This is the “unforgettable” memoir of a family’s journey from Japan to California—and through multiple internment camps during World War II (Sacramento News & Review).
“First generation Japanese-American Sato chronicles the tribulations her family endured in America through the Great Depression and WWII. Emigrating from Japan in 1911, Sato’s parents built a home and cultivated a marginal plot of land into a modest but sustaining fruit farm. One of nine children, Sato recounts days on the farm playing with her siblings and lending a hand with child-care, house cleaning and grueling farm work. Her anecdotes regarding the family’s devotion to one another despite their meager lifestyle (her father mending a little brother’s shoe with rubber sliced from a discarded tire) gain cumulative weight, especially when hard times turn tragic: in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Satos find themselves swept up by U.S. authorities and shuffled through multiple Japanese internment camps, ending up in a desert facility while the farm falls to ruin. Sato’s memoir is a poignant, eye-opening testament to the worst impulses of a nation in fear, and the power of family to heal the most painful wounds.” —Publishers Weekly
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THE TERROR OF DECEMBER 7TH
* * *
Hai ide te Mishin ni hikareshi Kawazu kana — JOHN SHINJI SATO
It crawled out Then crushed by a car A frog
— TRUDY SATO, TRANSLATION
MAY 17, 1942. SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA.
WITH A START, I notice a police car following me. As I glance in my rearview mirror, peering through the pile of old suitcases in the back seat, I quickly figure I must be at least three miles outside of my legal five-mile radius. My hands begin to sweat.
Will the cops take me to jail? What will they do with the suitcases? My brothers and sisters need them to pack up for the "trip." If I don't get home by curfew time, what will Mama and Tochan ("Daddy" ) do? At eighteen, I am the oldest, and the only one who drives besides Tochan. My brother Seiji is close to my age, but he volunteered for the US Army after the Pearl Harbor attack and is stationed at Fort Leonard Wood.
What if the police think I'm a spy?
Mr. Saiki, our neighbor, flashes through my mind. He is in prison somewhere, and his family doesn't know where he has been taken. People say there is a special prison in Missoula, Montana for spies. His son Mickey quit school to take over the farm.
FBI agents showed up at a farm, and not finding Mr. Mizukami at home, agents went to Elk Grove High School and demanded that his son tell them the whereabouts of his father. They found Mr. Mizukami pruning pear trees in Courtland, and took him in. The next morning, much to the embarrassment of his family, their father's picture appeared in the Sacramento Bee, branded as a spy.
If the FBI thinks a good man like Mr. Saiki is a spy, there is no telling what they will do to me. If I were to be picked up now, what would my family do? Would my parents be notified? I must write down somewhere that my name is Kiyo Sato and that my parents are Shinji and Tomomi Sato at Route 2, Box 2917, in Sacramento, California. What will they do with my Studebaker? Dear God, please, please, not now!
I slow down. The police car slows down. My steering wheel becomes wet and slippery. He follows me steadily. I reach the town of Perkins, almost within the legal radius of five miles. I pass Bradshaw Road and he is still right behind me. I hold my body erect to keep from crumbling. My spine stiffens from fear. My foot can hardly control the pressure on the gas pedal and I try hard not to jerk or spurt forward.
I wish desperately now that I had taken the time to get that permit, but just to get it I have to go to Sacramento, which is over the five-mile radius. Besides, my Nisei Japanese-American friends tell me that it takes hours of waiting, that no one seems to know what they are doing. Right now, traveling eastward, out of town, I can't tell the officer that I'm on my way to get it. The steering wheel begins to slip.
I had planned to make one more stop for vegetables at the Chinese truck farm on the north side of Folsom Boulevard, but decide to turn right and head straight for home.
Explicitly following the law, I signal a right hand turn with my left arm at a right angle out of my window, allowing plenty of time. My right foot falls heavily as I try to step lightly on the brakes to slow down. I try with every ounce of energy in my body not to provoke the police car behind me.
A simple right turn takes all my effort to turn my steering wheel and maneuver over the slope of the railroad tracks. It is not until after the descent that I notice that the police car is no longer in my rearview mirror. I let my car roll down the incline, and my body goes limp. My leg is too weak to step on the brakes. When, finally, my Studebaker comes to a rolling halt, I fall over the steering wheel.
It is a long while before I feel the flow of blood into my blanched hands and feet.
I lift my head and see the chilling reminders down the road — huge 18" x 24" public notices nailed onto the fence posts:
INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY
I didn't want to stop when I first saw them. I didn't want the world to know that I was "one of them" and have them see me jump the ditch, hold on to the barbed wire fence while I read the instructions. The small print would seal our fate. I checked my rear view mirror for oncoming cars. Up ahead I saw more posters. I drove on. It got easier to pass by another one. Rarely traveled, quiet, one-mile-long Routier Road appeared violated by black and white public notices indiscriminately nailed its whole length. With only five mailboxes on the road, why didn't they send five letters? Actually, only four letters. Mr. McDonald is Caucasian.
Like a huge, ominous wave, the dreaded day creeps up the state, ridding it of anyone with more than one-sixteenth Japanese blood, which goes back five generations, guaranteeing that not a single drop of Japanese blood will be left to "contaminate" the state. Herded into fairgrounds, horse stalls and temporary assembly centers, men, women and children await the construction of permanent concentration camps.
It's like going to a Boy Scout summer camp, the authorities tell us. Now that concentration camps are a reality, we are advised that they are not to be called "concentration camps." They are now to be referred to as "relocation centers." Imagine! We are to be kindly relocated to a relocation center!
News reaches us from those incarcerated at the Santa Anita racetrack. "Our family has a horse stall. No amount of scrubbing takes the smell away. We find old planks to cover the muddy front. I hope you don't come here. It's terrible!"
* * *
Feeling braver and needing the vegetables for supper, I decide to turn around and scoot across Folsom Boulevard.
I spot Mr. Yuen working at the far end of the truck farm, picking lettuce. I drive slowly along the edges of the plots to avoid raising dust. When he sees my Studebaker coming, he leaves his row to meet me. I tell him about my close shave with the law.
"Next time, if they stop you," he tells me, "you call me. I come get you. I tell them you my daughter."
He will never know how much it means to me to have someone who is not Japanese stand up for me, especially when more and more Chinese are wearing "I am Chinese" buttons. Driving home, I feel that a bit of sun is shining through the threatening, dark clouds. I don't tell my parents about the police. They've got enough to worry about.CHAPTER 2
"DON'T COME BACK HERE, SHINJI"
* * *
Oya-dori no Nure-te asaru e Aki shigure
— JOHN SHINJI SATO
Mother hen, drenched Searches for food In the autumn rain
— TRUDY SATO, TRANSLATION
1911. ONJUKU, JAPAN.
WITH SMALL, PIERCING eyes too weary for tears, she whispers barely audibly to her fourteen-year-old son, "Don't come back here, Shinji."
Her small body is bent as if it did not have time to straighten up from the long hours in the rice paddy, pressing the young plants one by one into the mud and water. Not knowing a moment's rest, she labors to feed her five children, only to have her meager earnings gambled away by her husband. When the children whine from hunger, she reminds them: "You will eat rice with sweet potatoes!" The thought of another mouthful of the beta-beta — the sticky, yellow mixture of a small portion of white rice extended with mashed sweet potatoes — tightens Shinji's throat and he swallows to soften a gag reflex. With his father's gambling habits, there is often no money left for food.
* * *
Around the gambling table there is much talk.
"If you get to America," they say, "even streets are paved in gold."
"Eh! Honto desu ka?" Is that so?
"Honto, honto." True, true.
"Amerika made ittara kane wa nambo demo aru." If you get to America there is plenty of money. There are not enough workers for the fields of California, they say.
* * *
Desperate, penniless, and on the verge of losing their plot of land and house, Shinji's father, having no other recourse, signs up at the village government house to go with a contingent of laborers to America, with a promise that he will send home enough money to pay his debts and save the family plot. This is not new to him. Five years ago he had gone to the plantations of Hawaii and returned home, not rich, but with enough money to pay off debts. America should be better, he decides. This time he will come home a rich man.
As tradition dictates, it is understood that Ichiji, the first son, barely eighteen, will stay home to be the head of the household.
With a bedroll over his shoulder and an old reed suitcase of clothes, Shinji, the youngest son, takes leave, bowing reverently to his mother. His mother does not lift her head until Shinji turns and follows his father, walking around the curve and down the dirt path along the rice paddy. When they reach the first mountain road, Shinji looks back and sees the four small figures in the distance, still standing as he had left them. It is a long walk around the base of three mountains to the Onjuku station. This was where his father often related how he would encounter the wily fox at night, which led him on the wrong path. Leaving Onjuku and his friends, Shinji hopes his father's gambling habits will change.
As the train clacks northward through villages and fields already foreign to him, he wonders what lies ahead. His mother's last words tug at his chest. He remembers helping his mother pick the edible weeds by the creek for supper when there were no vegetables in the garden and no money to buy tofu bean curd or fish.
Gazing out the train window, he becomes suddenly conscious of his feet being imprisoned in his brother's shoes, the only pair in his family, worn only on special occasions. He slips them off and changes to the more comfortable zori that his mother had woven from rice straw. In his bare feet, he remembers how lithely he could climb the giant gingko tree in the front yard and how cool they felt chasing the tiny fish in the creek by their plot of land.
His father dozes across the aisle, his head leaning against the window.
Shinji unties the furoshiki of lunch his mother has prepared. The rice balls with the salted, red umeboshi plum make his mouth water. The black strip of nori, dried seaweed, keeps his fingers from sticking. There are pickled vegetables and two small rounds of manju, sweet pastry, which are served only on special occasions. When did his mother get to Onjuku to buy them, he wonders? And where did she get the money? He remembers his father emptying the old stained teapot with the chipped spout where his mother kept the coins. He will never forget his mother's head bent over the open fire on the bare ground of the cooking area, staring into the embers for a long while. Shinji swallows a lump in his throat. He promises himself that he will not disappoint his mother.
It is a long day's train ride from Onjuku in Chiba-ken to the harbor city of Yokohama, where they meet a group of contract laborers coming from different parts of Honshu, the main island of Japan. The largest contingent comes from Hiroshima in southern Japan. They greet each other with a polite bow. Shinji notices that all the men wear hats. He is the youngest and without a hat. The contract boss of each group leads the men onto the ship and down into the bottom deck, the hole.
Shinji tosses his bedroll on the upper bunk above his father's. Even before the ship gets underway, there is the sound of money and boisterous exchange of talk in a dialect unfamiliar to him.
"Sato-san, doka?" How about it? they urge.
His father joins them with the money which is to last them until they reach their destination. Shinji turns on his back, resigning himself, and studies the only book he has, a small Japanese-English pocket dictionary.
The words are strange and difficult. Mizu is translated as "water" and pronounced "wa-ta." The word for boshi is "hatto," and spelled h-a-t.
"I'd better learn how to say arigatoh," he decides. "Thank you." The spelling makes no sense but he learns that one says "sahn-kyu." He repeats to himself, over and over "sahn-kyu, sahn-kyu."
The sea is rough and the voyage is long. At least they will be fed on the journey. Day after day, the men gather around a crate from morning until late at night. When they disembark, a few will be rich and the rest penniless. Shinji worries that his father will be among the penniless.
* * *
A small group of laborers go to the McClintock Farm, fifty miles north of San Francisco in the rolling hills of the Napa valley.
Almost as tall as the short Japanese men, Shinji works with all the energy and determination in his five-foot-five body to keep up with the adult men. Not a stranger to hard work, having helped his mother with planting and harvesting rice, he learns quickly. With some difficulty, he gains control over his fourteen-foot ladder, carries it from tree to tree, and stands it upright. Soon he sprints up and down with agility, emptying his bucket of peaches as quickly as the adult workers. At the top he pauses, drinking in the vastness and the beauty of the orchard. He finds it hard to believe that this whole orchard belongs to only one man, Mr. McClintock.
Shinji's father Sanzo, a responsible man when not gambling, works as the foreman of the ranch. During the busy season, he hires more workers. In the winter, a skeleton crew is maintained for the pruning of the trees. Others go south or to the Japanese boarding house in San Francisco, which serves as a way station where friends meet and exchange news. Work is plentiful and the honest and hardworking Japanese immigrant laborers are in constant demand. In the hot Imperial Valley in southern California, the melon harvest needs workers. It is 110 degrees but the pay is good. The husband and wife managers of the boarding house feed the men well and direct them to sources of work up and down the productive California valley.
* * *
"Yangu. Yoh-yaru na." You surely do well, one of the men comments, impressed with Shinji's seriousness. Yangu, a Japanized English word for "young man," denotes any younger male.
Around the packing shed, Mrs. McClintock notices the young boy picking up pieces of paper. He carefully folds a torn box label and stuffs it into his back pocket. Sometimes it is a whole page of an old newspaper. For the outhouse, perhaps. But it doesn't make sense, as there is always a pile of neatly cut square pieces of newspapers and an old Sears Roebuck catalog in the outhouse.
"What do you do with those pieces of paper, Shinji?" she finally asks, pointing to his pockets.
Pulling out a piece from a label, he points to a word. Orchard. With his hands he tries to explain to her that he opens his dictionary and looks up "orchard." Impressed with his eagerness to learn, she decides to help him.
"You come tonight and I will teach you English," she says. Noting that he does not understand, she explains in elaborate sign language, walks her fingers from his chest to the house, opens both palms for a book and says "seven."
Seven, she repeats and puts up seven fingers.
"Yes, yes! Wakarimashita, wakarimashita," he blurts out. "I understand, I understand. Sahnkyu, sahnkyu," he says bowing up and down.
"Shinji, say 'thank you.' Put your tongue between your teeth like this. Th ... th ..."
The afternoon goes by quickly. "Thank you, thank you," he keeps repeating quietly, pushing his tongue against his front teeth, as he stacks the fruit boxes. The lisp does not come easily. There is no word in the Japanese language with the sound of "th." Back home, he would be considered odd or retarded if he were to speak with his tongue showing.
There is a new spring in his steps as Shinji returns to his cabin to prepare for his first lesson. He lays out his clean clothes, his well-worn pocket dictionary and notebook. He carefully sharpens his pencil with his pocketknife.
At exactly seven o'clock, he knocks on the back door of the McClintock's big house.
Mrs. McClintock opens the screen door. "Come in, come in," she says.
She leads him through the screened-in porch to the spacious, bright kitchen.
"Sit here, Shinji." She beckons to the large, oilcloth-covered table upon which is a copy of an old book, a few sheets of note paper and a pencil.
"My name is Mrs. McClintock," she says pointing to her chest. "What is your name?" She points to him. "Say, my name is Shinji Sato."
She takes his hand and points to Shinji's chest and repeats slowly "My name is Shinji Sato."
"My name is Shinji Sato," he repeats.
"Perfect!" "This is a table. Table," she repeats, tapping the tabletop.
"Tayburu," he says.
"Table. Look at my tongue. Ta-ble." With her mouth wide open, she shows him how the tongue rests lightly on the roof of her mouth. It takes him by surprise that a lady would allow him to see the inside of her mouth.
Mrs. McClintock walks to the sink. "Water," she says as she turns on the faucet.
"Watah," he repeats. There is no sound of "er" in the Japanese language.
With difficulty he imitates the pronunciation "water."
"Very good!" exclaims Mrs. McClintock. She is excited by her pupil's quick learning.
"Come this way, Shinji," she says signaling down the hall.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kiyo's Story"
Copyright © 2009 Kiyo Sato.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Terror of December 7th,
2. "Don't Come Back Here, Shinji",
3. Shinji's Dream,
4. Strawberry Field,
5. The Depression and Rearing Nine Children,
6. The Reign of Terror,
7. Evacuation Day — Executive Order 9066,
8. Locked Up! Guard Towers!,
9. Journey to Poston,
10. Poston Concentration Camp II, Block 229, Barrack 11A & B,
11. Free! First Child Released! Free! Second Child Released,
12. Sugar Beets, Ofuro, and Windmill,
13. Home Again: the Bittersweet Journey,
14. With Only a Shovel Again,
15. I'm Too Old to Fight,
16. Mama's Last Gift: How to Die,
17. And the Seeds Swell,
Postscript: A Letter to Tochan,