Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir

Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir

by Neil Nakadate


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011022
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/23/2013
Series: Break Away Books Series
Pages: 236
Sales rank: 1,286,692
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Neil Nakadate is Emeritus Professor of English, Iowa State University.

Read an Excerpt

Looking After Minidoka

By Neil Nakadate

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Neil Nakadate
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01111-4



Japan and the United States face each other, but across the broadest ocean of them all. Once such a body of water was almost like the space between us and the moon.

—EDWIN O. REISCHAUER, The United States and Japan (1950)


The Japan from which my grandparents came to the United States was post-feudal and eager to be part of the "modern world." By the end of the nineteenth century, an economy and culture of farms and fishing villages was being supplanted by an economy based on manufacturing and commerce. Japan was in flux, and trying to catch up with "America." Japan wanted factories and trains.

As a viable social force the samurai had been in decline since the seventeenth century, even as the intrigues and epic clashes of the shoguns came to dominate the culture. An ethos of loyalty, obedience, and honorable conduct persisted, but samurai prestige and power were drawn into the service of great political and military alliances—and centralized authority was flowing to Edo (now Tokyo) and Osaka. By the early eighteenth century the samurai had devolved into a class of idlers and bureaucrats, and by the mid-1700s they were being stylized and memorialized in the kabuki theater. The last of the shoguns stepped down in 1868, and the samurai themselves were formally disbanded a decade later.

By the end of the nineteenth century Japan had been paying attention to Europe (which is to say, the West) for several centuries. Following an accidental landing in Nagasaki in 1542, Portuguese merchants and Jesuit missionaries (the leading edge of colonialism) had brought their religion and the prospect of trade to Kyushu. They brought tobacco and bread, and the Japanese adopted them (the Japanese word for bread is the same as the Portuguese, pan). About the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear, English and Dutch "commercial agents" displaced the Portuguese and Spanish, and Protestantism replaced Catholicism as the version of Christianity to be either embraced or resisted. But in 1614 Christianity was banned and the missionaries expelled as subversive interlopers (which they were, in effect if not by intention) and alien barbarians, and Japan officially re-isolated itself from foreign travel and trade. Even so, the tenacious Dutch held on, and when they reestablished a major presence in Nagasaki in 1641 European ideas, learning, and trade goods entered Japan once more. Through Europeans the Japanese became familiar with firearms, and used them in clashes with each other.

In July 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry sailed uninvited into Edo Bay to briefly but forcefully introduce Japan to the United States, and he returned the following February, pointing the cannons of his kurofune (black ships) at archaically assembled ranks of Japanese soldiers with swords and spears. This opened up a dialogue on coal and whales, through which Perry insisted on offering Japan the opportunity to establish trade relations with America. For the next five decades the United States would gesture at empire building in Asia, and this was the start. Perry's successful mission highlighted the obsolescence of the shoguns and accelerated the denouement of Tokugawa Japan.

The Japan into which my grandparents were born, under the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), embraced precepts that had informed samurai culture, including loyalty, obedience, and self-control. Meiji Japan continued to demonstrate the importance of group affiliations—traceable at least as far back as the fourth century AD, when the Yamato clan asserted its hegemony over other clans and consolidated power in Kyoto. It also declared its autonomy from Chinese hegemony and asserted its own identity. My grandparents' Japan was imbued with a Shinto spirituality of purity, filial piety, duty, loyalty, and obligation that linked ancestors to descendants and human existence to the natural world. Given all of this, individual achievement had meaning in the context of group affiliations and the greater good, whether of family, ken (native prefecture), school, team, company, or nation. Meiji culture was also layered and textured with the Buddhist precepts of stoicism, patience, self-denial, and devotion to learning—learning in the search for spiritual enlightenment, learning reflected in scholarly occupations and artistic patronage. And learning was aggressively promoted by the creation of a ministry of education in 1871 and by Emperor Meiji's 1890 Rescript on Education. If Japan were to play a major role in the modern world, it would have to continue to learn and grow. Formal education was seen as fundamental to national identity and long-term success—and this decreed commitment to formal education would continue to find expression through future generations, even in America.

Late in the nineteenth century, Japan was still socially and administratively hierarchical, but the tradesmen and merchants who had been marginalized and disdained under the samurai and shoguns had risen in status and significance along with the cities they animated—Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, ambitious commercial as well as political and cultural entities, and numerous reinvigorated port cities such as Nagasaki and Yokohama. Four decades after Commodore Perry's visit, Japan was eager to take a major economic, political, and military role in the world: it had made an ambitious statement in the Sino-Japanese War and was on the verge of a successful war with Russia. Japan was focused on what it could learn from the West, and particularly fascinated with the United States, five thousand miles away.

Meanwhile, the United States was doing its own empire building—not only in the Caribbean, with Cuba and Santo Domingo, but across the Pacific, with the Hawaiian Islands, Midway Islands, Wake Island, and the Philippines, among other acquisitions. American missionaries were among those killed during the Boxer Rebellion, and other Americans were trapped in the 55-day Siege of Peking in 1900, which was eventually lifted by an international force that included U.S. Marines. Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt was waiting, somewhat impatiently, in the wings. On the verge of the twentieth century the United States and Japan were positioning themselves for major roles, destined to enlarge their acquaintance on a recurring basis.


In the early days Portland, Oregon, was a settlement full of stumps. Much later it would be known for its bridges and gardens, but in 1900 there were only two bridges and there was not enough city to celebrate with a festival of roses. You knew the place by where the cedars and firs had been. Cutting, digging, or pulling out the stumps was difficult and took time, so when the prime real estate along the Willamette River was first cleared, people often built and worked around them.

Still, turn-of-the-century Portland had 90,426 people, and at 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean was already an established deep-water port, linked to the Columbia River by the Willamette, linked by road and rail to the wheat fields of the Willamette Valley. Oregon fortunes were to be made in agriculture, timber, shipping, fishing, canning, mining, and commerce, and Portland intended to be indispensable. By 1900 it had attracted foreign consuls from Europe and from Mexico and Peru (though none quite yet from Japan). In the preceding decade, the population had almost doubled. "Stumptown" had ambitions.

There was a need for workers of every kind, from teamsters and butchers to dressmakers and clerks, and especially for cheap manual labor. Three decades after the end of slavery, immigrant labor and "slave wages" were fundamental to the building of America. In 1865, while the Union Pacific Railroad was recruiting Irish workers to construct the Transcontinental Railroad, the Central Pacific was recruiting Chinese. And in Portland in the early 1890s, a decade after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Shintaro Takaki and S. Ban Company began recruiting and contracting Japanese labor whose sweat was less objectionable from a political and diplomatic perspective—and especially needed on railroad crews and in logging camps. Like the Chinese before them the Japanese were lured by the promise of jobs and visions of prosperity, by the aura of America. Like the Irish before them, like the Italians, Bohemians, and Poles, these Japanese were lured to America by the agents of industries intent on procuring a cheap and docile workforce. Meanwhile, traveling salesmen from S. Ban, M. Furuya, and other mercantile enterprises would make sure that both the earlier and the more recently arrived "orientals" had food and clothing.

In 1900, Minejiro Marumoto, my mother's father, was among the naïve, ambitious, and uninformed newcomers—and pathetically untutored in American ways. He was the youngest of three sons from a village in Wakayama-ken (prefecture), on the Pacific Ocean. He was probably recruited by Takaki, who focused on Okayama and Wakayama prefectures, and he eventually worked on a railroad crew, in a lumber camp, and on an eastern Oregon farm.

Bun'ichi Nakadate, my father's father, the oldest of five surviving sons, was from Toyotomi, a farming village in the middle of Honshu, near Kofu and Mount Fuji, a region then at the heart of Japanese sericulture, the silkworm industry. More importantly, he came to the United States in 1903 on the strength of a prior acquaintance with a Yamanashi kinsman or ken-jin, Masajiro Furuya, who sold dry goods and recruited laborers—and promised him a job.

Of course my grandfathers were joined in their Oregon ambitions by many other recent immigrants, whose origins and identities were marked by their various old-country affinities, their religious denominations, and the foreign language newspapers they started. These immigrants were also identified by the mutual aid organizations that declared them to be authentic, worthy, and determined to stick around—the C. Columbo Aid Society, Der Danske Forening, the First Hebrew Benevolent Association, the German Ladies' Aid Society, the Scandinavian Society, and more. All of these appeared in the City Directory for 1899–1900, alongside the Waverly Golf Club and the Young Men's Republican Club, among others (no mention yet of an organization for the Japanese)—and alongside individuals whose listed occupation was "scavenger."

Minejiro Marumoto and Bun'ichi Nakadate were unknown to each other in Japan and about as likely to meet as a Welshman and a Scot—short of booking passage to America and starting their new lives in Stumptown, a few blocks apart. But there was certainly a passing moment, sometime in the first decade of the century, in which one of Furuya's salesmen (perhaps even Bun'ichi Nakadate) made a sale—some rice, some tiny dried fish, or a notebook to write his diary in—to Minejiro Marumoto, contract laborer, one of 2,500 other Japanese in Oregon at the time.


Among the earlier Japanese immigrants to arrive on the U.S. mainland, Masajiro Furuya left Japan for Seattle in 1890 at the age of 27. If the United States was to set the pace for the new century, he wanted to be part of it. By training he was both a teacher and a soldier, by instinct and opportunity a captain of commerce, and in this way, a pioneer. He was an ambitious visionary—and more important to my family than any Carnegie or Ford.

He might have briefly misled others when he started out by apprenticing to a tailor, but he never underestimated himself, never misunderstood his own mission and agenda. Before long he set up his own business, and in short order the Furuya tailor shop engendered a grocery store, a labor recruitment agency, and then an import/export house that eventually contained a branch of the Japanese Commercial Bank. Furuya's business model was simple: recruit young, single men (wives and families created needs and problems, not profits) who, as traveling salesmen, would pursue a clientele of Japanese laborers to canneries, mining operations, lumber camps, and railroad construction and repair sites. And then promote into supervisory positions those who had proven themselves on the road. The model was also tight: he could control paychecks and monitor employee behavior by requiring that his salesmen room (and sometimes also board) in company-owned or rented houses. And entrust their savings to his bank.

So Masajiro Furuya both served and exploited his countrymen's hopes and needs. He was a shrewd opportunist who recognized that whatever their economic condition, the Asian immigrants would always value a powerful countryman, a safe place to deposit their money, and something familiar from home: soba, shoyu, and sandals; sake, daikon, and rice; tofu, mochi, and fish cakes; kimonos, reading material, art work, and amusements. Furuya's Model T trucks struck out from the cities and always managed to find customers—"oriental" strangers in a strange land who took on tedious and risk-laden tasks, who learned they could not always trust a hakujin (Caucasian or white person), and who could tolerate only so much meat-and-potatoes cooking. With other branches in Kobe, Yokohama, and Yokosuka, the M. Furuya Co. expanded from Seattle to Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver, B.C., its commercial empire growing with the Pacific Northwest itself. Competing in Portland with Teikoku, S. Ban, and others, Furuya supplied first the Chinese, then the Japanese with the comforting foods and sundries of a life they had left behind. His Oregon territory extended as far as Weiser, Boise, and Shoshone in southwestern Idaho. And Masajiro Furuya's power and status grew accordingly, within and beyond the Japanese American community. He became something of a godfather figure to his employees as well as his adrift-in-America clientele.

Old Man Furuya expected hard work and undivided loyalty. He imposed a dark and rigid dress code ("Furuya suits" they came to be called, without affection) and insisted on conformity of deportment—that is, fit-into-the-community behavior. He held a short meeting every morning to lay down the rules, offer inspirational words, and ensure promptness. His employees stood in a circle for announcements and instructions and, one by one, read verses from scripture. (These meetings may have originated in similar events mandated for every school in Japan under the Meiji Restoration.) Furuya required his personnel to attend the local churches, in order to strengthen community relations within the culture of their commercial lives—and, not incidentally, to reinforce their learning of English. Masajiro Furuya was an autocrat, a martinet, a no-nonsense boss, who mirrored in his own domain the legendary management control of Marshall Field and Henry Ford. Years before Calvin Coolidge is supposed to have coined the phrase, Furuya clearly believed that the business of America is business.

Apparently he had no male heirs, although any significant estate they might have inherited was lost due to some questionable investments and then the Great Depression, and the residue disappeared between 1942 and 1945. But that is not to say there were no beneficiaries of Furuya's Japanese American enterprise. Shortly after the turn of the century, and in a mutually beneficial move based on their shared origins in Yamanashi-ken, Masajiro Furuya promised Bun'ichi Nakadate a better-than-average start in America, and thus became the godfather of us all.


I once wondered why my father's father, the oldest of ten children, including five sons, left Toyotomi-mura (village) and Yamanashi-ken in the first place. After all, in the Japan of the late nineteenth century Bun'ichi Nakadate was in the family catbird seat. His given name was a constant reminder of his position and status, since ichi is Japanese for "one" or "number one." He could have stayed in place and built a secure life based on inherited advantage, favored by gender and culture. So I once imagined his having to leave homeunder duress, having gotten himself into a jam that made it necessary to skip town—a legal hassle, an indiscretion, an insult or altercation of some kind, something risky or even disreputable—intending to return eventually.

But the skipping-town scenario is too melodramatic, the 40 years he stayed in the U.S. (a lifetime, after all) a bit long for just waiting for the fog to lift. It seems (my Uncle Toru told me) that Grandpa Nakadate was driven by ambition and an adventuresome impulse. "He was looking for something different, seeking new pastures" by leaving the agrarian nineteenth century behind. In this sense he was typical of many turn-of-the-century immigrants, although he had a bit more education than most, including some coursework at a business school. (Three of his younger brothers also left home eventually, for Kofu and Tokyo; my grandfather's leap of faith into an American business venture may well have encouraged those moves, too.)

And family obligation was not the least of it. Both my uncle and my father reported that Bun'ichi Nakadate decided he could best discharge his filial responsibilities by making money in America and sending it home. As the oldest son of a large family he had certain privileges and prerogatives, but also the near-term obligation to improve family fortunes and the eventual responsibility of caring for his parents. His ambitions, then, were also undeniably economic, and accordingly he made sure that his new pastures included a guaranteed job—as it turned out, driving a Model T panel truck and selling Furuya goods on the Oregon circuit.


Excerpted from Looking After Minidoka by Neil Nakadate. Copyright © 2013 Neil Nakadate. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface: My Nickel
Note on Terminology and Pronunciation
Introduction: Looking After Minidoka
I. Issei
II. Nisei
III. Minidoka, 1942-1945
IV. Sansei
V. Unfinished

What People are Saying About This

author of Red Moon - Benjamin Percy

The story of our country is the story of a family is the story of a man, Neil Nakadate, whose richly researched anddeeply felt memoirwill move your head and your heart.

author of Sightings: Stories - BJ Hollars

By his skillful blending of history and memoir, Nakadate lifts the veil on a story too often shrouded in shadow, revealing beneath a portrait of a Japanese-American family in search of the differences between home and homeland.

author of Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm - David Hamilton

This is a compelling story, one that deserves being far better known than it is. . . . This book is very well written. It is clear, well organized, and rises here and there to a quiet grandeur. . . . It is much more than a labor of love, for his love is backed by solid industry and intellectual craft.

author of Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family - Lauren Kessler

Neil Nakadate's clear-eyed, carefully researched but nonetheless passionate book is rich with the closely observed details of internment camp life. Looking After Minidoka, written with wisdom, understanding, and a writer's eye for the stories worth telling, is not only an important contribution to the literature of internment but also a important story about the promise and peril of America.

author of My American Unhappiness - Dean Bakopoulos

Looking After Minidoka is an innovative and engaging excursion into buried history—global and personal. A compelling family narrative, peppered with fragments of memory, history, and poetry, this heartfelt memoir underscores the power of the American Dream, as well as how easily fear and intolerance can corrupt it.

editor of The Imaginary and Its Worlds: American Studies after the Transnational Turn - Ramón Saldívar

Neil Nakadate’s Looking after Minidoka: An American Memoir is a beautifully crafted, powerfully moving American narrative. . . Nakadate’s memoir gives poignant life to chapters of American history that are still being written today by all who dream to be, as Nakadate’s mother’s transcribed name of “Meriko” says it, "a child of America."

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