It was a moment my family will never forget.
Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, an 81-year-old Nisei woman from Seattle, sat with us in this small, intergenerational discussion group at this year’s Tule Lake Pilgrimage held on July 1-4 in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Mary is the author of “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps.” She came to the pilgrimage on a personal mission, and her message would touch my family deeply.
More on Mary and her unforgettable moment--in a moment.
My father, Nisei writer Hiroshi Kashiwagi, 83, was born in Sacramento and grew up in Loomis in Placer County, CA. He, my mother, Sadako, and the rest of my family on were imprisoned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, which in July 1943 would become home to 12,000 Japanese Americans who answered “No-No” to the infamous loyalty questions #27 and #28.
My dad, in protest of his unjust and unconstitutional imprisonment, refused to answer either question. In response, he wrote the following in his recently published memoir, “Swimming in the American:”
“My position was this—why was I, an American citizen, thrown into prison without cause, without due process? Why were they questioning my loyalty? I was an American, a loyal American.”
His non-answer was interpreted by the U.S government as a “No-No” answer, and he, along with thousands of others, became known as the “No-No Boys,” and were condemned by the government and verbally attacked by members of the JA community—including the JACL at its 1946 national convention--as the “disloyals,” the “troublemakers” and the “bad people.”
Sadly, this label has stuck for over 60 years, and a deep rift still exists in our community between those who answered the questions “Yes-Yes” and those who answered “No-No.”
Being condemned by his own as “disloyal” has left a scar on my dad that’s so painful that he—and many other No-No Boys—refuse to talk about it.
When I met Mary for the first time in Seattle in May, she told me was planning to attend the Tule Lake Pilgrimage in July, and was going to speak out in support of the “No-No” position.
This, coming from the sister of a 442nd vet and from someone who had held onto the “Yes-Yes” position most of her life, was a remarkable statement. I had never attended the Tule Lake Pilgrimage before. This year I decided to go.
So there we were—my younger brother Hiroshi, my mom and I-- sitting in a circle with Mary, her daughter Martha, and several other pilgrimage participants. As she was concluding her self-introduction, I was expecting Mary to finish with her statement in support of the No-No position. What she did next stunned us all.
“Through the process of writing my story,” she said, “I have come to realize that I have been wrong about my attitude toward those who answered “No-No” to the loyalty questions, and I want to own up to and take responsibility
for the hurt I have caused them.”
Then she started to cry, but bravely continued. “And I want to apologize to Hiroshi Kashiwagi and the Kashiwagi family for what I have done, and I ask them for their forgiveness.”
I immediately reached into my pocket for my handkerchief and started to cry uncontrollably. I knew Mary was going to make a statement; I just wasn’t expecting this. None of us were. My mom and brother were crying, Mary and Martha were crying, so were others in the room.
Finally, my mom spoke, and quietly said that living with this stigma has been very hard on my dad and our family, and she expressed her appreciation to Mary for her courageous act. At that moment, as each of us hugged Mary after the session was over, an amazing and peaceful healing took place between human beings, two JA families.
“I believe the healing in our community has to start one person at a time,” Mary told me later.
“It was extremely moving and gracious,” said my mom afterward. “That took a lot of courage.”
My dad, who embraced and thanked Mary later that evening, had a similar reaction.
“It’s great that she did that,” he said. “It’s almost unbelievable. She didn’t have to do that, but to openly express it is really amazing. It is really something.”
Mary’s reaction to it all was quite simple. “I was riding high!” she said.
After the pilgrimage, I called Mary in Seattle and we talked about how she arrived at this new and completely different place.
“While writing my book, I came to the No-No, Yes-Yes issue,” she explained. “I never gave much thought as to why people said No-No. I did more research and reading on the subject, and realized that I was part of the Yes-Yes group who had condemned our own.”
She also thought about my dad, whom she had met earlier this year at her book reading in San Francisco. When she realized who he was, she asked him to stand up and tell his story. All of a sudden, the No-No story became a human story—and she could no longer write-off the No-No’s as the nameless, faceless “troublemakers.”
“Then when I saw you in Seattle and you told me that your father had felt like a pariah all these years, that hit me like a punch in the stomach,” she told me. “I realized what a terrible thing we had done.” That’s when she decided she wanted to publicly apologize to him.
The Nisei soldier story, she said, has overshadowed the importance of what groups like the No-No Boys, Renunciants and Heart Mountain Resisters did, and that their positions were our democracy in action as they stood up for every American’s Constitutional right to protest and dissent.
By condemning them, the Yes-Yes group has prevented this chapter of JA history to come out, she said. “I take ownership for what I did. I can feel it coming from my gut, and it forces me to be honest first with myself, and then to be honest in front of others.”
She also talked about where she was before and where she is now.
“(The Yes-Yes position) was a position of self-righteousness, and not looking too deeply into what was involved. When I looked at the decorations of the Nisei soldiers, and because of all the Nisei soldiers who died, I felt that, “See, we did it. We proved our loyalty. You see—we were right.”
And in her mind, that was the end of that for a long time.
But in learning their story, she now sees the “No-No” position in an entirely different light.
“I see it as an incredibly brave position. It is right. There is incredible courage and determination in what they did. And the ability to sustain the criticism from their peers….I am in deep admiration of the No-No position. That is the hallmark of our democracy. I see the No-No’s as models of courage and conviction and not one of martyrdom. It is a position of great dignity and courage and worthy of emulation.”
She quickly added that the heroic story and service of the 100th/442nd/MIS veterans, many of whom who answered “Yes-Yes” to the loyalty questions and volunteered out of camp, is just as important, and the men, including her brother, were courageous on the field of battle.
“Each side is worthy—they’re both very worthy,” she said. “They’re both in support of the Constitution. One is not better than the other. They’re both worthy.”
Normally, I would end the story on this note. However, there’s one more story to tell.
Unlike other pilgrimages, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage is a biennial, four-day event, held this year at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT).
There were 260 of us “pilgrims” all together—five busloads from Sacramento (which included 16 people from Southern California), San Jose, San Francisco, Berkeley and Seattle.
On Monday evening July 3rd, all of us attended the JA cultural program at the Ross Ragland Theater in Klamath Falls, near our home base at OIT.
The program, which was open to the public, included a special presentation announcing that Tule Lake had recently received National Historic Landmark status; poetry, taiko, koto, singing and a short film.
All in all, it was a great celebration of Japanese American culture, and a nice way to end an emotional day.
However, when we walked outside to board our buses after the show, we were met with the sobering news that two of our buses—from Sacramento and San Jose—had had a total of three left-side windows shattered by a bb gun, causing $2,600 in damage. The next day, theater staff also found a bb-hole in the window of the theater.
On the day of the show, the theater also received a hostile phone call in response to a local news article about the pilgrimage. The caller was a woman who ranted on for 15 minutes about how “They bombed Pearl Harbor and killed our children” and how unpatriotic and offensive it was to veterans to have a program commemorating Tule Lake in their theater.
Local police and theater staff concluded that the bus incident was a case of vandalism and “criminal mischief.”
The bus company’s representative, however, stated that it has been driving all over California for 20 years, and nothing like this has ever happened before. He also expressed concern that the buses were targeted because of the people who were riding in them.
That would be us. From where I was sitting on the Sacramento bus, this felt very much like an act of violence against us. Tule Lake committee members agreed, and called the FBI to investigate it as a hate crime.
One bus window hit can be written off as vandalism. Three bus windows, plus the theater window, is sending a definite message to our group—which included 80-year-old seniors and a number of children--that we are not wanted there, at least by some.
But before you think Klamath Falls people are a bunch of racists, I must tell you that this is not entirely true. In response to the incident, an OIT staff member wrote an op-ed piece in the local paper condemning this act, and asked the rest of the town to do the same. The Ragland Theater staff warmly opened its doors to our event, and stood by its decision to host our show when they were challenged by the irate caller.
So what does it all mean?
To me, it reminds us that here we are in 2006, and hate is very much alive, and we, as Japanese Americans, can still be victims of it, no matter what position we took during the war and after.
And with recent news of North Korea testing nuclear missiles on the 4th of July, nearly 200 people killed in a terrorist attack on a train in India, a brutal tit-for-tat confrontation escalating between Israel and Lebanon, and a continuing war raging in Iraq, the only thing left to say is: “Peace, please.”
And for all of us in the JA community, my plea to you is this: Let it start with us. After 60 years, let the old grudges go, and if you can’t, please stop slamming those who took a different position during the war. It’s time we move on to the bigger battles still in front of us, like hate and racism--and shattered windows on our buses.
Peace, as Mary Matsuda Gruenewald says, happens one person at a time. Let it start with us.
Soji Kashiwagi is a playwright and producer from Pasadena, California.
His opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of this publication.