THROUGH THE FIRE: Ode to Mi Madre and Other Nisei Moms

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

You could call this a belated birthday message to my mother, Elsie Osajima, who turned 93 this past July. We are fortunate that she is healthy, upbeat, competitive, attention-loving, easy to friend, fiercely independent, and still mobile even without a walking cane. She played tennis until she was 60, and was forced to quit because of a bone spur. I’m sure this had something to do with her good physical condition today.

I used to brag about her to people I met in the L.A. Asian American Movement back in the ’70s. She can actually be credited with getting my sister and me involved in the Movement because she was our first introduction to the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (which I will refer to as “the Center”) — where she was the administrative assistant for most of her working career.

I’m proud to say that she was the first career employee of the Center, chosen by a student activist committee. In her recollection of why she got selected for the job, she thinks she was chosen because of one question — “What have you been reading lately?” She told them “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

I would have to say my mom belongs to a grouping of “Nisei movement moms”—moms who were supportive of their Sansei kids’ involvement in the 1970s Asian American Movement. And they were supportive because they believed the Movement was a positive step in rebuilding our communities after the destructive force of the World War II internment in U.S. concentration camps.

There are famous Nisei moms like Yuri Kochiyama, Kazu Iijima, Min Matsuda, and Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga (rest in peace), who were oftentimes more political than their movement kids. Kazu Iijima and Min Matsuda were the founders of Asian Americans for Action in New York City. They wanted to form a group that would organize Asian Americans to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. In doing so, these women gave critically important political leadership to the Asian American Movement.

One of the best examples of this was the campaign to end the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, also known as Ampo-Funsai (“smash the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty”). Sansei activists especially took heart to educate our community on the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty because it sealed the Japanese government’s role as a complicit partner in the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam. Bombing missions took off from U.S. military bases concentrated in Okinawa, which was also the place where battle-worn U.S. GIs were sent for “R&R” (rest-and-recreation).

My mom was definitely influenced by the Asian American Movement, and her name can be found on the supporter list for Peace Sunday, a huge anti-war demonstration and rally by the Asian American Movement and community (see **Gidra** Volume 3, No. 5, May 1971, http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-297-25/). Working at the Center placed Elsie in one of the many hotbeds of Movement activity.

As part of the awakening of the Asian women’s movement, a class on Asian American women was initiated in 1971. Elsie organized a Nisei women’s panel with outspoken and independent women like Kiku Uno, Betty Morikawa, and Martha Yamaki. The panel took place on the UCLA campus and was attended by many students. Mom recounts, “The students loved the Nisei women’s panel.” It was a special treat for Sansei women to hear these women talk about their lives and what they had gone through coming of age during the camp years.

Asian Americans for Action with out-of-town visitors, summer of 1973. Sitting from left: Visiting feminist from Japan, Mitzi Sawada, Amy [Tachiki] Uyematsu, Lynn [Yamashiro] Taise; standing from left: Elsie [Uyematsu] Osajima, Yuri Kochiyama, Min Matsuda, and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. (Photograph by Mary Uyematsu [Kao] © 1973)

There were many more moms who I can’t even name, but who should be remembered for their timeless support and help for Movement activities like the Yellow Brotherhood Pancake breakfasts (dads too, like George Eguchi!), joining our many community events, and best of all, not coming out against us.

My mom was known as one of the “hip” moms who allowed me to grow marijuana on her apartment’s balcony. When I think back on that time period after having raised two kids of my own, I wonder, “Was she crazy?” But then, you must be wondering, am I crazy? Of course, it was a much gentler time than today. The “love and peace movement” permeated the air. And I guess we had enough good sense to survive and come through all these years in one piece, with relatively good health and all.

But this leniency goes back to when sister Amy and I were still in baby cribs — we were allowed to stand on the top of the crib rails and scribble with crayons on the wall. This was all according to the child-rearing philosophy of Dr. Spock, father of the ’60s movements generation. Of course, friends and relatives alike were shocked, dismayed, and amazed to see the walls of our bedroom, especially how close to the ceiling we were able to reach. Amy and I were amazed ourselves, and asked Mom why she let us do such a thing. Her only answer was that she wanted us to be able to express ourselves. She also let us scrub the crayon off the walls after we passed the crib stage.

The photo is from a cross-country trip that Amy, girlfriend Lynn [Yamashiro] Taise, and I took in the summer of 1973. Mom let us take her Ford Maverick to travel across the United States, visiting Asian American Movement folks in Denver, Chicago, and New York City. She flew out and met us in New York, where we visited Asian Americans for Action at the United Asian Center in mid-town Manhattan. Unfortunately Kazu Iijima was not there to complete the picture, but this just gives you an idea of the power and force of Nisei women in the Asian American Movement.

Mitzi Sawada went on to document the town of Seabrook, New Jersey, where many Japanese Americans were recruited from the concentration camps to work for the Seabrook Farms frozen food packaging plant during World War II. Japanese Americans became the predominant workforce at Seabrook Farms during and the war. (“After the Camps: Seabrook Farms, New Jersey, and the Resettlement of Japanese Americans, 1944-47” by Mitziko Sawada, Amerasia Journal, Volume 13, No. 2, 1986-87).

Amy, Lynn, and I got a personal tour of Seabrook Farms from Aunt Sonoko, our father’s sister, who retired along with her husband after working their whole lives at the frozen food packaging plant.

The movements of the ’60s and ’70s left their mark on my mom, and as she spoke at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, she ended both speeches with “Power to the People.”

So if I come away with anything that I wish to thank my mother for, it is this ability to express myself. She herself has never been one to mince words. It’s not even a conscious act of throwing caution to the wind — its out of her mouth before she gives it a second thought. And so we were raised with this role model. I think I have tried to learn when and when not to speak my mind. But whether its out of stupidity, as my father might have thought, or out of some sort of stubborn determination to say what you feel needs to be said, I thank my mom for this.

Keep saying whatever you need to say, even if we don’t agree. Have a great 93rd year, Mom!

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is newly retired from working 30 years at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She can be reached for comments and critical feedback at [email protected] The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected] 

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