had moved into a smaller apartment in San Francisco.

I turned to Mom, holding her hands in mine, and pleaded, “Please, Mom, I’m sorry for making you upset, but would you tell me what happened to you and the rest of the Kono family?”  I couldn’t keep the questions from bursting out of my mouth.  “Why did the government have to lock you all up?  How long were you there?  When did you get out?”

Sitting upright on the deep blue couch, Mom gave me a long overdue history lesson—something I had never read in textbooks.  And while she revealed this horrible family secret to me, the words came out at first slowly and painfully, then more quickly and easily, as if they were cathartic.

Her finely-chiseled nose wrinkled, she recalled the lingering stench of the horse stalls that the five of them had lived in before they were “lucky” enough to move into the drafty tarpaper barracks.  Tanforan was their “home” for four months, from May to September 1942.  Then they were uprooted again and taken by train to Topaz, Utah.  She laughed sardonically, “Topaz, the Gem of the Desert!”

Mom’s words opened the door for me to step into her past.  I could taste the unappetizing powdered eggs and my eyes smarted with the blinding dust storms that whipped up suddenly, seeping into the barracks and blanketing everything in sight.  I had never heard her so bitter and angry before, the pent-up resentment spewing out like lava.

“Mom,” I exclaimed, “why haven’t you told me about all this before?  Why haven’t I heard you and Auntie Hisae or Uncle Nobi speak about this?”

She hung her head, “We didn’t want to talk about what happened to us because we felt  ashamed.  When the government puts you in a prison camp, you begin to feel guilty . . . even though you’ve done nothing wrong.”

I nodded my head, remembering an incident in my own past, when I was a seventh-grader in junior high school.  On a bright sunny day, as I was walking to my next class, Mike, a tall blonde-haired boy with a crew cut, came up and stood in front of me, bringing me to an abrupt halt.  He looked down at me keenly from behind his thick glasses, then exclaimed, “You bombed Pearl Harbor!”  It seemed to be more of an epiphany for him than an accusation, but–at that moment–a cloud cast a shadow over me.  That cloud might have just been in my imagination, but I felt a sudden chill.  Though the “day that will live in infamy” was more than four years before I was even born, my classmate’s words to this day make me feel very guilty every year on December 7th.

Up until I heard Mom’s story, Pearl Harbor Day was the only thing I really knew about World War II.  How that event affected Mom and Dad had never even occurred to me.  I had always felt we lived “with liberty and justice” as guaranteed by our Constitution.   That Mom and my grandparents had been so grossly mistreated by our government simply because they “looked like the enemy,” both astounded and outraged me.

“Mom, you’ve got to tell the world about this.  People need to know about these terrible events that happened 30 years ago.  It’s not too late.”

“She shook her head, covering her mouth in horror.  “I can’t talk about these shameful things.”

“But Mom” I insisted, “it is nothing to be ashamed about.  The government did this to you and IT should be ashamed—not you!  I know a reporter who would love to hear your story—it needs to be told!”

Mom sat there silently for a long while with a faraway look in her pensive eyes.  Over the next few days, she and I attended the sorrowful family reunion of Bachan’s five surviving children and their families; we were together before, during and after the memorial service.

Finally, toward the end of that grueling week, as Mom and I continued our conversation over tea in my tiny kitchen, I watched her edge of harsh bitterness turn into a determined resolve.  Mom had decided it was time to tell her story. The horse stalls, the cramped barracks, and the dust storms would all come to light.  And knowing Tanforan and Topaz held painful memories, I was very proud of her.  I am still very proud of her.  On that day she broke her silence and told me the family secret.


When Mom finally agreed to be interviewed, there were two conditions: (1)  that she would be referred to as “Mrs. K” (for her maiden name, Kono), and; (2)  that her face would not be photographed–only her hands, holding the Topaz Reunion Book.  She was adamant at that time no one would know it was her story.  Perhaps she was concerned about the reaction of those in the family, like Auntie Hisae.

Later when I asked Auntie Hisae about their forced removal from San Francisco and their imprisonment in Topaz concentration camp, she waved it all away dismissively with her hand and said, “It’s of no interest to anyone.”

Once Mom told me her long-buried secret and shared it with the reporter, she was more open to my questions and even though her bitterness persisted, she expressed more outrage than shame.

She began to write stories of her family history.  I think she wrote these for my brother and me as well as for her grandchildren and future descendants.  She must have felt that we needed to know the experiences of our grandparents as Isseis in America as well as her Nisei experiences growing up and the entire family’s history during World War II.

When Dad became active with the Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle and the Northwest Chapter of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), she wrote up the story of the MIS and helped to edit and proofread the book, Unsung Heroes / Military Intelligence Service:  Past * Present * Future, for publication.

Mom also meticulously edited Dad’s speeches for countless community events in Seattle over the past sixty years.  While he was at the podium, Mom sat in the audience and loved to bask in his glory.  Since Mom passed away two years ago, Dad now asks me, “Will you to look over this speech for the New Year’s Party at the Buddhist Church?”  I am glad to give feedback to Dad whenever I can, just as Mom did.

Me, mom, and my daughter Miye at Topaz Pilgrimage in 1993.

In 1993, Mom and Dad took my daughter, Miye, and me to a Topaz Reunion in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We took a bus through the town of Delta where over 40 years before the Kono family had gotten off  a train and then onto a bus to go to Topaz concentration camp.  For Miye and me, Topaz was a desolate desert with a few foundations and broken dishes.  But, through Mom’s eyes, we saw the view of the mountains they had from her family’s barrack windows.  Being among others who experienced the forced removal and imprisonment renewed and cemented an exclusive camaraderie that Mom enjoyed.  It was her “Farewell to Topaz” story.

Around the year 2000, Mom was willing to step out from her curtain of anonymity and consented to be videotaped by Densho in Seattle.  They had already archived Dad’s life story as a Kibei who served as an instructor at the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) and interpreter for the war crimes’ trials in Japan during the Occupation.  Densho was also interested in Mom’s perspective as a prisoner of the concentration camp at Topaz, Utah, and also as the secretary of Major John Aiso, director of academic study at the MISLS in Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

After the Redress and Reparations Movement, Mom showed me the letter of apology from the U.S. government and a copy of her check for $20,000.  I remember asking her, “What did you do with the money?”  I don’t recall her answer.  I think she put it into the bank and probably used the funds as gifts for the education of her grandchildren because each of my two children received $10,000 from her.

You can rest in peace, Mom.  The secret you shared with me almost forty years ago is safe with me, and I will share it only out of respect and love.  I know you would understand why I told it to your grandchildren.  And why I have been telling it to the students at Daruma no Gakko, a Japanese American cultural summer school, as well as to the history and English classes in the public schools.  By writing down your story, Mom, I hope to honor your willingness to preserve for posterity an important part of our family history, a story that inspires me to continue our proud legacy of gaman and kodomo no tame ni.  Thanks to you, Mom, together we can try to keep history from repeating itself.

Mom, arigato gozaimasu!


It’s funny how your memory deceives you.  When I first wrote this story, I couldn’t remember the circumstances that brought my mother down to San Francisco.  I thought she was just visiting soon after we had moved into our El Cerrito home.

Then when I found some pictures to go with this story,  I recalled she came down for Bachan’s memorial service in 1975.  I also looked up when Tanforan Shopping Center opened and it was in the 1970s.  So that seemed to corroborate my now revised story.

However, after finding and reading the newspaper article (dated September 22, 1988) about Mom’s interview, I realized that in the photograph accompanying the article she was holding the program for the Topaz Reunion in Burlingame and that was the reason she flew down.  Then I remembered that at that time I was a freelance reporter for The El Cerrito Journal and had access to other reporters.  I had wanted Mom’s story to be written by a more professional journalist than me.  But I decided not to revise the story again because reworking it to reflect the actual facts would introduce complications and the narrative  would also lose some pertinent background information and context.

Article by Sherry Lebeck, “The Journal”, September 22, 1998.

My husband said that in 1988 the public was aware of the camps and the redress movement had started.  That may well have been, but at that time I was a mother of two pre-teens, volunteered in the schools and was involved in both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as the PTA.   Therefore, I was not politically nor socially aware of such current events dealing with the Japanese Americans.  I do remember in August 1988 my Dad mentioning how sad it was that a distant relative had died before President Ronald Reagan had signed the Civil Liberties Act, and therefore she never received the $20,000 check.

In 1989, I became the sixth-grade teacher at Daruma-no-Gakko, a Japanese American cultural summer school.  A large part of the curriculum was the history of the Japanese in America.  That was when I really delved into the historical events that led to the World War II experiences of the Nikkei, including Mom and Dad.  My daughter and the other Yonseis in my class personalized those events I taught them by compiling four generational interviews into their own family history book.

Again, it all started when Mom told me the family secret; that day in the Tanforan Shopping Mall parking lot, site of the horse stall where she and her family had once been imprisoned.

A FINAL NOTE:  Return to Tanforan

On April 28, 2012, seventy years after it opened and 24 years after I tried to take Mom to Tanforan Shopping Mall, I returned to the site of Tanforan Assembly Center, this time with a friend, Kaz Iwahashi.  We took the BART train from El Cerrito Plaza to the San Bruno Station, right next to the Tanforan Shopping Mall, where we joined about 100 others to attend the commemorative reception for the photographic exhibit, They wore their best . . . The Japanese-American Evacuation and After.  The exhibit displayed familiar photographs by Dorothea Lange taken during the forced removal of the Issei, Nisei and young Sansei during World War II with accompanying photos of some of the same Nisei taken within the last five years by Paul Kitagaki, Jr.   The exhibit demonstrated a wonderful contrast between the Nisei then as children or young adults and now as seniors in their 80s and 90s.

Kaz, who went to Tanforan and then to Topaz, was excited to see pictures of her friends and even more excited to see some of them in person after all these years!  We felt sad, however, to hear that some of them had passed on, but how wonderful she felt hugging those who were still around.

We were called outside the station for the program and sat on folding chairs underneath the overhead tent.  Planes taking off from San Francisco Airport roared closely over us from time to time, drowning out the speakers, who took the noise with good humor.  I saw in the distance the white letters Mom had seen from behind the barbed wire of the assembly center:  SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY.

We were touched by the sincerity shown by the speakers, including local dignitaries.  BART General Manager Grace Crunican’s story was the one I most enjoyed.  She told us that she grew up in Ontario, Oregon, and while in secondary school she chose a history assignment about the “evacuation” and incarceration/internment of the Japanese Americans.  As part of her project, she had interviewed her parents about their reaction to what happened as a result of  President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.  We were caught up in her tears as she choked up while she told us that her parents had been so afraid of the Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor they did not protest the injustices imposed on their innocent Nikkei neighbors.  Since then she vowed to be vigilant and active against any civil rights’ violations.

Steve Okamoto described the living conditions in the horse stalls of the former Tanforan Race Track, noting that whitewashing the stables did not cover the stench of the horse manure.   Yoneo Kawakita told us about his experiences in Topaz and the joy of freedom when he left the camp to get supplies.

We were inspired and strongly affected by the powerful images evoked by poet laureate Janice Mirikitani about the dishes her grandmother had boxed up before the forced removal and by  poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi about life in Tule Lake and the anger stirred up in loyal Nikkei against the pro-Japan internees.

The ceremony ended with a performance by Gen Taiko Ensemble, which Kaz and I watched intently, admiring their shiny shellacked drums and thinking nervously that the next day we would be performing for the CROP Walk in Berkeley.

We then explored Tanforan Shopping Mall, which I had never had the chance to do since Mom wouldn’t get out of the car back in 1988.  Close to noon, we started with the Food Court and then went looking for the Seabiscuit Statue that had upset Mom.  After wandering around for a while, Kaz and I finally found the statue and took pictures of each other in front of it.  We also discovered the commemorative Japanese garden austere with sand and boulders near BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery.  The plaque stated that the garden was dedicated on September 29, 2007, and was made possible by former camp prisoners and internees along with their descendants.

I marveled at the high cathederal-like ceilings in the mall and thought, What a contrast to the depressing environment of the assembly center that Mom and the other Nikkei prisoners had endured.  Mom would have been proud of me for coming here to see the photographic exhibit about the forced removal to Tanforan and for thinking about her being here 70 years ago as I tried to retrace her steps.  I felt like I had brought her here with me . . . and at last Mom’s spirit got out of the car and walked with me from the dark past of Tanforan Assembly Center into the bright present of Tanforan Shopping Mall as the sun shone down upon us. Finally, at peace with our family secret, Mom smiled.

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.
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