Family stories and history are an ephemeral thing; they’re often hard to pin down and are told fleetingly, spontaneously, after a game of cards around the dinner table or on a cousin’s front porch when goodbyes are forgotten and talk begins of what happened or may have happened and speculation about the details we’ll never quite know. At least that’s how it’s always been with my family.
My initial encounters with stories of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans were comments made in passing, like the time I told my mom I had been assigned President Truman to make a twenty-minute PowerPoint about. Her reply to my assignment, both joking and wry, was something like, “Great, the Japanese kid gets to research the president who dropped the bombs.” Before that point, as early as fourth grade, I was searching for stories that I suppose I thought would help me connect with a shared generational history that I somehow intuitively knew informed my identity, whether my family talked about it or not. I stumbled upon books by Yoshiko Uchida, I read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and was deeply touched and shaken while reading When the Emperor Was Divine in high school.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen or so that my grandparents and older relatives began to talk more about their and their families’ experiences involving World War II, and over the years, new anecdotes and stories have spun out to form a still incomplete web. I wish it were more complete, and I hope someday it will be, but I know that some of our family’s history is lost for good. My closest relative to be interned was my great-grandfather, Yoichi Takata, who had immigrated to the U.S. illegally. He worked as a farmer all over California, and during World War II, he along with many relatives of mine were forced into internment.
We believe that my great-grandfather was interned at Tule Lake, but we don’t know of any documentation to back that up; there is a chance he was using another name at the time and that’s why there aren’t records of where he was incarcerated. My great-grandfather had sent his wife and three children, including my grandfather Isamu, back to Japan so that his children could be educated there; they weren’t able to return to the U.S. until after the war. During that time, my middle school-aged grandfather, was forced into the Japanese army to prove his loyalty and was constantly put into situations that would get him killed because he was American-born. But if he had not endured, he would never have become a translator for the U.S. military after the war, which was how he met my grandmother, Momoko, who was working as help to an American officer’s wife at the time.
Once, my grandfather was approached by someone, who had a similar story, to co-write a book about their experiences, but my grandfather turned him away. If I had been old enough to understand the significance of this, I would have asked my grandfather to participate, to write his story and his family’s story down for us and future generations. Even today, these stories hold significance and relevance to America as racism and discrimination continue to hold center-stage in our nation’s politics. I’m glad for Day of Remembrance because it is a chance for us to talk about our shared histories as Japanese Americans. For those of us who still have living relatives who were interned or lived through World War II, I hope we can find the courage to continue asking our relatives to tell their stories. My grandfather passed away in 2015, but I’ll never forget what it meant to have him tell us about his life after whooping us at yet another round of canasta.
Also published at Hapa Mag.
Photo: A progress shot of a block print edition of nine I started and finished today that represents the flow between every family’s past, present, and future generations.