On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i, my maternal grandfather had barricaded himself with his family—my grandmother, my teenage mother, her two sisters and two brothers—inside of his home in Lā‘ie, a sugar plantation village on O‘ahu’s North Shore. This was my mother’s father, a man most villagers called by his last name: Kubota. It could mean either “Wayside Field” or else “Broken Dreams” depending on which ideograms he used. Kubota ran La‘ie’s general store, and the previous night, after a long day of bad news on the radio, some locals had come by, pounded on the front door, and made threats. One was said to have brandished a machete. They were angry and shocked as the whole nation was in the aftermath of the surprise attack. Kubota was one of the few Japanese Americans in the village and president of the local Japanese-language school. He had become a target for their rage and suspicion. A wise man, he locked all his doors and windows and did not open his store the next day, but stayed closed and waited for news from some official.
He was a Kibei, a Japanese American born in Hawai‘i (a U.S. territory then, so he was a citizen), but he was subsequently sent back by his father for formal education in Hiroshima, Japan—their home province. Kibei is written with two ideograms in Japanese: one is the word for “return” and the other is the word for “rice.” Poetically, it means one who returns from America, known as the “Land of Rice” in Japanese (by contrast, Chinese immigrants called their new home “Mountain of Gold”).
Kubota was graduated from a Japanese high school and then came back to Hawai‘i as a teenager. He spoke English—and a Hawaiian creole version of it at that—with a Japanese accent. But he was well-liked and good at numbers, scrupulous and hardworking like so many immigrants and children of immigrants. Castle and Cook, a grower’s company that ran the sugarcane business along the North Shore, hired him on as a stock boy and then appointed him to run one of its company stores. He did well, had the trust of management and labor—not an easy accomplishment in any day—married, had children, and had begun to exert himself in community affairs and excel in his own recreations. He put together a Japanese community organization that backed a Japanese-language school for children and sponsored teachers from Japan. Kubota boarded many of them, in succession, in his own home. This made dinners a silent affair for his talkative, Hawaiian-bred children, as their stern sensei, or teacher, was nearly always at the table, and their own abilities in the Japanese language were as delinquent as their attendance. While Kubota and the sensei rattled on about things Japanese, speaking Japanese, his children hurried through their suppers and tried to run off early to listen to the radio shows.
After dinner, while the sensei graded exams seated in a wicker chair in the spare room and his wife and children gathered around the radio in the front parlor, Kubota sat on the screened porch outside, reading the local Japanese newspapers. He finished reading about the same time as he finished the tea he drank for his digestion—a habit he'd learned in Japan—and then he'd get out his fishing gear and spread it out on the plank floors. The wraps on his rods needed to be redone, gears in his reels needed oil, and, once through with those tasks, he'd painstakingly wind on hundreds of yards of new line. Fishing was his hobby and his passion. He spent weekends camping along the North Shore beaches with his children, setting up umbrella tents, packing a rice pot and hibachi along for meals. And he caught fish—ulua mostly, the huge surf-feeding fish known as the jack crevalle on the mainland, but he'd go after almost anything in its season. In Kawela, a plantation-owned bay nearby, he fished for mullet with a throw net, stalking the bottom-hugging, gray-backed schools as they gathered at the stream mouths and in the freshwater springs. In an outrigger out beyond the reef, he’d try for aku—the skipjack tuna prized for steaks and, sliced raw and mixed with fresh seaweed and cut onions, for sashimi salad. In Kahalu‘u and Ka‘a‘awa and on an offshore rock locals called Goat Island, he loved to go torching, stringing lanterns on bamboo poles stuck in the sand to attract kumu, the red goatfish, as they schooled at night just inside the reef. But in La‘ie on Lanuloa Point near Kahuku, the northernmost tip of O‘ahu, he cast twelve- and fourteen-foot surf rods for the huge, varicolored, and fast-running ulua as they ran for schools of squid and baitfish just beyond the biggest breakers and past the low sand flats wadable from the shore to nearly a half mile out. At sunset, against the western light, he looked as if he walked on water as he came back, fish and rods slung over his shoulders, stepping along the rock and coral path just inches under the surface of a running tide.
When it was torching season, in December or January, he’d drive out the afternoon before to stay with old friends, the Tanakas or Yoshikawas, shopkeepers like him who ran stores near the fishing grounds. They’d have been preparing for weeks, selecting and cutting their bamboo poles, cleaning the up the hurricane lanterns, tearing up burlap sacks for the cloths they’d soak with kerosene and tie onto sticks they’d poke into the soft sand of the shallows. Once lit, touched off with a Zippo lighter, these would be the torches they’d use as beacons to attract the schooling fish. In another time, they might have made up a dozen paper lanterns of the kind mostly used for decorating the summer folk dances outdoors on the grounds of the Buddhist church during O-Bon, the festival for the dead. But now, wealthy and modern and efficient killers of fish, Tanaka and Kubota used rag torches and Colemans and cast rods with tips made of Tonkin bamboo and butts of American-spun fiberglass. After just one good night, they might bring back a prize bounty of a dozen burlap bags filled with scores of bloody, rigid fish delicious to eat and even better to give away to friends, family, and special customers.
It was Monday night, the day after Pearl Harbor, and there was a rattling knock at the front door. Two FBI agents presented themselves, showed identification, and took my grandfather in for questioning in Honolulu. No one knew what had happened or what was wrong. But there was a roundup going on of all those in the Japanese American community suspected of sympathizing with the enemy and worse. My grandfather was suspected of espionage, of communicating with offshore Japanese submarines launched from the attack fleet days before war began. Torpedo planes and escort fighters, decorated with the insignia of the rising sun, had taken an approach route from northwest of O‘ahu directly across Kahuku Point and on toward Pearl. They had strafed an auxiliary air station near the fishing grounds my grandfather loved and destroyed a small gun battery there, killing three men. Kubota was known to have sponsored and harbored Japanese nationals in his own home. He had a radio. He had wholesale access to firearms. Circumstances and an undertone of racial resentment had combined with wartime hysteria in the aftermath of the tragic naval battle to cast suspicion on the loyalties of my grandfather and all other Japanese Americans. The FBI reached out and pulled hundreds of them in for questioning in dragnets cast throughout the West Coast and Hawai‘i.
My grandfather was lucky; he’d be let go after only a few days. But others were not as fortunate. Hundreds from small communities in Washington, California, Oregon, and Hawai‘i were rounded up and, after what appeared to be routine questioning, shipped off under Justice Department orders to holding centers in Leuppe on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, in Fort Missoula in Montana, and on Sand Island in Honolulu harbor. There were other special camps on Maui in Ha‘iku and on Hawai‘i—the Big Island—in my own home village of Volcano.
Many of these men (it was exclusively the Japanese American men suspected of ties to Japan who were initially rounded up) did not see their families again for over four years. Under a suspension of due process that was only after the fact ruled as warranted by military necessity, they were, if only temporarily, “disappeared” in Justice Department prison camps scattered in particularly desolate areas of the United States designated as militarily “safe.” These were grim forerunners to the assembly centers and concentration camps for the one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese American evacuees that were to come later.
I am Kubota’s eldest grandchild, and I remember him as a lonely, habitually silent old man who lived with us in our home near Los Angeles for most of my childhood and adolescence. It was the fifties, and my parents had emigrated from Hawai‘i to the mainland in the hope of a better life away from the old sugar plantation. After some success, they had sent back for my grandparents and taken them in. And it was my grandparents who did the work of the household while my mother and father worked their salaried city jobs. My grandmother cooked and sewed, washed our clothes, and knitted in the front room under the light of a huge lamp with a bright three-way bulb. Kubota raised a flower garden, read up on soils and grasses in gardening books, and planted a zoysia lawn in front and a dichondra one in back. He planted a small patch near the rear block wall with green onions, eggplants, white Japanese radishes, and cucumbers. While he hoed and spaded the loamless, clayey earth of Los Angeles, he sang particularly plangent songs in Japanese about plum blossoms and bamboo groves.
Once, in the mid-sixties, after a dinner during which, as always, he had been silent while he worked away at a meal of fish and rice spiced with drabs of Chinese mustard and catsup thinned with soy sauce, Kubota took his own dishes to the kitchen sink and washed them up. He took a clean jelly jar out of the cupboard—the glass was thick and its shape squatty like an old-fashioned. He reached around to the hutch below where he kept his bourbon. He made himself a drink and retired to the living room, where I was expected to join him for “talk story,” the Hawaiian idiom for chewing the fat.
I was a teenager and, though I was bored listening to stories I’d heard often enough before at holiday dinners, I was dutiful. I took my spot on the couch next to Kubota and heard him out. Usually, he’d tell me about his schooling in Japan, where he learned judo along with mathematics and literature. He'd learned the soroban there (the abacus, which was the original pocket calculator of the Far East), and that, along with his strong, judo-trained back, got him his first job in Hawai‘i. This was the moral. “Study ha-ahd,” he’d say with pidgin emphasis. “Learn read good. Learn speak da kine good English.” The message is the familiar one taught to any children of immigrants: succeed through education. And imitation. But this time, Kubota reached down into his past and told me a different story. I was thirteen by then, and I suppose he thought me ready for it. He told me about Pearl Harbor, how the planes flew in, wing after wing, in formations over his old house in La‘ie in Hawai‘i, and how, the next day, after Roosevelt had made his famous “Day of Infamy” speech about the treachery of the Japanese, the FBI agents had come to his door and taken him in, hauled him off to Honolulu for questioning, and held him without charges. I thought he was lying. I thought he was making up a kind of horror story to shock me and give his moral that much more starch. But it was true. I asked around. I brought it up during history class in junior high school, and my teacher, a Jew, after silencing me and stepping me off to the back of the room, told me that it was indeed so. I asked my mother and she said it was true. I asked my schoolmates, who laughed and ridiculed me for being so ignorant. We lived in a Japanese American community and the parents of most of my classmates were the Nisei who had been interned as teenagers all through the war. But there was a strange silence around all of this. There was a hush, as if one were invoking the ill powers of the dead when one brought it up. No one cared to speak about the evacuation and relocation for very long. It wasn’t in our history books, though we were studying World War II at the time. It wasn’t in the family albums of the people I knew and whom I’d visit, staying over weekends with friends. And it wasn’t anything that the family talked about or allowed me to keep bringing up either. I was given the facts, told sternly and pointedly that “it was war” and that “nothing could be done.” Shikata ga nai is the phrase in Japanese, a kind of resolute and determinist pronouncement on how to deal with inexplicable tragedy. I was to know it but not to dwell on it. Japanese Americans were busy trying to forget it ever happened and were having a hard enough time building their new lives after “camp.” It was as if we had no history for four years and the relocation was something unspeakable.
But Kubota would not let it go. In session after session, for months it seemed, he pounded away at his story. He wanted to tell me the names of the FBI agents. He went over their questions and his responses again and again. He’d tell me how one would try to act friendly toward him, offering him cigarettes, while the other, who hounded him with accusations and threats, left the interrogation room. “Good cop/bad cop,” I thought to myself, already superficially streetwise from stories black classmates told of the Watts riots and from myself having watched too many episodes of Dragnet and The Mod Squad. But Kubota was not interested in my experiences. I was not made yet and he was determined that his stories be part of my making. He spoke quietly at first, mildly, but once into his narrative and after his drink was down, his voice would rise and quaver with resentment and he’d make his accusations. He gave his testimony to me and I held it at first cautiously in my conscience like it was an heirloom too delicate to expose to strangers and anyone outside of the world Kubota made with his words. “I give you story now,” he once said, “and you learn speak good, eh?” It was my job, as the disciple of his preaching I had then become, Ananda to his Buddha, to reassure him with a promise. “You learn speak good like the Dillingham,” he’d say another time, referring to the wealthy scion of the grower family who had once run, unsuccessfully, for one of Hawai‘i’s first senatorial seats. Or he’d then invoke a magical name, the name of one of his heroes, a man he thought particularly exemplary and righteous. “Learn speak dah good Ing-rish like Mistah Inouye,” Kubota shouted, “He lick dah Dillingham even in debate. I saw on terre-bision myself.” He was remembering the debates before the first senatorial election just before Hawai‘i was admitted to the Union as its fiftieth state. “You tell story,” Kubota would end. And I had my injunction.
The town we settled in after the move from Hawai‘i is called Gardena, the independently incorporated city south of Los Angeles and north of San Pedro harbor. At its northern limit, it borders on Watts and Compton—black towns. To the southwest are Torrance and Redondo Beach—white towns. To the rest of L.A., Gardena is primarily famous for having legalized five-card draw poker after the war. On Vermont Boulevard, its eastern border, there is a dingy little Vegas-like strip of card clubs with huge parking lots and flickering neon signs that spell out “The Rainbow” and “The Horseshoe” in timed sequences of varicolored lights. The town is only secondarily famous as the largest community of Japanese Americans in the United States outside of Honolulu, Hawai‘i. When I was in high school there, it seemed to me that every Sansei kid I knew wanted to be a doctor, an engineer, or a pharmacist. Our fathers were gardeners or electricians or nurserymen or ran small businesses catering to other Japanese Americans. Our mothers worked in civil service for the city or as cashiers for Thrifty Drug. What the kids wanted was a good job, good pay, a fine home, and no troubles. No one wanted to mess with the law—from either side—and no one wanted to mess with language or art. They all talked about getting into the right clubs so that they could go to the right schools. There was a certain kind of sameness, an intensely enforced system of conformity. Style was all. Boys wore moccasins (sewn shoes from Flagg Brothers), black A-1 slacks, and Kensington shirts with high collars. Girls wore their hair up in stiff bouffants solidified in hair spray and knew all the latest dances from the slauson to the funky chicken. We did well in chemistry and in math. No one who was Japanese but me spoke in English class or in history unless called upon, and no one talked about World War II. The day after Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California Democratic primary, we worked on calculus and elected class coordinators for the prom, featuring the Fifth Dimension. We avoided grief. We avoided government. We avoided strong feelings and dangers of any kind. Once punished, we tried to maintain a concerted emotional and social discipline and would not willingly seek to fall out of the narrow margin of protective favor again.
But when I was thirteen, in junior high, I’d not understood why it was so difficult for my classmates, those who were themselves Japanese American, to talk about the relocation. They had cringed too when I tried to bring it up during our discussions of World War II. I was Hawaiian-born. They were mainland-born. Their parents had been in camp, had been the ones to suffer the complicated experience of having to distance themselves from their own history and all things Japanese in order to make their way back and into the American social and economic mainstream. It was out of this sense of shame and a fear of stigma, I was only beginning to understand, that the Nisei had silenced themselves. And for their children, among whom I grew up, they wanted no heritage, no culture, no contact with a defiled history. I recall the silence very well. The Japanese American children around me were burdened in a way I was not. Their injunction was silence. Mine was to speak.
Away at college, in another protected world in its own way as magical to me as the Hawai‘i of my childhood, I dreamed about my grandfather. I would be tired from studying languages, practicing German conjugations or scripting an army’s worth of Chinese ideograms on a single sheet of paper, and Kubota would come to me as I drifted off into sleep. Or I would have walked across the newly mown ball field in back of my dormitory, cutting through a street-side phalanx of ancient eucalyptus trees on my way to visit friends off campus, and I would think of him, his anger, and his sadness.
I don’t know myself what makes someone feel that kind of need to have a story they’ve lived through be deposited somewhere, but I can guess. I think about The Iliad, The Odyssey, The History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides, and a myriad of the works of literature I’ve studied. A character, almost a topoi he occurs so often, is frequently the witness who gives personal testimony about an event the rest of his community cannot even imagine. The Sibyl is such a character. And Philomela, the maid whose tongue is cut out so that she will not tell that she has been raped by her own brother-in-law, the king of Thebes. There are the dime novels, the epic blockbusters Hollywood makes into miniseries, and then there are the plain, relentless stories of witnesses who have suffered through horrors major and minor that have marked and changed their lives. I haven’t myself talked to Holocaust victims. But I’ve read their survival stories and their stories of witness and been revolted and moved by them. My father-in-law tells me his war stories again and again and I listen. A Mennonite who set aside the strictures of his own church in order to serve, he was a Marine code-man in the Pacific during World War II, in the Signal Corps on Guadalcanal, Morotai, and Bougainville. He was part of the island-hopping maneuver MacArthur had devised to win the war in the Pacific. He saw friends die from bombs that exploded not ten yards away. When he was with the 298th Signal Corps attached to the Thirteenth Air Force, he saw plane after plane come in and crash just short of the runway, killing their crews, setting the jungle ablaze with oil and gas fires. Emergency wagons would scramble, bouncing over newly bulldozed land men used just the afternoon before for a football game. Every time we go fishing together, whether it's in a McKenzie boat drifting for salmon in Tillamook Bay or taking a lunch break from wading the rifles of a stream in the Cascades, my father-in-law tells me about what happened to him and the young men in his unit. One was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn. One was a foulmouthed kid from Kansas. They died. And he has to tell me. And I have to listen. It’s a ritual payment the young owe their elders who have survived. The evacuation and relocation is something like that.
Kubota, my grandfather, had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for some time before he died. At the house he’d built on Kamehameha Highway in Hau‘ula, a seacoast village just down the road from La‘ie, where he had his store, he’d wander out from the garage or greenhouse where he’d set up a workbench and trudge down to the beach or up toward the line of pines he’d planted while employed by the Works Progress Administration during the thirties. Kubota thought he was going fishing. Or he thought he was back at work for Roosevelt planting pines as a windbreak or soilbreak on the windward flank of the Ko‘olau Mountains, emerald monoliths rising out of sea and cane fields from Waialna to Kaneohe. When I visited, my grandmother would send me down to the beach to fetch him. Or I’d run down Kam Highway a quarter mile or so and find him hiding in the cane field by the roadside, counting stalks, measuring circumferences in the claw of his thumb and forefinger. The look on his face was confused or concentrated—I didn’t know which. But I guessed he was going fishing again. I’d grab him and walk him back to his house on the highway. My grandmother would shut him in a room.
Within a few years, Kubota had a stroke and survived it; then he had another one and was completely debilitated. The family decided to put him in a nursing home in Kahuku, just set back from the highway, within a mile or so of Kahuku Point and the Tanaka Store where he had his first job as a stock boy. He lived there three years, and I visited him once with my aunt. He was like a potato that had been worn down by cooking. Everything on him—his eyes, his teeth, his legs and torso—seemed like it had been sloughed away.
What he had been was mostly gone now and I was looking at the nub of a man. In a wheelchair, he grasped my hands and tugged on them—violently. His hands were still thick, and, I believed, strong enough to lift me out of my own seat into his lap. He murmured something in Japanese—he’d long ago ceased to speak any English. My aunt and I cried a little, and we left him.
I remember walking out on the black asphalt of the parking lot of the nursing home. It was heat-cracked and eroded already, and grass had veined itself into the interstices. There were coconut trees around, a cane field I could see across the street, and the ocean I knew was pitching surf just beyond it. The green Ko‘olaus came up behind us. Somewhere nearby, alongside the beach, there was an abandoned airfield in the middle of the canes. As a child, I’d come upon it playing one day, and my friends and I kept returning to it, day after day, playing war or sprinting games or coming to fly kites. I recognize it even now when I see it on TV—it's used as a site for action scenes in the detective shows Hollywood always sets in the islands: a helicopter chasing the hero racing away in a Ferrari, or gun dealers making a clandestine rendezvous on the abandoned runway. It was the old airfield strafed by Japanese planes the day the major flight attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the airfield the FBI thought my grandfather had targeted in his night fishing and signaling with the long surf poles he'd stuck in the sandy bays near Kahuku Point.
Kubota died a short while after I visited him, but not, I thought, without giving me a final message. I was on the mainland, in California studying for PhD exams, when my grandmother called me with the news. It was a relief. He’d suffered from his debilitation a long time and I was grateful he'd gone. I went home for the funeral and gave the eulogy. My grandmother and I took his ashes home in a small, heavy metal box wrapped in a black furoshiki—a large, silk scarf. She showed me the name the priest had given to him on his death, scripted with a calligraphy brush on a long, narrow strip of plain wood. Buddhist commoners, at death, are given priestly names, received symbolically into the clergy. The idea is that, in their next life, one of scholarship and leisure, they might meditate and attain the enlightenment the religion is aimed at. “Shaku Shuchi” the ideograms read. It was Kubota’s Buddhist name, incorporating characters from his family and given names. It meant “Shining Wisdom of the Law.” He died on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1983.
After some years, after I’d finally come back to live in Volcano again, only once did I dream of Kubota, my grandfather. It was the same night I’d heard that HR 442, the redress bill for Japanese Americans, had been signed into law. In my dream that night, Kubota was torching, and he sang a Japanese song, a querulous and wavery folk ballad, as he hung paper lanterns on bamboo poles stuck into the sand in the shallow water of the lagoon behind the reef near Kahuku Point. Then he was at a worktable, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, letting it dangle from his lips Bogart-style, as he drew, daintily and skillfully, with a narrow trim brush, ideogram after ideogram on a score of paper lanterns he had hung in a dark shed to dry. He had painted a talismanic mantra onto each lantern, the ideogram for the word “red” in Japanese, a bit of art blended with some superstition, a piece of sympathetic magic appealing to the magenta coloring on the rough skins of the schooling, night-feeding fish he wanted to attract to his baited hooks. He strung them from pole to pole in the dream then, hiking up his khaki worker’s pants so his white ankles showed and wading through the shimmering black waters of the sand flats and then the reef. “The moon is leaving, leaving,” he sang in Japanese. “Take me deeper in the savage sea.” He turned and crouched like an ice racer then, leaning forward so that his unshaven face almost touched the light film of water. I could see the light stubble of beard like a fine gray ash covering the lower half of his face. I could see his gold-rimmed spectacles. He held a small wooden boat in his cupped hands and placed it lightly on the sea and pushed it away. One of his lanterns was on it and, written in small neat rows like a sutra scroll, it had been decorated with the silvery names of all our dead.