Celebrating a Century, Day by Precious Day

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Reflecting on a life well-lived for Kikuko Tanamachi’s 100th birthday.

Kikuko Tanamachi and grandson Kristofer Isamu Galvan, M.D. share a birthday.

By DEBORAH TANAMACHI GALVAN

For the past 42 years on Sept. 30, my family has been celebrating both my mother and son’s birthday … two very special and dearly loved people.

Happy Happy Birthday, Mom and Kristofer! We wish you two a joyous day full of His love and blessings!

But today is an extra special and a very momentous birthday for my family because today my mother, Kikuko Nakao Tanamachi, is celebrating her 100th birthday!

On Sept. 30, 1920, Mom’s late parents Teizo and Chika Nakao celebrated the coming of autumn and beautiful fall colors with the birth of their first child, a daughter they appropriately name Kikuko, meaning chrysanthemum … the early autumn blooming flower. She was born in San Pedro and grew up in the nearby fishing community of Terminal Island. She had two younger brothers, Taira and Sadao, and a younger sister, Ikuko.

Kikuko in the uniform she wore when she worked in the tunafish canneries at Terminal Island.

The young family was soon in the process of packing to return to Wakayama as her father, Teizo, was to take over the Nakao family’s fishing business when word that his beloved mother-in-law, the family matriarch, had died in Japan. Teizo decided to stay in America, never to return to Japan.

Mom’s family experienced very hard times during the Great Depression. Teizo worked in the fishing industry while Chika worked in the local tuna canneries. Fourteen-year-old Kikuko was not afraid of helping out her family financially and began working at the tuna cannery.

Each cannery had its own distinct whistle, so when Mom heard her cannery’s whistle at any given time sounding off, she knew the day’s tuna catch had arrived. There was work to be done and she often had to chose working to earn money for her family instead of going to school. With her money she bought material to have a dress made for younger sister Iku for a family portrait and was even able to purchase a new Roper stove for her family.

In 1940 when she was only 18 years old, her father died at the young age of 52 years. Kikuko stepped up and reassured her very distraught mother that she was not afraid to work and would be the main breadwinner for their family.

A family portrait from the 1970s. Standing, from left: Laura, Jimmy, Deborah. Sitting, from left: Sandra, Kikuko, Jiro and Diana.

Younger brother Sadao was very intelligent and was to be inducted into his school’s honor society, but Mom tearfully remembers she did not have enough money to buy Sadao a suit that he had requested for his special ceremony. He was the only honor student without a suit that day.

Her life consisted mostly of work at the tuna fish cannery. The younger siblings attended school, played baseball, learned the jitterbug, and even bicycled a newspaper route. The local Baptist church served as a school to learn to speak, write, and read Japanese on Saturdays and on Sundays as a school of worship.

Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which initiated approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese descent (of which over 60% were American citizens) on the West Coast to be forced from their homes within 48 hours and detained in 10 incarceration camps located in the most desolate areas throughout the U.S.

Terminal Island’s approximately 3,500 Issei and Nisei were given only 48 hours to gather only what they could carry. It was the very first West Coast location to be massively evacuated. Kikuko rememberers eating supper when the FBI knocked on their door and entered, searching every inch of her home. One FBI agent asked what that black liquid was on the table, which was soy sauce. She was 21, Taira 18, Sadao 16, and Ikuko 14.

They were instructed by the government to take bed sheets, blankets, personal toiletries, etc…only what they could carry. When her family was loaded onto the flat backbeds of large trucks, she remembers taking one last look at her home and seeing junk dealers hurriedly carrying out the Roper stove she had worked so hard to buy her family.

After the evacuees left Terminal Island, the Navy proceeded in bulldozing down all their homes, properties, businesses, and structures there. The Terminal Island that Kikuko knew was all gone forever.

Kikuko with daughter Diana at Terminal Island, where her family lived until they were uprooted in 1942.

Even though Kikuko’s family had no relatives in the U.S., many lifelong friendships were made at Terminal Island. Kikuko’s family was taken to Norwalk by the Japanese school teacher who taught at their Terminal Island Saturday Japanese classes. Norwalk had not yet been given orders to evacuate their homes and businesses so they were taken to a closed Japanese school where 10 other Terminal Island families stayed in the large school gym and used sheets to partition areas for each family.

The school had restrooms and a kitchen. A Quaker doctor gave them free medical care. His wife invited the women over to their house for tea. Mom felt the kindness and for a moment things felt normal. (Later on in life, Mom was able to meet and thank their daughter on a trip to L.A.)

Kikuko with her younger siblings (from left) Ikuko, Sadao, and Taira.

A couple of months later when the government orders came for Norwalk to evacuate, they were then relocated to Santa Anita Race Track, 30 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There her family of five was given one horse stall to live in for the next six months. Kikuko remembers the horse stall had the stench of horses. She found an old coffee can to remove the straw and horse manure still in the horse stall.

Restroom commodes had no separating partitions between them and group showers were now the norm…very disrespectful and extremely embarrassing. Mom and her friends earned $16/month working in the camp’s mess hall.

After six months, they were boarded on a train with all the windows covered with paper. Three days later they stopped at their new home for the next three years…swamp and snake-infested Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. The huge incarceration camp was enclosed with barbed wire fencing with a tall sentry post located in each corner with armed guards holding loaded guns aimed inward.

At Rohwer there were 8,475 incarcerated evacuees. Kikuko’s family of five lived in a tarpapered room that was about 20 feet x 25 feet. Each long barrack housed four to six of these rooms, each used for one or two families.

Parents Chika and Teizo Nakao with their first-born, Kikuko.

She once again found work in the mess hall. In June of 1943, Kikuko’s mother arranged for her to meet a Texas relative of a Rohwer internee for a possible arranged marriage. This young and dashing man from Texas, Jiro “Jerry” Tanamachi, was very kind, friendly, made her laugh, and was a good conversationalist. which Kikuko liked. She was also told that Jiro did not smoke or drink and would be devoted to his family.

Within five days of meeting, they were married on June 14, 1943, and celebrated their marriage with cookies and punch. (Daddy later said if he could do it all over again, he’d marry Mom in three days instead of five.) Her Japanese school teacher, Kikuye Furutani, who had helped Mom’s family evacuate to the Norwalk school , was Mom’s bridesmaid. The Caucasian preacher that married Mom and Dad was a preacher from Rohwer. (Later in life he came to visit Mom and Dad in Harlingen…what a pleasant surprise!)

She was able to leave the Rohwer camp with her new husband and mother to meet her new family of seven sisters-in-law, five brothers-in-law, nephew, and mother/father-in-law at her new home and farming community in San Benito, Texas.

Kikuko dearly missed her siblings. Sadly, younger brother Sadao could not overcome his depression in Arkansas and committed suicide. Kikuko‘s mother, brother Taira, and sister Iku moved to the Rio Grande Valley to live with Kikuko and Jerry. When Rohwer closed in November 1945, each evacuee was given $25.

Brother Taira joined the U.S. Military Intelligence Service since he could read, write, and speak Japanese fluently and eventually served during the occupation of Japan. Sister Ikuko met and married successful Donna, Texas, farmer “Happy” Kitayama, who also served during WWII in the famed 442nd RCT. The segregated all-Japanese American Army combat team was the most decorated unit for the number of soldiers and length of service in all of U.S. military history … many of its soldiers serving while their families were incarcerated behind barbed wire.

In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which allowed Japanese immigrants to become naturalized citizens. Kikuko and Jerry, along with all Nisei living in the Rio Grande Valley, held a celebratory dinner for all their Issei parents in honor of their becoming naturalized US citizens. After President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Kikuko and sister Iku each received $20,000 as reparations for all survivors of WWII’s incarceration camps.

During all her hardships, Mom practiced gaman — the Japanese term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity” — and practiced her belief in God, evident in her perspective and actions of how she had coped and heals from effects of her past racial trauma by continuing life always mindful of others and stepping in to take care of her family in so many ways.

She has been known by many names…affectionately nicknamed ”Kik” by her late husband Jerry; called “Nesan” by her baby sister Iku, respectfully meaning older sister in Japanese; Mom, Mama, Auntie, Aunt Kiku, Kiku-san, Kiku-chan, Kik-chan, Kiku, Kiko, Grandma, and lovingly Grandma Machi.

She is greatly treasured by many family members and lovingly took them into her home with a happy heart…many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. Many have thanked her for caring for them during hard times in their own lives.

You can tell how much she is loved when family were named in Mom’s honor…Denise Kikuko, Isabella Kikuko, Emily Kikuko. Many friends recall when they were teenagers how they would ask for a temporary job for money needed for school clothes or just for a date with a girlfriend. Mom was happy to create any kind of day job just to help out.

In Norwalk, Kikuko and her daughter visited the daughter of Dr. William and Miriam Bruff, Quakers from Whittier who helped Japanese Americans forcibly removed from Terminal Island. Seated, from left: Kazue Izumi and Kikuko. Standing, from left: Kazue’s daughter Susan, Miriam Bruff Covington and Diana Parr.

Staying engaged in some form with dear family and friends is important to Mom. Every month Mom and her women friends wound meet at a local restaurant… happy to catch up on news about their grandkids’ latest accomplishments, weddings, births, etc. concerning their families. The men had to sit together at another table in a different room. She also enjoyed visiting with friends in nursing homes just to make their day a little brighter.

Kikuko is on the right. Her last remaining Terminal Island friend, Hisayo Matsumoto, is on the left.

And I’m happy to say that looking back now we were all there in at least one of these get-togethers and conversations with Mom and her generation at one time or another to see, experience, and learn first-hand what it means to really stay in touch and share in another’s life. Many refer to her as the friendliest, kindest, sincerest, most generous and helpful person and still remember her on her birthday, holidays, or just to visit.

Many of Mom’s family and friends have passed away … some very recent. Mom told me just this morning that she only has one Terminal Island friend that is still alive and that she still writes letters to, Hisayo Matsumoto, who lives in San Antonio with her daughter’s family. In her most recent letter, Hisayo is telling Mom her daughter is teaching her how to play the piano … a piano that was a birthday gift to her daughter when she turned 10 years old. In Hisayo’s recent handwritten letter, she continues by informing Mom that she can now play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”… all at 99 years old!

Mom’s beauty is natural both inside and outside, but Mom believes in cultivating your own beauty in your surroundings. Every one of her daughters’ home she has visited and lived in was sure to have Mom plant a small garden with beautiful flowers and plants. She gives advice whether you ask or not on what should be planted, what should be removed, what would go great with what, etc., etc., and she’s always right.

Once she planted new petunias in my mailbox planter. The next morning we noticed the plants had been dug up and dumped on the sidewalk. I discovered that Mom had replanted the petunias with a note for the perpetrator tucked carefully in a plastic sandwich bag next to her freshly replanted petunias. The note dated, 10-16-94, read:

“Please do not pull me out again! I want to grow up into a beautiful flower so everybody can enjoy me and smell me. I know you want to grow up to be a beautiful, useful person someday. Let’s take care of ourselves. God bless!”

The next morning under constant undercover surveillance, Mom caught the culprit in the act … the neighbor’s matronly Labrador dog nose-digging in the fresh dirt.

Mom’s hearing has greatly diminished and her bone-on-bone knees have eventually limited her walking ability, but it never stops Mom from exercising her mind. She enjoys reading the daily newspaper from beginning to end, magazines, announcements, articles that she has cut out and wants you to read, TV news, and cheering on her favorite sports‘ athletes in golf, tennis, the Dallas Cowboys, and keeping up with the grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren‘s involvement with work, tennis, soccer, football, basketball, baseball, drawing, acting, gymnastics, music in violin, piano, drums, taking their first steps, speaking their first words, and especially keeping up with great-grandchildren in their academics!

She‘s taught grandchildren katakana, which is the first stage of Japanese writing. The list goes on and on. She never forgot any of her many loved ones’ birthdays … or a friend’s birthday … with loving cards that have to correctly describe that person, always including a gift and a long handwritten note specifically meant for that special person. Every gift she has received is followed up with the mandatory “thank you” letter. Sometimes a thank you letter is followed by Mom’s thank you for your thank you letter!

So many have reached out to Mom days ago and beginning early this morning with sweet videos, texts, flowers, cards, gifts, drawings … and trust me when I say Mom is going to put her heart and soul into each thank you card to show her appreciation for your remembering her on her momentous birthday celebration … with grandson Kris, who Mom always wants to be sure to include.

To celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday today and always, Mom would like for you to stay closely connected to family and friends, practice cultivating with grace and hard work the beauty that surrounds you, constantly be educated by exercising your mind, be kind and mindful of others, and pass on God’s love through gaman.

Photos courtesy of Deborah Tanamachi Galvan and Sandra Tanamachi

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