Monday, August 24, 2009

Who is Shig Imamura? - Part I

I have received a lot of personal questions ever since my Japanese translation of the book Dear Miss Breed was published last year.

My daughter in Santa Barbara forwarded me this one:

I was born in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. I do not have memory of being in camp as I left when I was a year and half old. My husband was at Gila Bend, AZ. He had some memory of camp as he was older (about five) when he left camp. Are you related to the Imamuras of Berkeley? I think that there was a Buddhist minister, Rev. Imamura, who was there in the 60's and his daughter who was a very accomplished pianist. Just wondering.

Phew! Reverend Imamura!

I received another question, this time from Mrs. U, who helped me a great deal (without Mrs. U, I wouldn't have even ventured) with my translation of Dear Miss Breed written by Joanne Oppenheim. She asked me if I was related to Professor Shigeo (Shig) Imamura, whom she met when she studied at the English Center of Michigan State University. She said Professor Imamura was born in California but went to Japan a few years before WWII broke. He spent his boyhood in Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture and she knew I was from the same area.

Well, the name Imamura is not rare and can be found on many Japanese Web sites. There are about a dozen Imamuras using the same Japanese Kanji character as my first name even if pronounced differently. These people were in a variety of professions: musician, Chinese medicine specialist, soccer umpire, animation artist, turbine engineer, ...etc. While traveling in the U.S. on business, I used to open the phone directory at hotels to find people named Imamura and I found a few in large cities, like Denver and Los Angeles.

Back to Shig Imamura. Mrs. U sent me a memoir written by Prof. Imamura. The title Shig: The True Story of an American Kamikaze and the cover photo of Imamura clad in a flight uniform really surprised me. I read it immediately. The book was published in 2001, after his death in 1998, thanks to the efforts by his disciples both in the U.S. and Japan for editing Shig's manuscripts. The Japanese translation was made available from the publisher Soshisha in 2003. The translator, Ken Oshiba, is the first businessman turned principal of Mie Prefectural senior high school.

To my happy surprise, I found two familiar names in the book. One is Prof. Yamauchi who taught me English at Matsuyama College of Commerce (abbreviated as Matsuyama Kosho), now known as Matsuyama University. Prof. Yamauchi played an important role as Shig's mentor when Shig came from the U.S. He was an English and music instructor then at Matsuyama Chugaku (middle school) in the old education system. He heard about Shig and arranged Shig to continue his English education by introducing him to an American missionary. As his music teacher, Yamauchi Sensei let Shig play the cornet in his band which led to Shig blowing the bugle in the military drill event at school. When the war was over, Yamauchi Sensei took woolgathering Shig to the Occupation Force depot and got him a job as an interpreter.

I left Matsuyama for Osaka to concentrate on English studies and didn't finish at Matsuyama Kosho. I do, however, remember faculty names, especially of the English department, including Yamauchi Sensei. Prof. Futagami was my mentor there. Years later, when I mentioned quitting my Tokyo job, he tipped me off that I might be able to succeed him at Kosho. Another Kosho teacher, Prof. Komoda asked me if I was a returnee from the U.S. I didn't understand why he asked me but probably he knew or heard of Prof. Imamura and wanted to see if I was related to him. Shig also wrote about Takahashi Sensei who composed Haiku in English and I think he also taught me. I also remember Prof. Hoshino who taught the Japanese Constitution. He became President of Kosho later.

Another mention is the late Principal Suzuki of Kinmon (Golden Gate) Japanese School where Shig Imamura learned Japanese. Shig was born in San Jose, but moved to San Francisco when his father got a job there.

Kinmon Gakuen (Golden Gate Academy)
est. 1911 with 133 students
2031 Bush Street, San Franciso
A historical landmark for the Japanese American community

My first trip to the U.S. was in l957 on a prop-jet airplane. It stopped first at Wake island for breakfast, second in Honolulu for dinner; two stops and two nights before arriving in San Francisco. I know Princinpal Suzuki's niece in Tokyo and she introduced me to her uncle. Suzuki Kocho Sensei served as our guide for a party of three first-time visitors to the U.S. Our party consisted of my two bosses and me and we went to Fishermen's Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge and Park, and University of California, Berkeley Campus. I never imagined that my son would graduate from Berkeley. I wasn't yet married. I was very thankful for Principal Suzuki's kindness. I could have contacted him while I was stationed in New York in the '60s. I regretted that I missed the chance. Over 50 years later, I found all these nearly forgotten names in this book.

I faced quite a reverse culture shock when I returned to Japan. It is easy to wet your feet in foreign waters but the converse is not always true. Shig returned to Japan as a 4th grader and the book says that no one could find any differences with the other boys after his hair was cropped at the barber shop. He spoke Japanese well, thanks to Kinmon Gakuen and Suzuki Sensei. My son temporarily returned to Japan about the same age and slid into the same grade without difficulties, also thanks to the Saturday Japanese language school in New York.

As Shig grew in Japan, he noted himself that he "grew 110% more Japanese-like" than the regular Japanese boys. I read about a case of another returnee student from the U.S. This person was at the college level, older than Shig, when he returned. He reacted to the draft matter-of-factly (no influence from the U.S. education), didn't show any mortification and died in the war in the Philippines. Unfortunately, it was true that everyone was deeply dyed in war time colors without exception. I will describe the Kamikaze mental state in detail in the next blog entry.

More than three-fourths of the book is about how Shig became a Kamikaze pilot and the remainder is about his brief career as an educator both in the U.S. and Japan. With a GARIOA scholarship, he went and got his degree at Michigan State University (MSU). He then taught in Japan and back at MSU as an ESL teacher. Shig wrote in the preface that ever since he stood on the classroom podium at MSU as a teacher, he had been pursued for press interviews as a miraculous survivor, especially because he wrote in the MSU student paper "Kamikaze now a U-teacher". He had been eagerly sought wherever he went and he responded to all the interest. Persuaded by friends, he finally decided to write it down.

Shig spent about 30 years in the U.S. including his childhood of 10 years in California, and about 40 years in Japan. I shared similar life experiences and I can definitely identify with Shig.

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