Sunday, November 26, 2006

Personal Histories: Looking like the enemy

Personal Histories: Looking like the enemy
One great thing about visiting small distant communities is that the local bookstores invariably feature publications by local authors. Vashon Island is no exception. In addition to my favorite childhood "egg books" by Betty MacDonald, there are offerings on a more serious vain.

Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment CampsLOOKING LIKE THE ENEMY by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald relates the experiences of Japanese-American family #19788's imprisonment at internment camps during World War II. Mary and her brother Yonechi were born in the US to Japanese immigrant parents who came to the US with the hope of a better life. Before the internment, Mary describes the support and strength of her family unit:

"Although my parents never used the word "love" in Japanese or in English, they clearly communicated it. Their love was the softness around their eyes and the spontaneous smiles that broke on their faces whenever they spoke to us. Papa-san wasn't as verbal as Mama-san, yet he had his own ways of letting us know how much he cherished us. Whenever he had to travel to Seattle for business, be brought each of us our favorite foods; wonderful fruits for me such as persimmons, pomegranates, watermelon and peaches; for Yonechi he brought cakes, pies, cookies and candy. For Mama-san he found special Japanese goodies. My father was like a Japanese Santa, joyfully bringing home enormous overstuffed bags, carrying them long distances on the bus.[...]
In our family we usually did things together, in large part because we lived on a farm that demanded our group effort. Except during the severest winter days, there was almost always something to do outdoors. During the months when it rained daily, we donned our boots and raingear, and trudged outdoors anyway."

Sounds like YOUR ancestor's story doesn't it? How similar we are, and yet how delightful the differences in our cultures.

Although the Matsuda family blended well with the community through school and church attendance, and Mr. Matsuda's raspberry farm business, there were times when they also followed traditions from the old country.

"A few days before January 1 each tear, eight to ten Japanese families on Vashon would come to our home to make mochi, which is steamed rice pounded into cakes. Papa-san had made an osu out of a large tree stump which stood nearly thirty inches high and twenty inches in diameter. He made a smooth bowl in the center of the stump, about sixteen inches wide and fourteen inches deep. For years we used this osu for our annual mochi-making event. Every year Mama-san scrubbed the bowl with a brush and plenty of soap and hot water before the guests arrived."

Yet, Mary's idyllic childhood on her family's Vashon Island raspberry farm abruptly ends as thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent in filthy, half broken-down rail cars to live in barbed-wire camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She writes "As a carefree teenager about to be thrown in the chaos and devastation of Word War II, I had no idea how these Japanese values would sustain me and my family and give us strength to endure."

Mary recalls her experiences in Tule Lake, Pinedale, Heart Mountain and Minidoka camps. The deprivations, panic, and confusion of this mostly innocent group of Japanese parallels prolonged imprisonment of other groups in other parts of the world throughout time. 

It seems the dominate power worries about the loyalties of different ethnic groups in a community. In Pennsylvania in the 1700s my ancestors had to sign "oaths of allegiance" to disprove loyalty to a foreign power. You may have Jewish or African ancestors who suffered starvation, torture and genocide. It seems a never-ending story of pain and there is hardly a corner of the earth that hasn't witnessed such tragedies.

Author Mary provides a bibliography with additional sources, including eye-witness accounts for further study. A brief glossary explains basic terms such as:

  • Issei - Japanese who immigrated to and settled in the US.
  • Nesei - American-born second generation children of the Issei.
When researching our progenitors, it may not be that any left personal histories. We then look to those eyewitness accounts by others who lived at the same time and in the same place to understand the joys and challenges of life in the community. Check newspapers on microfilmed or the internet for overviews, realizing the editorial board set policy for newspaper reporters subject matter. Old county histories can at least provide a time-line of major events. Then look for those personal histories. There are circumstances your ancestor experienced in his community that otherwise might be lost to the homogenized, politically-correct history books.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. I remember Mary's brother Yonechi as a friend of my father and mother, Doug and Evelyn Marshment. My parents moved to Vashon after WW2. They and Yonechi attended the Methodist Church on Vashon Island. As young children we visited Yonechi's strawberry farm where he allowed us to eat strawberries from the vine while our father talked with Yonechi. When we were older, we were strawberry pickers at his farm. When we asked, he told us that he was a soldier during the war. Yoneichi was a pallbearer at my father's funeral. Later, when I moved away from Vashon, I lost track of those who lived there but always remembered Yoneichi. I heard that he became a teacher. In her older years my mother made a special journey to Vashon to visit with Yonechi. I have always honored Yonechi when remembering my Vashon childhood. I am glad that his sister has told the story of her family. I am glad that she mentions her brother, my family's friend. My tribute to Yonechi is that I will always remember and never forget his service to his country and I will always remember Yoneichi's friendship with my family. With regards, using my childhood name, Edith Marshment.

  2. DearEG,
    Thank-you for taking the time to post. It was a moving experience for me to read this book and consider the impact fears of our differences play in our lives.

    Myrt ;-)