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Mary Iwami - Part 3

Kenji Idemoto with his children, post-war. From left to right: Kunio, Mary, Tom, and Akio.

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What details do you remember from camp when the war ended?

When the war ended and Japan surrendered, Tule Lake was filled with sounds of wailing older folks, especially women sitting on the ground, crying and hitting the dirt. I can recall that sadness and felt very sorry for them. Because there were so many pro-Japanese people, I just could not think, because they’re older, how would they get along? In time the fathers were permitted to leave camp to look for jobs. I think they had information that helped them seek their choices. But I’m not sure as I’ve never talked about it with my father. We missed him but when he returned, he brought a wonderful surprise: a bag filled with candies.

We didn’t leave Tule Lake until 1946, reaching our new home in Coyote, California by train. Coyote is about 12 miles south of San Jose. Father’s work was to walk the train tracks, fix any problems with the wood ties and replace or securing spiked bolts to the track. So it’s not easy, but tiring as walking the track on uneven surfaces kept you aware not to fall. I don’t recall him ever complaining, nor my mother, who worked whatever farm work she could find. I remember that we needed a car and after a while, our first car was a pale blue 1936 Plymouth and we were so proud.

We were fine in the rural community but whenever we were in San Jose to shop for clothes, we were exposed to racial slurs and once while standing together a street corner, we were spit upon by passing cars and told to go back to Japan. That was my first feeling of alienation that stayed with me for days.

How difficult was it for your parents to get back on their feet and settle back into the routine of the family?

Those years created such hardships for my parents, especially my father who had continuous concerns for the family wherever we went. Keeping us warmly clothed and supplied with necessities during the war years depleted his savings. His concentration was then to earn and save money for the future. With four children to raise, his responsibility was heavy. He rarely showed any frustration. I never heard him yell but a certain look and a few words told us what he felt. I truly admired him and was grateful that he had such strength. My mother was quite vocal. When reimbursements could be sought for losses sustained when we were relocated to the camps, Mom was very critical that Dad did not request or sign up for financial compensations.

After about a year in Coyote, we moved to Watsonville to begin sharecropping in strawberry farming. Eventually we were able to buy a home close to the Buddhist church in town. Sometime later he rented land and became an independent farmer contracting Mexican laborers to help. I regret and feel badly that he worked so hard all his life and was never able to visit Japan, which I think was on his bucket list. He died rather young of cancer at age 65. My mother lived a full and good life, passing away at age 102 in 2018.

My mother was able to sell the farm soon after my father passed away and didn’t really want to live in the home by herself and wanted to move to one of the apartments behind the church where some of her friends lived, so that’s what she did. So she was very close to the church, very active, used her sushi recipe because she insisted on it. She was very independent, resourceful. Mom could live on her own very well. In time though when she became 94, 95, we saw there was memory lapsing.

So after that, I took her home and packed her things. And she used to come and stay with us for a couple of months every year but there’s nothing like home. She had lived behind the church for 45 years and that’s her home. That’s her place where she would live all her life and she used to tell me that. And I’d tell her, “This is your new home.” And when I finally had to tell her that her apartment’s been rented out, then there was a big change. She used to eat well and she enjoyed everything but when she knew she could not go back, she started losing a little weight and became depressed. She says, “I gotta go home.” And then because of her dementia it was beginning to increase and she started having delusions. But she was healthy, there was nothing really wrong with her.

Did she always remember who you were?

Yes, she knew.

Did you ever get a chance to ask her about her experience in camp?

No, we just hit and miss about a topic. And it was always about our family. It wasn’t about the situation and how they felt because I knew. When we were in Tule Lake, I knew that it was not happy like Poston. There was a lot of laughter and so on but in Tule Lake, it was a little bit more withdrawn. There was a lot of things happening. I was ill, my brother had surgery and they were working and there was all of this — not rumors but scary thinking that was coming from the southern part of our camp. I was closer to the northeast side. So Castle Rock was not that far and we’d all walk to the hospital because it was right there below it.

But I wish I talked to my father because I would’ve gotten some opinions and what he thought and what he anticipated what his life would be. Did you ever think that you would like to go back to Japan? We didn’t talk about that, I wish we had. I just really feel for my dad. He took a lot of — Mom used to be very vocal. One time it made me cry because he said, “Well when you have arranged marriages you don’t get to pick your mate.” It’s not the kind of thing he would’ve said at all unless we were talking so much. I got married when I was 23, and I was coming down to LA.

Do you feel that they had a good marriage?

Yeah. You know, they tolerated each other. I know Mom respected him but she always felt that he should’ve been a little more stronger. That’s because he was quiet, he was very intelligent.

And how did you meet your husband?

I met him in LA. I was vacationing with a friend and we happened to go to my aunt’s place. and he was a distant relative of hers and he was washing his car there, so that’s how I met him. That was it. And then he wrote me because he was going to graduate school at UCLA then. We talked about jazz, I used to like going to the jazz festival in Monterey. So we went to Blackhawk’s — that was a jazz place in San Francisco. And Redd Foxx was there, and he was just throwing out cracks and jokes that I didn’t get. And everybody’s laughing away. And he says, “You’re not getting it, huh?” And I said no. And he says, “That’s okay, that’s good.” Because it was all off-color. I was young. 21, or something like that. And then my mom and dad, well they were thinking oh gee, they’re going to San Francisco. So they stayed up, and I know we came back much later than — like 12:30, 1:00 or something like that.

But my husband and I got along, we were good. He was a good man. I lost him 25 years ago.


*This article was originally published onTessaku on December 25, 2020.


© 2020 Emiko Tsuchida

california concentration camps FBI mary iwami Poston salinas tessaku tule lake war

Sobre esta série

Tessaku was the name of a short-lived magazine published at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. It also means “barbed wire.” This series brings to light stories of the Japanese American internment, illuminating those that haven’t been told with intimate and honest conversation. Tessaku brings the consequences of racial hysteria to the foreground, as we enter into a cultural and political era where lessons of the past must be remembered.