Remembering December 7

Painting by Roger Shimomura

Crossing the Delaware by Roger Shimomura*

My grandmother kept a diary. Every day for as long as I knew her, she jotted down the weather and a half a dozen lines about her day and her life. On the cover of her journal was the legend “Five-year Diary”. Five years were compressed into a book no larger than the thickness of a couple of Reader’s Digests. There was a tab closure and a key lock in case she wanted privacy, but she never felt the need. Each dated page was divided into five horizontal segments, one for each year. A sensible woman wouldn’t want her thoughts to get away from her.

At the same time my grandmother was chronicling her days, so was Roger Shimomura’s grandmother a half a world–or a world and a half–away. She was born in Japan about the same time my grandmother was born in Pawnee City, Nebraska. But there the similarities stop. Maybe.

Mr. Shimomura’s grandmother was trained as a nurse. She served in a war the Japanese fought against the Russians. Eventually she became a “photo bride” for a man who had traveled to the united States to seek his fortune. She traveled to America, married, and settled in Seattle. She became a citizen. She had a son who grew up to become a pharmacist. She became a grandmother. Life seemed good.

My grandmother married young. She worked hard on a homestead in Nebraska while her husband worked part-time as a carpenter. She had four children–one every two years. When the youngest was two, disaster struck. Her husband fell off the roof of a barn he was building and died. Life became hard.

Eventually her children married. She became a grandmother. She had a steady job. Family and friends surrounded her. At last life was good.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and life changed for both women. But mostly it changed for Toku Machida, the wife, mother, grandmother, American, from Seattle. One hundred twenty thousand U. S. citizens suddenly become the “enemy”. Toku, her husband, her, son, her grandson, her family were among them.

Within two months of Pearl Harbor, my father left our family to fight the enemy. My mother and I moved in with my two grandmothers and a great aunt. I was a year old. In Iowa there was only a little terror. Air raid sirens sounded occasionally and we turned out all the lights. But life went on as usual.

In Seattle things were different. Normal households–those like mine, those occupied by the “enemy”–were relocated, first to makeshift enclosures like fair grounds or race tracks, and then to more permanent camps like Camp Minidoka in a remote and desolate part of southern Idaho. It was there that Toku Machida and her family, including Roger Shimomura, then a year old, moved. But–and this is amazing–life went on as usual. Only a different language separates the thoughts penned by Toku Machida and my grandmother.

Where are the women now, who are or will become grandmothers, who live a half a world–or a world and a half–apart that are recording the same story for their grandchildren? Perhaps someday some of those grandchildren–like Mr. Shimomura–will tell their grandmother’s story for others. And perhaps some of will listen.

Roger Shimomura is an artist. You can see his interpretation of his grandmother’s diary, An American Diary: Paintings and Prints by Roger Shimomura at the San Jose Museum of Art.


* Used with the kind permission of Roger Shimomura, University Distinguished Professor of Art Emeritus, The University of Kansas. The painting is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Shimomura also notes that his grandmother’s married name was Toku Shimomura, Machida being her maiden name.

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