Tue 25 Mar, 2003 11:58 am
The Patriot Act and other questionable Justice Department actions bring back painful memories of a terrible time in America when unjustified (and illegal?) actions were taken against Japanese- American citizens in war time hysteria. We need to remember because it is happening again in today's fear of terrorism world.
I wrote this story to describe a real event in my youth. I've posted it here instead of under "writing" because of its relevance to today's events.
MEMORIES OF A BEST FRIEND
Tazako became my best friend in 1939 when her family, who owned the area's only plant nursery, moved to my town. We both were in the 6th grade. Her father and mother immigrated from Japan in 1936, bringing their three little girls with them to make a new life and to escape the war they knew was coming.
Tazako's father was a shy thin man with gray-streaked black hair. His face was sun-tanned from hours spent out doors transplanting flower seedlings from the green house in the back of the nursery. He spoke little English, but we talked for hours about the flowers and how to grow them. When his English failed, he showed me how to plant seeds, transplant them into larger containers, and prune shrubs and trees to promote their growth.
Tazako's mother, a sweet petite woman, sold plants and cut flowers in a little office tucked away in the corner of the nursery where she taught me how to arrange flowers in the Japanese style. Her English was little better than her husband's. When they were not in school, the three daughters helped her with customer translations.
After school, Tazako and I often walked to the small house the family rented at the rear of the nursery's lot. Although we were from different cultures, we were alike in what eleven year old girls all over the world like to do---play games and talk about boys. I was one of the few caucasians welcomed into their home because they knew I loved their close-knit family and their old-country customs.
Tazako and her two older sisters, who had quickly become fluent English speakers, were impatient with their parent's Japanese old-country ways. It was a time when immigrants believed they had to give up their heritage and assimilate into the American culture. The girls never invited their parents to school functions because they were embarrassed by their poor English. They insisted that English be spoken in their home, which was hard for the parents, and they resisted.
When the birth of their mother's forth child drew near, the three girls, Michiko, Umiko and Tazako, pleaded that the baby, the family's first child to be born in America, be given an American name. When a robust boy was born, he was named Harry.
My close friendship with Tazako was shattered on Sunday, December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We all were scared. I never will forget my fifteen year old brother sitting on the front porch of our home, defiantly challenging the unseen enemy, pointing his 22 rifle at the evening sky to protect his family. "Let them come," he snarled, "I'll shoot them out of the sky!"
The three girls did not come to school on Monday after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Our homeroom teacher discussed with the students how embarrassed the girls would be when they returned on Tuesday. She said we should treat them with kindness because they had nothing to do with what happened at Pearl Harbor. It was painful for the girls when they returned to school and most of the students were kind, but a few made their lives miserable. I got into a fist fight with one boy who taunted Tazako, accusing her of being a traitor.
Several weeks went by. Gradually calm returned and the girls settled into their school routines. Our homes now had block warden-approved black-out curtains hanging in their windows. Our town's young men didn't hesitate to enlist in the army and navy. (Later, thousands of young Japanese-American men would enlist in the army's Rainbow Division and be sent to Europe to fight and die for the United States.)
Then, without warning, came President Roosevelt's order to move all ethnic Japanese regardless of whether or not they were American citizens, to "relocation camps" in the mid-west. I was heart-broken when I learned what was to happen to my friends. Frantically, I pestered my mother and father about what could be done. They offered no answers. I thought about the girls insisting their parents abandon their Japanese ways and become real Americans and now the government wanted to send them away. In my twelve-year old mind, I hoped the only president I had ever known would not send the family away if he knew they were good, simple people.
One afternoon I sat down at the dining room table and wrote a letter in despair to President Roosevelt. I described Tazako's family and what good loyal Americans they were and pleaded with FDR to let my friends stay in their home. I walked to the postoffice and mailed my letter to the White House in Washington, D.C. I never received a reply.
Tazako's family was frantic because their nursery could be lost because there was no time to find someone to take over the lease. The family were told they would be allowed to take only what possessions they could carry with them on the train to the camp. What to take? What part of their lives could they leave behind? I cried for my friend as I helped her choose what to take. They packed clothing and family photographs into suitcases and boxes tied with twine. They didn't even know where they were going and no address was known for receiving letters. (Years later, I learned they were afraid to receive letters from friends because of fear they would be censored and the friends might be investigated by the government.) Tazako's family just disappeared one day after the soldiers took them to the train depot to begin their journey to the concentration camps in a mid-western state.
Finally in 1946, after the war was over, the family was released from the camp and they returned to our town. Tazako, Michiko, Umiko and Harry finally were considered American enough to live among us. By that time Tazako and I were in our senior year at High School. The nursery had been gone for a long time, converted into retail stores surrounded by concrete where once beautiful trees and shrubs had grown. The family had no resources to start over again.
I never told Tazako about my letter to the president in 1942---it would have been meaningless. We were older and soon to be graduated from high school, but Tazako's trust was gone. Nothing was the same between us again.
BumbleBee, I was touched by your post. Thank you. I am a Japanese American, and lived in Tule Lake concentration camp for four years during my childhood. Since we lived in the middle of Japantown in Sacramento before the war, we did not have white friends. I did not have white friends until I enlisted into the US Air Force in the mid-fifties. One of my oldest and dearest friend is a fellow I met while we were both stationed in Morocco. We still send each other Christmas cards - now going on forty five years - to share how our families are doing. Since then, I have made friendships all around the world from my travels of over 75 countries. As a matter of fact, I just returned from London yesterday from our A2K London Gathering, and have made new British and German friends. Our family is now made up of many cultures and races for which I am very proud. In my youth we had no Chinese friends. Today, we have many Chinese relatives. One of my best friend was born in Shanghai, and we were friends for 44 years until he passed away last year in September. We met in Chicago when we were both single in 1959, but we both ended up in Silicon Valley - getting married and having families. He has three children, two girls and a boy. We have two sons. We watched each other's family grow. All his children call me "uncle" to this day. I think of him often, and miss him. c.i.
Important stories, C.I. and BumbleBeeBoogie, and well written, too. We do need to remember. Thanks.
reply to CI
CI, with your concentration camp experience during WWII, you could have written the story better than I.
I wrote this true story as a letter to the editor of a regional newspaper in 1995. Much to my surprise, it was published as a leading article on the front page with a photo and byline. I never knew why the paper was so interested, but assumed it was the story told by one who was not interned rather than by an internee.
I was surprised as I wrote my memories to find that I was beset with moments of weeping after so many years as I recalled the pain inflicted on my friend's family.
I believe that incident, which was only one of several, caused me to have a life-long commitment to civil rights and social justice.