Mabel Imai Tomita: How One Family Was Ripped Apart at Tule Lake

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Mabel Imai Tomita gives an offering of incense at this year's Tule Lake Pilgrimage. The loyalty questionnaire caused a split in her family that took years for her to discover. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

Mabel Imai Tomita gives an offering of incense at this year’s Tule Lake Pilgrimage. The loyalty questionnaire caused a split in her family that took years for her to discover. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA

Mabel Imai Tomita did not meet her biological mother until the age of 36.

Events at the Tule Lake Segregation Center had ripped her family apart.

Before the United States entered World War II, Imai Tomita’s family lived in Sacramento. Once war broke out and all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were ordered to go into concentration camps, her family entered the Walerga Assembly Center and then, the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp.

When the government issued the poorly worded loyalty questionnaire, Imai Tomita’s father’s side answered “yes” to the two controversial questions and became a “yes-yes” family, whereas her mother’s family answered “no-no,” eventually renounced their U.S. citizenship, and went to Japan.

“There was a split in my family, which I didn’t know until years later because divorces were very uncommon in this community,” said Imai Tomita. “It’s not something you go around saying, so nothing was told to me. And of course, growing up, I was too naïve, I guess, to really question things. My (paternal) grandparents raised me, so I just assumed they were my parents.”

Imai Tomita also did not form a close bond with her father since he joined the Army towards the end of the war and remained in occupied Japan during her formative years.

The first inkling that her family situation was unusual came when she was around 5 or 6 years old. One of the teachers was naming the parents of each child.

“She was telling the kids, ‘Your parents are so and so,’ and when she came to me, she said my mother’s name,” recalled Imai Tomita. “I went home and kept thinking, ‘I wonder why she said that because I don’t know of such a person,’ so when I got home, I mentioned this to my uncles because my dad wasn’t there at that time. He was still in Japan. So I mentioned this to my uncles, and they just kind of looked at each other, and then they said, ‘Oh, is that right?’ and that was it.”

When Imai Tomita was 10 years old, her father returned to the U.S., but he was bringing with him a second wife and a 2-year-old daughter, Imai Tomita’s half-sister.

“After my father came back from Japan, they (grandparents) thought I would join his family, but I just didn’t feel comfortable,” said Imai Tomita. “I really didn’t know him and I didn’t know his wife, although she was nice to me. But I guess I didn’t feel like I could be myself in front of them. I’d have all these enryos (hesitation), so I just said no, that I wanted to stay with my grandparents. I’m sure my grandparents were relieved to hear that, too.”

Right before her father’s return, her grandmother began sharing with her about her biological mother.

“My grandmother started telling me about my mother,” said Imai Tomita. “I remember crying.…She showed me the wedding picture, and my mother was pretty in the wedding picture. She said they had a hard time trying to feed me because there was no milk coming out of my mother’s breast. I guess it was the stress.”

The grandmother also recalled daily tasks such as going through the Montgomery Wards or Sears catalogs with Imai Tomita’s mother to pick out fabrics.

“They used to do things like that together,” said Imai Tomita. “So my grandmother said, ‘I just don’t understand why she left. I don’t remember being mean to her that she’d want to leave.’”

Imai Tomita wouldn’t get her answer until her paternal grandparents passed away.

“As I got older, my curiosity about my mother became greater,” said Imai Tomita. “I used to wonder what she really looked like, what kind of personality did she have, what kind of voice — all that kind of little stuff. So I probably would have liked to have met her earlier than 36.”

A mutual friend who knew both the grandparents and the mother did approach the grandparents a few times about a reunion, but the grandparents always declined the invitation.

“Whenever the mutual friend in Sacramento approached my grandparents, my grandmother always said no,” said Imai Tomita. “She felt my mother didn’t deserve to see me because she was the one who had deserted the family.”

Imai Tomita was vaguely aware of what was going on, but because her grandparents took such good care of her, she never missed her mother.

“My bonding with my grandparents was so strong that I didn’t feel like I was abandoned,” she said. “The only thing I kind of felt jealous was that my friends’ mothers would bake cakes and my baachan didn’t know how to do that. Those kinds of things were something I kind of missed but other than that, I never felt like I missed anything.”

Imai Tomita attends a memorial service at the Tule Lake camp site. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

Mabel Imai Tomita attends a memorial service at the Tule Lake camp site. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

THE MEETING

The fateful reunion occurred after Imai Tomita’s mother contacted Imai Tomita’s paternal aunt.

“She wrote a letter to my aunt, and my aunt asked me if I would be interested in meeting with her,” recalled Imai Tomita. “I was married by then, and we had a daughter. And my grandparents, fortunately, had passed away, so I thought I’m ready at age 36. I felt comfortable at that moment to say, ‘Yes, I’m ready to meet her.’”

By then, Imai Tomita’s father had also passed away. He had died at age 52 when she was in high school.

At the time of the meeting, Imai Tomita was living in Seattle and her mother was in Gardena. On her trip down to Southern California, Imai Tomita said, “I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but at the same time, I was looking forward to it because it was going to relieve me of my curiosity.”

When she met with her mother, Imai Tomita discovered that her mother had been keeping a scrapbook on her.

“She had mutual friends, and I guess, whenever her friends saw my picture or an article about me in the newspapers, they sent them to my mother,” said Imai Tomita. “My grandmother had enrolled me in Japanese classical dancing from age four, so I was dancing all those years, and there would sometimes be pictures of me with other people in kimono, and they would send those photos to my mom, and she kept an album that she showed me.”

The reunion took place in the early 1970s, when very few people were openly talking about camp, much less the segregation issue that occurred at Tule Lake. As a result, when Imai Tomita first met her mother, she had little knowledge about the complexities of the renunciation issue and was a little confused when she met her maternal uncle.

“When she introduced me to her oldest brother, he apologized very profusely about what had happened,” said Imai Tomita. “At first, I couldn’t get the connection of why he was apologizing so much, but later on, I realized the situation. I felt no fault against him. I didn’t feel like he was the villain or anything.”

The meeting helped Imai Tomita start piecing together her family history.

“On my mother’s side, the older brother was definitely ‘no-no,’” she said. “The mother was widowed, so she was very adamant about going back to Japan, so I think with that in mind and the ‘no-no’ position of her older brother, I think the family was already set to go to Japan.

“So when my mother visited her family in Tule Lake, she would be bombarded by her older brother’s words that they shouldn’t participate to prove anything, that kind of talk. And she was very young yet, 21, and because he was an older brother, she looked up to him and what he said was very important.

“But when she went back to her barrack, my dad and uncles would always talk about ‘We’re all going to join the Army,’ all that rah-rah kind of talk.”

Imai Tomita’s mother eventually chose to go to Japan with her own family, and her mother, like her father, remarried in Japan.

Meanwhile, Imai Tomita’s paternal family moved from Tule Lake to Gila River in Arizona when she was a year old, and her father and two paternal uncles joined the U.S. Army.

In 1967, Imai Tomita met and married Paul Tomita, but at that time, she did not share her story with him.

“I don’t think camp was ever a topic we thought about,” she said. “I don’t think we ever said, ‘We were in camp.’”

“But everybody knew we were in camp,” said husband Paul, who had been imprisoned at the Minidoka WRA camp in Idaho. “If we were a certain age, we all knew we were in camp, but we just said ‘camp.’

“Not very many Japanese Americans were even talking about camp at that time. My father never talked about it. He was a typical Nisei, never talked about it. But my mother did talk a little more about it.”

However, once Paul learned of his wife’s childhood, he became very supportive of her desire to research her past. The two have been visiting the different camp sites connected to Imai Tomita’s family, including Tule Lake and Gila River, and plan to make a trip to Bismarck, N.D., where her uncle had been imprisoned.

Imai Tomita also kept in touch with her mother until her mother’s death at age 84.

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