Just before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The barrage lasted just two hours, but it was devastating: The Japanese managed to destroy nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight enormous battleships, and almost 200 airplanes. More than 2,000 Americans soldiers and sailors died in the attack, and another 1,000 were wounded. The day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan; Congress approved his declaration with just one dissenting vote. Three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy also declared war on the United States, and again Congress reciprocated. More than two years into the conflict, America had finally joined World War II.
Many people will see this and take a moment to remember. Many may have had family who were serving at the time and were attacked at Pearl Harbor and survived…or worse…perished. But this day, which truly lives in infamy, for many it meant that the boys would become men and drafted into the military to serve their country.
But what about those who looked like the enemy? What of those who were of the same ethnicity as the ones who attacked Pearl Harbor?
You probably can’t tell from looking at me, but I’m a quarter Japanese on my mother’s side. Which means my mother is half Japanese from her father’s side…my Grandpa.
Growing up, I adored my Grandpa. My memories of him are still very potent because he would play with me, take care of me while my Mom was at work, take me to baseball games, take walks with me everyday, even when he was tired from the day. He would also take on the role of a father figure when my Dad was unable to be more involved in my life. When I was younger, I did look a bit more Japanese, but I didn’t even notice the eyes or ethnicity. He was my Grandpa.
I was a little over a month shy of turning 7 when he died on December 3rd, 1992 (almost exactly 51 years after Pearl Harbor). It’s a day that still rocks my memory as I remembered how sad everyone was, and my Grandma telling my cousin, “We’re going to lose him.”
It wasn’t until I was much older when I began to dig deep into his past. Even more so when I was working on my play, Japanese Eyes/American Heart, loosely based on my Grandpa’s experiences during World War II after Pearl Harbor. I knew of the internment of Japanese-Americans very blandly because my Grandpa had siblings either interred or they served in the military.
My Grandpa was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to Isokichi and Suga Matsuo. Isokichi was born in Japan and got on the boat to Hawaii in 1900 not too long after Japan opened their borders. Suga was born in Hawaii. My Grandpa was born in 1920, and in 1940, he enlisted in the United States Army.
I have no doubt that December 7th, 1941 affected him. Given the location and WHO attacked Pearl Harbor, I imagine there was much worry and concern of how it would affect his family.
His older brother Roy, would be sent to Jerome War Relocation Center in Southeastern Arkansas.
His brother Ted, ended up serving as a medic in the famed 442nd to Company F, and was wounded on the second day of combat near Sasseta.
There are also several Matsuo’s who went to relocation centers such as Manzanar and Heart Mountain. I’m still researching and confirming whether they were a part of my family.
And then there was Keijiro (or as I knew him, “Uncle Kei”). I’m going to let Ted’s wife, Dorothy Matsuo explain what happened to him, and she recounts in her book, Boyhood To War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:
“Ted Matsuo described the incredible experience of his brother, Keijiro, who had earned an electrical engineering degree from Indiana Tristate College and had gone to Japan to work because no one in the United States or Hawaii would hire a nisei electrical engineer. Keijiro had lived for a time with his brother in California, where he enjoyed diving for abalone and lobster off the coast of Monterey. The FBI was aware of his dives and accused him of mapping the sea floor for the Japanese. He was arrested, but because of lack of evidence, he was given the option of volunteering for the military in lieu of being incarcerated. Because they denied him officer status, Keijiro refused military service and was incarcerated at Sand Island. He was later released and drafted for the engineer battalion in Hawaii” (Matsuo 22).
Given my lack of detailed knowledge of this events were likely due to my age, the part of the American history that includes the internment of Japanese Americans being swept under the rug for years, until recently thanks to many films, and a new musical called Allegiance starring George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Old Globe in San Diego last year. I’ll admit that I was incredibly touched by the show and I found myself crying on several occasions. I hope that this marks more awareness of Japanese American internment. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, and you’re in Los Angeles, check out the Japanese American National Museum. When I was living in San Diego, I often visited the museum and it was an experience. There are several museums dedicated to Japanese American history, and many of the relocation centers are being restored and preserved being turned into museums themselves.
So as we reflect on this day, let us remember how much it impacted the present of the time, and the future. For me, while Pearl Harbor and the internment of Japanese Americans didn’t directly affect me, it meant the lack of knowledge on the that part of my family’s history, and not getting a chance to connect with the Japanese culture.