Shadows from World War II: A Sansei Reflection

December 17, 2018 by Admin

Author’s Note: In the opening section of this story, I draw from the same event that opens “The Family Secret,” since this family history is pivotal to my own understanding of camp and essential to both pieces.                                               

My brother Stan and I are sanseis, both born after World War II. But our lives were overshadowed by the war experiences of Mama and Dad. The darkness of their silence about those years blanketed us, their children, with a cloak of ignorance—until the day I took Mom to Tanforan Shopping Mall in San Bruno and she refused to get out of the car.

“I don’t like this place!” Mama said suddenly and emphatically as I drove past the bronze mall sign with the jockey on a horse. 

“What are you talking about? This shopping mall is only a few years old and I’ve never taken you here.” I turned to look at her frowning face, surprised at the vehemence in her voice.

“I was here before—during the war—behind barbed wire.” Her quiet manner contrasted with the stark terror that transformed her whole body into a frozen statue.

She wouldn’t say anymore, and I drove home, the dark silence unable to smother the questions that kept popping up in my mind.

                                   *                      *                      *

Later that day after lunch, with the sun streaming through the blinds, we sat next to each other on the blue cushiony couch (a hand-me-down from Bachan) in my small living room. Mama, slowly—almost reluctantly—began to shed some light on what had happened to the Kono family in San Francisco after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I was 23 when all of us, including Jichan, Bachan, Auntie Hisa—who was 19—and Uncle Nobi—who was 17—were bussed to Tanforan Assembly Center where the shopping mall is now. We lived in the horse stalls of Tanforan, which was a racetrack. From behind the fence, I could read the sign on the San Bruno hills: South San Francisco, the Industrial City.”

“Where was Uncle Mas and Uncle Yoshio?” I asked, wondering about her older brothers.

Mama smiled, “Uncle Mas had been going to Tokyo University and, after the war started, we lost touch with him until the war was over. It was then that we received a letter from him telling us he was married to a Japanese national and they had a baby girl, your cousin Kiyo. As for your Uncle Yoshio, he was going to engineering school in Chicago, so we knew he was fine.”

“After several months, we were put on a train and taken to Topaz, Utah.” Mama smirked wryly, “Topaz, the Gem of the Desert. A God-forsaken dusty, sweltering place in the summer and hell frozen over in the winter.” I was startled by the ferocity in her tone, which put me on edge.

I pictured the desolation she described, wondering how I would have survived. I imagined the sharp points of the barbed wire gleaming and the smoldering sun baking the desert sand that scorched your feet even while wearing shoes. I could see the shadowy figures of the sentries with bayonets on their rifles peering down from the guard towers which loomed over the tarpaper barracks at night.

“As the eldest English-speaking family member in the camp,” she continued, “I was the contact with the camp staff for the Kono family to make sure we had what we needed. I even helped Jichan get a job as the block manager—we kids joked about him being the Blockhead,” Mama giggled and I relaxed again.

I pulled my knees up and held them with my hands as I made myself more comfortable while inquiring, “How long were you there?”  

She paused, thinking for a moment, then replied, “I left after about a year when I got a job with the MISLS (Military Intelligence Service Language School) in Minnesota, because I could use a Japanese typewriter. The rest of the family didn’t leave until the camp was closed in 1945.”

The July sun was setting as she finished her story and I rose from the couch, giving her a firm hug and patting her on the back, “Thank you, Mama, I really appreciate your sharing this important family history with me. It helps me to understand and get a glimpse of what it was like for you in the camps.”

                                *                      *                      *

After Christmas that year, Hidetaka and I went up to Seattle to celebrate New Year’s with Dad, my brother’s family and our daughter’s family. It was a sunny winter day when I went to visit Dad in his studio apartment at Nikkei Manor, and I found him sitting in his favorite covered rocking chair watching TV Japan. I sat down on the padded ottoman in front of him, facing the window. After the usual greetings and reassurances that everyone was fine, I broached the subject that was on my mind.     

“Dad, what happened to you during World War II?” I touched his left hand to make sure I had his attention.

He rubbed his chin with his other hand as he mentally went back in time. After a few minutes he shared his memories: “I was in my last quarter as a senior at the University of Washington, when Uncle Sam drafted me into the Army. Basic training was in Alabama, where someone overheard me criticize the MIS’s Japanese Language book, and next thing I knew, I was stationed in Minnesota, where I ended up teaching Japanese to the soldiers. Even though I was born in Oregon, being raised in Japan sure came in handy. Being bilingual also was a plus when I served in the Occupation of Japan after the war.” 

“How come you didn’t teach Stan and me Japanese? You and Mama would talk in Japanese when you didn’t want us to understand you. And when we were in Japan, they looked at us funny because we couldn’t speak Japanese.” I was hoping this didn’t sound like a complaint.

He tilted his head to the left and closed his eyes for a moment. His head still at an angle, he opened his eyes and said, “When we were in Yokohama and you were in the nursery school at the base, you told me that you said to your teacher you wanted to go ‘shishi’ and she didn’t understand you. After that I decided it was more important that you learned English.”

I nodded my head in acceptance and pursued, “What was it like in Japan after the war?” 

He grimaced as he recalled, “Japan was devastated.  Everyone was so poor. We brought clothing and food to your Uncle Mas and his family. We hired two of my distant cousins as maids. After one of them stole some canned food, we told them just to ask us and we would be happy to share. As for us soldiers, we could get whatever we wanted or needed from the PX.  After I became a civilian, I continued to serve the Army as an interpreter for the defense during the war crimes trials.”

“Did you see Tojo?” I was hoping . . .

But he shook his head, smiling ruefully, “No, we only dealt with the lower level officers. But there was one interesting case where I was asked to persuade a witness to change his testimony. I traveled all the way to his home in the countryside. I did my best to convince him to change his answer, because I was defending the Japanese officer accused of a crime against humanity. The witness, however, refused to say that he didn’t hear an American POW groan just before he was buried alive by the soldiers under that Japanese officer. So the officer was executed.” 

He looked sad when he finished the story, and I patted his hand in thanks and gave him a brief farewell hug when the nurse came to get him for dinner. I closed his blinds as the winter sun was setting and left the room enlightened.

                                 *                      *                      *

The other day someone said to me there has never been a study about the effects World War II had on the sansei.       

As I thought back, I began to see how the shadows Mom and Dad lived under during the war years loomed over my upbringing as a sansei and followed me.

My younger brother, Stan, and I grew up speaking English with only a “sukosh” bit of Japanese. We were sent to Saturday Japanese School in Seattle, where we mainly learned Japanese children’s songs: Momotarosan, Issunbooshi and the like. As a result we couldn’t communicate with Bachan and Jichan except through their broken English and, unfortunately, lost some great opportunities to directly learn about their Issei experiences—such as Jichan living in San Francisco at the time of the Great Earthquake and Fire, and what it was like for Bachan to be a picture bride. If it weren’t for the stories Mama told us, we wouldn’t have known about this family history at all.

My feeling is that after World War II, Dad and Mama wanted us to grow up to be as American as our white friends and become as assimilated as possible. They encouraged us to associate with and even bring home our white friends. They were invited to our home for birthday parties and BBQs in the summer. Our parents wanted to make sure we were accepted by our fellow Americans as equals. So Stan and I spoke English, wore t-shirts and jeans, and “pal”led around with a lot of Caucasians in our middle-class white neighborhood of Lake City in North Seattle, including joining the local Girl and Boy Scout troops. I think part of Mama’s and Dad’s reasoning of the importance of “fitting in” came from a sense that being white is more American and, therefore, more superior to being Japanese, a residual effect of the way the JAs (Japanese Americans) were treated during World War II. I’ll have to ask my kibei Dad about this, but I’m not sure he’ll like me asking. Unfortunately, I can’t ask Mama because she has passed on.

On the other hand, Dad and Mama did not want us to lose our Japaneseness, so we did go to the Buddhist Church, participated in Japanese New Year’s festivities as well as obon-odori during the summer, and spent two weeks every summer visiting Jichan and Bachan in San Francisco. I wish we could have taken a family trip to Japan to visit our relatives in Hiroshima and Fukuoka. My brother Stan did go to Japan with Mama and Dad after his senior year in high school. By that time I was married and had to wait several more years for my shin-issei (new-issei) husband, Hidetaka, to go to visit his sister, Hideko, in his hometown of Obaru near Yamaga City in Kumamoto-ken. 

My brother and I were also encouraged to date and marry other Japanese. Of course, I thought they would be happy when I brought home Hidetaka, but they didn’t like him because he was “too Japanese”—i.e., he was from Japan and might take me back there after we got married. Luckily, he was “too Americanized” by then, and we have lived happily as husband and wife for nearly 50 years. Stan, after not having much success with courting other sanseis, married Lori, a Caucasian of Dutch descent, and our parents were invited to Thanksgiving dinners at the home of Lori’s parents.

Our parents enjoyed all five of their grandchildren—Tyrone Hidekazu and Miye Brenna from me as well as David Takashi, Steven Walter and Mark Robert from Stan. And Mama was thrilled with her first great-grandchild, Miye’s Kenzo Miguel, born in December 2008. Unfortunately, Mama passed in April 2010 and only Dad (who is now 101, born in January 1917) has been able to know the other two great-grandchildren, Hidekazu’s Brayden Taehan (born February 2013) and Kaylee Yoona (born March 2015).

I am not much of an activist, but having heard stories from the camps from Mama and other former camp prisoners, I was very enthusiastic to teach and expose my sixth grade students at Darumano Gakko to the camp and military experiences from World War II. I also enjoy enlightening my friends and other interested (and sometimes not so interested) parties about the American concentration camps and World War II. One time five of my lady friends had to pull me away from a man who thought it was a good idea to bomb Hiroshima in 1945. I’m also thinking of joining the JACL and become more involved with local civil rights activities. 

Always a teacher, I enjoy being involved with Daruma no Gakko and am on the committee for their 40th anniversary celebration this summer. I was fortunate to be friends with the founders, who recruited my son for the first kindergarten class of 1979. In the 40 years since Daruma was established in 1978, I have been with the school for at least 36 years as the mother of a student, a committee member, a teacher (4th and 6th grades), a speaker about the sansei experience and a volunteer helping 6th grade students with their graduation speeches and/or the 5th grade students with playing taiko. I am proud to be a part of this cultural summer school, which encourages pride as a JA in a diverse America.

I owe all that I am to Mama and Dad. From the looming shadows of my parents’ World War II experiences, my parents emerged from the camps, the fire of their strength glowing bright. They not only have helped strengthen the community through participation in organizations and events, such as the Nisei Vets, but by attending Topaz pilgrimages and Japanese festivals in Seattle. I am inspired to follow the paths their torches have lit for me. These shadows from the war fall back to the past, behind all of us, as Mama’s and Dad’s postwar achievements shine us forward—beacons lighting the way toward a brighter future for all their descendants. 

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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