Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Together at Heart.

What's your earliest memory? How far back can you go?

At a staff meeting in my accounting days, the managing partner (I'll call him Dave) sat at the head of the long conference table. That day's topic was choices.

"Some people believe," he said, his Otterpop-blue eyes drilling through bushy Scandinavian eyebrows, arched and challenging, "that we choose our parents in the womb."

I remember thinking, "Okay, what? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and he's the head guy here?" And judging by the faces of my colleagues, I wasn't the only one thinking that. After a bloated silence, Jill, a tax attorney from Canada, propped her elbows up on the table.

"Dave," she said, "these people... are they friends of yours?"

It was one of those situations where one person laughed and it spread to three, then seven, then twenty-three, then forty employees in a small conference room, as Dave, ever the sporting chap, sat grinning and blushing.

Yet his question lingered. What is my earliest memory? After spending a little time ringing out the spongy, fifty-two-year-old grey matter, I've a vague recollection of propping myself up in a crib. It was a dark room in my grandma's house. I remember the fear of the dark in an unfamiliar place and the irritation at missing out on whatever was happening in Adultland: Place of Light and Stimulation.

But consider this: what if your first conscious memories emanate from the arid plains of the West? 
The winter wind stings your face and the sweltering July sun scorches your back. The images are blurred, but you remember looking down at your shoes in the dust, kicking rocks. It's home, and you are cherished. Everyone is within a few footsteps—cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents—your older brother. 

It's a good life.

This is the story of my friend Michel Kuwahara, whose first memories are as a toddler living at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyoming.

Here's Michel, in his own words:

The location of the former concentration camp at Heart Mountain is barely more than the piece of local topography shown on Google Maps. A few decrepit barracks and a chimney stack are the only physical remains. The physical changes wrought by the camp's having been there are more obvious: the fact that it is now verdant farmland, while in 1942, when we were deposited there, it was arid wasteland. Internees from the Yakima Valley, who knew about farming in such unfriendly country, built an irrigation system that still serves the needs of the farmers who took over the site after the War.

Michel, at left, sits with his cousin Chico (Alan Kumamoto).

In February, 1942, all Japanese and their descendants who were living on the West Coast, were taken into custody on short notice. Many people lost much, or even, most of what they owned, including farms, other property, houses and cars. Thanks to the fact that my parents had many non-Japanese friends principally through my father's work, friends rallied round and agreed to hold property and possessions belonging to my family.

When we learned that multiple families from one address would be housed in close proximity wherever they were taking us, our extended family gathered at my grandfather's house the night before. We were recorded as residents of that address when they came for us, then taken to Santa Anita Racetrack to live for the six months it took to build the camps.

Then, after a long train ride, we arrived at Heart Mountain. The Camp's living quarters were divided into twenty blocks, of which we lived in Block No. 24. It's probably some kind of military logic. Each block had twenty five barracks divided in two, each half with a unit of six and one unit of seven barracks. I assume that the odd barrack was for "bachelors". Single women, I suppose, were expected to stay with "family". Each unit shared a mess hall and a toilet, bathing, laundry facility. The barracks had no water supply. As a toddler, I was bathed at home and I realized when I learned of the lack of plumbing, that someone had to carry my bath water from the laundry room. The same must have been true for watering my grandmother's garden.

Yet with all the ingenuity and resilience shown by your family and the other internees during those three-and-a-half years spent in exile, the topic was rarely discussed during the ensuing 70?

Very rarely.

Why do you think that is?

Two reasons: the first is cultural. We don't discuss unpleasant things. The second is personal. For many people, it was the great humiliation of their lives.

Your brother Denis (at left) was eight at the time. Had the two of you ever talked about it?

As a small child, it was natural for me to talk about the Camp. My parents and brother would answer my questions, but I would never have thought to ask them about their feelings.

So after all this time, what happened? What changed?

The Interpretive Center opened.

In 2011, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation opened the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. Michel and Denis participated in the 2014 annual gathering known as The Pilgrimage. Those two nattily dressed folks in the middle are Michel and Denis' grandparents, two-dimensional museum greeters. 

In the cut-out, my grandmother, newly arrived from Japan, is wearing her first Western-style dress made by my grandfather, a talented and able man. He was a physician, delivering 240 babies while he was at the Camp.

My grandparents had a traditional, arranged marriage. My grandfather agreed to marry the sister of one of his friends before leaving for the US. The friend sent my grandmother across the ocean when she had reached the right age.

Talk about your father—was he born in Los Angeles as well?

My father emigrated with his family to the United States in 1910. This would not have been possible, because of the "gentlemen's agreement" between the Governments of Japan and the United States which severely restricted emigration from Japan, had his older brothers not arrived in this country prior to the "agreement". The family was only allowed to emigrate because they were family of already established immigrants.

His name was Shin Rokuro Kuwahara. When the man at Immigration heard Rokuro, he told my father that his name was Robert Kuwahara. Professionally, my father took the name Bob Kuwahara and, for some time after the War, the name became Bob Kay, so that readers of his syndicated comic strip would not recognize him as Japanese.

And your mother?

She was born in San Francisco in 1904. In 1906, the building in which she had been living with her younger sister and her parents, was destroyed by the earthquake. Their temporary home, immediately after the Quake was the city's Presidio, where the Government had set up a tent city for victims of the disaster. They eventually moved to the East First Avenue section of Los Angeles which, by that time, was known as Little Tokyo which, by the nineteen-teens, had the largest immigrant Japanese population in the country.

My parents were married in 1933. This photograph was taken on the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, then property of the Los Angeles Art Institute. Since my father was an artist for Walt Disney Studios, he was able to use the location.

Goes without saying that Disney was a considerably smaller operation in 1933, yes?

Yes, but growing. During the mid-1930s, my father became involved creating concepts and storyboards for the studio's first full length feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

I think I've heard of it. And Mr. Disney was a hands-on manager, from what I understand. 

He personally approved or rejected every idea.

Here's an example of a sketch created by Bob Kuwahara for a scene in the witch's lair. In this case, the finished product doesn't stray much at all from the original:

Mr. Kuwahara left Disney in 1937 and joined MGM Studios, remaining an employee until February of 1942, when the west coast of the United States was deemed a "military zone" by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and subject to the immediate evacuation of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Nearly two-thirds of those interned were U. S. citizens. Here's Michel again:

Upon arriving at Heart Mountain, my parents and I were chosen to appear in propaganda films meant to show the "good" face of The Evacuation. Having lived in a Caucasian area of Los Angeles, it must have been apparent that my parents were well-assimilated. And as a cute baby in my mother's arms, I was the perfect finishing touch. My eight-year-old brother would have been a cumbersome extra body, so he was left out.

We were shown arriving at our new "home." A later scene showed my mother reading to me in a pleasantly set-up room. I suppose that these scenes were shot in simulations. The reality was a single room with unfinished walls, a pot-bellied stove and a single light fixture.

That had to have been devastating to your parents, helping to perpetuate a lie while also excluding your brother.

I'm sure it was, but as I said, it was never discussed.

Here you are again, second from the right.

This has always been one of my favorite photographs. Notice how the photographer has perfectly framed Heart Mountain inside the baby swing. It also gives you some idea of the barren terrain of the place.

On December 17, 1944, President Roosevelt announced the end of the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, thus allowing the return home of the internees. Did your family return to southern California?

No, we moved to Larchmont, a small town in Westchester County, New York. My parents had decided not to return to the racism of the West Coast. Although our new town was entirely Caucasian, they accepted my family for what we were and I did not experience prejudice in growing up there. Here I am at a birthday party. I'll let you guess which one is me.

That TV in the background is awesome, by the way.

Larchmont's ethnic mix was predominantly Anglo-American with healthy Irish, Italian and Jewish populations. There was a working-class section of town, predominantly Irish and Italian, but social division was based on economics rather than race. There were as many Irish and Italians living in the better sections of town as in the working class areas. 

Of African-Americans—"negroes," in the parlance of the day— there were none. It was the result of another "gentleman's agreement," whereby realtors simply agreed not to sell to blacks. When I learned, in my late teens, that a house across the street from our church was not sold to an African family—the father was an ambassador to the United Nations, no less—because of opposition particularly from the pastor of our church, it caused me to rethink my opinion of my adopted hometown and led me to leave the Church. 

My father's first post-War work was Miki, a comic strip based upon me as young child and my imaginary Uncle Harry:

Also occurring during that period, I discovered my aversion to authority in all its forms. I spent many ensuing years never looking into the photographer's camera. Here I am around age fifteen:

Apparently, teenagers aren't a heck of a lot different now than they were then. Did your father ever return to animation?

Yes. In 1950, he began writing and directing for Terrytoons Studio (Deputy Dawg, Hector Heathcote) For Hashimoto-san, he created the characters and directed 14 cartoons prior to his death in 1964.

What did your future hold?

I attended Fordham University and the School of Visual Art, both in New York City, followed by a year living in Paris. Here I am during that period.

I spent my most of my adult life living in New York City. I worked in the music management business, working primarily on publicity for classical artists. Later I became a freelance graphic artist, which I remained until retirement.

Which brings us back to Heart Mountain and August of 2014. How did you expect to feel returning home, so to speak?

I looked ahead to my visit to Heart Mountain with mixed feelings. I initially found the word "Pilgrimage" uncongenial because the word implies something spiritually profound and the meeting that was described sounded like an ordinary convention. I was wrong; it was a pilgrimage and I came away from it with profound feelings.

Reviewing the Camp through the eyes of the older detainees opened my own eyes to a view of the experience that was new to me. The things I had seen in films or read in books were at a remove. Being with fellow inmates, even though I had never met them before, enabled me to realize that, oblivious as I had been as a three-year-old, I had been surrounded by people, including my parents and brother, who were hurting badly from loss and that nothing that they could do would ever make this place the home for them that it had been for me.

Since his retirement, Michel has honed his skills as a talented gardener, musician, writer and poet. Here's a piece he recently created about the Pilgrimage, written in a Japanese poetry form known as Choka:

Returning to Heart Mountain
Took a courage now
That I am older and more
Susceptible to
The kinds of hurt that the young
Shrug off like rain drops

Could these green fields and meadows
Be the arid plains
That blew up gritty dust storms
And when it rained
Pooled up lakes of sticky mud
Sucking at your feet
My brother’s recollection
Horizontal snow
My father remembered his
Hair frozen solid
My mother refused to have
Memories at all

Returning to the Camp site
Took me beyond all
My family’s hurt and pain
I felt a kinship
With perfect strangers who had
Been inmates with me
What kind of feeling is it
When there is a bond
With those you have never met
But whose feet once stepped
Into the stream of that life
That only a few
Of us had ever shared and
Always remember

Ambiguous feelings wake
These mixed emotions
Returning to the place of
Why should it feel so like
Finally returning home

Thanks, Michel. Welcome home.


  1. Thankfully Michael's experience did not blunt his creativity. Such a sad piece of our history. Thanks for asking great questions and including photos to sharpen the focus of this interview.