Although my Aunt Shiz passed away ten days before my son and I were to travel to her childhood home in Hiroshima, I believe it was her caring soul that made our journey eerily complete.
Time for heebie-jeebies.
Like all but one of the siblings, Aunt Shiz was born in Seattle in 1916. My grandparents operated a barbershop as mentioned in “Masako and Spam Musubi“, the first story in this blog. In the picture below likely taken early in 1918, she is standing in front of her mother Kono at their barbershop in Hotel Fujii near King and Maynard in downtown Seattle. Grandma Kono is smiling while looking on; she appears to be holding a straight razor. My relatives tell me Grandma was great with the customers and gave excellent shaves. (If it is a straight edge razor, she’s holding it in her left hand. We have a number of lefties in our family. Hmmm.) Notice the wooden sidewalk:
In this photo taken about five or six years later, the wooden sidewalk has been replaced with concrete. Aunt Shiz shows her friendly character while dancing on the left. You can make out “Fujii” on the sign hanging overhead in the background:
Masako tells me Aunt Shiz was the village “hottie” as she grew up back in those days. It made us laugh but it was true. Surely, she broke a lot of the young boys’ hearts in the village.
She returned to Seattle on April 7, 1935, a vibrant young lady. Amazingly (well, really not), her granddaughter looks very much like her at that age. Genes.
She married and had three boys and one girl. All but one were imprisoned during World War II. They had the dehumanizing horror of having to first stay in vacated horse stalls at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Los Angeles before being transported under armed guard in blacked out trains to Manzanar where they stayed until war’s end. They were American citizens. Incredible, isn’t it?
Aunt Shiz, who was my dad’s older sister and last lving sibling, was a true “Kanemoto” as the saying goes. They were much alike…especially when they talked in their “Hiroshima dialect”. Funny they aren’t able to remember when their birthdays are but they sure remember their happy days as children in that Hiroshima home. Both loved to eat. And eat they did. Most of all, they loved sweets. Don’t ask why.
When I see Dad now, I always take him Japanese treats – mainly “manjyu” and “youkan”.
Last October, shortly after her 95th birthday, I took Dad to visit with Aunt Shiz. It is a long drive to and from. While Dad had great difficulty remembering why he was in my car – not just once but several times – there was no hesitation by either of them when they first got a glimpse of each other at Aunt Shiz’s senior home:
Yes, I took a bag of yokan. Its on the front right in the video in a cellophane bag. There were three different flavors, too. They ate them ALL. Really.
But they couldn’t remember who was older. Absolutely precious to our family.
At her funeral service in Los Angeles, her grandson described her perfectly as a very warm person. She loved to hug and give her young relatives a peck on the cheek. That was Aunt Shiz.
But back to the story… Some heebie-jeebie stuff. You know… Stuff that gives you a year’s supply of chicken skin.
Our journey to Hiroshima was planned for months. My decision to do so was made after I met with Masako and the others in Hawaii in May and returned home…or so I thought I made that decision. It was as if something took over my thoughts and actions. It was kharma. I was also going to take my oldest son Takeshi (24 years old – very important. Remember that.) who had NEVER been out of the country.
As the time neared, our Hiroshima family was excited my son and I were going. Although those of us here in the States were unaware, in the extreme heat and humidity of Japan, my cousin Toshiro went deep into a 100 year old wooden shed which still exists in a last ditch effort to uncover past family information. He found it…about a thousand pictures from the late 1800’s through shortly after war’s end. That is where the photos of Aunt Shiz and the barbershop emerged from although all were damaged by mildew and insects. They were extremely elated and flabbergasted to have found these vintage family treasures still existing. They began to go through them in the main family room where their “butsudan”, or family altar was. The altar is also about a hundred years old.
A few days after they looked over the treasure, Aunt Shiz passed away quietly… She had fallen asleep in her wheelchair like she frequently did but this time, just didn’t wake up. Oddly, her daughter and my cousin Bessie, who diligently and energetically cared for her for many years, said “…she said she wasn’t that hungry that evening then just passed away”. Not having an appetitite is NOT Kanemoto. I will have to remember that.
Bessie immediately notified the family in Hiroshima at which time Masako immediately said, “I saw Shiz in the room while we were looking at the pictures. She passed through the house.” We all got chicken skin when we heard that. Masako does not make things up and is as sharp as a tack at 78 years of age. She has all her wits about her. (That last trait is NOT typical Kanemoto, by the way.) We don’t doubt her.
Bessie suddenly requested I take some of her ashes back with me to the family home for interment. I was honored.
After my son and I arrived at the family home with Aunt Shiz, my cousin Toshiro immediately placed her ashes on the 100 year old altar…in the same room where Masako saw Aunt Shiz. Again, Masako said to us she saw Aunt Shiz in that room before she passed through the house. Creepies.
Shortly thereafter, my Hiroshima family surprised my son and I with the many, many vintage photos. Then to add to the heebie-jeebies, Toshiro remarked, “We know Masako saw Aunt Shiz’s spirit in this room shortly before she died while we were looking over our ancestors’ pictures. Aunt Shiz could have passed away two months ago or next year. But she knew you were coming and in her soul, she wanted to come home now with you. She arranged for all this to happen at this time. She is happy now.”
Wow. I felt like if a day’s worth of chicken skin out of Foster Farms was thrown on my arms. Really creepie-crawly.
Not over yet… We had her official interment into the family crypt a few days later. My other cousin Kiyoshi – another kind hearted person and the man who invented the first EDM device – came with us to the family burial plot, or “ohaka”. The stone ohaka holds the ashes of my grandparents and their deceased children – including my Uncle Suetaro who was killed on Leyte in the Philippines during World War II as a soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army.
As my son was cleaning the ohaka prior to the interment, Kiyoshi said to my son and I, “Suetaro was 24 years old when he was killed. Now, your son is meeting Suetaro for the first time. Your son is 24 years old. It was all planned for by Aunt Shiz. She picked this time to come home and for Takeshi to be here and to meet Suetaro. It was meant to be this way. To help strengthen our ancestral family bonds although an ocean separates us.”
He was right. Masako and Toshiro are right. Aunt Shiz picked this time to come home. She knew we were going. She decided Takeshi was to come. She made everything happen as they did. My son was very moved and affected by this coming together of family…so much so he cried at our farewell dinner.
There is living proof of forgiveness from a few – and they let out a resounding message of world peace for us.
It was an extreme emotional experience – not just for my oldest son Takeshi and I but for the kind souls who joyfully spent their afternoons with us on a hot September day in Hiroshima. I was able to finally meet – and thank – the people who were kind enough to seek out my father’s 1937 high school yearbook and thereby give my father a joyous remembrance of his most happiest days of youth in the sunset of his long life.
Not being a writer, putting this experience into words is an endeavor. But on September 6, 2012, we were able to meet in person Mr. Tsukamoto, Ms. Kanetou, Ms. Tanaka and Mr. Aramaki.
Any guided tour is exceptional. A personally guided tour of a peace memorial and museum of a man-made event of unparalleled violence cannot be surpassed. Both gentlemen were severely burned as young children. With all doctors killed in the city, they had to resort to mashed yam salve to soothe their wounds. (To see a VERY well written piece on their atomic experiences translated into English, please feel free to read it here.) Imagine doing that yourself as a youngster.
They first pointed out where my father’s beloved high school, Nichuu, was situated in relation to the hypocenter. It is one thing to see it on your monitor. It is another thing to see it on a large wall map. Overwhelming. I knew it was close but it was not much further than one of my father’s triple jumps in Track and Field. It ceased to exist – as did over 320 of their young classmates.
By destiny, both men – young children at that time being forced into laboring for Japan’s war effort – were saved by the decision of their instructor, Mr. Sekimoto. Mr. Sekimoto decided it would be best for small group of them (which included another one of my relatives) to clear a large parade ground to the southeast (東練兵場) for the next crop of sweet potatoes. The other classmates were sent to work on building a firebreak near Nichu – which sealed their fate. They were erased from the face of this earth in a second.
Due to time, we journeyed outside with these two 81 year old gentlemen for further education. However, without any inference of what was right or what was wrong 70 years ago, just a couple of images from within the Memorial Museum:
Messrs. Tsukamoto and Aratani guided us to the Nichuu High School Memorial, emblazoned with the 321 fellow students who perished. As did Mr. Tsukamoto on August 6th, 2012, I offered water; my son Takeshi also without any urging whatsoever left his precious water bottle on that hot and humid day which is a glorious gesture. There is a reason for the water as will be explained shortly.
We journeyed towards the cenotaph. On the way through a park, Mr. Tsukamoto began to cry. I asked him what was wrong. He replied, “Your father is very fortunate to have family that think of his well-being. My soul is now filled with joy.” We hugged each other under the shade of a tree and cried together. As it turns out, his father died at a young age; he was never able to thank his father for raising him through a most horrible period.
We arrived at the cenotaph; the inscription was designed and written by Mr. Tsubokawa’s and Aratani’s good friend, Prof. Saika Tadayoshi. In English, it says, “For to repeat the fault we shall cease for we shall not repeat the evil.” It was purposely written with no subject. It is for the reader to decide. Mr. Tsukamoto subsequently sent this image of the actual manuscript of Prof. Tadayoshi written in calligraphy (brush and carbon ink).
The Atomic Dome can be seen perfectly centered through the arch. He explained the “eternal flame” is not truly meant to be eternal. It is to be extinguished when all nuclear weapons are abolished.
Just beyond the cenotaph can be seen a pool of refreshing water. The water symbolizes all the cries for water from the victims who survived the atomic blast. Nearly all would perish. Remember the water we poured on Nichu’s Memorial Stone?
We then walked to the actual hypocenter. The atomic bomb exploded about 1,900 feet directly above.
There are several rivers flowing through Hiroshima. We all know through books that the rivers were engorged with corpses and debris. However, there are no photos in existence as it was when the city was destroyed. There was no film let alone medical care. However, before the US scientists came to measure radiation levels about two months later, a huge typhoon hit the devastated city. While the rain tore through the rivers carrying the corpses out to sea, the rain also largely washed away radiation levels. Therefore, when the US scientists did measure the radiation levels, it was tremendously lower than what it truly was. You won’t find that written in any of our school history books.
We returned from the very enlightening tour to join Masako, Izumi, Ms. Kanetou and Ms. Tanaka. My father was bestowed with many kind gifts one of which was a compilation of years past of Nichu – including images of when dad’s class was digging the pool at the school in the early 30’s. But lastly, as a small token of peace, fellow blogger Seapunk2 sent me some artistic pieces representing peace and serenity. One was presented Ms. Kanetou. I explained it to her that the artist said a sense of peace may be coming “…directly from her actions. You may feel the spirit contained within them. (I) sat so long and quietly, collecting those tiny pieces, sometimes with tweezers. It’s a beautiful experience, to listen to the shore birds, seals, waves and take in the Pacific while I gather the otherwise unnoticed gifts from the earth and sea. Then, once I got the idea for containing them, that, too, was peaceful and gave me a lovely sense of satisfaction…”
Lastly, in a photo discovery made just a few hours before meeting them, I came across a photo of dad taken in 1937 soon after he arrived back in Seattle after spending ten years in Hiroshima and graduating from Nichu. He’s sporting his Nichu varsity sweater. The attendees were overjoyed to see Dad’s pride in Nichu – even across the ocean.
The men were burned severely as children working in a field for their country’s victory. While their country lost, it was but a moment in their lifetime. They still attained victory for the world.
More to come on one family, two countries and World War II.
Life can be fulfilling, emotional, filled with awe…and eerie. All at once. In ten short days. In a country far away.
But life and its generations help you live it backwards and forward.
Ten great days were spent in Tokyo and Hiroshima with my oldest son, Takeshi. He is 24 years old. We had never been on vacation together. My loss. I admit to being worried he was not going to enjoy himself.
There is so much to write about for family and friends but jet lag affects more than sleep. There is a cavernous disconnect between my (normally minimally functioning) brain and my fingers.
But during this trip…
My son enjoyed his time with my dad’s side of the family immensely – so much so he shed a few tears at a farewell dinner they threw for us. He even found a new drinking buddy – my cousin’s intelligent and beautiful granddaughter, Yuu-chan:
With my cousin Toshio Nakano, we saw my father’s station he served in as part of the 8th US Army’s G-2, Military Intelligence Service in Yokohama; because I carried some photos of him in uniform inside, the Public Relations Officer escorted us to a view from the (unrestricted) roof:
Was able to meet my cousin Masako (78) once again and the family – and we were royally treated:
Took the cremated remains of my Aunt Shiz (95) for internment; she was my dad’s last living sibling. He is now the last one:
Saw the most beautiful parts of Japan:
A most EMOTIONAL meeting with those responsible for finding my dad’s 1937 high school yearbook:
And the most STARTLING and tear-jerking finds of generations past – including those of my father’s younger brother who was KIA as part of the Japanese Imperial Army:
I hope you’ll stay tuned until this old mind functions again. Not that it ever did. Thought it best to say that before someone did.
The main Hiroshima newspaper yesterday ran a story on my Dad and his yearbook – and of international kindness. Fittingly, it was the anniversary of the atomic bombing.
Hiroshima conducts an annual, somber peace ceremony each year on August 6th. A peace ceremony. That’s the message. Peace. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just peace.
They are not calling attention to themselves seeking pity or repentance. While there are still many who feel the Japanese brought this on to themselves, the citizens of Hiroshima have moved beyond forgiveness and are simply seeking to spread a strong global message for peace.
This year, the grandson of President Truman (below) was in attendance. Ari Beser was there, too. His grandfather was Jacob Beser – Enola Gay’s bombardier. Wonderful.
In my short story, “An Atomic Spark and a 1937 Yearbook“, it tells of how two complete strangers from Hiroshima – without hesitation – sought out my father’s yearbook from 1937. They miraculously found one, made a digital copy and mailed it to me through my cousin, Masako, who still lives in my father’s childhood home in Hiroshima. I printed it out and showed it to him a week before Father’s Day this year.
Dad – who is suffering from progressing dementia at 93 years of age – was overjoyed. He recalled so many things from the most happiest years of his life…including being a track star. Riding on the train to get to school with his friend Aoki… The school song. Dementia was put on the back seat for that morning.
In a small expression of thanks, I had sent to Mr. Tsukamoto a flask etched with “Nichuu High School, August 6, 1945”. I also asked he offer a prayer to the students of Dad’s high school on August 6th. Dad’s beloved high school was but 1,500 yards from the bomb’s hypocenter.
Think about it. 1,500 yards from the hypocenter. A Marine Corps sniper armed with a Barrett .50 caliber rifle can take out a target over 2,000 yards away. The school ceased to exist.
As part of the peace ceremonies yesterday in Hiroshima, Mr. Tsukamoto visited the school’s memorial wall. You can see the stainless steel flask on the black center stone in front of a praying Mr. Tsukamoto.
In this photo, Mr. Tsukamoto is offering a symbolic toast with water from the flask.
I will be showing the article to my father this next weekend.
I wish to thank Mr. Tsukamoto, Ms. Kanetou and Ms. Michiko Tanaka, the reporter who authored this article on international kindness, forgiveness and peace.
To say it is incredible falls short. 1,500 yards short.
After a war’s end, the war for food continues for a losing country. Japan was no exception.
In “There Be Gold in My Family,” Taro was mentioned. He was miraculously able to track down my mother and Aunt Eiko in what remained of Tokyo after Japan’s surrender in WWII. He was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service and had brought them much needed food, clothing and cigarettes.
After being discharged from the Army in early 1947, he returned to his family’s farming roots in Livingston, CA. With his meager income, he still managed to buy clothing and shipped them to my mother and Aunt Eiko. He was a kind and generous man. To this day, they are indebted to Taro.
One ensemble Aunt Eiko received was a blue dress, shoes, and handbag. More later.
When war ended and the Allies began their Occupation of Japan, the population was in rags. Many had no homes.
Everyday people suffered from poverty, filthy conditions, hunger, and food shortages. In order to help distribute food, Japanese people were given assigned rations by the Allies. This was put into motion quickly thanks to the Supreme Commander, Gen. MacArthur. He ensured the most humane treatment possible under those wretched conditions.
In reality, living just on the rationed food often did not provide adequate nourishment, and a thriving black market developed amidst the constant food shortages. Civilians lined up, waiting for their rations of beans as even rice was not available to them at that time. (The last point is critical to this story.) They also carried receptacles to carry clean water which was also rationed. As many young Japanese men were killed, a majority of those lining up were the elderly, women and children.
Of course, Americans were issued food ration stamps as part of our war effort back home and textbooks show many photos of starving and tortured American prisoners.
Back to Aunt Eiko’s blue dress ensemble.
She recalls how “Western” they looked. Especially since the outfit was a BRIGHT blue. Very American. Very NOT Japanese. Madonna-esque. You can tell by looking at the clothing the women were wearing in the food line picture.
Aunt Eiko was so happy though. She wanted to show off her dress but was fearful of the ridicule or demeaning comments she may receive from passerbys. You see, even in 1947, only a small minority “had”… The vast majority were “have nots”. Neighbors would turn their backs on those that appeared to have received favors from the conquering Americans.
Nevertheless, she was too happy and wore the ensemble through the still decimated Ginza. She caught a photographer’s eye. She was asked to model. So she did.
The photo series ended up in a magazine, a rarity as paper was still in short supply and very expensive. Another case of have versus have nots.
Although the magazine now is extremely fragile (the paper quality was very poor), it is one of Aunt Eiko’s prized possessions. I was so worried the pages would fall apart if I opened up the magazine to scan the pages. Its odor was typical of old newsprint. But somehow, the pages stayed together.
This is the original B&W of the cover shot:
Inside the cover:
Orginal B&Ws of this page:
Aunt Eiko cannot recall why the actual magazine took about a year to be issued.
But what is the connection between a blue dress, food and post-war Japan?
The photographer paid her with “ohagi”. Out of his food ration. Made out of precious rice and beans.
February 19, 1945 – Men with names like Kuwahara and Koyanagi were with the US Marines on the sands of Iwo Jima.
No, not the Japanese soldiers within the concrete fortifications led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi of the Japanese Imperial Army. These were Americans of Japanese descent, or Japanese-Americans. Nisei. And to make matters worse, they were in the uniforms of the US Army. GI Joes. The Japanese were trying to kill them, too.
Sorry, Marines. It wasn’t all your show – lightheatedly, of course. (One of the greatest US Marines, John Basilone, CMH, Navy Cross gave his life on those black talcum powder-like sands.)
Having said that, ever watch the iconic B&W World War II classic, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”? John Wayne might just be turning over in his grave. But to his credit, the movie is one of my faves. It’s theme song, “The Marine’s Hymm”, gives me goosebumps even to this day.
The envelope immediately caught my attention. Aside from a crease, the envelope looked pristine. It was addressed to my Dad while he was in Minidoka, an Idaho prison camp where he and over 10,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by FDR. It was postmarked September 2, 1945 – just about seven months after the bloody fight for Iwo Jima. The return address was the “War Department”.
If you’ll get past the lawyer speak, the letter says Dad is now free to go about America as he chooses.
About one thousand young Nisei men volunteered for the US Army while their families remained imprisoned in Minidoka. That’s about ten percent of the total camp’s population. Most who volunteered were from my Dad’s home state, Washington. While Dad was not one of those volunteers, 71 of these young men from Minidoka were killed fighting for the red, white and blue. Two were bestowed the Medal of Honor – posthumously. Silent patriots to this day.
“Kibei” were amongst those 1,000 men. Kibei’s were a sub-set of Nisei’s as a whole. A Kibei is a Japanese-American who actually spent time being raised in Japan. One result was they were absolutely fluent in Japanese – read, write, speak. Even slang and dirty words. No land-locked Nisei could come close. Dad was a Kibei.
But the Kibei – they formed the crucial core of the group. The most fluent. The decisive secret weapon. As luck would have it, many of these Kibei were from Hiroshima. Their fathers came to Hawaii or Washington in droves from Hiroshima for a better life – just like my Grandfather Hisakichi. (Dad is pictured here standing next to his Hiroshima home in 1947.)
MIS Kibei were the ones who intercepted and swiftly translated the Japanese Imperial Navy radio transmissions that led to the shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto’s transport. Kibei also swiftly and accurately translated captured critical secret military plans written in Japanese (“Z-Plan“) for the defense of the Marianas Islands and the Philippines; this led to the lopsided American naval victory called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in 1944 – as well as to the death of my Seattle-born Uncle Suetaro. My dad’s youngest brother.
Interestingly, due to continuing suspicions, the US Navy and the Marine Corps refused to enlist the Nisei. Their loss.
The cloak and dagger actions of the MIS were only declassified in the 1972 by Executive Order 11652. That’s a long time. And true to their oaths, these Nisei kept their heroics to themselves for all those decades. They sought no honor or recognition.
But back to the letter of 1945 – mailed to my Dad just seven months after the vicious fight for Iwo Jima. While my father finally volunteered for duty in February 1947 and became part of the famed MIS, his silent and patriotic Nisei brothers that preceded him hastened the end of war and saved millions of casualties – for both sides.
In recognition for their patriotism, sacrifices and loyalty, Congress bestowed upon the MIS and other Nisei who fought for the US in 2010 the Congressional Gold Medal. Two of my uncles were recipients although they had passed away.
By the way, the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was George Washington. I believe the Nisei are in pretty good company.
No credit is being taken from the young Marines who fought and died for Iwo Jima. The Marines did take Iwo Jima with their blood…but they were not alone. About 50 Nisei MIS’ers landed in the first assault waves alongside the Marines.
Just ask Mineo Yamagata, a MIS veteran of Saipan and Tinian. He accompanied the 28th Marines to the summit of Mt. Suribachi and witnessed the flag raising.
It was a small yet precious family reunion. My 78 year old cousin Masako Kanemoto, who flew in from Hiroshima, took a bite out of a “Spam™ musubi” while we were taking a snack break in Kailua, Hawai’i. It’s a slice of Spam sandwiched in between some rice and wrapped in seaweed. “How mundane,” I thought.
Masako then beamed. “We had very little food for so many years. After the war, your father brought us food and clothing when he was in the US Army…” My dad was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service.
She continued, “He brought us much as he could carry. I was so hungry and I will always remember that first bite. I couldn’t believe how something could be so delicious.” She was referring to something my father had brought along with him 65 years ago – Spam.
Emotions tore through me and my eyes welled rapidly. I felt so selfish and ignorant for taking the Spam for granted. I fumbled but snapped the photo of Masako enjoying the Spam musubi.
My grandfather Hisakichi Kanemoto immigrated from Hiroshima to Seattle in the late 1890’s. My grandmother Kono Kanemoto was a true picture bride for my grandfather. Grandmother gave birth to a total of seven children of which my father was the fifth; all but one was born in Seattle – they were US citizens.
My grandparents struggled to survive; the family lived in the Fujii Hotel in downtown Seattle. They worked a basement barber shop in the hotel with Grandfather cutting the hair and Grandmother expertly working the straight razor. A cousin said Grandmother made the customers feel appreciated and made them feel at ease with her people skills. It certainly wasn’t Grandfather – if there were a Japanese Marine, he could have been their poster boy. “By the book”, as they say.
As was customary during that time, many Japanese-American children (“Nisei”) were rotated back to Hiroshima by ship to learn the Japanese language and customs when they were about eight years old. It was no easy cruise has they were crammed into the cargo hold for the lowest fares. They spent about ten years in Hiroshima then returned by themselves when they turned 18. Dad was no exception.
By around 1930, the grandparents and five of the siblings were in Hiroshima; the oldest (Uncle Yutaka) was forced to live in America alone at a young age. I understand he was sad and frightened about that. Their second son, Hisao, passed away in Seattle from encephalitis when he was only about two.
Now fluent in Japanese, dad returned to Seattle on his own in 1937 at 18 years of age, preceded by an older sister Shizue in 1934. Dad was apparently very bright as he graduated from Hiroshima’s Nichuu High School – it was for the higher achievers. He excelled in mathematics as well as in track and swimming. He helped dig the school’s pool. No union labor back then.
Dad is standing, third from left in this rare family portrait taken in front of his family’s new Hiroshima home, circa 1929.
After dad returned to Seattle, Grandmother made the decision to remain in Hiroshima. It was a fateful decision.
In the 1930’s, Japan had already began their invasions of China, Manchuria and Burma; they were on their quest to secure raw materials for their industries and ultimately for their military. National pride was at its peak; military conquests filled the news and the world was taking notice with great consternation. When Japan was condemned for their aggressions by the League of Nations, she withdrew and shocked the world.
The threat of war with America loomed. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew – Americans in Seattle routinely harassed or even attacked Japanese in public. Unfortunately, many of the “Japanese” they harassed were American citizens like my dad, uncles and aunts. Some young Nisei girls were also groped, molested or raped. Folks knew where Hawai’i was at this time but Pearl Harbor was Timbuktu.
They all had the misfortune of looking Japanese, similar to how some Americans look upon Muslims today.
My Grandmother was not exempt from the harassment. She was called “Jap” many times. She was even egged. While she was a fighter, she decided the threats and discrimination were too much.
My dad was close to his youngest brother, Suetaro. They farmed the mushroom property Grandfather owned in Hiroshima; the special mushroom delicacy called “matsutake” grew only during a brief season. Dad, Uncle Suetaro and perhaps three other boys strapped on woven baskets onto their backs and filled them with the precious matsutake. Grandmother would sell them as quickly and as best she could – they had no refrigeration. The earnings would make up the bulk of their income for the year.
While dad had returned to Seattle in 1937, Uncle Suetaro was anxiously awaiting his turn to go back to Seattle. He was to turn 18 in 1939. However, Dad’s youngest sister Mieko died earlier in 1939 of a kidney infection; she was about 15 years old. By that time, Grandmother knew Grandfather was suffering from stomach cancer. His older sister (and the only one not born in the United States) Michie had married and had given birth to a daughter – Masako, my cousin. They lived in another village called “Tomo” some distance away.
Having decided to remain in Japan due to the harassment and threats she experienced, Grandmother then made the fateful decision to not allow Uncle Suetaro to return to Seattle. After all, there was no other Kanemoto left to inherit the house and land. Uncle Suetaro was dejected and very upset but obeyed Grandmother. He was a loyal son.
Grandfather died the next year. With Mieko also gone, only Grandmother and Uncle Suetaro remained in the house.
Uncle Suetaro was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. His regiment was training in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. Aunt Michie with her nine year old daughter (and my cousin) Masako in tow went to visit Uncle Suetaro when they could. She remembers a couple of trips. It was not easy travel in war-torn Japan. For one trip, Aunt Michie managed to take sashimi – in this time of little food, it was a tremendous treat and gift.
On that trip, Masako remembers her mother stealthily sliding over to Uncle Suetaro the wrapped sashimi. He was being stared at by many of his fellow soldiers – they were not well fed either. She remembers Uncle slowly turning so that the others could not see and quickly devoured the treat.
Masako also knows Uncle was well respected by his fellow soldiers due to his knowledge of English in a wicked twist of fate as my father’s top secret US Army unit used their knowledge of Japanese to kill as many of the enemy and to save American lives.
Uncle Suetaro (sitting on the sofa arm) received his orders to ship out to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines; the family recalls it to be 1944. As tradition called, they had a farewell celebration. In such celebrations, the soldier who was facing certain death received a Japanese flag signed by relatives and friends to carry into battle.
Uncle Suetaro was to ship out the next day. Grandmother was like any other mother – she was anguished. More so, she knew that soldiers sent off to war rarely returned unless maimed. Her decision to not allow her youngest son to return to Seattle in 1939 now deeply stabbed at her heart…so much so that she suffered her first stroke the next day.
Grandmother only had use of her right arm; Masako said she would pull herself around the now empty house with that one good arm. Aunt Michie – after working a grueling day at her husband’s farm – would likely have walked several miles to Grandmother’s house to tend to her needs which included feeding her as well as changing and washing her diapers.
This was war time; they used old clothing for diapers. Tide laundry soap? They didn’t have any soap to speak off. A washing machine? They didn’t have one let alone electricity. Aunt Michie washed them by hand with well water on a washboard. She then walked miles back to her farm only to get up a few hours later before dawn to work the farm.
No one truly knows how Uncle Suetaro died.
Perhaps he was killed during one of the numerous Allied artillery barrages or bombings, or was cut down in a futile banzai charge. Perhaps he died in a cave from starvation or illness – or from committing suicide.
Perhaps he never made it ashore and met his death when he was on a troopship being strafed or sunk by airplanes from land-based US Marine Corsairs or carrier-launched US Navy F6F Hellcats or a US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning. The Allies ruled the skies and wrecked havoc on Japanese ships.
Tragically, he was American. While his oldest siblings were imprisoned in US concentration camps for “looking Japanese”, Uncle was thrust into desperate circumstances and was clothed in the uniform of the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, 41st Infantry Regiment… Eerily similar to his mother who was egged and called a Jap while in Seattle, his own countrymen were now trying to kill him with 75mm shells launched from miles away or .50 caliber machine gun rounds in a closer encounter. Not eggs this time.
It is more troubling knowing Ike was of German ancestry and MacArthur’s right hand man General Willoughby was of ROYAL German lineage and spoke fluent German but English with a pronounced accent. His birth name was Weidenbach; imagine if they were imprisoned in Tule Lake with my Dad for “looking German”. No political comment being made; its just historical fact.
Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Infantry Regiment – likely including the other young men who watched him stealthily eat sashimi – was annihilated by the US Army on Leyte. His body was never recovered. Ironically, when I used to watch the B&W news reels of the war on TV or see combat photos of dead Japanese soldiers, I would see them with purely American eyes. Now, I earnestly review them in hopes of seeing a glimpse of Uncle Suetaro…as my Aunt Shizue did for many, many years. She still does at 95 years of age near Downtown, LA.
Eleven year old Masako was sitting in her classroom on August 6, 1945; her school was partially behind Mt. Suzugamine just west of Hiroshima’s center. Some windows were opened as it was in the middle of summer.
There was an indescribable, blinding white flash. There was no noise except for some of the girls screaming, Masako recalls. They all left their seats and ran towards the windows to see what had happened. Masako ended up standing behind a couple of girls at an open window.
It was like an invisible wrecking ball slammed into their school. All of her classmates that ran to a closed window to look were pierced by shards of shattered window glass as the shock wave hit, she said. All were hurled backwards by the force. Even the girls in front of Masako were pierced by debris being hurled at supersonic speeds…
As she looked through openings that were once windows to her classroom, they were now windows to a demonic swirling dark mass of blackness. Ironically, she described it as a “matsutake no kumo”, or “matsutake cloud”… The same mushroom my father and uncle had picked as children.
Now, the same hill they picked matsutake from saved Masako’s life. It provided the school partial shielding from the atomic blast. There was nothing left of Hiroshima just around the bend. All that was left of my father’s beloved “Nichuu High School” was a short span of a wall. It was about 1,500 meters from the hypocenter (left).
Masako saw horribly disfigured bodies over the next few days. They had aimlessly wandered from around the bend after the blast. They perished where their bodies laid. Masako was also covered in a thin oily, sticky substance called black rain.
From before the blast, ten year old Masako was tending to the care of Grandmother; by war’s end, there were only shreds of material left that could be used for diapers. It was brown under her fingernails from having to wash her soiled diapers by hand.
While Grandmother had made a partial recovery, she still only had use of her right arm. Then sometime after war’s end, a representative of the Japanese military came to visit Grandmother. Uncle Suetaro would not be returning home. Masako says her anguished scream was one only a mother can own, made horribly worse knowing she forbid Uncle Suetaro returning to Seattle. She suffered her second stroke.
Dad and the rest of the imprisoned siblings and the grandchildren of Grandmother and Grandfather were released from camp in September 1945. A year after, Dad found out he was going to be drafted by the same government that took his passport, fingerprinted him, put him and his family behind barbed wire and made him keep on his person all the time a draft card (on the left) that classified him as an Enemy Alien (4C). There were also guard towers manned by soldiers with Browning machine guns.
According to Masako and other family members, his oldest brother Yutaka (and now heading up the remaining family) then nearly begged him to volunteer for the Military Intelligence Service so he could check up on Grandmother. Dad tells me, “Well, if I get drafted, I’ll be a buck private. If I volunteer, I can be a sergeant – more pay.”
I tend to believe my other family members.
Dad arrived in Yokohama on December 7, 1947 and was assigned to the 8th US Army’s G-2, 166th Language Detachment; this was the Military Intelligence Service. It was kept top secret during the war; nearly all of them were Japanese-Americans. The accomplishments and heroics of his predecessors were not declassified until the 1970’s. Dad was one of the early graduates of the Army’s language school (“DLI”) in the Presidio. He was a Technical Sergeant, 3rd Grade – I’m sure the young Japanese ladies thought his chevrons were captain’s bars.
At his first opportunity, he took a train down to Hiroshima then somehow made it to Grandmother’s home. Masako was a young girl 14 years of age by then. He carried two large Army duffle bags full of food and clothing – including the Spam. They are in the photo on the left.
None of the surviving Kanemoto family members from that time period know how Dad learned of the news of Uncle Suetaro’s death. Regardless, the death of his favorite brother scarred his mind and heart for eternity. Even today, when I see him, he asks, “How is Suetaro?” He never asks of his other siblings.
Masako and I finish our Spam musubi. She tells me of how kind my father was to her, Grandmother and Aunt Michie. My dad does remember how indebted they all were to Masako for giving up a lot of her youth to care for Grandmother.
Masako enjoys Spam even to this day.
On a side street in Kailua, Oahu, Spam had also become a cherished delicacy for me.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family