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