A Mother’s Story

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Over her 103 years, family, dedication, sharing and honest work were the way of life for Mitsuko Yamamoto.

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Ahead of a two-week ocean voyage to Japan in 1950, the Yamamotos pose for a “family” passport photo. From left: Elaine (age 5), Arlene (age 2), Mitsuko and John. (Photos courtesy Arlene Nakamura)

By ELAINE KOYAMA and ARLENE NAKAMURA

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we reflect upon the inner strength and beauty of all mothers and give them due honor. We realize that in each of their lives, there is a powerful story of endurance to be told.

It’s been a year since our mother, Mitsuko Fukumitsu Yamamoto, passed away on May 9. Since her first memorial happens to fall on Mother’s Day 2021, it felt right to share her story today.

We’ll begin Mom’s story when her father, Shoichi Fukumitsu, left Yamaguchi aboard a ship bound for the Port of San Francisco. Little could he have imagined that this trip would put him in the heart of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires shortly after his arrival. As a terrified young man, he tied his belt to his suitcase handle, dragging it as he ran for safety.

Meanwhile, in Japan, her mother, Tazu Harabatake, was a picture bride who dreamed of going to America. Five years later, in 1911, Tazu left for San Francisco to meet Shoichi, the man she would soon marry. They settled in Hanford, where their first two daughters were born. Mom, the third daughter, was born in nearby Visalia in 1917.

Things were going well for the young family of five. They opened a restaurant in Visalia and had a taste of the American Dream. It was then that a telegram arrived from Japan. It seemed that Shoichi’s two older brothers had left Japan, one going to Korea and the other to South America. Shocked and dismayed by the news, they knew they must return to Japan to care for his parents. So they dutifully returned to the family rice farm in Yamaguchi.

Growing up in a farming community gave Mom and her siblings many life lessons. All the children helped with household chores and worked out in the field when they were old enough. They learned both by watching their parents and by trial and error.

One of Mom’s chores was to carry water from the creek to their home’s outdoor ofuro, a steep wooden tub. She learned by example that she should use a long stick and two buckets. But it was by trial and error that she learned how hurrying would cause water to be lost due to its sloshing back and forth. From that day forward, she walked and balanced carefully, becoming quite skilled at making the most of each trip.

Once a year, the farm neighbors joined forces to make miso. They would share whatever resources they had, be it large pots, barrels, utensils or ingredients, and go from farm to farm to work together in making a year’s worth of miso for each family. From this experience Mom learned the value of teamwork and the importance of being helpful to her family, friends and neighbors. Even when she did not have much, she always shared what she had. And that was how she lived her life for 103 years.

Mitsuko is a proud 1940 graduate from sewing school.

It always amazed us that despite returning to Japan with her family as an infant, Mom still wished to return to the U.S. We believe her decision to return may also have been spurred on by the lack of jobs in Japan at the time, and because of the opportunities that her American citizenship might bring. Whatever it was, she did return at 17 years of age. She and her younger cousin Fumiko boarded a huge ship to America. Life then took her to San Francisco’s Salvation Army, where she stayed with her oldest sister Mary until she found a job as a “school girl.”

As a school girl, she worked for military families living at the Presidio in San Francisco. After attending English classes and sewing school, her jobs included housework, cooking, running errands and babysitting. Though her English was very limited, she was bright, observant and quick to learn the ways of each household. As difficult as it may have been, she made the best of every situation and never complained. This endeared her to the families she worked for, and the silver lining for us was that it prepared her to be an excellent wife and mother.

Since Mom always focused on the positive, there were also wonderful opportunities that came her way. One of the memories she proudly shared occurred while working at the Presidio. Her employer asked, “Mitsuko, do you own a kimono?” When Mom said she did, he told her that the General would be hosting a party for the Prince and Princess of Norway. They were looking for ladies, with kimonos, to serve the royal couple.

Mom did indeed have a kimono, but she didn’t have anyone to help her tie her obi. So she went to the dry cleaners to convert her obi into a ready-made obi like the ones they sell today. It probably cost her quite a bit to alter that obi, but she enjoyed an experience of a lifetime! She would often relay the story of the line of chauffeur-driven cars pulling into the circular driveway, the beautifully dressed attendees, the large floral arrangements, the fancy dinnerware and all the fanfare.

Mom was still living at the Presidio on Dec. 7, 1941. Since it was a Sunday, she and a friend had made plans to go out. On their return, she was denied entrance at the gate of the Presidio, where she worked for Colonel and Mrs. Baird. When they heard this, they immediately came to her aid. They thought of her as a daughter and were sad that she could no longer remain at the military post.

They gifted her sheets and other necessities when she left for the Japanese Salvation Army Orphanage, where her friend Nobu Yamane worked. She stayed there until she was able to find employment at the home of a San Francisco doctor. It was while working there that World War II and Executive Order 9066 forced her to pack what she could carry into two duffel bags. Thus began her incarceration journey.

Fearful of what was to be, Mom burned all the photos she had of her family in Japan. She had no idea where she was being taken when she stepped onto the bus with others of Japanese ancestry. Nor could she look out the windows, which were all covered with newspapers. Finally arriving at a train depot, all passengers were transferred aboard the train to their next destination, Santa Anita.

Mom’s heart sank with the realization that she would be living in a filthy horse stall at Santa Anita Racetrack. It would take much work but, understanding teamwork well from her days on the farm, she joined others in making their horse stalls into as livable spaces as possible.

A visit to Disneyland in July 1955 found Cheryl Tamanaha (left), little Arlene (hiding), Carole Tamanaha and Elaine in a chance meeting with Walt Disney himself.

From Santa Anita, she was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where she would be reunited with her older sister Mary and her family. She helped take care of her nephews and worked in the mess hall. It was there at Heart Mountain that she met her future husband, Hawaii-born John Kiyoshi Yamamoto. He was able to obtain a two-day pass that allowed the couple to be married on May 2, 1944 in Cody, Wyoming.

When the war was almost over and internees were allowed to leave, Mom and Dad headed for Minneapolis, where we would be born. Rooms were not readily available to Japanese Americans, so they had to settle for living in a cramped attic, With only a single burner available, Mom prepared full meals in a double boiler and always made her signature miso soup. If they had company, she always made sure there was enough for them to have seconds, even if it meant giving up her portion. Times were hard, but our parents were grateful that their landlord did not discriminate in allowing them to rent the attic.

In the mid-’40s, our parents were able to buy a house in Minneapolis, which they initially shared with Mom’s sister Mary Itagaki and family. When the Itagakis relocated to Los Angeles, Mom and Dad rented out their second-floor rooms to a Japanese couple who later had four children. So by the late ’40s our family of four was complete and there were 10 people living under one roof, sharing one bathroom and one kitchen. This meant scheduling kitchen times for cooking and eating in shifts. Cooperation, organization and a sense of humor were a must.

Mom and Dad always intended to return to the West Coast. So when Dad landed a job as a linotype operator in Los Angeles, they were thrilled. He worked for many establishments in Little Tokyo, including Rafu Shimpo, Crossroads, Kashu Mainichi, and Empire Printing, where he made many good friends.

Before he started at his new job, though, Dad wanted to introduce us to both our maternal and paternal grandparents and all our other relatives in Japan. So we embarked on a two-week journey to meet our Yamaguchi family. Two weeks on a ship; two weeks with the Yamamoto family; two weeks with the Fukumitsu family; and a two-week journey back to the Port of L.A. Mom was always prepared for our needs. But what a challenge this long and tiring trip must have been for her as she tended to all that a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old would require.

The ’50s in Los Angeles were spent in Lincoln Heights, where life was more settled and comfortable for us. First we moved into urban apartments with a large community of Japanese Americans who became lifelong friends. Then we moved into a large California bungalow where we shared many good times together with the friends we made.

A highlight of this period was meeting Walt Disney on a trip to Disneyland with the Tamanaha family. Husband Tom spotted him first and told his wife, Clare, who turned to Mom and said excitedly, “Mrs. Yamamoto, Mrs. Yamamoto…Get your camera…There’s Walt Disney!” Mom quickly opened her black Kodak accordion-style camera and was ready just as Mr. Disney gathered us together with Cheryl and Carole and called out, “OK, Mrs. Yamamoto!” Click! We will cherish that memorable moment as we cherish the great photo taken with this legendary man.

Mitsuko beams with pride on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2017. From left: Frank Koyama, Kristen Koyama, Mark Rooney, Lora Nakamura, Evan Nakamura, Arlene, Elaine, John Nakamura and Jason Koyama.

The years that followed included Mom working as a seamstress for Peerless Uniform Company. There she quickly became a favorite for her humor and her generosity. She learned about buying a square in a baseball pool. And if she ever won, her co-workers would know that she would be bringing boxes of donuts for them the next morning.

She came home from work using Spanish words that she had learned. One Latina co-worker nicknamed her “Corazon.” And she quickly learned phrases like “Mucho trabajo, poco dinero.” She used her newly acquired Spanish vocabulary to get a laugh out of her Latina friends. She also used it freely much to the delight of any Spanish-speaking friends who would visit.

The decade of the ’70s brought Mom and Dad two sons-in-law and the joys of being the grandparents to Jason, Kristen, Lora and Evan. They enjoyed watching them grow and being an active part of their everyday lives.

Dad had always wanted to start his own business. That dream came true when he opened up John’s Lino Comp Service on San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo. Though he had to work seven days a week, he felt proud and fulfilled. Mom was always supportive and continued holding down the family fort as he worked longer hours.

In 1984, we celebrated our parents’ 40th anniversary and Dad’s 77th birthday. In Japan the 77th year is celebrated as a “joyous year” because to live that long was considered to be very fortunate. They both did feel fortunate to be healthy and did enjoy their many trips to Las Vegas. But four years later in 1988, Dad would be diagnosed with cancer.

After Dad passed away in 1990, we encouraged Mom to move from Lincoln Heights to a home in Alhambra, where she would be be closer to Arlene’s family. There she met a new set of neighbors who quickly grew to love her. She became active in many classes that reflected her love of music and art. Taisho koto, Japanese and ballroom dancing, kimekomi doll-making, crafting and knitting by hand and by machine. Most of all, she enjoyed the camaraderie of her many friends.

In a life that spanned 103 years, there were many life-altering events. It’s interesting to note that Mom was a woman who survived two worldwide pandemics in 1918 and again in 2020… like bookends marking the beginning and the end of a life well-lived. Despite the many twists and turns in her life, Mom emerged as the wonderful human being who we aspire to be.

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