Friday, December 25, 2020

People We Lost in 2020: Remembering the Yamadas

I learned about the sudden deaths of Joe and Elizabeth Yamada in May by reading the first digitized "Footprints", the combined Spring-Summer Quarterly issues published by the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego (JAHSSD). I contacted my San Diego friends who was close to them. After my wife and I left San Diego in the mid 1990’s, our contacts with friends in the US gradually faded. What I learned from my contacts was that Joe had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, Beth was nursing him unsparingly. I understand a very fatigued Beth succumbed a few days later after Joe. I hastened my condolatory donation through JAHSSD.

Around the same time, I was pleased to receive a complimentary children’s book from another San Diego friend Write to Me by Cynthia Grady (New Mexico), illustration by Amiko Hirano (Mass). It is a 30-page booklet, published by Charlesbridge. When my translation of Joanne Oppenheim's Dear Miss Breed was published from Kashiwa Book Publishing Tokyo, I received comments from many Japanese readers to cinematize it. The story was dramatized in San Diego by Andy Lowe in early 2000. However, it never occurred to me to make it a children’s book. It is a great idea to visualize the stories for children. I salute both the producer Cynthia and the illustrator Amiko for a job well done.

I noted Joanne Oppenheim, writer of Dear Miss Breed (Scholastic) sent her memorial writing for Joe and Elizabeth to JAHSSD.

It was about half a century ago when I met Clara Breed, a fill-in secretary at the time, and Joe and Elizabeth Yamada, at the San Diego Balboa Park Japanese Friendship Garden Preparation and Funding Committee Meeting, headed by Will Happen Jr, the Honorable Japanese General Consul in San Diego. I represented my employer in the Committee. However, I did not know the relationship between Clara Breed and the Yamadas. It was after the funeral of Clara Breed that I came to know about their beautiful correspondences during their tense incarcerated camp life. In researching the childrens’ letters myself, I learned Joanne Oppenheim had started interviewing Breed’s children. I waited for her book to be published and translated it for the sake of all the young Japanese children upon returning to Japan.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Yasnaya Polyana, Russia

I wish to thank first the "Roka" Society in Kumamoto for the inspiration of the article, and secondly, Mataro (Matt) Miyazaki and Koji Kanatani, my mutual friends in presenting to you the artwork of “The House of Tolstoy”. Matt Miyazaki traveled to Yasnaya Polyana in Russia in June 2019, as a member of Yasuko Tanaka’s (Honorable Professor of Osaka University) “Russian Writers Study Circle Tour”. Matt painted his artwork while visiting Yasnaya Polyana and exhibited it at his coterie circle in Kyoto.

Visit to Yasnaya Polyana

The saying goes “All roads lead to Rome" or “Once out of home, you tread numerous ways to reach your destination”. Roka Tokutomi (1868-1927), a famous writer, proved it 100 years ago when he traveled alone, with conviction, from Japan to Russia at the prime age of 38. Roka’s brother, Soho Tokutomi, and a companion, visited the same place ahead of time and Roka was well versed on how they traveled. Roka took another way, a questionable one.

In April 1906, he sailed from Yokohama onboard the ss Bingo Maru (NYK Line) around the Indian Ocean. After a month and a half, Roka landed at Port Said, Egypt and wrote to Leo Tolstoy that he safely arrived at the Mediterranean. He then rode a camel to see the Nile and Great Pyramids for a few days for a breather after his long ocean journey. Roka was surprised by an unexpected 24-hour quarantine confinement at Port Said. It reminds us of the Corona Virus quarantine of the Cruise Vessel in Yokohama early this year.

Roka then spent over a month, May to June, in Jerusalem for the primary objective of this trip. He likely would've carried a number of introductions to Christian Churches. His “Pilgrim Travelog”, published in December 1906 from the Keiseisha, detailed his Jerusalem activities. My Japanese American friends in California visited Jerusalem some years ago for about a week. They said they visited Jericho, the Wailing Wall, Dead Sea, Nazareth, Sumaria. etc.

After Jerusalem, he intended to sail from Port Said and Istanbul to the Black Sea, Odessa in particular. I am curious how he conquered various barriers like time, borders, languages, etc.

Roka was accompanied by Nakamuraya (a shop owner from Istanbul) to Bosporus Strait. In those days, the bridge was yet to come. The question was how he found Nakamuraya. I guess Roka just found the store by coincidence. I had a similar experience of bumping into a Japanese American in a Mexican village and our conversation was vivacious.

Again, Nakamuraya recommended Roka to take a train to Sofia, Bulgaria and his companion saw him off at the railroad station. On board the train, he was the focus of passengers’ attention. They called him “Togo”, apparently in reference to the Japanese admiral who beat the Baltic.

It’s not clear how Roka traveled through Romania, but he reached Galati and crossed the River Donau where it almost exits to the Black Sea. At Reny, Uklaia, closely facing the Donau, Roka succeeded in purchasing a train ticket all the way to Tula! 'Banzai'! He almost made it. The rest would be an easy train ride. He could sleep for the entire trip of 1600 km!

There was one small problem. His brother Soho repeatedly reminded him that the station of Yasnaya Polyana is one small station after Tula, where the express train will not stop. Roka came from the south and arrived in Tula around midnight. The Tula station staff tried to explain to him, in Russian, in vain. Roka spoke in French to be understood, but failed. People gathered. One woman who understood English showed up at the last minute, solved the puzzle. Roka barely caught the first southbound local train before dawn.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


My favorite flower in December is the poinsettia, with its beautiful red, star-shape. It is called "Flame Leaf" in Central America, or "Flores de Noche Buena." "Shojoboku" is a Japanese name but poinsettia is more popular. I'm glad to report that a florist in Wakamastsu Ward in Kitakyushu where we reside started marketing a palm-sized brandnew poinsettia, calling it 'coinsettia' or 'princettia'. Its leaves are round and adorable."

Around the 15th Century, the sap of the plant was used to control the fever. The flower was brought to California over a 100 years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Most of the American poinsettia today now come from California. In fact, there is a town "Poinsettia" near Carlsbad where we used to live, a little north of San Diego.

The legend of the Poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Pepita and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas Festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

One Christmas Eve, Pepita and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way, they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course, other children teased them when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing because they knew they had given what they could.

Pepita and Pablo began placing the green leaves, which turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by the beautiful star-like flowers that we see today.

There's no other holiday like Christmas. Most of us, whether Christians or not, celebrate the holiday without knowing how the traditions get started or what they signify. Christmas is much more when you know some facts behind the holiday.