Japanese-Americans at peace with Valley’s past

May 26, 2013 

— Clutching Jim Mizuta’s hand, Shig Honda leaned forward to read the name tag draped around Mizuta’s neck.

“I don’t remember you, I’m sorry,” said Honda, 86, as he intently looked at the name tag. “I think I remember your father. You are asking me to go back too far.”

Mizuta replied with a laugh, “I was just a kid.”

Honda crossed paths with Mizuta, 87, on Saturday in the middle of an exhibit about the area’s Japanese pioneers at the Yakima Valley Museum -- where the Japanese Pioneers Grand Reunion is being held. The two-day event has drawn more than 200 Japanese-Americans who either lived in the Yakima Valley before World War II or had family who did. Some traveled from as far as New York, Hawaii and Southern California.

This is the first time in 40 years that a reunion of this magnitude has been held by families of Yakima Valley Japanese pioneers. And for some, it’s the first opportunity to reconnect with people they haven’t seen since being placed an internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

For many, like Mizuta, the reunion means healing and accepting what Japanese-Americans went through in the Yakima Valley before and after war broke out.

Mizuta’s father was a Wapato farmer. He had just finished his sophomore year at Wapato High School when he and his family were ordered to board a train headed for an internment camp. At the war’s end, he moved to Oregon.

“From the legal standpoint, I don’t think it was right,” Mizuta said, noting that those who were placed in camps didn’t remain bitter. “I think Japanese people are good that way.”

For his son, Todd Mizuta, the reunion provided long withheld answers about his father. He said his dad hardly ever talked about the camp, even when he took him to its site when he was 10 years old.

“ He just said ’In times in your life, you just have to make adjustments.’”

But this weekend his dad has been different, he said. “He was really excited about coming here,” he said.

They visited Wapato before coming to the museum. “He just wanted to show me where he grew up, caught the bus to go to school,” he said. “I’ve learned more about him in the last 24 hours than I have in my whole life.”

The first Japanese came to the Valley around 1900. Brought here to work the land for others, they quickly started their own farms and were soon enjoying economic success.

As many as 1,200 Japanese, many of them American citizens, lived in and around Wapato, where a Buddhist Church and community gym they built in the first half of the last century still stand. Wapato was said to be the hub of Japanese settlement in the state, second only to Seattle.

Racism was an enduring problem, but difficulties came to a head two months after Pearl Harbor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the relocation of some 100,000 Japanese to internment camps in remote locations, including Idaho and Wyoming.

Those who didn’t enter the military lived behind barbed-wire fences until the war’s end. Afterward, only a small number returned to the Valley to live.

Lon Inaba, a Lower Valley farmer who sometimes serves as a spokesman for the local Japanese-American community, said it was important to hold the gathering while those of the second generation are still alive.

“Those second-generation people, they really went through a lot,” he said. “They saw what their parents went through, and they went through a lot.”

At the center of the gathering is a museum exhibit telling the story of the first Japanese pioneers in the Valley. Since opening in 2010, the exhibit has drawn a number of Japanese-Americans whose families lived here before the war, said museum director John Baule.

“I’ve taken some of them down to the Lower Valley and showed them areas where their families once farmed,” he said. “We’re a part of that healing and to me that’s what a museum is all about. It’s not just a place where stuff is kept.”

Patti Hirahara, who now lives in Southern California, began working on the exhibit in 2008, after she found family artifacts in her grandparents’ home at 21 E. Washington Ave. in Yakima after they had died.

She found land leases, her father’s letter jacket from State College of Washington (now Washington State University), passports and other documents. She donated them to the exhibit, and began contacting other families of the early pioneers to tell them about her effort to preserve the Japanese history in the Yakima Valley.

“This is the most fantastic thing that I could have hoped would ever happen,” she said. “Due to this reunion, they felt that this story should be told so they donated even more (artifacts).”

Honda, who was named Boy Scout of the Year while at Heart Mountain, added to the exhibit his Boy Scout shirt and sash covered with merit badges. Pieces of barbed wire and nails from the fence that surrounded the camp were also added.

Bill Murata, 89, was surprised at museum’s care and interest in such an exhibit.

“It’s amazing that all these people came to see all this, but it’s good,” he said while looking over photos and documents about the executive order that placed people in camps. “I think it’s real nice, real thorough.”

His dad was a Toppenish farmer before his family was put into the camp, where he not only met his wife, 87-year-old Betty Nitake-Murata, but was drafted into the Army. His wife said he was reluctant about the reunion.

“He didn’t want to come because he didn’t think any of his friends would still be alive,” she said. “I had to keep encouraging him.”

He found four friends. “It’s nice to see these friends, a lot of them went separate ways,” he said. “A lot of them we haven’t seen in a long time.”

It’s no wonder only few returned to the Yakima Valley when considering the racism they felt well before the war, said Tom Heuterman, a retired Washington State University professor and author of “The Burning Horse,” a book that captures the history of that time.

He remembers living in Wapato and his parents taking him to the train station to somberly watch their Japanese friends be shipped off. He was only 7.

“These were our friends, although I don’t remember any specific person,” the now 78-year-old said. “But I admire my family for standing up for them.”

His father worked at a Chevrolet dealership in Wapato and had made friends with many Japanese-Americans after selling them farm trucks. And when they were put into camps, Heuterman’s parents looked after their property.

“A few of them left a few odds and ends for us to take care of while they were gone,” he recalled. “We stored farm equipment for them.”

But many weren’t as fortunate, and lost everything -- farm equipment, crops and even homes. They kept only what they could carry as they boarded trains.

Today, the group will visit the Tahoma Cemetery -- where there are areas devoted to the graves of pioneers and their families.

Hirahara drew a connection between the reunion and the rain she watched fall earlier this week while helping organize the event at the museum.

“I really feel in my heart that it’s tears of joy of the ancestors that we all are coming back to the Yakima Valley, some 70 years later,” she said. “Some have never even seen this area and the exhibit will help them understand what their ancestors went through.”

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