(by Miyoko Sakatani)
My mother was born in 1913 in Hiroshima, Japan, deep in the countryside, on a rice farm. She had never traveled outside of the farm, but when she was 17 years old, she was forced to leave her home and come to America to marry a man she had never met. That man, my father, was from a neighboring farm, and the arrangements were made between the families. My mother told me how she cried and cried on the horse and buggy ride to the train station.
My father had emigrated to America two years prior, and was working as a farmer, earning a meager living. I’m not sure he was ready to be a husband or a father, but the marriage lasted for over 40 years until his passing. The cultural tradition of arranged marriages often evolves into an enduring love with mutual respect and understanding.
Soon after arriving in America, my mother got pregnant, and by 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, she had four young children. My parents were just starting to see some stable income from a small produce business. But they, along with 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry on the West coast, were forcibly removed from their homes and placed into internment camps. They lost everything except what they could carry.
They were first assembled at the Pomona Fairgrounds and Racetrack where they lived for about five months until the camps were built. My family lived in a horse stall and slept on beds made of hay. Finally, with each family assigned a serial number tagged on their clothing and belongings, they boarded a train for a three-day journey. They did not know where they were going, and the shades were drawn as they passed through towns.
They ended up at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Relocation Camp, in a barren desert with bitter cold winters, scorching summers, and relentless sand storms. The entire compound was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed tower guards, with soldiers holding rifles and machine guns pointed into the camp. Six people lived in one room, with only steel-framed beds, a potbelly stove for heat, and a single light bulb. There was no indoor plumbing, no cooking facilities, and they waited in long lines for every meal in noisy mess halls. Finally they were allowed to take over the kitchen and started preparing Japanese style food.
My mother’s biggest challenge was making life in the small barracks as homey as possible and keeping the family unit together. She would say to my oldest sister, “Sachiko, issho ni tabenakucha ikenaiyo! You must eat with the family.” But my sister would run off to eat with her friends, and my father would go eat with the other men in camp. My brother was born in camp, and since no cameras were allowed, there were no photographs of his early years. This was heartbreaking for my mother. "Shikata ga nai," she said. “It cannot be helped."
Every morning, with hand over heart, the internees gathered around the flag pole, led by the Japanese Boy Scouts of America, and recited the pledge of allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.” Within a year of internment, the Japanese turned camp life into a thriving community with schools, churches, baseball and football teams, camp bands and dances, cultural arts and traditional festivals. Some of the farmers had secretly brought it in seeds, so soon flowers began to flourish, and later they built an irrigation canal and cultivated an abundance of fruits and vegetables.
After the war, our family returned to the Los Angeles area where we lived in a trailer camp, the transitional housing provided by the government, still surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. This is where I was born, the sixth and last child of the Sakatani family. My father began a gardening business because of the low startup costs, and later my mother worked as a domestic. After a year, my parents could afford to move into a rental house in the barrio district of the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up.
My mother always made the best of what her life was and never dwelled on what might have been. Her greatest ambition, under the circumstances, was to be a good wife and mother, and she was. She was very proud of all of her children, especially when I was the first in my family to complete a college education. She brought her laughter, resilience, and a positive attitude into every situation. I honestly never felt poor or deprived, and I attribute that to her humility and grace. During the years of internment, she lived by certain words: Shikata ga nai and gaman, meaning “to maintain dignity and patience in the face of unavoidable circumstances.” I never realized the extent of shame and humiliation about being imprisoned. It's no wonder the Isseis (first generation) and Niseis (second generation) did not talk about it. But it left a scar on the Japanese American community for years.
Mom was a great cook and loved to eat, especially the simple Japanese comfort foods. But occasionally she craved a crispy taco. I think it came from the years of living in the barrio. I loved to watch her eat. She ate slowly and methodically, savoring each bite.
For Japanese New Year, Oshogatsu, her preparations started many days ahead, rich with symbolism. In the morning, as my siblings and I slept in late after New Year’s Eve partying, my mother would light the small gas stove in the living room, make a fresh kettle of green tea, and heat up the broth for our first meal of the day, ozoni (mochi rice cake soup). Soon after our breakfast, she would lay out a colorful array of foods in beautiful lacquered serving trays and boxes called jubako. These dishes are called osechi-ryori, each with an auspicious meaning such as good luck, happiness, prosperity, longevity, and good health. The traditional osechi dishes included my mom’s handmade futomaki (vegetable sushi rolls), inarizushi (fried tofu pouches) kurogama (sweet black beans), and of course everyone’s favorite teriyaki chicken. She’d prepare a lobster with antennas intact and a whole salt-grilled snapper, tying the head and tail up so it appeared like it was still in the water.
What my mother did to celebrate the holiday was a testament to keeping Japanese tradition alive after the internment years. When I was young, I thought that any mention of that time meant camping, which we did regularly at the beach. Then in my senior year of high school, my history teacher made me stand up and share with the class what had happened to the Japanese during the war, and I said I didn’t know. I was so embarrassed. I went home that night and did some research.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned by the government during World War II. My mom used some of the money for a trip to Japan, after 58 years, and I went with her, meeting my mother’s two sisters and my grandmother, then 96 years old, for the first time. I don't speak Japanese very well, but I was able to understand most of the conversations. For my mother, it was an emotional reunion and a full circle back to her roots. I was filled with gratitude to accompany her on her long journey back home.
My mother, Michie Sakatani, passed away quietly in 2019. She was 105 years old.
Miyoko Sakatani is an actor-singer, writer, director, and executive producer of Playland Productions in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been an ESL (English as a Second Language) tutor and a volunteer mentor through the Boys and Girls Club, the Big Brother/Big Sister program, and for the Oakland Unified School District. Originally a critical care nurse, she founded the Independent Nurses Association, East Bay, a non-profit nursing organization. She can be found at IMDb.
Mom’s Kinpira Gobo (Stir-fried Burdock Root)
1 - 2 gobo (burdock root)
2 t. vegetable oil
1 t. sesame oil
1 T. sake
1 T. mirin
1/2 T. sugar
1 T. soy sauce
1 t. toasted sesame seeds
togarashi (red pepper powder)
Scrape the gobo’s skin with a peeler or back of a knife.
Slice into 2-in. matchstick strips or slivers, soaking in water as you cut.
Change the water as necessary until clear.
Heat vegetable oil and sesame oil in a frying pan over medium to high heat, and stir-fry for 3 - 4 minutes.
Add sake, mirin, and sugar, and stir-fry until the liquid is gone.
Add soy sauce and stir fry until almost dry and slightly caramelized.
Place in serving dish and sprinkle with sesame seeds and a dash of togarashi.