‘I’m Proud of You, Toku.’

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Eleven years after her son was killed in Iraq, Yoko Nakamura is finally ready to share her emotional journey.

Yoko Nakamura, mother of Paul T. Nakamura, in his room. It took her 11 long years to be able to say, “I’m proud of you, Toku.” (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

Yoko Nakamura, mother of Paul T. Nakamura, in his room. It took her 11 long years to be able to say, “I’m proud of you, Toku.” (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer

Sgt. Paul Tokuzo Nakamura, deployed with the 437th Medical Company (ground ambulance) to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait in January 2003, was killed south of Baghdad on June 19, as he aided a patient in the rear of the ambulance.

His mother, Yoko, born and raised in Okinawa, lost her spirit the day a uniformed man arrived at her front door in Santa Fe Springs. Her emotional turmoil felt specifically Japanese; she grappled with the urge to apologize for causing many people sorrow (meiwaku o kaketa).

Grieving in a Japanese way and struggling to express herself in English, she often felt alone and isolated. But it was her son, who appeared to her in a dream, and many strangers whom she met after his death who saved her from 11 years of pain, regret, and anguish.

Paul Nakamura

Paul Nakamura (Courtesy of Nakamura family)

This is a story of a brave Japanese mother who lost her beloved, only son, Toku.

On June 19, 2003, somebody knocked on the door. “Grandma, Uncle’s friend is here,” Yoko’s grandchildren said. She glanced at the front door and saw a uniformed man standing there.

“Toku is not home,” Yoko said to the man. “Is Mr. Nakamura home?” the man asked her with emotionless eyes. “No. Are you Toku’s friend?” He declined to answer the question but told her he’d wait for her husband. Yoko asked the same question again, but he stood silently, looking straight ahead.

She felt uncomfortable and annoyed by this one-way conversation. She didn’t realize that she was raising her voice as she demanded an answer from the man until her neighbors, who anxiously gathered at her house, stopped her.

Even so, she had no idea that this visit indicated her son’s death. “Maybe Toku is terribly injured. He might have lost his sight or his ability to walk. But that’s okay. Whatever his physical condition, I’m ready to care for him for the rest of my life,” she thought with resolve. Yoko was determined.

Long-Awaited First Son

Yoko recalled the moment when her son was born 33 years ago. “I clearly remember when the doctor said to me, ‘He is a pretty boy,’ in the delivery room. I will never forget that moment. Since I have two daughters, I really wanted a boy who would take over our family name. So when I heard the word ‘boy,’ I was so happy.”

He was named after his father, Paul, and his grandfather, Tokuzo. Despite the fact that he was quick to cry even at the sound of fireworks and often got teased when he was a child, he grew up strong. The swimming lessons he took and the Boy Scout troop he joined may have made him tougher. In high school, he served as the captain of the water polo team.

When he hit puberty, he became the leader of a bad crowd. “Although I overheard his bad behaviors, he tried not to worry me,” said Yoko. He often left a box of chocolate on her favorite chair after they argued. He was very kind to her.

“He wasn’t that smart, but I thought that was okay. I just wanted him to be a kind, caring, honest person. That was good enough for me,” Yoko recalled.

“To Save People, Not to Kill”

Yoko is against war, but she supported her son’s decision to join the military, partly because her brother in Okinawa suggested that since Toku was the first American-born boy, he needed to be raised as a grounded chonan (eldest son) to support the family. She also thought that the training would help him grow stronger both physically and mentally.

Indeed, the six months of military training transformed Toku into the organized, responsible, disciplined chonan Yoko was hoping for.

It was 1999, two years before the Sept. 11 attacks. Nobody expected him to be deployed.

In November 2002, Yoko and Paul were washing the dishes when Toku arrived at home in uniform. He stood between his parents, put his arms around them, and quietly said, “I’m going.”

Yoko Nakamura looks at her favorite photo of her son’s childhood. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

Yoko Nakamura looks at her favorite photo of her son’s childhood. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

Yoko immediately knew what he meant. Tears flowed. All she could ask him was, “When are you coming back?” “I don’t know, Mom,” he replied.

To dispel her anxiety, she visited the March Air Force Reserve Base in Riverside many times to get briefed on her son’s duty in Iraq. There she learned that his duty as a medic was to conduct rescue, transport, and aid not only wounded U.S. soldiers but also Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

“Toku is not going to Iraq to kill people with a gun, but to help and save people,” Yoko explained. This knowledge filled her with a huge sense of relief.

After Toku was deployed, Yoko received phone calls from him a couple of times a week. They only had a few minutes to talk, but it was crucial for her to know how he was doing.

“I remember one particular call very clearly. It was June. Toku was unusually quiet. He wouldn’t say anything. I was worried. I kept asking him if everything was fine and if his friends were okay, but I heard no answers. I had a bad feeling, but time was up, so I begged him to call us on Father’s Day, and then hung up,” Yoko recalled.

His phone call on Father’s Day was their last conversation. Four days later, the ambulance he was in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. He died instantly. He was 21 years old.

“Feel Another Person’s Pain”

After the Army messenger left, Paul said, “Yoko, Toku won’t come back anymore.” Yoko, whose first language is Japanese, translated that to “Toku decided to stay in Iraq forever.”

“Then, Toku is still alive?” Yoko desperately asked him. But he repeated the same sentence. He might have intentionally avoided the words “died” or “killed” to be sensitive to her feelings.

At the funeral, some of his body parts, including his face, were replaced with artificial ones due to severe disfigurement. “When I saw his face in the casket, I knew it wasn’t Toku. So I said to myself, ‘See? He must be alive somewhere.’” She wanted to hold out hope.

On the night of the 49th-day Buddhist memorial service after his death, Toku appeared in Yoko’s dream for the first time. “Toku! I have been thinking about you!” she said in the dream, grabbing his arm and immediately locking the door so as not to lose him again.

When she turned around, he was in the backyard. “Toku, please don’t go! Don’t leave me again!” she begged him. He was smiling at her, slowly rising up into the sky and saying, “Mom, thank you.”

It was as if he was concerned about his mother’s struggle to accept his passing, and came to let her know that he is now in a good place and not to worry.

Since that night, he often appears in her dreams and teaches her many lessons, she said.

When she heard that her son’s former fiancée had a new boyfriend, she felt angry and betrayed, fearing her son would be forgotten. Around the same time, Toku appeared in her dream again.

He and Yoko were standing in front of his former fiancée’s house. He went inside, exchanged hugs with her, and said goodbye to her with smile, as if to say, “Mom, it’s okay. Please let her go. She has her own life ahead of her.”

Yoko called his former fiancée the next morning to tell her about the dream and apologize for having bad feelings towards her. They both cried over the phone; their friendship was rekindled.

“Through Toku’s death, I’ve learned so much. He has been teaching me many important life lessons. Thanks to him, I can now feel another person’s pain as if it were mine,” Yoko said.

The Gift from Her Son

Toku’s death made headlines and devastated all who knew him. “Every time I saw his friends crying, I felt deeply apologetic,” Yoko said. Because of this feeling, she wanted to avoid seeing people and eventually stopped going out.

Her family, concerned about her health, took her to American Gold Star Mothers, a support group for mothers whose children have died in U.S. military service.

At the meeting, mothers introduced themselves, told stories about their sons and daughters, and shared how proud they were. When Yoko’s turn came, however, she could only say, “My name is Yoko Nakamura. I’m Paul T. Nakamura’s mom.”

“I don’t know if it was the Japanese custom kenson (referring to yourself and your family members in a self-deprecating manner), or because of the apologetic feeling I’ve had, but I could only say my name. Nothing more. Nothing,” Yoko recalled.

She felt that everyone in the room was waiting to hear how wonderful her son was, but “still, I didn’t know what to say,” said Yoko.

Her feelings began to change as she started going out again. Wherever she went, strangers talked to her. “Hello, Mrs. Nakamura. I know you don’t know me, but your son taught my daughter how to swim.” “I was good friends with your son.”

They all thanked her for her son’s good deeds and shared their wonderful memories of him. Yoko learned for the first time that her son had made a difference in many people’s lives, and his heart continues to live with them.

Thanks to Toku’s legacy, Yoko has made many new friends. “This is a gift from Toku. He didn’t want me to feel lonely,” she believes.

It took 11 long years for her to come this far. She now wants everyone to know what a brave, caring person he was.

Every time she visits his grave, she tells him from the bottom of her heart, “Toku, you did a great job. I’m so proud of you. You are my pride.”

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