On January 14, 2017, I had the honor of giving the Oshogatsu message to the New England Kenjinkai. I chose to talk about the hardship after World War II, and my gratitude for the trust that Japanese Americans of my father's generation built for sanseis like me.
"Many people I respect have had the honor of giving the New Years story before me. I apologize, I cannot be as humorous as Margie Yamamoto, or as thoughtful as Paul Watanabe, and I cannot draw upon a lifetime of accomplishment like Sus Ito. But, I will do my best to tell a story from my family.
I’d like to tell you about my father Ujinobu Niwa, who turned 90 years old last year. But, I need to start with a disclaimer. I am a journalist by training. I am careful with information, assessing each piece for its accuracy and seeking the truth from what I have learned. But, when I look at the stories of my parents from my journalistic perspective, I find what they say to be incomplete, evolving and sometimes improbable. But, they are stories that they believe, and I believe. Their stories transcend accuracy, and have become a truth that explains who I am as a Japanese American.
I’m very grateful to my father and his generation of nisei. Due to the work they accomplished and the respect they earned, I can can pick any career and live anywhere I choose.
The quality I most admire about my father is that during the toughest times, he remembers the kindness of others that made his hardship bearable.
My family came to America under unusual circumstances. Both of my father’s parents were educated at universities in Japan. My great-grandfather Ujikatsu and his brothers were preachers in the Methodist Church, and my grandfather Ujio joined his uncles who were sent to the United States to open churches after the Treaty of Portsmouth. My grandmother Haruko came to America to accompany her elder brother who was sent by the Finance Ministry to do graduate studies in economics.
It is a mystery. But, somehow, my grandparents were married in Seattle and settled in the Sawtelle neighborhood of Los Angeles after my father was born. My grandfather was educated, so he transcribed letters on behalf of other issei so they could communicate with their family in Japan. He worked as a journalist for the Rafu Shimpo. And he wrote poetry for literary journals in Japan. My grandmother continued her advocacy in the suffrage movement in Japan, and she was a delegate of the United Methodist Women to the charge conference that governs the church worldwide.
On Pearl Harbor Day, my father was a teenager, and word spread through the neighborhood that the FBI was arresting leaders of the community. Among them were Japanese school teachers like my grandmother. My grandfather packed a bag for her. They waited all night for a knock on the door. But, the FBI didn’t come. We believe it is because of their leadership in the Methodist Church.
The Sawtelle neighborhood was one of the first to be relocated. Manzanar was still being built when my father’s family arrived. A small school had been quickly assembled, and there were few books and desks for the students to use. But, my father is thankful for the young, idealistic teachers who chose to come to the camp to educate angry, resentful teenagers.
My father graduated in the second class of Manzanar High School. On the day after commencement, all of the young men who were graduates were called back to school to take an exam. Those who passed were able to go to college, and those who didn’t were sent to the Army. My father was among the few who passed the exam, and he was able to leave camp early to enroll at Park College in Missouri.
My grandfather was a social worker in Manzanar, and he was given permission to accompany my father to college. It took days by train to reach Missouri. During a change of trains, my father found himself in a car filled with soldiers. He remembers how scared he felt. But, a young GI stood from his seat, and offered it to my grandfather for the long, overnight journey.
After university, my father returned to Los Angeles with a chemistry degree. It was very difficult for nikkei to find work, and most had to make their own jobs as gardeners, business owners or farmers. My father went to the American Chemical Society for help, and he was referred to Union Oil of California, where he was offered a job as a lab technician. The generosity of a local boss turned into a job he held for nearly four decades.
The research lab was in Brea, the city I grew up in. In the 1940s, it was dusty oil town in Orange County with an active Klu Klux Klan. It was so dangerous that my father’s supervisor met him at his home every morning and took him to work-and-back.
At the research lab, his co-workers never called him by his real name. Niwa is perhaps the easiest Japanese name to say, and my father is very proud that his given name indicates that he is the first son of a long line of first sons of our family. I grew up watching him put on an ID badge every morning with a nickname that he despised. I know he felt isolated and lonely during his first years in Brea.
As a bachelor with nothing to do, but go to work and go home, he deposited his paycheck regularly at the local bank. One day, the bank manager pulled him aside. “I’ve been watching you for several years,” the manager said. “And you’re not going to make much money on interest. Let me show you how to save money.” The bank manager taught my father how to invest in the stock market, and he still records the daily share prices into a ledger every morning. Later, that same bank manager taught my father how to buy his first home.
At work, my father slowly gained the trust of his colleagues. He was invited to join the company’s bowling league, shooting club and golf tournament. He was promoted and eventually ran the analytical chemistry lab for Union Oil as a senior research associate.
Decades later, his first supervisor called my father to his deathbed. He confessed that he had spied on my father on orders from the company, and he had written weekly reports about him. My father was the first Japanese American that Union Oil had hired, and they didn’t trust him at first. The company wanted to know whether my father was competent, honest and capable of fitting in with its culture. Future employment of other Japanese Americans was dependent on how my father performed both at work and at home. When he retired after 38 years of service, Union Oil had many nisei and sanseis working at the research center.
My father wasn’t alone. Japanese Americans faced prejudice and suspicion after the war. There were neighborhoods we couldn’t live in. Shops we couldn’t patronize. And jobs we would never be offered.
Through years of toil, nisei like my father earned the trust of their fellow Americans by working hard, never complaining and being grateful for what little they had.
My father acknowledges that even in the toughest years, he never walked alone. There were the teachers at Manzanar. The soldier on the train. The local chemistry president. The supervisor who kept him safe. The bank manager who taught him how to access the American Dream. And many more friends.
Each of us have people who have helped us along the way. My father, your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have earned the trust we benefit from. Japanese Americans are a small ethnic group. But, we have achieved our place of prominence by cooperating with others, building powerful alliances with our neighbors, and never bringing shame to our families.
My father remembers the kindness of others, and he recognizes that there are people today in our society that face the same prejudice Japanese Americans once endured. He rents apartments to Mexican immigrants at below market rates and pays the college tuition for their children.
We should be thankful for the burden our issei and nisei elders have lifted for us and be inspired by their example.
Best wishes this new year.