By Storyteller Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo
An American family gathers for a reunion with laughter, memories, and good ol’ corn beef and cabbage. Suddenly, the father kneels before his family and sobs apologetically, “Your country has betrayed you.” With the launch of Executive Order 9066, the unconstitutional mass incarceration of over 110,00 citizens of Japanese ancestry begins. Now this American family, deemed the “enemy race”, must ask, “What will happen next?”
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Grandpas-Story
- What did it mean that the Japanese boy was the second son and there was “nothing for him in Japan?”
- Robert’s Grandfather aligned himself with the U.S. Navy as a cook and received an honorable discharge. Later, he cries before his family and apologizes that he has left them with “No country.” Is that true? Why or why not?
- What sort of values and biases does America show towards its citizens during WWII? What does the redress movement signify?
- Repairing America: An Account of the Japanese American Redress by William Minoru Hohri
- Asian American/Asians
- Crossing Cultures
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
Okay, so the great story about my grandfather. Well, my father has told me stories about his family, and I never knew my grandparents or my grandfather that well. In fact, I didn’t know my grandfather at all. So he told me one night that they were having the family come over. They haven’t seen all the younger brothers and sisters in a long time, and Jack, my father, is waiting, watching the clock kind of nervously. He’s got to get there before 8’o clock, because there is a curfew. And so the family is coming up the stairs, he’s grabbing the suitcase, the one suitcase they are allowed to bring, and his father—“Pops” he called him—is chugging up the stairs and grandma, she is of course coming up the stairs, too, and we’re helping everyone up. All of a sudden, all the family is there. The older brothers and sisters: Mari and Alice and Charlie, Emmy and Betty, Tom and Margie’s there, and everyone is there. Jack’s greeting them, he has been waiting, watching the clock, and he’s got the favorite dish there, the favorite meal that Pops Nakajiro my grandfather loved, it’s corned beef and cabbage, a real American meal. And here this Japanese-American family is sitting down together and all the sudden all the stories started coming out.
They grew up in a ghetto. They grew up in a waterfront, navy town ghetto of Vallejo, California where grandpa had his barber shop, and so the family is recounting playing as kids, playing baseball in the open field and swimming in that dirty old sewage of the bay, and they’re just reminiscing because they haven’t been together in so many years. And they are really very happy just to be together as a family and they don’t know what’s going to be happening next because well it’s a very difficult time and, in fact, they’ve been given notice that they’re going to be locked up in these concentration camps because they are Americans, but they happen to be the wrong race at the wrong time: Japanese-Americans. So, here they are celebrating as this family, the stew is ready to be served, and there is laughter filling the air, and little Tommy turns and says “Where’s Pops?” and they see grandpa, Pops, there sitting on the floor and he is kneeling there, his head is down and they say “Pops is crying? Why is he crying?” They all gather around, he finally lifts his head up and he’s sobbing. And here’s a man who came to this country as a teenager, he worked the whaling ships in Alaska, he went turtle hunting in Galapagos, an immigrant working his way up. He was a cook in the US navy on the USS Bennington and, in fact, he told his kids he was a hero because he saved the captain’s life when the boiler room blew up. So, he was honorably discharged, a US navy cook.
And when this small Japanese man, at that time he was sixty years old, a white haired man, lifted up his face was streaming with tears, he said, “You know, I came in to this country, I’m a good citizen, I wish all of you to be good citizens. You are Americans, when I came here to give you a country, but I am Japan, I am Japanese, and I always will be Japanese. But you, your country has betrayed you, and now you have no family, you have no country, and for this I apologize,” and he bowed to his family in apology, and it was just dead silent. And they’d seen this man who had been a stern authority figure for the family for all their lives suddenly break down in tears. For the rest of the evening it was very quiet, the curfew was in place, and for the days that followed, they were preparing to be shipped off to these concentration camps in America. So what followed after that period was being transferred on trains and going in to the camps, of course with the stress of having lost everything and Pops, grandpa, he lost his barber shop, had to sell all his equipment and Shizuko had to pack up everything in only one suitcase, and so that’s all they had. This is very stressful for this old man, who also had diabetes, and so when they’re in these hot trains with thousands and thousands of Japanese Americans, all sealed up, it’s hot and they’re going down the valley in this spring time heat. So, Nakajiro, my grandfather, gets a stroke; it’s too much stress, he is in a coma. So the officials say, “Okay, drop him off in the next city.” So, they stop and they take him off, the elders ask if they want to go with him to be with him, see how he fares. But the officials say, “Sorry, you guys get back on to the train. We got to leave him here.”
So, he was abandoned there in this hospital, they don’t know where or what city it was, the windows are all boarded up, and off they go off to the deserts of Arizona. And for the weeks that followed they had no clue where he was, didn’t know if he lived. In fact they heard where he was, and they were trying to write letters to him, no word back. Finally, he did make it back to the camp and he was half paralyzed and can hardly speak, but of course he thought the family had abandoned him. The letters they had written, no one had delivered them to him. They were by his bed side, but here’s a man who had suffered a stroke, who was half paralyzed, and all his family letters are right there bundled up, but no one had bothered to take care of him that way. So, he ends up living just a few more months and then, eventually from all the trauma and the stroke, he dies, and he is cremated and Shizuko my grandmother takes the ashes and places them in a small cigar box and places them under his bed.
The story goes, “Oyasumi nasai” “Good night.” every night she’d say that to this box of ashes that was once my grandfather and places them under his bed. So they’re there for a few more years. Eventually the older ones actually got out, the West Coast restriction allowed them not to be in the West Coast, but they can leave the concentration camp by going to Chicago and going to the East Coast. So they set up, establish themselves, and slowly they are able to get the family out of the camps. The years pass by and people have their own way of surviving and carrying on, and it’s 48 years later. Jack, my father, has become a doctor. He was really proud of his college years before it got interrupted, he was a boxer at the time, and so he thought maybe I’ll go down to the library and look at the year book. So, Dolores and he went down to the library of the college, and there’s no evidence. Of course, there’s no evidence because it’s the spring of 1942, and Jack was hauled off to the concentration camp, so he never got his leather jacket. Well, the librarian happened to overhear this and she said, “Let’s see what we can do about this.”
So, that spring in the year of 1990 at the San Francisco State sports award banquet they said, “Forty-eight years later and an unjust constitutional law that locked up Americans of Japanese ancestry should not be a deterrent for a man to receive his just award. So, Jack Kikuchi come up and receive your letter jacket.” So here’s this man, 78 years old goes up, the oldest man ever to receive his varsity jacket. So with standing applause, here it is San Francisco State, all the students and faculty, all the many races, giving him a standing ovation. And I always hold that picture in combination with what happened 48 years before that where Nakajiro is bowing before his family, apologizing and saying, “Sorry, I didn’t give you a future. I am sorry I didn’t give you a country,” but here it is 48 years later and you know he is successful, Uncle Charlie ends up writing a book, the first book about the experience in the concentration camps. Auntie Alice ends up working for Japan Airlines, which played a very important role in healing the relationship between Japan and America. So, in my mind I paint this pantheon of uncles and aunties in the face of that man who felt so ashamed, then bowing to their father and saying, “You did give us a country, you did give us a future. Arigato gozaimasu. Thank you.”