In Search of Jane Takahashi Sumida

My name is Jeanne Sumida-Yazzie.  I decided to start up this blog in honor of my paternal grandmother, Jane Takahashi Sumida, who recently passed away.  I thought my grandma was just like any other baachan – made miso soup for us when we were sick, took us to visit the graves of our ancestors for obon and had an ordinary life.  She really didn’t talk a lot about her past or her about anything much besides our family.    I remember my Dad telling me that grandma had lived in an internment camp during WWII but when I asked her, she wouldn’t talk about it.  Said it was best left in the past and so I never brought it up again.

After my grandmother died, I felt that I had lost any opportunity to learn about her life and the history of my family.  I wished that I could have convinced her to open up to me so that I could share her stories with my children.  My husband’s grandfather was a member of the Navajo Code Talkers who served during WWII like my granduncle George Takahashi (he was a member of the famous 442nd RCT).   I remember spending hours listening to Grandpa Yazzie share stories of the brave men who served with him and was a little envious that the Takahashi “elders” did not give me this gift.

My Dad could not bring himself to go through my Grandma’s things so he asked me if I would help pack up her belongings.  It was a tough job – not because there was a lot to put away but because everything had sentimental value.  A sweater would remind me of a family trip we took to Las Vegas to visit with the Sumida side of the family from Hawaii, a handkerchief reminded me of that chronic cough she had (she said it was due to the “camp dust” but never went into detail).  Then in the back of her closet, hidden within the folds of her futon, was an old, beat up cigar box.  At first, I did not want to violate her privacy and open it but something told me that she wanted me to find it.  It was filled with faded newspaper clippings from the Poston Gazette, origami cards clearly made by a child, dozens of letters from Hawaii and photos of people I vaguely recognized.  I also found this folded piece of paper, in my Grandma’s handwriting, dated August 14, 1945:

August 14, 1945

Dear Sue,

Happy belated Easter and I hope you got my card.  Can you believe that I am actually making money selling them now?

Sorry this is so long but I have so much to tell you that just happened.  I don’t know if I will get the chance to mail this to you since everything is so up in the air.

I never thought this day would come.  We are finally going to leave Poston.

We heard rumors that the camp was closing but nobody believed it.  Now it is official.

Papa called a family meeting  tonight, something we never had before as usually he makes all the decisions himself like a Shogun. I figured we were all going to go back to Reedley since Mr. Carter and the rest of the Bell family had cared for our farm while we were in camp.

A lot of families here had to abandon their farms when they left or did not receive a penny from  the people left behind to care for their property but Mr. Carter sent  us all of the proceeds from every harvest.  We even had enough to send care packages to George and his fellow 442nd soldiers for Christmas – well, everyone but Jiichan who was still mad at George  for fighting against other Japanese.

I wonder sometimes if Jiichan died of a broken heart since he was so upset when George came home with his Army uniform on?  I have never seen Jiichan so mad – he just looked George in the face, said, “Joji wa Inu!” (George is a dog), then turned away from him.

You know how George is, always joking and silly, but that day, he was very stern and serious as he left the barracks. He did not say goodbye to us but jumped in the Army jeep without a single glance back.

Baachan told me later that Jiichan could not forgive the US for killing so many innocent people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  He felt that by joining the military, even an all Nisei unit, George had chosen to renounce being Japanese and was choosing to be a hakujin.

I always thought that our strong Jiichan who worked from sunup to sundown every day in the orchard would  live forever. I never would have guessed that he would leave  camp, like 220 other people, as cremated ashes in a furoshiki-wrapped urn.

Do you think Jiichan has forgiven George now that he has earned the Purple Heart and lost an arm in battle?  Can you believe that bakatare is a war hero?

I have a big surprise to tell you about George but more about that later.

Before Papa could continue, Mama said that Mrs. Hirata in her kimono sewing club (yes, we actually  have a Kabuki Theatre in camp) told her that her cousin in Rohwer wrote  to say that on July 30, the government transported 450 people back home to Fresno. That’s long trip – over 2000 miles on four railways to California then by car!

Mama seemed very happy at the  prospect of going back to Reedley and our old life but Papa just looked down at the floor and said, “We cannot go home.  We are still  hated there.”  Mama’s face just froze.

Papa explained that Mr.Carter wrote to say that there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in Reedley and it would not be safe for us to return. While some of the Quaker churches opened their doors to the returning Japanese families, the majority of people still clung to the false belief that we were enemy aliens or feared that we would take away their now prosperous livelihoods.

Mr. Carter asked Papa to please tell the Omotos that they have no home to return to because the caretaker of their olive farm sold it and disappeared with the proceeds when it was announced in the Reedley Gazette that we were free to return home. He asked Papa to also tell the family of Reverend Katsueda (they lived in Poston but he was in Tule Lake because he was still considered a “threat” to the country) that a mysterious fire had burned down much of the Reedley Buddhist Church.

Mama asked in a quiet, shaky voice, “But where will we go?”

Papa said he decided that it would be safest for us to go straight from camp to one of the temporary housing projects in Southern California that were being built for those of us who could not return home where we would be with our own kind. He said we could live in trailers at the Winona Housing Project in Burbank or in wooden barracks (just like good old Poston) in the Magnolia  Housing  Project in Santa Ana.

“What is a trailer?”, asked Michelle. I could only think of the trailers that transported horses from the Assembly Center at the Fresno Fairgrounds when we were first sent away.

Mama shook her head and said, “We are too old to start all over again. We must go back to Reedley.”

Papa took Mama’s hands in  his and whispered to her, “Shikata ga Nai. We have no choice but to do this.”

Papa said that he had been offered a job working at a nursery in West Los Angeles owned by Mr. Hayashi’s uncle (Mr. Hayashi and Papa were the President and Vice  President of the Poston Bonsai Club) and that Mr. Hayashi’s daughter planned to open a sewing school and wanted to hire Mama as the lead  instructor.

Papa said that the kids would be able to return to school, regular school in a classroom at one of the Los Angeles Christian churches. He said that the War Relocation Authority and various civic organizations were sponsoring an event called the Pan-Pacific Industrial Exposition where George and I could learn about available careers for young people like us.

Mama looked up and smiled, “Well, I always wanted to know what the inside of those shiny silver trailers looked like. Do you think seven of us will fit in one trailer?”

I knew I had to say something at that moment,  “Mama, there will only be five of you. George and I are not  going.”

Oh, Sue. . .I told Mama and Papa that Ms. Tamashiro, the Camp Librarian, had arranged for me to have a full  scholarship to college so that I could finish my course of study in English. I also had a room and some spending money since the lady who owns the gift shop in Phoenix where I sell my cards offered me a job and a place  to stay when she heard we had to leave camp.

I thought they would be happy for me but Papa was so angry, he slammed his fist down on the kitchen table!  He said it was not proper for an unmarried woman like me to live apart from her family, that it would bring shame to him if I stayed here on my own.

For the first time in my life, I stood up to Papa and told him that no matter what he said, I was going to stay in Arizona and follow my dream of becoming a writer. Just as Jiichan and Baachan had left Japan in search of a better life, so must I leave my family to walk my own path.

Papa raised his hand like he was going to hit me but Mama stopped him. “So, you have decided?” I nodded my head up and down, too scared to say another word.

“And George, is he going to live in Arizona too?”, Papa asked, his face still red with anger.

I told Papa that George wrote to tell me that he was going to live in Hawaii with the family of his war buddy, Leighton Sumida. Isn’t Leighton a strange name for a Japanese guy?

Did you know that when George was healthy enough to be released from the military hospital in Texas, he could not find his discharge papers? He remembered that he had them with him on the stretcher when he first got there but did not recall what happened after that.

Oh Sue, what in the world is an okole? George said that Leighton said the papers must have been sucked up George’s okole on the way back to America from Europe.

“Eh brah,” Leighton told George, “You no more your pepahs so da buggahs no can let you go home.   Because you one cry baby Mama’s chichi boy , I tell da haoles I loss my pepahs too so you not lonesome by yourself.”

I think if George did not have Leighton with him to cheer him up, he would have gone crazy thinking about how his life would change now that he only has one arm. Can you imagine giving up your own trip home just to stay by your friend’s side?

So, George said to warn your family that a crazy one armed bandit will be showing up at your house soon with his beer-loving Buddhahead friend in tow. That Leighton is kind of cute though.

I hate to say it but I think George did not want to face Jiichan or even the spirit of Jiichan. That is why he is running away to Hawaii.

“What else?”, screamed  Papa as Mama sat down on a chair in shock, “What other secrets does this family have?”

Baachan, who had been sitting quietly this whole time, stood up in front of Papa and said in a calm voice, “I no go Rosu (Los Angeles). I kaeru Japan with Jiichan.”

Baachan said that she promised Jiichan before he died that she would take him back to their hometown of  Yamaguchi where he could  rest with his ancestors. Baachan said her childhood friend, Mrs. Funai, was also a widow and the two of them would spend the rest of their days watching the neighborhood children whose parents were out fishing all day long.

Yes, our timid Granny with her broken English and her ever-present hairnet had made her own arrangements to travel to Seattle, Washington, reserved a spot on the good ship  Matsonia and would be going from All American Camp Poston to Camp Kamoi, a repatriation center in Uraga Japan!

Wow – are you shocked or  what?  Did you ever think Baachan would go back to Japan?

After Baachan’s announcement, we all sat in the living room in total silence. Nobody looked at each other but you could feel the tension.

Even Michelle and Michael did not make a peep!

Papa broke the deadly silence and started laughing, “Sho ga nai, neh?”  We all laughed and I knew we would be okay.

Will keep you posted from Poston!

Love your finally independent cousin,



A Tanka in honor of Jiichan by Jane

George broke Jii-chan’s heart
Fighting against his own kind
Unbearable pain
So much sadness in his soul
Only death brought wanted peace

It is time to go
To return to your homeland
I will dance for you
Under the Poston chochin
To make you smile once again

A Tanka in honor of Baachan by Jane

Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) called him
Now he waits for her
In the Rising Sun
Time for her to kaeru (return)
Ancestors welcome them home

Oh my dear baachan
From one camp to another
As I wave goodbye
Knowing this may be the end
Do you hear my silent cry?

A Tanka for Papa by Jane

My dreams of Reedley
Broken spirit, broken land
Will I ever touch
The soil from which children grew
but now only hatred sprouts

Mama, pack our bags
Sayonara to Poston
New dreams of Rosu (Los Angeles)
Hope grows like sparkling peaches
But children scatter like leaves

A Tanka for Mama by Jane

My heart fills with fear
Of hakujin who hate us
Of a stolen life
Of an uncertain future
I put my faith in Buddha

Goodbye barbed wire fence
Goodbye to shame and sadness
Goodbye my children
We float away like camp dust
Not knowing where we will land

A Tanka for George

Am I a hero?
Am I still a Jap to you?
Memories remain
Of brothers killed to save you
So you can still hate my race

See this Purple Heart?
Take my blood, my pain, my home
Goodbye U.S.A
Aloha Hawaii Nei
Let your warm sands save my soul

A Tanka for the Young Ones by Jane

Do you remember?
The life we had in Reedley
Christmas trees, ice cream
Jiichan’s laughter, Baachan’s smile
Before December Seventh

All you know is camp
Lines for food, to bathe, to pee
But now you are free
So tell the world our story
Of our simple life in jail

A Tanka for Me by Jane

The gates have opened
It’s time to go, I am free
To walk my own path
In the land of my prison
Yet I cannot take a step

I will make you proud
As I find my way in life
Arizona sky
It is time to walk alone
Leave the prison of my mind


Mama moved with the family to Los Angeles and indeed became the lead sewing instructor at Mr. Hayashi’s daughter’s sewing school in West L.A.  She taught just about every Sansei girl in West L.A. how to sew as well as many Yonsei before sewing fell out of style.  Mama retired from her job when the sewing school closed up in 1986.  Since then, she’s become an Obaachan herself to 15 grandchildren who are spread out across the continent and in Hawaii.  With frequent bus trips to Las Vegas and annual vacations in Hawaii with George and his family, Mama became quite the traveler (and can pull a mean slot machine arm).  She passed away in Hawaii in 1998 while on a visit to George.  Sitting in her favorite chair on the lanai of George’s Aiea Heights home overlooking Pearl Harbor, she quietly slipped away.


1 Comment

  1. July 13, 2010 at 6:58 am

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