Authors: Kimi Cunningham Grant
“How’s Frank?” Obaachan asks.
Elsa sighs and shrugs her shoulders. She moves the watering can around as she speaks. “He’s the same, I guess. Sometimes he remembers, sometimes not.” She adjusts her white visor nervously and turns to me. “This must be your granddaughter,” she says, as if she has suddenly realized I’m present. She moves in to shake my hand. Obaachan nods and offers an introduction. Elsa’s fingers are lean and strong against mine. “Your grandmother has been talking about you for weeks.”
I smile and make conversation, tell her I’m in my second year of college, that I’m majoring in English, that yes, I have a boyfriend named Chris, and that no, I don’t know what I will do when I graduate. I say how lovely the weather is here in Florida, compared to Pennsylvania, where I’ve always lived. Elsa nods with interest, studying my face with her blue eyes, smiling at the word boyfriend. I wonder what my grandmother has told her about me in the preceding weeks, since, for most of my life, our relationship has consisted of seeing each other for a weeklong visit, once a year, and since the last time I saw her was when she came to visit over Christmas when I was a senior in high school. Our correspondence has been limited: she mails me birthday and Christmas cards, and I send her thank-you notes.
After a few minutes, Obaachan tells Elsa in her sweet, matter-of-fact way that we ought to be going, that we’re exercising. When we’ve walked far enough past Elsa’s house, Obaachan leans toward me and whispers, “Elsa’s a war bride from Germany. Her husband, Frank, was stationed there when they met.” We pass a small lake and a turtle scuttles in, disappearing. “She often says snide remarks about Jewish people,” Obaachan adds, smacking her lips and shaking her head in disapproval. “It’s hard to believe, but after all these years, she still feels hate.” After all these years. It occurs to me that here, in this slow, quiet neighborhood where every house is painted the same shadowy shade of peach, and where each perfect St. Augustine lawn stretches out in magnificent bright green, somebody might hate Obaachan, too. That somebody, perhaps the man who has floated past us on his bicycle, or maybe the gray-haired woman checking her mail, hasn’t left the hatred from six decades ago behind. I think of all the headlines, posters, and pamphlets from the war, of the pictures I’ve been coming across in books, and I realize that just as Elsa has not been able to forget entirely the speeches and slogans from her childhood in Germany, there may be American neighbors here in Melbourne who hold on to those ideas from decades before.
In the two years prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, life on Pico Street began to change for Obaachan’s family. In 1939 Obaachan’s sister met and married a Japanese man. “He was so good-looking,” Obaachan gushes, grinning. “He was one of the most handsome Japanese men I had ever met.” She would have been eighteen at her sister’s wedding, and her new brother-in-law would have been twenty-four. After the war, she saw him only a handful of times, and thus remembers him as a young man, so I suppose it’s not surprising that her initial impression is so lasting, and that she remembers him with such girlish zeal.
“My sister moved out to live with her new husband,” Obaachan says as we turn out of her neighborhood and cross the street. “A Japanese woman did not have many options back then. You could get married and have children. Or you might serve as a clerk, although only at a Japanese store—getting hired at a
place was unheard of. And maybe, if you were really lucky, you might land a civil service job.” She smiles, as if calculating how much has changed since then. “That was the most ambitious thing we would hope for: working for the civil service. You know, typing or doing accounting work.”
Japanese families invested in their sons, and Obaachan’s was no different. Although her sister, Sachiko, was the oldest, and perhaps the smartest and most driven, she was still a daughter, which meant that her parents would not spend money educating her. Ren was the second oldest, but the first son; his parents sent him to college. In May of 1941, he graduated from the University of Southern California as a pharmacist, passed the civil service exam, and got a job at Fresno Air Force Base. His parents had perhaps never been prouder. And then there was Obaachan, the demure middle child, and then Jack, the youngest, the little brother. He was the athlete, the family daredevil, the adventurous one.
“When I had a family of my own, I insisted that the daughters have all the same opportunities as the sons. That was one of the few things I put my foot down about with your grandfather,” Obaachan explains. She slows her pace a little, looking at the ground. “I didn’t want them to be like me.”
What Obaachan does not tell me right then is that in the fall of 1941, she had applied, taken entrance exams, and been accepted at Los Angeles City College. She could attend for free, and since her parents would not have to fund her education, they supported the decision. They were happy to have her continue staying at home while she took classes. By that point she was the only one of their children who still lived with them, and at the time, her mother’s care rested completely on her shoulders. Her father still worked long, odd hours at the produce market, and could only help at certain times, so Obaachan alone handled the cooking, cleaning, and shopping for her parents.
After graduating from high school, she had spent two years at home, not working but taking care of her ailing mother, and during that time she’d decided she wanted to go to college. She admits she was not sure what exactly she wanted to do with a college degree, but she recognized the link between choices and education. She knew she had little time before she’d be expected to marry and start a family, and at twenty, she wanted options. The opportunity to attend school for free seemed a remarkable blessing: it was her path out of living with her parents forever, being pushed into an arranged marriage, or working as a clerk in Little Tokyo for the rest of her life. Plus, because going to college had always been something so entirely out of reach for her, it was even more desirable. Obaachan started classes in January of 1942, but her goal of earning a college degree would never come to fruition. She didn’t even finish a semester.
“We knew that a war was going on,” Obaachan says, sliding her hands into the pockets of her cardigan. A runner, a woman in an all-pink Nike outfit, approaches on the walking path, and we switch to single file to allow her to pass. Obaachan continues. “I mean, my family listened to the reports on the radio. My Papa was the type of person who liked to stay informed. We knew that Japan had invaded China, and that it had formed an alliance with Germany and Italy. And we’d heard about the Nazis, how they had invaded Poland and Greece and Yugoslavia and many other places. It seemed like everyone was invading and bombing everyone else.” She looks down and rubs at her knuckles. “But none of it had felt close. At least not for me.”
Perhaps Obaachan’s parents understood the events that were shaping the world in those years before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor better than she did. They had friends and family back in Japan and likely corresponded with them through letters, so they may have suspected that the war would eventually make its way to America. Obaachan herself remembers that in the thirties, a neighbor on Pico Street, a wild-eyed old man with fluffy white hair, predicted a war between the United States and Japan. Her parents, however, seemed unconcerned about their neighbor’s ravings, nor did they express any anxiety about Japan’s military decisions or the war in Europe. My grandmother, trained to follow her parents’ moves and responses, shrugged off her old neighbor’s prophecies—he was strange and slightly crazy, anyway—and thought little of the news reports on the radio each evening.
After all, for Obaachan, world geography would have been an altogether different concept than it had been for me. As a child, I leafed through color photographs in my parents’ collection of
magazines and dreamed of traveling to exotic places when I grew up. I sensed, too, even as a kid, that doing so was within reach. For my grandmother, on the other hand, the European names and places she heard on her parents’ shortwave radio were likely nothing more than words she had memorized in a high school history course. While she could identify the countries on a map, she knew nothing about them or their people. As a Japanese American living in the 1930s, she realized she wouldn’t go to any of those places. They would never be anything but faraway locations, interesting for their architecture and sculptures, maybe, but nothing beyond that.
“I’d only left the United States one time, when my family went to Japan. I was very young,” Obaachan says, and then she points out that we have reached the halfway point in our morning walk, exactly one mile, according to her calculations. We pause here. My grandmother has planned her walk perfectly. Just as we finish up this first leg of our trek, the sun peers over the horizon, lighting up the bright facades of stucco houses, casting long shadows across the grass. A light breeze lifts the fronds of a palm tree beside the path. We turn around and head back the way we came.
“I don’t remember much about that trip to Japan,” Obaachan continues. Her memories consist of scattered images. An endless float across the Pacific in a great gray ship. Having dinner at a restaurant in Wakayama. Meeting her mother’s family, the quiet group of people she would never see again. Papa had stayed home to work and take care of the house, so it was only Mama and the four children who made the trip. “I was maybe seven years old. So you see,” Obaachan explains, slowing her pace a little and using her hands for emphasis, “Japan was never home to me. It was only a place I had visited as a kid. Los Angeles was the only home I knew. I was born there. I was an American citizen. I was very aware that I was Japanese, of course, but I was a Japanese
. For us, there was a difference.” But, as my grandmother was about to find out, for many Americans, there was no difference at all.
December 7, 1941, began much like every other Sunday for Obaachan’s family. They woke up, had breakfast, and then walked to the morning service at the small Japanese Christian church near their home. When the service ended, they gathered with the rest of the congregation on the front steps to chat, just as they had done for years. Obaachan talked to some friends about heading to a matinee to see
The Maltese Falcon
, which had just premiered in October. And then, amid their laughter and planning—frantic shouts. A middle-aged man ran up the sidewalk, waving his arms and calling for attention. He slowed at the bottom of the steps, stopped to catch his breath, then panted out the news: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Panic erupted. Obaachan’s family collected themselves and hurried home in a fog of confusion. They spent the afternoon huddled around the shortwave radio in the living room, listening to the accounts, sorting through the details, taking on the weight of what had happened. Papa sipped his black coffee and sat in his favorite chair, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. Mama listened from her bed, lying on her side and watching her husband’s face through the bedroom door. Obaachan stood in the corner of the room, taking it all in, her hands folded at her waist.
“Like I told you, none of it had felt close, at least not for me,” Obaachan says softly. “I was only twenty, so maybe I was just uninformed or foolish. To me, all those names and places, the invasions—all of it was so far away.”
And then suddenly, the war was there: trickling in through the radio, filling the house on Pico Street. Obaachan says she wasn’t afraid that day, at least not for herself, or for her family, or for Japanese Americans. She understood that what had happened involved the two countries that most affected her, that composed her identity, but she did not consider the possibility that the United States’ retaliation would also be aimed at the Japanese living on American soil. Mostly, she was shocked and sad. She imagined the thundering sounds of the bombs, the fiery chaos, the cries of terror. She shivered at the thought of so much destruction.
Obaachan may have been naïvely oblivious to what lay ahead for her and the other 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. (The West Coast was eventually deemed a “military zone,” which gave the government grounds for evacuation, but those Japanese who lived elsewhere in the United States were never removed from their homes.) Obaachan’s father, however, may have had an intuition of what the future would hold. He said nothing at all about it that afternoon. Instead, he sat in grim silence, listening over and over to the reports on the radio, and it seemed that during the course of that day, he developed two tiny indentations on his forehead, one above each eyebrow, like the marks left by a hoe splitting the earth.
It turned out that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was only Japan’s first step in a well-planned series of assaults. Within twenty-four hours, it launched attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island. The morning after the initial bombing, President Roosevelt explained all of this in his “Day of Infamy” speech and declared war on Japan. In doing so, the United States entered World War II: three days later, the country was officially at war with Germany and Italy as well. On Monday, December 8, Obaachan’s brother Ren went to work at his pharmacy and was asked, without explanation, to resign from his position at Fresno Air Force Base. In a single day, his schooling, testing, and hard work were stripped from him. No longer welcome on base, he returned to Los Angeles, and moved back into his parents’ house. Two months later, he would be drafted into the US Army, and leave for basic training in Arkansas.
Obaachan’s family chose not to view Ren’s losing his job as an insult. They chose also to accept without bitterness the irony of his being drafted just a few months after Fresno had asked him to leave. Above all things, her family, like many Japanese Americans at the time, wished to demonstrate their patriotism to the United States. If it meant resigning from a job without a fuss, that’s what should be done. If it meant being drafted and fighting in the American military, a person should be willing to go. When Ren was drafted, he had no way of knowing that his sisters and parents would soon be shipped off to spend the entirety of World War II behind barbed wire, but even if he had, my grandmother insists, he would have done the very same thing. Jack, Obaachan’s younger brother, was also anxious to show his patriotism: shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, he enlisted in the US Army and eventually became a paratrooper.