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Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula Monterey, California
Wednesday afternoon, October 25, 2000.
"Do you think she can hear us?” This was the voice of Kazuko Armstrong, Keiko’s daughter. Since a stroke three days earlier, Keiko had been in a coma.
Keiko’s son, Patrick Armstrong, responded. “I asked the doctor, and he said no. He says she senses nothing.” Keiko heard her son sigh. “It doesn’t look good. The doctor says that the longer she stays like this, the worse her chances of recovery.”
Keiko couldn’t open her eyes, move her body, or respond in any way. Still, her mind functioned, and she heard and understood what her two children were saying. It didn’t bother her that she couldn’t communicate or that her hours were numbered. Keiko had come to terms with what had happened and was ready to join her ancestors.
Keiko’s life had been a full one. A good husband, two fine children, and enough creature comforts along the way to make life enjoyable. It was only in the beginning that fate had hit her hard. She had hidden that portion of her life from her children. Even in her own mind, she had compartmentalized much of what had happened. After the war, few Japanese wanted to discuss the internment—partially due to their culture but also because of their shame at what the government had done to them.
For those reasons alone, Keiko had chosen to forget and move on. Her parents, Isamu and Akemi Tanaka, had proved less resilient.
The disgrace of the internment experience overshadowed the rest of their lives.
But for Keiko, there was another reason why she chose to forget that terrible period. And that was a secret she vowed to carry to the grave.
“Did you ever think it would end this way, Patrick?” Kazuko’s voice broke the silence. “Mom and Daddy both out of it at the same time. Mom with her stroke, and Daddy with his Alzheimer’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re somehow communicating with each other and have decided to go out together.”
Patrick continued Kazuko’s thought. “Have you ever known anyone more in love than these two?”
If she could have, Keiko would have nodded her head in acknowledgment. For as long as she could, she had borne the load herself, caring for a man stricken by that terrible disease at the age of seventy-two. As the situation became more difficult, her children began insisting that the burden had become too much, concerned that the stress and exertion would kill her. She had agreed, reluctantly, to put him in the nursing home. She’d done her best afterward, spending as many hours as possible each day with him. But, ultimately, the lonely nights had taken a far greater toll on her well-being than the strenuous days beforehand ever had.
The stroke had come three days earlier, on a Sunday. Keiko considered herself fortunate that her children had not been around to witness it. It was her sister, Shizuka, who happened by and called 911. Skilled paramedics attended to her quickly and sped her to the hospital. There, a skilled neurosurgeon performed brain surgery. All of this prevented immediate death, but it did nothing to change the fact that, except for the respirator tube coming out of her mouth, a casual visitor might think she was dead.
Patrick continued the conversation. “How do you want to handle Dad? Mom hasn’t visited him for four days now. He must suspect something’s up. Do you think we should tell him?”
No, don’t do that! Are you out of your mind?
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Kazuko to the rescue!
“What if Dad asks us?”
“Has he said anything? You saw him yesterday, and that had been three days. Did he ask about Mom not coming by?”
“No. But you know as well as I that he has his moments of clarity.” Keiko heard the exasperation in Kazuko’s voice. “Think about it, Patrick! If Daddy never asks, it won’t be an issue. If he does have one of his moments of clarity—as you say—do you really want him to know Mom had a stroke and may die? No!”
Thank goodness! Kazuko understands these things.
“And if Mom dies? We still don’t say anything?”
Oh, Patrick. Give it up!
“I don’t know. At the rate his mind is failing, hopefully he’ll never notice that she isn’t coming by anymore. It’s sad to say, but that’s what I pray for right now.”
“You’re probably right, Sukie.”
Keiko had always smiled when she heard Patrick call his sister that name. They had been close as siblings since they were toddlers. Well, at least that’s settled, thought Keiko. Now the important thing was to get on with the process of dying. She’d heard Patrick say that it didn’t look good; so hopefully it wouldn’t be much longer. But with her remaining time, she wanted to relive her life as she remembered it. She would recall it slowly and savor the memories, beginning back in Bellevue before the war. That would give her great pleasure.
If they were here to listen to her story, others in the family—at least those who had been there during the internment—would say that Keiko had bent the truth a little. No matter. This was her story, and she’d relive it the way she wanted.
Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941
The cliché was appropriate, Keiko recalled. I’ll remember this moment until the day I die.
The day had been sunny and cold. The Tanaka family was returning home from church when the announcement came on the car radio: the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” Masao was the first to respond.
In the backseat of their black 1938 Ford, Keiko sat sandwiched between her two sisters: her twin, Misaki, and her younger sister, Shizuka. Their parents, Isamu and Akemi Tanaka, straddled her brother, Masao, in the front seat. Keiko and Misaki had just turned nineteen, having graduated from high school the previous spring. Shizuka was three years younger. Masao, the oldest, had turned twenty-one earlier in the year and was considered to be the most sensitive of the children. Once, when he was younger, Masao had become hysterical when he discovered his mother squashing a spider inside the house. From that day forward, Masao became the go-to person for insect and rodent removal, peacefully moving the creatures from their home to the world outside. The story had become family legend.
Respectfully, the children waited for their parents to explain. The answer didn’t come immediately. They knew that something was wrong as their father pulled off the road, turned off the engine, and stared into the distance, hands frozen to the steering wheel.
More silence. What’s going on! thought Keiko.
Motionless, Isamu replied. “Pearl Harbor is a naval base in Hawaii.”
“Why would they do that to us?” asked Masao.
Isamu and Akemi, although first generation Japanese, had learned to read and write English, and their children were fluent in both English and Japanese. The whole family, children included, knew that Great Britain was at war with Hitler’s Germany in Europe. France had already surrendered. Compared to many of their Caucasian friends, Keiko knew much more about current events. Isamu insisted that whenever they had a newspaper in the house, everyone read it and pass it around. After dinner, Isamu would randomly call upon one of his children to give a summary to the rest of the family. When this happened to either Keiko or Misaki, they often embellished it with editorial comments that led to further discussion. Isamu knew that his twins were smart and especially good at debating and making their points.
It took only a moment before Keiko, thus knowledgeable about current events, realized the importance of what they had heard on the radio and why her father had pulled off the road. Everyone sitting in this car had Japanese blood flowing through their veins, and it was the Japs who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Isamu restarted the engine, and they continued home. Nothing more was said. A chill passed through Keiko’s spine as she realized the implications. Most Japanese living in Bellevue wanted to believe that their ancestry had nothing to do with the international troubles to the east in Europe or to the west in Southeast Asia.
But from her careful reading of the newspapers, Keiko knew that there had been trouble in the wind for years before Pearl Harbor, culminating in the Tripartite Pact of September 1940 when Germany, Italy, and Japan formed an alliance. Not long afterward, the FBI took note, watching the Japanese and looking for anything that might suggest that their loyalties lay beyond American shores.
Keiko and her siblings had never been to Japan. Most Nisei, second generation Japanese who had been born in the United States, never had. Keiko’s parents had been born there, but they had never returned and had no intention to. Two full generations had elapsed since Isamu had made his way to Hawaii in 1905.
Keiko knew that her father had sailed to Hawaii that year for the same reason other Japanese men had: searching for work. Hawaii needed labor to raise and process its sugar cane. Searching for further opportunities, Isamu boarded a ship a year later to the mainland state of Washington.
Isamu had told his children that his timing couldn’t have been better. From her history books, Keiko was aware that the Gentlemen’s
Agreement between the United States and Japan ended Japanese immigration in 1907. This accord followed years of anti-Japanese sentiment that crested not long after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In October of that year, the San Francisco Board of Education decided that Japanese-American children should attend Chinese-American schools. When word of this decision reached Japan, it caused a furor. The Agreement was the result. In exchange for the Board of Education backing off its decision, Japan agreed to halt immigration.
Isamu tried a variety of jobs before settling on farming. From his experience in Japan, he knew how to grow fruits and vegetables on small tracts of land—called truck farming—work his white neighbors found demeaning and not worth the trouble.
Keiko remembered hearing about the nonromantic nature of her parents’ marriage. In 1919 when Isamu turned thirty-three, he decided that it was time to find a wife. Pickings were meager in the States. So like many other Japanese males, he ordered from Japan what became known as a Picture Bride. Fortunately, immigration of women was still legal under the Gentlemen’s Agreement.
Akemi had explained to her children how it had gone down in Japan. Isamu’s family had arranged the union with Akemi’s family. In fact, the marriage was legally binding long before bride and groom ever laid eyes on each other. The luxury of marrying for love would have to wait another generation or so.
Akemi arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1919 to a wait- ing husband who had traveled by train from Bellevue to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. To the relief of both, they hit it off, and the union was a success. Such was not the case for some of Isamu’s friends, Akemi told her children.
As Keiko pondered the implications of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the family arrived at their home in Bellevue, solemnity overshadowing further discussion. When they got there, Isamu seemed on a mission. He went inside and dug out his possessions that had originated in Japan: an old Japanese flag, family heirlooms and mementos, Japanese documents of various kinds—anything that might be considered an indication of his loyalty to Japan. All of these made their way to the barrel behind the house where they burned trash. Because of a short news bulletin on the radio, these items had abruptly transformed from priceless keepsakes to symbols of potential trouble. Although Keiko and Misaki understood the reasoning, Masao and Shizuka appeared dazed as they tried to comprehend what was going on.
About seven that night, the family knew that something was up when Shizuka’s collie, Princess, started barking outside. It was already dark. Isamu opened the door to two men in suits.
“We’re sorry to bother you, but in light of what’s happened in Pearl Harbor, the government needs to take precautions concerning the resident Japanese population. You don’t mind if we look around, do you?”
Isamu stepped aside as the men didn’t wait for a reply. “I can assure you, we have nothing to hide.”
Frightened, Keiko sat in the corner of the room.
The visitors walked from room to room, examining everything visible, and then going so far as to open closets and drawers.
Isamu tried to help. “Please sir, if you’ll tell us what you’re looking for, we’ll help you find it.”
The man who seemed to be the leader emphasized that everything they were doing was routine. “It’s important that we locate any Japanese saboteurs that might be hiding in our midst.”
“I can assure you, my family and I are completely loyal to the United States. And I can tell you that except for a few remaining relatives, we have had no contact with anyone from Japan.”
Suddenly, Akemi came to life. She hadn’t said a word since the earlier radio announcement in the car. Keiko knew her mother’s temperament well: she had a long fuse, but once spent, everyone in the family knew to stand back. At five foot one, she didn’t present much of a physical presence. But what she lacked in stature she made up for in intensity. She walked right up to the men and made her point with unambiguity. “My four children have all been born here, and they are American citizens. As citizens, they have rights, and you should not be going through their things.” The veins in her neck pulsed, and her face flushed.
Keiko watched her father as he stood and watched, obviously impressed with his wife’s bravery. To the family’s chagrin, the men ignored her.
After less time than it seemed, the two men exited the front door with the family’s AM radio, their ancient Kodak Brownie camera, and a rifle that Isamu and Masao used to hunt rabbits.
Perhaps thinking that he needed to say something, the leader offered an explanation. “We’re taking the radio because we don’t want anyone communicating with Japanese ships off the coast.”
Masao asked his father how such a thing was even possible with an AM radio. Isamu turned his hands face-up and made a face. “I have no idea.”
The FBI men weren’t finished. “What do you keep in those storage sheds out back?”
“That’s where we keep our tools and baskets, all the things we need to grow and pick our fruits and vegetables.”
There the two men from the FBI discovered the dynamite that Isamu used to blow up tree stumps when clearing land, and they took that too.
Before long, they were gone. Truth be told, they hadn’t been rude or outwardly threatening. From her point of view, Keiko was sad to see the radio go—that modern miracle had been a welcome addition to their home a year earlier. She would miss Fibber McGee and Molly and especially the new program, Hopalong Cassidy, a western.
Following that unnerving incident, Isamu decided that a family meeting was in order. Somberly, they gathered around the kitchen table.
While the rest of her family waited, Akemi boiled water for tea. “This is not going to be good,” Isamu began. “If what we’ve heard about Pearl Harbor is as bad as it sounds, the United States will have no choice but to declare war on Japan. And if that happens, we’ll prob- ably get involved in Europe too. What we experienced this evening is just the start, I’m afraid.”
Masao, who had been quiet since his initial question in the car, joined the conversation. “But why would the FBI suspect us? You and Mama have been here for decades. This isn’t fair!”
Isamu reached for Masao’s hands. “You can’t blame them, Masao. They’re scared. From what we’ve heard on the radio, it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of people died in Hawaii. Everyone’s afraid that the West Coast will be next. And because we’re Japanese, they’re scared of us too.”
Isamu paused, obviously giving thought to what he wanted to say next. “But there’s one thing that is very important, and I want you children to remember. As your mother so bravely said, you are citizens, and you have the same rights as everyone else. No matter what happens, because of this country’s constitution, you are the equals of our Caucasian neighbors, just as they are the equals of us Japanese.”
Keiko’s father’s ability to see both sides of an argument had always impressed Keiko. She recalled a story her mother had told about an incident that epitomized his character. It occurred during the early 1930s, following the stock market crash of 1929, when times became tough for everyone. Isamu and Akemi were established with their truck-farming business and were getting by, but with little cash to spare.
One evening following dinner, Isamu heard noises in one of their packing sheds. He went to investigate and discovered a Caucasian boy somewhere in his late teens. The boy startled, his arms full of vegetable produce left behind from the day’s pickings. He dropped everything and ran toward the back door of the shed. Isamu yelled at him to stop. The boy turned around, shaking so hard that he cowered as Isamu approached, obviously expecting a beating at the least.
Instead, Isamu asked the boy’s name. “Anthony Parker,” he replied. Isamu extended his hand in a sign of friendship. “I’m Mr. Tanaka.”
Knowing full well why the boy was stealing food, Isamu put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and told him not to be scared, that he had no intention of punishing him. Instead, he reached for an empty seed bag and filled it with the vegetables the boy had dropped. He also told him that he if he’d care to come by to help on the weekends, that he could then take as much produce home as he could carry.
Masao continued. “You were there, Papa, in Hawaii. Do you remember Pearl Harbor?”
“That was a long time ago, Masao, thirty-five years. I did live on that island, Oahu. That was where Pearl Harbor was, but I don’t remember much. I remember the water and seeing ships, but that’s all. I’m sure that it’s built up a lot since then.” Isamu collected his thoughts. “What all of this means is that we Japanese must show our- selves as loyal Americans. Which we are! Our neighbors and friends know that. Once the government realizes that we pose no threat, I’m sure we’ll be treated the same as everyone else.”
Keiko and Misaki looked at each other across the table, realizing the irony in their father’s comment. Their parents may have been loyal Americans, but they were not citizens and couldn’t vote. The 1790 Immigration Act made sure of that, stating that naturalization applied only to “free white persons.” Congress updated the law in 1870, but only to include Africans. The children were different. Two years before the Immigration Act update, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution made it official that anyone born in the United States was automatically a citizen.
Conversation at the table continued for a while until there was another knock at the door. Knowing that Princess would have barked had it been a stranger, no one was worried this time.
Akemi answered the door. It was James Armstrong, the son of the owner of the three acres of land that their family leased. He and his family lived a couple of miles down the road. He and the twins were the same age and had gone to school together, and he was well liked by the whole Tanaka family.
Out of breath, James briefly caught Keiko’s eye, but then addressed her father. “Mr. Tanaka, have you heard what’s happened? Pearl Harbor? Dad says it’s going to lead to war. He also said that he heard that the FBI was going around and questioning the Japanese. He told me to come over and check on you. Have they been here?”
As Isamu explained what had happened, Keiko crossed her arms. From her point of view, the timing of the news that day couldn’t have been worse. She and James might have to rethink their strategy— their way to reveal their secret.
Of the family, only Misaki knew that James had proposed to Keiko a month earlier.