It was a small yet precious family reunion. My 78 year old cousin Masako Kanemoto, who flew in from Hiroshima, took a bite out of a “Spam™ musubi” while we were taking a snack break in Kailua, Hawai’i. It’s a slice of Spam sandwiched in between some rice and wrapped in seaweed. “How mundane,” I thought.
Masako then beamed. “We had very little food for so many years. After the war, your father brought us food and clothing when he was in the US Army…” My dad was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service.
She continued, “He brought us much as he could carry. I was so hungry and I will always remember that first bite. I couldn’t believe how something could be so delicious.” She was referring to something my father had brought along with him 65 years ago – Spam.
Emotions tore through me and my eyes welled rapidly. I felt so selfish and ignorant for taking the Spam for granted. I fumbled but snapped the photo of Masako enjoying the Spam musubi.
My grandfather Hisakichi Kanemoto immigrated from Hiroshima to Seattle in the late 1890′s. My grandmother Kono Kanemoto was a true picture bride for my grandfather. Grandmother gave birth to a total of seven children of which my father was the fifth; all but one was born in Seattle – they were US citizens.
My grandparents struggled to survive; the family lived in the Fujii Hotel in downtown Seattle. They worked a basement barber shop in the hotel with Grandfather cutting the hair and Grandmother expertly working the straight razor. A cousin said Grandmother made the customers feel appreciated and made them feel at ease with her people skills. It certainly wasn’t Grandfather – if there were a Japanese Marine, he could have been their poster boy. “By the book”, as they say.
As was customary during that time, many Japanese-American children (“Nisei”) were rotated back to Hiroshima by ship to learn the Japanese language and customs when they were about eight years old. It was no easy cruise has they were crammed into the cargo hold for the lowest fares. They spent about ten years in Hiroshima then returned by themselves when they turned 18. Dad was no exception.
By around 1930, the grandparents and five of the siblings were in Hiroshima; the oldest (Uncle Yutaka) was forced to live in America alone at a young age. I understand he was sad and frightened about that. Their second son, Hisao, passed away in Seattle from encephalitis when he was only about two.
Now fluent in Japanese, dad returned to Seattle on his own in 1937 at 18 years of age, preceded by an older sister Shizue in 1934. Dad was apparently very bright as he graduated from Hiroshima’s Nichuu High School – it was for the higher achievers. He excelled in mathematics as well as in track and swimming. He helped dig the school’s pool. No union labor back then.
Dad is standing, third from left in this rare family portrait taken in front of his family’s new Hiroshima home, circa 1929.
After dad returned to Seattle, Grandmother made the decision to remain in Hiroshima. It was a fateful decision.
In the 1930′s, Japan had already began their invasions of China, Manchuria and Burma; they were on their quest to secure raw materials for their industries and ultimately for their military. National pride was at its peak; military conquests filled the news and the world was taking notice with great consternation. When Japan was condemned for their aggressions by the League of Nations, she withdrew and shocked the world.
The threat of war with America loomed. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew – Americans in Seattle routinely harassed or even attacked Japanese in public. Unfortunately, many of the “Japanese” they harassed were American citizens like my dad, uncles and aunts. Some young Nisei girls were also groped, molested or raped. Folks knew where Hawai’i was at this time but Pearl Harbor was Timbuktu.
They all had the misfortune of looking Japanese, similar to how some Americans look upon Muslims today.
My Grandmother was not exempt from the harassment. She was called “Jap” many times. She was even egged. While she was a fighter, she decided the threats and discrimination were too much.
My dad was close to his youngest brother, Suetaro. They farmed the mushroom property Grandfather owned in Hiroshima; the special mushroom delicacy called “matsutake” grew only during a brief season. Dad, Uncle Suetaro and perhaps three other boys strapped on woven baskets onto their backs and filled them with the precious matsutake. Grandmother would sell them as quickly and as best she could – they had no refrigeration. The earnings would make up the bulk of their income for the year.
While dad had returned to Seattle in 1937, Uncle Suetaro was anxiously awaiting his turn to go back to Seattle. He was to turn 18 in 1939. However, Dad’s youngest sister Mieko died earlier in 1939 of a kidney infection; she was about 15 years old. By that time, Grandmother knew Grandfather was suffering from stomach cancer. His older sister (and the only one not born in the United States) Michie had married and had given birth to a daughter – Masako, my cousin. They lived in another village called “Tomo” some distance away.
Having decided to remain in Japan due to the harassment and threats she experienced, Grandmother then made the fateful decision to not allow Uncle Suetaro to return to Seattle. After all, there was no other Kanemoto left to inherit the house and land. Uncle Suetaro was dejected and very upset but obeyed Grandmother. He was a loyal son.
Grandfather died the next year. With Mieko also gone, only Grandmother and Uncle Suetaro remained in the house.
Uncle Suetaro was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. His regiment was training in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. Aunt Michie with her nine year old daughter (and my cousin) Masako in tow went to visit Uncle Suetaro when they could. She remembers a couple of trips. It was not easy travel in war-torn Japan. For one trip, Aunt Michie managed to take sashimi – in this time of little food, it was a tremendous treat and gift.
On that trip, Masako remembers her mother stealthily sliding over to Uncle Suetaro the wrapped sashimi. He was being stared at by many of his fellow soldiers – they were not well fed either. She remembers Uncle slowly turning so that the others could not see and quickly devoured the treat.
Masako also knows Uncle was well respected by his fellow soldiers due to his knowledge of English in a wicked twist of fate as my father’s top secret US Army unit used their knowledge of Japanese to kill as many of the enemy and to save American lives.
Uncle Suetaro (sitting on the sofa arm) received his orders to ship out to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines; the family recalls it to be 1944. As tradition called, they had a farewell celebration. In such celebrations, the soldier who was facing certain death received a Japanese flag signed by relatives and friends to carry into battle.
Uncle Suetaro was to ship out the next day. Grandmother was like any other mother – she was anguished. More so, she knew that soldiers sent off to war rarely returned unless maimed. Her decision to not allow her youngest son to return to Seattle in 1939 now deeply stabbed at her heart…so much so that she suffered her first stroke the next day.
Grandmother only had use of her right arm; Masako said she would pull herself around the now empty house with that one good arm. Aunt Michie – after working a grueling day at her husband’s farm – would likely have walked several miles to Grandmother’s house to tend to her needs which included feeding her as well as changing and washing her diapers.
This was war time; they used old clothing for diapers. Tide laundry soap? They didn’t have any soap to speak off. A washing machine? They didn’t have one let alone electricity. Aunt Michie washed them by hand with well water on a washboard. She then walked miles back to her farm only to get up a few hours later before dawn to work the farm.
No one truly knows how Uncle Suetaro died.
Perhaps he was killed during one of the numerous Allied artillery barrages or bombings, or was cut down in a futile banzai charge. Perhaps he died in a cave from starvation or illness – or from committing suicide.
Perhaps he never made it ashore and met his death when he was on a troopship being strafed or sunk by airplanes from land-based US Marine Corsairs or carrier-launched US Navy F6F Hellcats or a US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning. The Allies ruled the skies and wrecked havoc on Japanese ships.
Tragically, he was American. While his oldest siblings were imprisoned in US concentration camps for “looking Japanese”, Uncle was thrust into desperate circumstances and was clothed in the uniform of the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, 41st Mixed Brigade… Eerily similar to his mother who was egged and called a Jap while in Seattle, his own countrymen were now trying to kill him with 75mm shells launched from miles away or .50 caliber machine gun rounds in a closer encounter. Not eggs this time.
It is more troubling knowing Ike was of German ancestry and MacArthur’s right hand man General Willoughby was of ROYAL German lineage and spoke fluent German but English with a pronounced accent. His birth name was Weidenbach; imagine if they were imprisoned in Tule Lake with my Dad for “looking German”. No political comment being made; its just historical fact.
Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Mixed Brigade – likely including the other young men who watched him stealthily eat sashimi – was annihilated by the US Army on Leyte. His body was never recovered. Ironically, when I used to watch the B&W news reels of the war on TV or see combat photos of dead Japanese soldiers, I would see them with purely American eyes. Now, I earnestly review them in hopes of seeing a glimpse of Uncle Suetaro…as my Aunt Shizue did for many, many years. She still does at 95 years of age near Downtown, LA.
Eleven year old Masako was sitting in her classroom on August 6, 1945; her school was partially behind Mt. Suzugamine just west of Hiroshima’s center. Some windows were opened as it was in the middle of summer.
There was an indescribable, blinding white flash. There was no noise except for some of the girls screaming, Masako recalls. They all left their seats and ran towards the windows to see what had happened. Masako ended up standing behind a couple of girls at an open window.
It was like an invisible wrecking ball slammed into their school. All of her classmates that ran to a closed window to look were pierced by shards of shattered window glass as the shock wave hit, she said. All were hurled backwards by the force. Even the girls in front of Masako were pierced by debris being hurled at supersonic speeds…
As she looked through openings that were once windows to her classroom, they were now windows to a demonic swirling dark mass of blackness. Ironically, she described it as a “matsutake no kumo”, or “matsutake cloud”… The same mushroom my father and uncle had picked as children.
Now, the same hill they picked matsutake from saved Masako’s life. It provided the school partial shielding from the atomic blast. There was nothing left of Hiroshima just around the bend. All that was left of my father’s beloved “Nichuu High School” was a short span of a wall. It was about 1,500 meters from the hypocenter (left).
Masako saw horribly disfigured bodies over the next few days. They had aimlessly wandered from around the bend after the blast. They perished where their bodies laid. Masako was also covered in a thin oily, sticky substance called black rain.
From before the blast, ten year old Masako was tending to the care of Grandmother; by war’s end, there were only shreds of material left that could be used for diapers. It was brown under her fingernails from having to wash her soiled diapers by hand.
While Grandmother had made a partial recovery, she still only had use of her right arm. Then sometime after war’s end, a representative of the Japanese military came to visit Grandmother. Uncle Suetaro would not be returning home. Masako says her anguished scream was one only a mother can own, made horribly worse knowing she forbid Uncle Suetaro returning to Seattle. She suffered her second stroke.
Dad and the rest of the imprisoned siblings and the grandchildren of Grandmother and Grandfather were released from camp in September 1945. A year after, Dad found out he was going to be drafted by the same government that took his passport, fingerprinted him, put him and his family behind barbed wire and made him keep on his person all the time a draft card (on the left) that classified him as an Enemy Alien (4C). There were also guard towers manned by soldiers with Browning machine guns.
According to Masako and other family members, his oldest brother Yutaka (and now heading up the remaining family) then nearly begged him to volunteer for the Military Intelligence Service so he could check up on Grandmother. Dad tells me, “Well, if I get drafted, I’ll be a buck private. If I volunteer, I can be a sergeant – more pay.”
I tend to believe my other family members.
Dad arrived in Yokohama on December 7, 1947 and was assigned to the 8th US Army’s G-2, 166th Language Detachment; this was the Military Intelligence Service. It was kept top secret during the war; nearly all of them were Japanese-Americans. The accomplishments and heroics of his predecessors were not declassified until the 1970′s. Dad was one of the early graduates of the Army’s language school (“DLI”) in the Presidio. He was a Technical Sergeant, 3rd Grade – I’m sure the young Japanese ladies thought his chevrons were captain’s bars.
At his first opportunity, he took a train down to Hiroshima then somehow made it to Grandmother’s home. Masako was a young girl 14 years of age by then. He carried two large Army duffle bags full of food and clothing – including the Spam. They are in the photo on the left.
None of the surviving Kanemoto family members from that time period know how Dad learned of the news of Uncle Suetaro’s death. Regardless, the death of his favorite brother scarred his mind and heart for eternity. Even today, when I see him, he asks, “How is Suetaro?” He never asks of his other siblings.
Masako and I finish our Spam musubi. She tells me of how kind my father was to her, Grandmother and Aunt Michie. My dad does remember how indebted they all were to Masako for giving up a lot of her youth to care for Grandmother.
Masako enjoys Spam even to this day.
On a side street in Kailua, Oahu, Spam had also become a cherished delicacy for me.