Prisoners of their heritage

After Pearl Harbor, Jack Yasutake's family is torn apart and, like thousands of Japanese descent, interned during World War II.

December 06, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Jack Yasutake was reading poetry when the government came for him.

Within hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, three FBI agents pulled up outside his elegant, turn-of-the-century home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

Only his children were there. Nineteen-year-old Tosh, 18-year-old Mitsuye and 9-year-old Joe were huddled around the radio listening to the news. Older brother Seiichi was upstairs in bed, recovering from tuberculosis.

"Where is Jack Yasutake?" an agent demanded.

"He's not here," Mitsuye replied. "He's with his poetry group."

The day was grim enough already, even without strange men in suits asking questions about their father. That Sunday morning, word of the surprise attack in Hawaii had begun spreading across the country. Everyone was stunned. The Navy's Pacific fleet had been crippled and more than 2,300 servicemen killed. The nation was headed for war.

Jack's wife, Hideko, returned from church to find the agents in her home and began quizzing her children.

"What's going on here?" she asked. "Who is this?"

"Don't speak in Japanese!" one of the men told her. "Speak in English!"

Room by room, the agents scoured the two-story, wood-frame house. They rolled up the rugs, took the paintings off the walls, looked between stacked dishes in the kitchen to see if anything was hidden there. They rifled through books and letters written in Japanese and dumped out the drawers of Jack's desk. They seized radios and cameras and the 16 mm films Jack had made of memorable family moments.

When they found their suspect at his meeting at a local restaurant, the agents tore down the poems the group had posted on the wall. The elaborate Japanese characters, they suspected, might contain something sinister.

For 20 years, the Stanford-educated Jack Kaichiro Yasutake, a respected member of the community, had worked as a translator for the U.S. government. But now he was considered a threat; his ties to Japan were suspicious. He was a danger, the government said.

That afternoon, FBI agents took away three boxes of Jack's things. Then they took Jack away, too.

In America

The story of Jack Yasutake and his family is one pieced together through the accounts of Jack's wife, daughter and sons in interviews, oral histories and written recollections; from government letters, records and transcripts; and from the research of Jack's granddaughter, Jeni Yamada, the family historian who lives in North Baltimore.

This summer, Jeni and her family added another chapter to the tale, traveling to the Idaho internment camp where her mother, grandmother and uncles were held, apart from Jack, during the war. It would be a pilgrimage filled not just with remembrance and pain but, for Jeni, great pride. It was a tangible connection, finally, to that day her family's journey began 63 years before.

For several months after his arrest, Jack was held in the very building where he had reported for work every day: the Seattle office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Jack had it better than the other Issei, or first-generation immigrants, detained there. Thousands of Japanese nationals along the West Coast were picked up for questioning after the attack as part of a government sweep. Jack, at least, had INS colleagues bringing word of his situation to his wife -- and, better, vouching for his loyalty.

It was an unexpected detour in what had been a classic American success story. The son of a farmer, Jack had sailed to the United States in 1907 at age 16, in large part to escape becoming a farmer himself. He worked as a houseboy in San Francisco in exchange for room and board while he learned English and attended high school. He later enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied engineering and indulged his love of the arts, playing the lead in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, whose lines he could recite years later. He joked that he could have made it in Hollywood but for his 5-foot frame.

In 1918, during an extended visit to Japan, Jack married Hideko. After his return, he was forced to leave Stanford to find a job to support them. He worked days as a secretary at an import-export firm. Nights, he was a hotel janitor. Then, after the couple's first son, Seiichi, was born in 1920, Jack was hired as a Japanese translator for the INS, making $1,200 a year. It was as if he had struck gold.

Jack was the kind of natural leader who got elected to everything. He served as president of the Fukuoka-kai, a collection of families with ties to the Japanese prefecture where he was born. He headed a reading club, Sokoku-kai, whose members subscribed to a magazine published in Japan, and a poetry group that wrote haiku-like verses known as senryu. He worked with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and the Japanese Association of Seattle, social organizations that helped local Japanese and sometimes sent money, clothing and food to families in Japan displaced by disasters.

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