Where I Came From

©Michael W. Hirabayashi

The dearth of “Japanese-ness” during my childhood may have been what drove me to study the Japanese language in college. It was my major field of study. It was a way to somehow find out who I was and where I came from. The language was a window into what I thought was my culture. The funny thing is the more proficient I became, the more I knew that I couldn’t identify strictly as a Japanese. At the same time, I don’t strictly identify as an American either. I am something else, something in between. I’m both. I’m neither.

My mother was born in Tacoma Washington in 1922 to Japanese immigrant parents. Her parents, who had emigrated to America from Japan, were not permitted to become US citizens because of the Asian Exclusion Act. 

My mother’s birth was just 17 years after Japan became the first non-Western country to defeat a Western army in modern warfare in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. 

She spent her youth growing up in small town Tacoma Washington.  

During her pre-teen and teen years in the 1930’s and early ‘40’s, Imperial Japan was expanding its control over Korea, Manchuria and extending south to the rest of Asia. Relations between the US and Japan were deteriorating. On August 1, 1941, the US established an embargo of all oil exports to Japan after Japan invaded French Indochina. The embargo hurt Japan badly. Japan needed raw materials to feed its increasingly industrial economy. 

My Grandmother Sumiyoshi (Baachan), as most first-generation immigrants, had strong emotional ties with the “old country”. She wanted her children to know their own background, their culture, their language, their roots. Sensing the worsening relations between the US and Japan, she wanted to return to Japan one last time before war broke out. She and Grandfather Sumiyoshi (Jiichan) gathered up their four children and traveled to Japan. Their kids having been born and brought up in Tacoma knew nothing of Japan and were essentially young American kids. My mother was 19 at the time. The trip to Japan threw these American kids into the totally alien environment of pre-war Imperial Japan, the Japan that was transforming itself from feudal agrarianism into an expansionist industrial empire competing with the West. It was the Japan that had allied itself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

December 7, 1941 found my mother’s family in Japan. The attack on Pearl Harbor threw the US and Japan into a state of war. Diplomatic relations were severed; Japan’s borders were sealed. My mother’s family couldn’t leave the country and were forced to spend the remainder of the war there. The Sumiyoshi kids who spoke the language of the enemy (English), who had grown up in the enemy’s country (the USA), who had the strange customs and clothing of the enemy were looked upon with great suspicion, especially by the Kenpei-tai or Special Military Police. They were often questioned, harassed and bullied.

My mother, at some point during the war moved from Hiroshima to Tokyo to work and spent the latter half of the war there. My gay Uncle Joe was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. I can’t even begin to imagine what he had to endure at the hands of those fascist military goons. The rest of the family continued to live in Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, in the San Jose farming community, my father’s family was facing what all Californian Japanese Americans faced during the war:  The racist rantings of the Hearst Newspapers, calling for the internment of all Americans of Japanese descent.  When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, my father’s family lost their farm and was thrown into the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah (one of 10 camps for the internment of Japanese Americans). 

Fred Korematsu, who challenged the constitutionality of that Executive Order in 1944, was also interned there. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against him and in favor of the government in a 6-3 decision. 

Gordon Hirabayashi (no relation to my family), who was arrested for violating the curfew in Seattle Washington and refusing to abide by the executive order, also challenged the government and took his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the curfew order and he was sentenced to prison. 

All adult internees were issued a loyalty questionnaire. They were asked if they were willing to fight in the US military. They were asked to swear allegiance to the US and renounce loyalty to the Japanese Emperor. My grandparents’ generation was in a Catch 22. They couldn’t become US citizens, they were being thrown into internment camps and they were being asked to renounce their country of origin. 

My father volunteered for the Army and was sent to Military Language School. His family remained in the camp. He was subsequently sent to the Pacific Theater as an intelligence officer with the MIS or Military Intelligence Service. He spent the war intercepting Japanese communications and interviewing Japanese POW’s. 

On Monday, August 6, 1945, my Aunt Nobi told me that she heard air raid sirens a little before 8 o’clock in the morning. After the “all clear” signal was sounded, she went outside to see a single shiny B-29 bomber flying high over Hiroshima. Everyone thought because of the height of its flight path, “It must be a reconnaissance flight.”  If it was a bombing raid, there would have been more than one B-29 bombers and they would have been flying much, much lower. No one knew that it was the Enola Gay and it was going to be dropping “Little Boy” onto Hiroshima.  

8:15AM. Aunt Nobi remembers a blinding flash of white light and moments later a huge blast. The house was demolished in an instant. My aunts and grandparents called out to each other in the rubble. They had all somehow survived what turned out to be the world’s first atomic bomb used in war. As Aunt Nobi tells it, an elevated train track separated the house from the hypocenter of the bomb. That earthen mound deflected much of the force from the bomb but their home was in ruins. Hiroshima was in ruins. Jiichan and Baachan Sumiyoshi gathered the family together and walked to a relative’s home outside of the city.

53,644 people died that Monday morning in Hiroshima. 

In Tokyo, my mother heard radio news broadcasts that the Americans had dropped a new type of bomb on the civilian population of Hiroshima.  All the communication lines between Hiroshima and Tokyo were either down or overloaded. She couldn’t contact her family. She needed to find out if they had survived. The only way to do that was to physically go there.  

The trains that went to Hiroshima were overrun with people scrambling to get there. In the chaos at the station, my mother climbed through a window and secured a spot on a train two days after the bomb. That train, after hours of travel from Tokyo, came to a stop at the outskirts of Hiroshima. My mother climbed down out of the train to see that the bomb had vaporized the tracks that ran into the city.  

So, she walked. She walked in the general direction of the family home. She walked through utter devastation. She remembered the flies and how they swarmed around the interior of a burnt-out trolley car tipped over on its side. She said the flies covered the ceiling, looking like an undulating piece of black cloth. The force of the blast had sprayed the interior of the trolley with bits of human flesh. The flies were feasting. She saw bloated black bodies floating down the rivers that run through the city. People went to the rivers to find relief from the radiation burns they had suffered during the blast. Many succumbed to their wounds and drowned in the river.

When she got to the house, there was a water cistern still standing in the ruins.  Baachan had written on it, “We’ve gone to the relatives’ house in the country side.” Mother began to make her way to that house in the country. There were many people walking. The wounded, the burned, dazed people whose clothing was tattered from the force of the blast, relatives searching for their loved ones . . . There was no transportation. Somehow in this mass of distressed people, my mother and her uniformed younger brother Joe found each other. They both then walked together and rejoined their family in the country.

Three days after the Hiroshima bomb, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. On August 14 Emperor Hirohito, for the first time ever, spoke directly to the Japanese people over the radio.  With that speech, he stopped the Japanese from continuing their fight and the war finally ended.

My father went to Japan withGeneral MacArthur and the occupation forces and continued to work as an intelligence officer after the war.  It was there in the heady years of post war Japan’s reconstruction that my parents met, fell in love and were married.  My mother was working for the Japanese Red Cross. He was a young US Army Lieutenant. 

 While I was growing up on US military bases in Japan, my parents always stressed that we were AMERICANS first and foremost. We never talked about their experiences during the war. We didn’t learn to speak the Japanese language. We spoke only English at home. We were given only Anglo names. I think that may have had something to do with their wartime experiences.

My search for who I was and where I came from, finally led me to ask my parents what their experiences were during the war. My father’s family suffered from wartime hysteria here in the US. To quote Gen. John DeWitt, the Army General who was in command of the West Coast at that time, “A Jap’s a Jap. They’re a dangerous element, it makes no difference whether they’re a citizen or not.”My mother’s family suffered at the hands of the myopic fascist police in Japan. And then an atomic bomb was dropped on them.

 The racial and religious tribalism that is spreading throughout the US today is based on the same xenophobic fear that gripped 1940’s America and Japan. The fear of “the other.” The fear of “the different.” I hope we don’t forget the past, I hope we can learn from it. When war begins, everyone suffers.