Grand­fa­ther, in­ter­rupted

Pasatiempo - - Pacific Theatre - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

Ta­masaku Watan­abe, a Ja­panese im­mi­grant, worked as a min­is­ter in Cal­i­for­nia and the U.S. Ter­ri­tory of Hawaii for 26 years, but on Dec. 7, 1941, his long ser­vice to Amer­i­can parish­ioners was dra­mat­i­cally in­ter­rupted. On that morn­ing, his birth na­tion at­tacked Pearl Har­bor. By night­fall, Watan­abe was in cus­tody. He and thou­sands of other Ja­panese and Ja­panese Amer­i­cans were rounded up and im­pris­oned for the re­main­der of World War II.

Watan­abe’s grand­daugh­ter, Gail Y. Okawa, talks about his life in a lec­ture on Sun­day, March 28. The event, held at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum, is part of the Telling New Mex­ico In­au­gu­ral Lec­ture Se­ries.

Okawa grew up on the Hawai­ian is­land of Oahu. She re­mem­bers times when her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther would visit from Maui, but it was only many years later, af­ter Watan­abe’s death, that she learned of his war­time or­deal. Her re­search be­gan with old card­board boxes full of his doc­u­ments and pho­tos and con­tin­ued at the Na­tional Archives.

Okawa is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at Youngstown State Uni­ver­sity in Ohio. She be­gan re­search­ing her grand­fa­ther and other Ja­panese im­mi­grants in 2003 for a book-length piece ti­tled “More Than a Mug Shot: Hawai’i Ja­panese Im­mi­grants in World War II U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice In­tern­ment.” An­other work, “Let­ters to Our Fore­bears: Re­con­nect­ing Gen­er­a­tions Through Writ­ing,” in­cludes a bi­og­ra­phy of Ta­masaku Watan­abe.

That bio was “writ­ten as a let­ter,” she said. “I’m also the man’s grand­daugh­ter, and it seemed strange to write his bi­og­ra­phy in third per­son. That’s one rea­son it occurred to me to write it as a let­ter to him, about my dis­cov­er­ies about him. There are all kinds of per­mu­ta­tions, be­cause I did not know him well, partly be­cause he didn’t speak a lot of English with us. Also, he was this rather aus­tere min­is­ter, and he wasn’t in the same town as us. I re­ally didn’t get to know him un­til I did this project.”

Watan­abe came to this coun­try from Hiroshima, Ja­pan, in 1905, at age 22. He was or­dained in the Pres­by­te­rian church in San Fran­cisco in 1915. “He wit­nessed the ter­ri­ble San Fran­cisco earth­quake, and that is a rea­son, I think, that he went into the min­istry,” Okawa said.

He served the church for seven years in the Cal­i­for­nia cities of Stock­ton and Sacra­mento. Then he and his fam­ily — his wife, Yuki, and their three chil­dren — were trans­ferred to Maui, Hawaii. He min­is­tered at the Wailuku Ja­panese Chris­tian Church for 13 years, then was trans­ferred to the Ola’a Ja­panese Chris­tian Church on Hawai’i. He served there un­til Dec. 7, 1941.

Af­ter the Ja­panese at­tack, Watan­abe was ap­pre­hended and taken to Ki­lauea Mil­i­tary Camp on Hawaii’s Big Is­land. “He was in­ter­ro­gated there, and even though the civil­ian hear­ing board voted three to one that he should be re­leased, he was shipped to Honolulu and then taken to the Sand Is­land In­tern­ment Camp there,” Okawa said. “There were many men, in­clud­ing many who were old — the me­dian age was 55 — and they of­ten had to build their own shelters.

“Af­ter nearly three months, they were sent on 10 trans­fer boats to Fort McDow­ell at An­gel Is­land in San Fran­cisco Bay for a few days, then they were taken by train to Fort Sam Hous­ton In­tern­ment Camp in San An­to­nio, Texas. Ten days later, he was trans­ferred to an­other Army fa­cil­ity, the Lordsburg In­tern­ment Camp in south­ern New Mex­ico.”

Watan­abe was held there for a year, and then he was shipped to the Santa Fe In­tern­ment Camp, arriving on June 23, 1943. The Santa Fe camp had been set up by the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice in March 1942, us­ing build­ings from a De­pres­sion-era Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps camp on the hill be­hind to­day’s Casa Solana neigh­bor­hood.

The peo­ple sent to Santa Fe were “the cream of the crop,” Okawa said. Be­sides Chris­tian min­is­ters, the in­ternees at Santa Fe in­cluded news­pa­per ed­i­tors, Ja­panese-lan­guage in­struc­tors, Bud­dhist monks, and busi­ness and com­mu­nity leaders. “It is my fam­ily’s be­lief that my grand­fa­ther had no great in­cen­tive to leave the camp, be­cause he was able to do his job,” Okawa said. “Most of the other men couldn’t carry on with their oc­cu­pa­tion there, but he could. In fact, it was a cap­tive au­di­ence.”

At dif­fer­ent times, Watan­abe was elected chief of his bar­racks and served as chair­man of the camp’s Santa Fe Chris­tian Church. Dur­ing his in­car­cer­a­tions at Lordsburg and Santa Fe, he did a tremendous amount of writ­ing, in­clud­ing li­bret­tos for Noh dra­mas. Okawa also has an an­i­mal wood-carv­ing that Watan­abe cre­ated at Santa Fe.

Watan­abe was shipped out of Santa Fe in Novem­ber 1945. Af­ter the war, he lived in Oahu for a while, and then the board over­see­ing the Pres­by­te­rian and Con­gre­ga­tional churches re­as­signed him to Maui. He served as a min­is­ter un­til his death at age 68.

Left, Gail Y. Okawa, photo Carl Leet, Youngstown State Uni­ver­sity; be­low, Okawa’s grand­fa­ther, cour­tesy G.Y. Okawa

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