Category Archives: Uncle Suetaro

Dear Mama – A Farewell Letter


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Uncle Suetaro (L) and my dad (R). Taken from the Hiroshima house with Mt. Suzugamine in background. Circa 1929

During my visit to my father’s childhood home in Hiroshima last summer, I was entrusted with hundreds of vintage family photos and mementos.  I brought them back here stateside, promising my Hiroshima family I would “restore” them.

Well, after a good start, I developed a painful case “tennis elbow” from using the mouse so much during the retouching process.  Sadly, it came to a screeching halt sometime in November last year.

But one very, very special item was entrusted with me – my Uncle Suetaro’s war diary.

Although born an American citizen in Seattle with the rest of his siblings, he was writing this war diary as a sergeant in the Japanese Imperial Army.

The last entry was a farewell letter to his Mother.

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The photo above had been secreted away behind another photo that was in Uncle Suetaro’s album.  He meticulously kept the album up to the time of war.  His oldest brother, my Uncle Yutaka, had conscientiously sent him family photos they had taken in Chicago and Los Angeles before imprisonment.  Suetaro complimented the photos with his beautiful Japanese calligraphy, written in a silver, whitish ink.

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The photo of Uncle Suetaro and my dad shown at the beginning was so very tiny – but there was something Uncle Suetaro loved about it to keep it.  I wish I knew what it was.

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Actual size

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Uncle Suetaro was killed as a sergeant major of the Japanese Imperial Army on Leyte apparently near a town called “Villaba”.  Below is an actual page from a “war diary”, an official report written and published by the US Army.  Villaba is located on the western shore of Leyte but not far from Ormoc Bay, which was a killing field for Japanese ships by US aircraft.

Page 109
Source: US Army 81st Infantry Division Headquarters / Report of Operations

His remains were never recovered.  In the family grave are his tiny pieces of his fingernails and a lock of hair.  It was custom at that time to leave parts of your earthly body with your family as returning was unlikely.

Not much to bury… but it was better than not returning at all.

In a spiritualistic way, he had never left.

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This is his farewell letter to his Mother (my Grandmother).

It is clear it was very hurriedly written.

With the help of my cousin Kiyoshi in Hiroshima and my dad, we’ve typed up Uncle Suetaro’s farewell letter – complete with old Japanese characters and translated as best possible into English.  When reading this, please remember these are the words as written as a soldier going off to fight the Americans – but he was once a young American boy born in Seattle, WA.

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Cover. His name is at the bottom.
金本 末太郎
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ママ様
Dear Mama,
御無沙汰致しました。
I am sorry for not writing for a while.
お元気ですか。 自分も相変わらず元気旺盛御奉公致しております故、何卒ご放念く
ださい。
How are you? As usual, I am full of life fulfilling my duty to my country so please feel at ease.
(元気で国のために力を尽くしてるので心配しないでください)
愈(いよいよ)自分も日本男子としてこの世に生を受け、初陣に臨むことを喜んでいます.
More and more, as I realize I was born into this world as a Japanese male, I am overjoyed to be going into my first combat.
勿論(もちろん)生還を期してはいません(生きて帰ることは思ってはいません)。
Of course, I do not expect to come back alive.
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併せ(しかしながら)自分に何事があっても決して驚かないように、また決して力を
落とさないよう平素より力強く暮らしてください。
And for you, Mother, whatever happens, do not be taken by surprise and please fight back with even more energy than you normally would.
24年の長いあいだスネかじりにて非常にご心配をかけ誠にすいませんでした。
I deeply apologize for these 24 years of worry and concern I have caused you.
お赦し下さい(おゆるし下さい)。
Please forgive me.
今の時局は日本が起つか亡びるかの境です。
At this time, Japan is at the boundary of either winning or perishing.
どうしてもやり抜かねばいけないのです。
We must persevere.
兄さん達を救い出すことも夢見てます。
I still dream that we can free our older brothers (from forced imprisonment in America by FDR – Ed.).
自分のことは決して心配せずお体をくれぐれも気をつけて無理をしないよう長生きを
してください。
Please do not worry about me but instead, please take it easy on yourself and live a long life.

(Note: Green indicates an edit inserted for clarification purposes.)

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何事あっても荒槇、小林の方に相談して下さい。
If something comes up, please discuss it with the Kobayashis or Aramakis.
金本家は絶対に倒してはいけないのです。
No matter what, do not allow the Kanemoto name be extinguished.
伴の兄さんもお召の日が必ずあることと思います。
Mikizou-san will also be drafted.
(荒槇幹造さんも必ず徴兵されることと思う)
歳はとっていても軍隊に入れば初年兵です。一年生です。
Although he is much older in age, he will be treated like any other draftee. As a young recruit.
絶対服従を旨とするようよく言って下さい。
Implore upon him to obey every command without question.
近所の皆さん、河野,倉本、白井、武田、永井、正覚寺、梶田、山城、山根、杉本、
辻、河野…、橋本,西本、松本繁人、小林、中本、新宅、武蔵、水入、土井、堀田、住岡、見崎、長尾、加藤、三好、内藤、島本、(Writing continues next page from here) 宮本先生、谷口先生、慶雲寺などの人によろしくよろしくお伝えください。
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ではこれにて失礼します。
With that, I will say farewell.
何時までも何時までもお達者のほどお祈り致しております。
I pray for all eternity for your good health and prosperity.
南無阿弥陀仏の御6文字と共に行きます。
I go blessed with the six realms of Namu Amida Butsu.
サヨウナラ
Sayonara
昭和19年5月3日
May 3, 1944
末太郎より   ママ様へ
From Suetaro To Mama-san

His farewell send-off is pictured below.  Masako-san believes Suetaro wrote the letter around this time.  It was at gatherings such as this when a Japanese soldier was given a “good luck” battle flag – the ones that many WWII combat veterans “removed from the battlefield” as souvenirs.  There are many cases now where their sons and daughters – or grandchildren – are making efforts to return such flags to the Japanese families.

One of the treasures found during our journey to the family home in Hiroshima this month. Uncle Suetaro is going to war and his death.
Uncle Suetaro (center) is pictured just before going off to war and his death.  You will notice my grandmother is missing from the photo; that is because she suffered her first stroke knowing her last son was going to his death.

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Bertrand Russell wrote, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

He is correct.

On a much smaller scale, though, Grandmother Kono was all who was left in that house when war’s end came.  Her precious son Suetaro – who she kept from returning to America for the purpose of keeping the Kanemoto name going – was dead.  She was now alone.  I wonder how she felt.

A mother’s anguished solitude.

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Grandma and four youngest children at the corner of King and Maynard in Seattle, circa 1926. From clockwise right-front: Suetaro, dad, Mieko, Grandmother Kono and Shizue.

(For other related stories:

A Mother’s Anguished Solitude, Part I

A Mother’s Anguished Solitude, Part II

Were Japanese Soldier’s Frightened?

A Mother’s Anguished Solitude – Part I


Grandmother standing near King and Maynard in Seattle with (L to R) unknown girl, Dad and her loving hand on Suetaro. Circa 1925

My Grandmother Kono could not have possibly foreseen her future pain in solitude…  But the anguish she endured seven decades ago brings our family together today along with a message to the world.

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Born on October 6, 1888 in a Hiroshima village called Furue, Grandmother Kono came into Seattle on February 4, 1909 via the Shinano Maru.  She was a picture bride for my Grandfather Hisakichi.

She gave birth to seven children; all but one was born in Seattle.  They were American citizens.

Uncle Suetaro (Soo-e-ta-rou) was #6 and born in Seattle sometime late in 1920 although I have been unable to locate his birth records on-line.  His name (末太郎) implies “last boy (or child)” but as you can see in the damaged photo above, Grandmother and Grandfather appear to have had an “oops” moment.  That’s Mieko, their youngest sister; she became truly the last child.

Uncle Suetaro is on the high chair with Dad standing next to him. They are in front of my grandparent’s barbershop on King St and Maynard in Seattle. The shop was inside Hotel Fujii (no longer standing). Circa 1921.

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While growing up, Uncle Suetaro was my father’s favorite sibling.  Suetaro and dad were inseparable from what I am told.  Dad’s nickname for him was (and still is) “Sue-boh”.

Suetaro was a happy child and always made people laugh and feel good – like Grandmother Kono.  Suetaro and Dad played “oninga”, or tag, together frequently; there was no Nintendo or footballs to throw around in the 20’s.  When Suetaro got old enough, they picked “matsutake” mushrooms together on Grandfather’s mountain property as told in “Masako and Spam Musubi“.  When Grandmother made fish for dinner, Dad wouldn’t eat it – but Suetaro did.  Suetaro ate everything.

This is my favorite photo of three of the youngest siblings; we uncovered it just this month in Hiroshima thanks to my cousin Toshiro:

The three youngest siblings: Mieko, Suetaro and Dad. A rare photo as all three are smiling – especially Dad. This portrait was also taken while they sat on the Hiroshima home’s sakura wood. My assumption is it was taken immediately before Dad left to return to Seattle.

Dad says they had one bicycle to share between them.  On school days, they would walk to the train station together in the morning while one slowly rode the bike.  They would leave it at a little shop which was still quite a ways away.  However, whoever got to the bicycle first AFTER school got to ride it home – quickly.  Leaving the other brother in the dust.  And it was a long walk – especially in the summer heat and humidity.  Perhaps it was the bicycle in the early portrait shown in “Souls of Wood“?

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Dad left Hiroshima soon after graduating from Nichuu High School at 18 years of age; he arrived back in Seattle on May 18, 1937.

Grandmother, Suetaro and Mieko were left behind in Hiroshima.

He would never see his favorite brother Suetaro or Mieko alive again… and Grandmother Kono will soon experience a demonic dread that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

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To Be Continued… A direct link to Part II is HERE.

Were Japanese Soldiers Frightened?


The last known photo of my Uncle Suetaro. He did not return from Leyte during the final stages of World War II. My Grandmother Kono – having suffered a stroke – is propped up by Japanese “shiki-futon” for the picture. Taken in Hiroshima, 1944.

Yes, a small percentage of Japanese soldiers were anxious to die for their emperor.

But a vast majority was frightened of having to go to war.  My opinion, of course.

Young Japanese boys were drafted from farms and fishing villages – just like we did here in the US of A during that time.  Boys from Parsons, Kansas or from a sea coast shrimping town in Louisiana.

And they all had moms.

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Like all Americans of my age, we were taught that the Japanese soldiers of WWII were fanatics.  That they all were hell-bent to charge into a hail of Allied machine gun fire.  To willingly die.

We were also taught that when a US Marine charged well entrenched Japanese soldiers with a satchel charge, he was a hero.  Not a fanatic.  He was John Wayne or Kirk Douglas. Was Esprit de Corps driving the young Marine to offer his life to save his buddies?

There is no intent to question our American values of valor or honor.  Just a quandary.

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My Hiroshima cousin Masako mentioned in Hawai’i having seen a photo of Uncle Suetaro and Grandmother.  It was taken the day before Uncle shipped out for war (1944).  Masako said Grandmother – having suffered a stroke the day before – was propped up by “shiki-futon”, or Japanese bedding for the picture.  She felt strongly it was the last picture taken of Uncle Suetaro but doesn’t know what happened to it.

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A few weeks ago, my California cousin Janice came across a number of old photos; she had forgotten about them.  She said there were some family photos from Hiroshima.  Her father – Uncle Suetaro’s and my Dad’s oldest brother – had apparently been able to hold on to them through the decades.

I asked Janice if there were any photos of my Dad’s two youngest siblings, Suetaro and Mieko, or of Michie (Masako’s mother).  Janice then described a picture of Uncle Suetaro in a uniform and Grandmother (seen at the beginning of this story).

I was stunned.  Topo Giggio meets Godzilla.  It was the photo Masako vividly recalled seeing decades ago.

Is there an air of fearfulness…of fright?  You can decide.  But as we were led to believe, all Japanese soldiers were fanatics…yes?

War makes fright.

“There’s No Toilet Paper in the Jungle of Burma”


Dad and I waiting to go in to watch MIS

Dad broke his silence.

“War is no good,” he said as we left the small community movie theater near his assisted living home today; we had just watched the limited release documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon”.  It was about his highly classified World War II US Army unit.  He had silently watched and with a ghostly stillness.  But I saw him wipe his eyes twice after gently lifting his glasses.  Others openly wept…but I had never, ever seen him shed a tear before today.

I was ignorant.  Combat isn’t necessary for the ugliness of war to be buried in a person’s mind.  The documentary made it clear that it is also easily dug out.  All one needs to do is scratch.

Official US Army document certifying his Military Intelligence Service days.

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The documentary reveals the conflicted state of mind of the then young Japanese-Americans who made up the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS).  About 3,000 of them – including two of my uncles – secretly and faithfully served the red, white and blue, hastening the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri.

Another 3,000 served during the Occupation of Japan.  My dad was one and worked out of General Eichelberger’s US 8th Army’s GHQ in Yokohama.  That’s when he was able to journey to Hiroshima and see his mother for the first time in ten years…and when a hungry Masako first relished the flavor of Spam.

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Grant Ichikawa, MIS, CGM and me. 2010

One Nisei veteran interviewed was Grant Ichikawa.  He was gracious enough to not only greet me and my family in 2010 near his home in Rosslyn, VA, he also secretly treated us to lunch.  Pun intended.  He had lost his wife Millie just months before.  She was an even rarer female member of the MIS as well.

He and Terry Shima (also interviewed in the documentary) gave me the jump start in finding out about Dad’s involvement in the MIS.  During that all too brief get together, Grant did touch on what he did on the battlefront in a GI uniform.  He also said it “got dicey”.

In this documentary, you learn of one such experience.  He was told there were Japanese soldiers who had agreed to surrender.  Grant said he was the point man.  They proceeded to the rendezvous point where he met the Japanese commander; they were in the middle of an open field.

It turns out there were 200 to 250 of them; all their weapons were in good working order he says in the documentary.  Grant suddenly realized – out in the middle of this field – that these Japanese soldiers were “toukoutai”, or “suicide corps”.  Grant just as quickly and with great consternation realized there were only ten of them… GI’s, that is, armed only with rifles.  I’m sure Grant picked his words wisely.  He is still alive.

“Dicey” was a definite understatement.

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In a lighter moment, Ken Akune described how they were searching a Japanese soldier that had surrendered in the jungle of Burma.  They came across one of the American propaganda leaflets promising safe passage for those Japanese soldiers that surrendered.  It was neatly folded in a pocket.

Surrender Propaganda Written by MIS Nisei.

Akune asked the Japanese soldier if he believed what the leaflet promised since the MIS Nisei wrote it.  The Japanese soldier said no but that it made for good toilet paper.  “There was no toilet paper in the jungle of Burma,” said the prisoner.

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Thomas Tsubota broke down at the end of his interview.  Many did.

Tsubota was one of the top secret MIS members of Merrill’s Marauders.

They had just stumbled across ten Japanese soldiers in a small jungle clearing, he says.  “Boom,” he said, in a split second they killed them all.  He described how his commander, Colonel Beach, called him over to inspect a photo album taken off one of the now dead Japanese soldiers

They looked through the album.  Tsubota told Col. Beach there was nothing of military importance in it but as they came upon the last page of the album, there was a picture of a mother and a daughter.

Tsubota said Colonel Beach’s eyes got red, filled with tears and he said, “Thank you, Tom.”

While crying, Tsubota ended the interview by saying this is why he isn’t enthusiastic about talking about the war.  Too painful.  He doesn’t want to think about that sad moment.  Tsubota is 96 years old.  I thought Dad was old.

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The documentary intensely yet humanely describes the internal turmoil within these young American GIs of Japanese descent.  Quite a few had brothers who were left in Japan when war broke out and were killed as Japanese soldiers.  Deep down, many carried guilt that their own secret actions led to the deaths of their own brothers.  My Dad’s youngest brother – my Uncle Suetaro – was one of those casualties.

But these 3,000 young American boys of Japanese heritage did their job as did millions of other young American boys…but in secret.  They translated diaries covered with blood or offered cigarettes to Japanese prisoners to extract military intelligence while battles were raging.

They endured years of discrimination and intimidation to boot – both from GI’s fighting alongside them as well as back home.  A barber in Chicago wouldn’t cut Dad’s hair because of his race – and he was wearing his perfectly creased US Army uniform with sergeant’s stripes, sleeve highlighted by the proud shoulder patch of the US 8th Army.

The secrecy was officially lifted in 1972 by Executive Order 11652.
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Uncle Suetaro on right.

Just the two of us, I thought, were going to see this movie and that this may help Dad slow down his growing dementia.

I was wrong.

His quiet tears and with his exiting comment, I am sure Uncle Suetaro was there, too, in Dad’s heart – as if it was 1937 in Hiroshima when he last saw his brother alive.

Over the past two years, I’ve asked, “Dad, tell me about what you worked on in the MIS.  What was the one thing you remember the most?  A picture?  A diary?”  Each time, the answer was vague or “I don’t know.”  I chalked it up to senility.

He doesn’t want to talk about it…just like Tsubota painfully recalling Col. Beach and the photo of a mother and a daughter taken from a Japanese soldier they had just killed.

Ugly recollections from war wanting to be masked need not come from battlefields, bullets or bombs.