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Pearl Harbor Day: ‘We’re at war against my relatives’

Tom and Sally Kitano at home in Issaquah. They live in the Spiritwood assisted living community. Tom is 84. Credit: Photo: Michelle Strazis

The teacher awoke 30 minutes early Thursday to give a special lesson that she has recited many times for many pupils over many years. She took her breakfast alone, at 7 a.m., ahead of the other residents of the Spiritwood assisted living home in Issaquah, where she and her husband Tom have lived for three years.

Sally Kitano is 81, very hard of hearing, faint of memory, prone to repeat lines from the script of her conversations, but still steady on her feet. This morning, she dressed in beige slacks, a floral, button-down blouse and a heavy, grey cardigan sweater, looking very much the part. She assembled the materials for her lesson — newspaper clippings, family photographs, a school yearbook — into a heavy, black Samsonite briefcase older than some of her children. Then, she boarded the Spiritwood activity van for the 25-mile trip to Gatewood Elementary School in West Seattle.

She arrived at 8:30, taking a seat in front of about 50 fourth and fifth graders who have been studying an episode of American history triggered by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, 72 years ago tomorrow, marked each year as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. 

Kitano was 9 years old when she heard the news of the bombing on the radio in her family’s farmhouse on Bainbridge Island, where she and all her five siblings were born. Her parents were from the Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Six aunts and uncles, and many more cousins, still lived there at the time. As she stood against a wall listening to the radio, her prevailing thought was, “We’re at war against my relatives.”

As a witness to the events related to World War II, she is among the few and fewer. By the time the current students of Gatewood become parents, Kitano’s generation mostly will have passed. This is a fact many of the students in front of her were aware of that morning.

Through one of the Gatewood parents, Kitano agreed to speak to the students about her experience of WWII, of leaving behind her home and friends on Bainbridge, riding in a train to California escorted by soldiers and attending school behind barbed-wire fences in the desolate, high desert. She has spoken to students before on the subject, usually high school and middle school students. This was the first time she spoke to elementary students, who are the same age she was when she left the only home she had ever known.

The class greeted her with a song they had rehearsed, in Japanese. Charmed by the gesture, she sheepishly admitted to the children she understood only a few words. 

For weeks, the children of Mr. Radu’s combined, fourth and fifth-grade class studied the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II as part of their larger plan to study the Constitution and what it means to have rights protected by the document and to be a citizen. While no students in his class are Japanese-American, several are the children of immigrants from other countries, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Mexico among them. 

To further immerse his students in the local history of the internment, Darren Radu assigned roles to the kids. All of them were given Japanese surnames and parts to play as Japanese-Americans living in the Seattle area in the 1940s. Some played farmers, some business owners, some children. As part of the exercise, all of them wrote letters to hypothetical friends and relatives to describe the imagined experience. (Radu plans to use the same role-playing curriculum later to study the Civil War and the civil rights movement.)

“It’s a really powerful way to bring the kids into this story,” said Radu, 42, who married into a Japanese-American family, so has some indirect experience with the wartime detention. “The power of the story makes it a lot more concrete for them.”

Canadian by birth, Radu lived in Japan for almost two years in 1996 and 1997, teaching English and learning to speak a passable amount of Japanese.

“When you look at stories about the war,” he said, “You don’t hear much about what happened in the homeland. It’s my responsibility to give kids a lot of perspectives on history. History was written by the winners and a lot of people were left behind. I think it’s important to teach history from a social justice perspective.”

Sally Kitano introduced herself to the class using both her married name, and her given name, Shimako Nishimori. She was the youngest child of Kirohachi and Tsue Nishimori. Her father Kirohachi grew strawberries, peas, tomatoes on the family’s five-acre farm, she said. In the winter, he grew rhubarb in a  shack he heated with a wood stove. He spoke very little English and was nearly deaf. His life was the fields, and most nights he was asleep by 8 p.m., she said.

Kitano’s father was also among the first men on Bainbridge questioned by the FBI shortly after Dec. 7, 1941. Using Kitano’s older brother Tairoku as an interpreter, the agents asked Kirohachi Nishimori a number of questions about his activities and possessions. When asked if he possessed any guns or explosives, Kirohachi disclosed that he possessed a stick of dynamite, left over from a batch he had used to clear a field. He could not recall where he had stored it, Kitano said. The FBI searched the property, finding nothing, but decided Kirohachi presented a security risk and arrested him. He was sent to a prison in Missoula, Mont., where he remained for six months before being allowed to join his family at the internment camp.

In March, 1942, the Nishimoris and other Japanese-American families in Bainbridge were ordered by presidential decree to report to the Manzanar War Relocation Center at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Other Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens, about 110,000, would eventually report to it and nine other relocation camps, but the Bainbridge families were among the very first. What she and her family experienced next was what the Gatewood students were most curious about.

How did you feel leaving your friends? Where did you buy stuff like clothes or toys? What was the food like? Were the guards cruel? Were you allowed to go to school?

This is also the portion of the lesson the students found most surprising. Probably because she was so young and did not know better, she took the disruption to her life with aplomb.

The promise of a voyage by train excited her. She gleefully put on her new, purple dress for the occasion. When a military truck came by their house to pick up her family, she was allowed to sit in the front seat next to the driver, much to her delight.

Kitano’s pre-adolescent memory of living in Manzanar was far more idyllic than her audience imagined. 

Kitano recalled games of hopscotch and hide-and-seek, school plays, choir, Latin club, basketball games, meals shared in the mess hall at picnic tables, birthday parties, a kitten she adopted as a pet, her favorite teacher Miss Kramer. Her family planted flowers outside their plywood and tar-paper hut and tended a thick lawn she and her friends played on. Manzanar was a prison for sure because the occupants were kept there by force, but otherwise a functional town of 10,000 people.

Kitano remembered the guards, too, and the direction they pointed their rifles, inward not outward. She remembered the barbed wire, the awful food, the dust storms, the bitter cold of winter, the flimsy walls of their hut. But mostly, she remembered that life got better as the residents grew into the place.

The guards slowly warmed. Most were friendly. The food improved as the detainees began to do what they knew and grew vegetables and fruit. They tended hogs and chickens too. Families had rice with every meal as they were accustomed to back home. They made furniture out of scrap wood. At one end of camp, detainees built and planted a public park with a pond and footbridge.

The adults in Manzanar all had jobs and received pay, which they could spend at a camp store. As the youngest of five girls, Kitano had always worn hand-me-downs, but in the internment camp was allowed to buy her first new article of clothing, a pair of striped socks. Her father worked the camp’s farms; her mother worked in the mess hall; her brother worked as an electrician (a knee injury exempted him from military service); her sister made camouflage nets.     

Kitano attended fifth, sixth and seventh grades in Manzanar along with hundreds of other kids, which made life there seem pretty normal. The mountains, she said, were beautiful and she often walked as far as the fence would allow and stared at them. For a moment, the fence became invisible to her and she could imagine she lived in a magical, mountain kingdom. 

At the war’s end in 1945, Kitano’s family was allowed to leave but not return to the West Coast. They lived in Chicago for about six months, before finally returning home to Bainbridge where, perhaps, Kitano really felt what the war cost her, at least in the short term. 

By then she had adopted the name Sally in place of Shimako. While some friends welcomed her back, some shunned her. She was prevented from joining the Girl Scouts, she said, and other social clubs. A girl she once considered her best friend told her she was not invited to her birthday party because she was Japanese.

In the long term, she moved on to a life as good as any she had hoped for before the war. She attended college at Seattle University — she was the first in her family to do so. She married an accountant, Tom Kitano, a Korean War veteran who spent his teenage years at the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho. She taught elementary school for 34 years in the Highline School District. She and her husband raised three children, all of whom went to college and became engineers. Eventually the Kitanos bought a comfortable home by Lake Sammamish, where they lived until moving to Spiritwood. 

Two of their adult children live nearby. East King County is the place Tom and Sally feel most at home. Of the two, Sally is the more forthcoming about her memories of the detention. Tom will discuss it when asked, but does not speak at length about it.

The couple used to visit Manzanar every year, but stopped going a while ago. Meanwhile, Sally’s recollection of the 1940s has atrophied. The hard drive and memory that was once gigabytes is now megabytes. She wants to share what she can still recall for as long as she is able. Someday soon, these stories will all come from books, not people.

Until then, they are a permanent part of Sally Kitano’s childhood, filled with hurt but also bliss. She lost some friends but made others. 

“After a while, we just said, we’ve got to live with this,” Kitano said. “Kids are kids. We went ahead and did our own thing.”

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