by Ken Feltman
I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps.
– Francis Biddle, U.S. attorney general, 1941-1945
Kazuko was born nearly eight decades ago in Japan. As a small child, she looked out from the family home and saw the Pacific Ocean beyond the rocky hills. Her father was a rising executive of a Japanese corporation. Soon, he was promoted to head the American subsidiary, based in San Francisco. Kaz and her parents settled into one of San Francisco’s fabled Victorians with a view of the Pacific. Years later, Kaz recalled that home and the view with wistfulness.
A younger sister was born in San Francisco. Kaz attended a public school. Her father built the business and hired more and more people, mostly what they called “whites” but also many Chinese and African-Americans. The two girls spoke English with each other and their father, but only Japanese with their mother, who missed her family and friends in Japan.
Then, in the middle of a school day, Kaz was told by her teacher that she must return home immediately. Puzzled and alarmed, fearing something had happened to her parents or sister, Kaz raced home. There, as uniformed soldiers stood by, her parents told her that the family was being removed to an internment camp along with other Japanese and Japanese Americans.
War and internment
Kaz had heard about war between her native land and the United States but had not understood what that meant. She did not have room for everything and had to make painful choices about what to take and what to leave. Too quickly, she was pulled away and had one last glimpse of the Pacific through the window.
Her father soon became ill and died in a detention center in Idaho.
As the outcome of the war became clearer by early 1945, Kaz, her sister and her mother and hundreds of others were transported back to San Francisco and left to manage for themselves at the ferry terminal. They made their way to their home. It had been sold for unpaid taxes and belonged to a white family. The girls learned from neighbors that their father’s company has been taken over by the U.S. government. Nothing remained except her father’s automobile, which a neighbor has stored for them.
The neighbor showed Kaz how to operate the shift and pedals and, incredibly, Kaz drove her mother and sister east, away from their horrible homecoming. Kaz had never driven a car but managed to drive as far away from San Francisco as she could with a gas station map and the money that had been returned to them when they were released from internment.
They were in New Jersey when they spoke with other Japanese who told them of a neighborhood in a place called Chicago where a person could live each day speaking only Japanese, buying food at the Japanese market and reading recent newspapers sent from Japan. Kaz consulted the much-folded map and backtracked until she found Niseitown on the north side of Chicago.
Early in the war, the U.S. had faced a crippling labor shortage. Most men were drafted to fight. The federal government decided to permit nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) to work in major American cities. Many nisei were sent to Chicago. Forbidden to leave the city and unable to switch jobs, the nisei suffered racial and wartime discrimination. Still, life was better than in the detention camps.
When Japanese-Americans were released from internment beginning in January, 1945, many headed to Chicago to join relatives. The Japanese population jumped to 25,000 from a few hundred. With the end of the war, Japanese companies began exporting Japanese foods and clothing to Chicago, followed by banks and trading companies. Indeed, it was soon possible to go about daily life entirely in the Japanese language if not entirely in Japanese culture.
Kaz’s sister, an American citizen by birth, was so bitter and distraught at the treatment she, her family and other Japanese had received that she vowed to go to Japan as soon as she was old enough. She did and married a Japanese and raised a family. She never returned to the U.S.
Kaz quickly adjusted to the bilingual world of Niseitown. Her mother lived a life as Japanese as possible. She did not want to return to Japan and see the devastation of warfare. Before Kaz left Japan for California, her friends called her “American Girl” because of her love of American movies and music. Kaz realized that, despite the bitterness of the internment camp, she still loved American movies and music and wanted to be an “American girl.” She became an American citizen as soon as the law permitted.
One day, Kaz walked into my office in the Chicago Loop for a job interview and said immediately that she must get the job because she liked the fact that, out my window, she could see the Chicago River and, beyond, Lake Michigan. She talked about seeing the Pacific from her childhood homes in Japan and San Francisco. She insisted that I hire her. She became my assistant and we worked together for several years.
When I moved to Washington, I asked if she wanted to come along. She said she wanted to but her boyfriend could not leave Chicago. Of course, we both realized that her mother would not want to leave the neighborhood that was so comforting and hospitable.
Kaz was and is well known in Chicago’s Japanese community and remains active in religious, political and cultural organizations. A few days before I was leaving for Washington, she and her boyfriend took me for lunch to one of their favorite Japanese restaurants. Next day, they took me to one of their favorite American restaurants – actually, a German-American restaurant favored by Irish-American politicians.
A president, an emperor and a king
Kaz thanked me for giving her the opportunity to meet so many interesting people – Jesse Jackson was one of her favorites. She kept count of the senators, congressman and governors that she met. She hit it off with Dan Terra, a successful businessman who became chief fundraiser for Ronald Reagan. Most of all, she remembered a special kiss from President Ford.
A friend helped me arrange for Kaz to be a guest at the VIP reception before a political fundraising dinner. Terra and his wife escorted Kaz and her boyfriend through the reception line and Ford gave Kaz a big hug and kissed her cheek as the photographer clicked away. Soon, an autographed photo arrived at the office: Kaz beaming as the president smooched.
A few weeks later, the emperor of Japan visited Chicago and Kaz and her mother were special guests. Her mother told Kaz that if she kissed the emperor, she would die. Tradition held that if a commoner touched the emperor, the commoner would be struck down. As her mother held back, shaking in fear that her “American daughter” would embarrass the family, Kaz walked up to the emperor and, without bowing, shook his hand as her boyfriend took a picture. Shocked, her mother could not speak. Much later, she asked if Kaz had been at least a little afraid. “I’m an American now. I’m not afraid,” Kaz said.
Back at the office, as she put her picture with the emperor beside her picture with the president, someone asked what she would do for excitement next. “The king of Denmark is coming,” she said. Sure enough, soon a picture of Kaz and the king joined the emperor and the president. Her invitation was engineered by the Japanese embassy. “Any kissing cousin of the president is good enough for the Japanese and the Danes,” Kaz said.
Today, Kaz cannot reach her sister in Japan. But she knows that the Japanese are strong and resilient, no matter which country they call home. “They’re strong like us Americans,” she once said. Still, I can hear the worry and anxiety in her voice.
She also said, “I am lucky to be an American but the United States is luckier to have me.”