October 25, 2012 by Admin
By Kazumaro Ishida
“Kibi, I wonder what are they doing?”
He replied, “It looks like they are cooking a jackrabbit in a big, black pan.”
“It’s what?” I exclaimed. “Where in the heck did a jackrabbit come from?”
He patiently explained, “Kaz, the old men caught a jackrabbit, and they are making a stew out of it.”
I did not see it, smell it or taste it, but if Kibi said that it was a jackrabbit, it was a jackrabbit. My big brother Kibi was my partner in crime. I guess that he was eleven and that I was ten years old. That was not Topaz. That was not Crystal City. That was in the basement of the Nichiren Church in the city by the bay, San Francisco, my third home. My first home was the Crystal City Internment Camp in Crystal City, Texas, where I was born after the Second World War in 1946. Kibi’s friend, Clifford Oyama, was born there, too.
My name is Kazumaro Ishida, the last of seven children of the late, Archbishop Nitten and Mrs. Chiyoko Ishida, my father and mother. My parents were Issei, the first generation of Japanese born in Japan. My father was born in Fukuyama-City, Hiroshima, Japan. My mother was born in Ito-City, Shizuoka, Japan. I had three older brothers and three older sisters. My siblings except for my brother, Kuni, were Nisei, children of the Issei and the second generation of Japanese born in the United States. He was a Shin Issei who was born in Tokyo, Japan, while my parents were visiting my grandmothers in Japan.
I am a Nisei. My children, Julie and Kevin are Sansei, children of the Nisei and the third generation of Japanese born in the United States. My wife, Sachiyo, was born in Wakayama, Japan, but her father was a Kibei Nisei who was born in San Francisco, California. A Kibei Nisei is one who was born in the United States, raised and educated in Japan and returned to the United States. Her mother was also born in Wakayama, Japan. I guess that she is a Sansei who was born in Japan.
My father was a Nichiren Buddhist priest, and my family and I lived and were raised in a Nichiren Buddhist church. My parents, brothers and sisters and I had our living quarters upstairs, while the church area was downstairs. Even my family and I had designated seating arrangements for meals, and we all ate in the kitchen at the large, oval-shaped brown walnut table, devouring plates of grilled saba (mackerel) and bowls of miso soup, nimono (Japanese stew) of daikon (radish), sato imo (Japanese yams) and carrots, ohitashi (boiled spinach) and hot steamed, white rice for dinner. Accompanying those dishes were small plates of Mama’s hakusai no tsukemono (pickled Napa cabbage) and bancha (Japanese coarse tea). For dessert we had manju (red bean sweet rice) or a sponge cake. For breakfast we usually had oatmeal or dry cereal, scrambled eggs or pancakes, bacon, toast and hot chocolate. For lunch, my siblings and I usually had bologna, ham, tuna fish, cheese and peanut butter and jam sandwiches made of white Wonder Bread, apples or oranges and hot soup in thermos bottles that we brought to school.
My father sat in the middle of the table with his back to the white, metal cabinets. I always sat immediately to the right of him in my favorite, brown wooden chair. My mother usually sat at the far left end of the table. My brothers and sisters sat at the other chairs around the table. I was obsessed by territorial needs as a child. When someone violated my space, I became upset. Once I pulled away my chair when some unfamiliar, Japanese female visitor attempted to sit in it. She almost fell on her butt. I guess that my parents did not let anyone else sit in my chair after that incident.
To live and grow up in a church was stressful at times. My father was an intelligent, sociable, and extroverted man. According to my sister, Dr. Helen Ishida, he attended Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, in April of 1923 and graduated from this university with a major in economics and political science in 1925. He also received a master’s degree in economics from the same university (“Case History” 5). He taught calligraphy classes in the church’s basement, and he was renowned for his numerous, artistic works of calligraphy.
He also liked to socialize, and he always had church members or some other Japanese visitors over to the church for dinner. One time he had a group of twelve hikers from Japan stay at our church for a few days, and we had dinner together with them. Another time my father invited Ms. Yukiji Asaoka—a beautiful actress and daughter of Ito Shinsui, a famous Japanese artist—for dinner, and we ate together with her. I did not speak Japanese too well, and I was rather shy when I was a child. Consequently I did not have anything to say to the hikers or Ms. Asaoka. When we had visitors at the church, I felt as though I had to be on my best behavior and felt that I had to make a good impression on other people so that I would not bring shame upon my parents. I felt that I had to be polite and pleasant to visitors and felt that I needed to be quiet at the dinner table. I did not feel comfortable being around other people, including the Japanese hikers and Ms. Asaoka. I did not feel at ease sitting at the dinner table with strangers. I felt the need to suppress my feelings and felt lonely and miserable around these other people. I wanted to escape from the dinner table and find refuge in the den. The Japanese hikers and Ms. Asaoka were strangers. They were not my family.
To live and grow up in a church made me value my privacy and private life. At times I wanted to talk to and spend time only with my parents and brothers and sisters at the church, but someone else was always at our dinner table. Once I remember that I wanted to tell my brother Kibi that I barely passed my Trigonometry examination, but my father invited Mrs. Tanaka, a church member for dinner. I missed my chance to tell my brother how proud that I felt.
Yet all was not doom and gloom in living and growing up in a church for me, because I got to spend time with my three, older brothers. My oldest brother, Hidemaro, was called “Hide,” which meant rising sun. He was the chonan, the eldest son and born in San Francisco, California. A war hero, he has been missing in action for about 60 years since the Korean War in 1951. He was a right gunner on a B-29, and he was on his 21st mission—I believe his next to his last mission—when his plane came under attack and was hit by enemy missiles from a MiG-15 Soviet jet fighter plane and went down over North Korea. He was presumably killed in hostile territory, passing away at the young age of 19 years old during the Korean War.
How sad my parents were when Hide was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for bravery at a special award ceremony that my family attended at the Hamilton Air Force Base, which was located along the western shore of San Pablo Bay, south of Novato, California. Three Airmen—dressed in their neat, pressed Air Force blues with gold shoulder braids and campaign medals—fired volleys in unison from their M-1 rifles to honor my fallen brother with a 6-gun salute. I think that a US Air Force officer gave a speech to express the Air Force’s regrets and offer condolences to my family. I could not forget the tears in my mother’s eyes when she received the neatly folded, American flag in her hands from an Air Force color guardsman. I do not remember Hide too well. For some reason he called me “Kazi.” I recalled that he had a lot of friends.
One time he had eight Nisei buddies over to our house. They were talking and joking with him while he was still in bed, wearing his white, U-necked t-shirt. I thought that I looked sharp, wearing my favorite, black felt cowboy hat with a nickel inlaid hat band, a comfortable, blue, white and brown striped long sleeve, cotton shirt and dependable Levi’s. I stood by Hide’s bed, watching his friends and him laughing and talking. I looked up to my oldest brother and wished that I could be like him, handsome and tall with a lot of friends. Yet little did I know that Hide would soon be out of my life and would just be another fatality of another American war embroiled in conflict, strife, and power struggles.
I also spent time with my second oldest brother, Kunimaro. “Kuni” meant country; he was the jinan, the second son. Kuni was a hardworking and very good high school Spanish teacher. He was one of the kindest and most gentle people whom I have ever known, putting others’ needs and wishes before his own. He remained single, and he assisted my father as a Nichiren Buddhist priest with church services, managed the bookkeeping for the church and took care of the church’s maintenance and landscaping. Furthermore, he quit his teaching job to take care of our physically ill and frail parents full-time at my parents’ home during the latter years of their lives. He took care of our parents better than a nurse, I thought. Gee, I miss Kuni. I miss his big smile and engaging, thoughtful manner. Kuni thought about my feelings when I was mad or depressed and would try to understand what was bothering me and try to give me encouragement.
“How’s tricks? (How are things going on with you?)” he would start our conversations. He listened patiently and carefully to what I was saying. He acknowledged and agreed with what I was saying, nodding his head “yes” and saying “Ummhmm.” I miss our long talks together. We talked about what was bothering me at the time. Sometimes we talked about society, politics, work, women, racism toward Asians, and Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ Union. Sometimes I would use big words, such as “verisimilitude” or “impecunious” to impress Kuni.
Kuni would remark, “Kaz, what difficult words you know.” I miss the joyful sounds of his guitar playing Mexican rancheras. I also miss his beautiful Spanish when he was singing Mexican songs, such as “Una Historia De Amor” and “Cielito Lindo.” I miss the occasions in which we spoke Spanish together. He passed away from complications due to neurofibromatosis at the age of 56 years old. One night I received a telephone call from the San Francisco Police that they were at the church with my father and that my brother Kuni was being transported to the California Pacific Medical Center on Buchanan Street due to internal hemorrhaging. I got into my Toyota Corona automobile early the next morning and rushed to the California Pacific Medical Center to see Kuni. He was heavily sedated and was connected to various life support tubes. He was not conscious. The doctors were unable to revive him, and he died the same day from hemorrhagic shock. I was upset at and frustrated with the doctors—at their seeming incompetence and inability to save my brother. I was sad and disappointed that I could not talk to my brother before he died.
Finally, I was close to my third oldest brother, Kibimaro. “Kibi” meant shining. He was the sannan, the third son. I guess my father was thinking of his fatherland, Japan, when he named Kibi and my other brothers. Kibi was a very popular physician who won the admiration and respect of his Kaiser Hospital colleagues as well as his grateful and well-cared for patients. I was the closest to him of all my siblings. I miss Kibi. I miss his smiling, handsome face and inimitable laugh. His laugh was deep and melodic and sounded like music to my ears. Gosh, I miss his deep patience, his well of understanding. When I needed help in doing my homework in high school, especially in math, which I hated, Kibi was always there to help me without any complaints. When I was having personal problems as an adolescent, he was always there to listen thoughtfully to my concerns and fears about my poor, school performance with math, shyness, lack of confidence, and low self-esteem.
Kibi and I had one memorable conversation in our bedroom at the church while we were still students at Lowell High School during the 1960s.“Kibi, I wish that I could be more like you,” I once told him. I continued, “You are so smart and capable of doing anything that you want to do. You handle math so easily. You are a whiz at Chemistry. You can make anything that you want with your skillful hands. You are better than I am.”
He paused and replied to my surprise. “Kaz, you are a kind and warm-hearted person. You are a fantastic person,” he continued, “I wish that I could be more like you, Kaz.”
I exclaimed, “What did you say?”
Kibi answered as he usually did. “Kaz, don’t sweat it.”
I was grateful that I was able to spend some time with Kibi while he was still healthy and able to walk, before he lost his bout with cancer. I last saw Kibi when I came to visit him at his home in Beverly Hills during August, 1995. He already had a virulent type of cancer, lymphoma. He drove me in his old, blue Dodge station wagon to UCLA, our Alma Mater. We walked past the Social Welfare Building, where I had taken many Social Welfare courses during my graduate work there twenty-four years ago. Kibi showed me nostalgic sites, such as distinctive Royce Hall with its orange hue and the powder gray Powell Library, which was the undergraduate school library. During that late afternoon, Kibi and I sat down at a small, plastic white table on campus. He got a small carton of chocolate milk from a vending machine, and he bought a cold can of Coke for me from another vending machine. While we were having our beverages, Kibi and I talked about what we had done that day. We talked about going to Kibi’s bank earlier so that he could withdraw some money. We talked about the changes at UCLA including the new construction of Medical School buildings and installation of parking meters all over campus. Kibi and I listened to one another and nodded in agreement while we sipped our beverages.
Later Kibi took me back to his beautiful and spacious house where we had a sumptuous dinner with sizzling rainbow trout cooked to perfection over the charcoal grill attended to by Chef Kibi. To prepare the trout, Kibi cut it into two filets, basted them with butter, placed lemon slices over them, sprinkled them with extra virgin olive oil, and placed them in aluminum foil over the grill. To spice up the dinner, Kibi prepared bite size pieces of filet mignon and chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce and small pieces of bell peppers, red onions, and button mushrooms. He stuck these delectable morsels on stainless-steel skewers and placed them over the grill. I left Kibi for the last time the next day. Kibi’s wife, Deborah, and his son, Keith, were also at the house to see me off, and I drove home happily, thinking about the precious moments that I spent with my brilliant brother. Kibi passed away a few months later from lymphoma at the age of 51 years old.
After Kibi died, I was the only brother left. I was named Kazumaro, a yonnan, the fourth son of my family. “Kazu” meant peace or harmony. Was my father hoping for peace in the world at the time that he named me? I am the last, surviving son of my family, because all my brothers passed away too soon.
I do not remember Crystal City Internment Camp. I do not know the blazing hot sun, desert sand, ten-foot fence, guard towers, floodlights surrounding the camp, mounted guards, three-room cottages with indoor toilets and baths, plywood huts with central latrines and baths, large grocery store, school, round-shaped swimming pool or hospital. I do not know the hundreds of strange Japanese faces in the crowd. I do not remember the forlorn and worried countenances on the faces of my mother and siblings. There is a big hole or gap in my life. I do not know, and I cannot recall what had happened in Crystal City, Texas. I do know that Crystal City is the spinach capital of the world. I have a brown, leather belt with a “Popeye, The Sailor Man” belt buckle, from Crystal City, Texas, giving me a special connection to that city. I do know that there is a local newspaper by the name of the Crystal City Chatter. It features local news articles that may be of interest to former Crystal City internees.
I do know that like other Issei, my parents were reticent and never talked about their experiences and life in concentration and internment camps. All that I do know about Crystal City Internment Camp is what I read from a book at an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California, about wartime incarceration, what I heard from others, and what my sisters told me. My sister Tae gave me fragments about camp life at Crystal City. She stated, “There were Germans who were prisoners of war at camp. Nori and I were in the Girl Scouts, and we joined in with them and marched with them in a parade. Nori and I raised our hands in a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.”
From my short visit to the museum, I learned that the Crystal City Internment Camp was a well-kept secret that the United States government did not want Americans and those of other countries to know. I do know that it was an Immigration and Naturalization Services and Criminal Department of Justice Camp, which incarcerated Japanese who were suspected of being the greatest security threat to the United States, such as Buddhist ministers, Japanese community leaders and Japanese language teachers, including those like my father, a Nichiren Buddhist priest and calligraphy teacher. I acquired even more information from the Wikipedia entry on Crystal City, Texas, under the heading of internment camp. I did not know that it was the largest internment camp and housed American civilians of German and Italian as well as Japanese ancestry. Also I did not know that the majority of internees were citizens of South American countries. At the camp, five different languages were spoken: German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and English (“Crystal City, Texas”). I acquired more facts and details from an internet article titled “Alien Camp” by Mike Cox. I did not know that 255 babies had been born in the camp (Cox). My brother, Kibi and I were two of these babies. I did not know that seventeen people, including two Japanese girls, victims of a double drowning in the camp’s swimming pool, had passed away at the camp during the war (Cox).
According to Toru Saito, a fellow writer who went to visit Crystal City, Texas, in 2010 with his wife who had been at the internment camp, Crystal City was a city inside the camp. In a conversation with me, he mentioned, “In theinternment camp there had been a round-shaped, swimming pool which was now covered with dirt. The shallow end of the swimming pool had been fenced off, and the water had gotten deeper in the deep end. A Peruvian boy had drowned in the deep end of the swimming pool when some people had tried to reach out to him through the fence, but they were unable to get to him.”
The day finally came when my family could leave this desolate wasteland known as the Crystal City Internment Camp. In April 1946, after two years, my family was released from the camp. We did not know what to expect. Would our church still be there? Would the altar and rooms be intact? First my family and I moved to the transitional, government housing project in Richmond, California, where we stayed for about a year. I believe that we stayed at a dull colored, gray building along with other former Japanese American prisoners and internees released from concentration and internment camps. I believe that my family and I lived in a housing project apartment with indoor toilets and baths. I think that meals were provided. Papa did odd jobs, such as landscaping work as a gardener and traveling around California as a soy sauce salesman to raise some income to help support his family. Then in July of 1947 we finally returned to San Francisco and the church, a magnificent, white four-story Victorian style building, which appeared to be in fairly good condition. Some paint was peeling off the sides of the walls, but the stairs were still stable, the altar and rooms still intact. The resettlement for the Ishida family took place at this church, the Nichiren Church of America, a Buddhist church on Pine Street. Not only did we live at the church, but also, I think ten or eleven male Japanese seniors lived at the church with us. They had their living quarters in the basement.
I remember Mr. Matsukawa, a thin, tall, and gaunt man wearing dark drab clothes, who looked like a ghost and scared the heck out of me. I now have a connection to him because I recently interred his unclaimed ashes in a niche at the Japanese Cemetery at Colma, California, with the help of the Japanese Benevolent Society of California. I never dreamed that I would be taking care of his ashes when I was ten years old. I was just having fun and fooling around back then. Once Kibi and I—along with Leon and Juni Obeon, our neighbor Reverend Obeon’s sons—played a childish prank on Rev. Obeon. We put fake black, ink spots on Rev. Obeon’s bible to make it look as though we had spilled black ink on his book. Rev. Obeon, a mild-mannered, Christian minister, did not get mad at us for our prank. He just smiled.
I also remember Mr. Uyematsu. He was a short, plump man, who wore dark drab clothes, but he seemed friendlier than Mr. Matsukawa. He would smile when he saw me. Then I remember Mr. Torigoye, a short, thin man in dark clothes, with a limp in his left leg, who hobbled about with his brown, carved wooden cane. From a KQED Special Documentary on PBS-TV (Channel 9) about wartime incarceration, I learned that camp prisoners and internees made their own canes out of scrap wood or tree branches found at the camp and that some of them gave wooden canes to their dentists in lieu of payment for dental treatments. The canes were well-crafted and handy.
Kibi and I used to bug the old men at the church all the time.
“Hey, Kibi,” I remarked, “they sure don’t say much.”
“Yeah, Kaz I know,” answered Kibi. He continued, “They talk funny, and I guess that is Japanese.” We know our parents’ Japanese, but their Japanese was so strange to us. Once I heard Mr. Uyematsu and Mr. Matsukawa talking.
Mr. Uyematsu said, “Usagi no shichu ga dekita (The rabbit stew is done).” He asked,“Kuu ka (Want to eat)?”
Mr. Matsukawa replied, “Kui tai ga, ha ga hashiru (Want to eat, but my tooth hurts).” Their Japanese was some kind of dialect, and it sounded strange. My mother had to do some cooking and the laundry for these lonely, unmarried old men. Sometimes they did their own cleaning and cooking, or else how could they have cooked that jackrabbit? The church where I grew up has since had other curious dwellers, but the Issei bachelors bring back some of the fondest and most endearing memories of my childhood.
My brief but disjointed trip through the church and the camp has brought me to the realization: my childhood comes back in pieces, brings me to holes and gaps. These memories rise and dissipate like sandstorms, flit about like shadows in the halls and attic of our church. In order to fill these empty spaces, I need to return to Crystal City, where my journey began.
Cox, Mike. “Alien Camp.” TexasEscapes.com Blueprints For Travel, LLC., 16 Aug. 2007. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. <http:// www.texasescapes.com/MikeCoxTexasTales/157AlienCampCrystalCityTexas.htm>.
“Crystal City, Texas.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. n.p., n.d. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 23 Mar. 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal City, Texas>.
Ishida, Helen. “Case History.” Aging. Instr.F. Knudtson, California School of Professional Psychology. San Francisco, California. 1975: 5.