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Japan Journal

Talking With A “Returnee” - Part 2 of 2

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(Continuation of Mrs. Kamata’s story

I guess I longed for Canada…

Naturally, as I did in Canada, I wore my Japonica (rusty orange) coloured veiled hat, a fur coat, and high heels when I went outside. People would look back and stare as though I were doing something wrong! In those times the women wore hyojyun fuku as standard clothing, somewhat like the upper half of a kimono with tight sleeves and baggy pants (monpe), tight at the ankles and tied at the waist with a belt.

We didn’t go into Sendai often. We had to walk Fukudamachi, then take the Sanseki-sen train. Farm women would go to Sendai about three times a year: New Year’s shopping, obon, and Omatsuri (Tanabata).

We didn’t even get a telephone until about thirty-one years ago (1968), when my youngest son was 26. He’s 57 now.

After World War Two, after peace was declared in 1945, I got a job as an interpreter at the Tagajo American Officer’s Club at Camp Shimmelphing (now a Japan Defense Force Base) under Master Sergeant Cline. After that, I did office work for the military police. I also taught English to employees at the camp. I went to Camp Sendai (in Kawauchi), then Funaoka Camp, the last place where they had the military police before moving to Tokyo, in the Fifties. My husband could understand English, but he had trouble speaking it, so he worked as a guard at the Tagajo Dependent Housing area.

Then I later worked at the new Grand Hotel Sendai situated on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors of the newly completed Tohoku Electric Power Company in Sendai. I enjoyed every minute working with the Americans and being able to use English as if I were at home in Canada.

I love Canada, my birth place. I will never forget the happy days with my Canadian friends. I’ll always remember a Finnish woman and her family living near us in Sunbury. Mrs. Hilma Skagman was a “Mother Teresa” to all of us Nikkei. She was such a good friend who taught us how to cook and bake. I sill correspond with her daughter Eleanor Neave who’s 83 now and living in Victoria.

* * *

There was a pause in the conversation.

She shows me pictures of her gateball team posed after winning a local tournament. She mentions that another Canadian Nisei who lives in Sendai, Joe Nakamura, is a good friend and a regular visitor.

We chat about our mutual impressions of the Japanese from a decidedly Nikkei point of view. Even though our first Japan experiences are 60 years apart, there is still much to share.

“In Vancouver, we used to use a mix of English and Japanese that wasn’t at all fashionable. When I first arrived here I was discouraged from using English. When I spoke English, everyone stared. Now, of course, most young people speak this way.”

We chuckle over the strange use of English which is typically described singularly as kakkoii (cool) by young Japanese, hence the immense popularity of Hollywood movies, the general worship of white westerners, and thank goodness, eikaiwa English conversation schools.

Unfortunately, the persistent use of katakana (script specifically for foreign words) perpetuates generally bad English pronunciation (i.e. sarada – salad; Bankuubaa – Vancouver; Makudonarudo – MacDonald’s) or more easy to understand abbreviations like “Kentucky” (for Kentucky Fried Chicken). Young students learn to read English with katakana pronunciation, which leads to many bad habits.

Something I’ll never get used to here is the cult-of-cute that women don’t ever really seem to grow out of, Mrs. Kawata agreed.

Mrs. Kawata seems to have returned to Japan at just the right time, before the onset of war and fomenting of hatreds. Being married to a Japanese man from an important local family must have softened the transition into a culture that didn’t always welcome Nikkei warmly.

* * *

Mrs. Kamata restarted talking about her life in Japan.

I still have two brothers in Canada: Tatsu “Gramps” Onodera is in Fort Garry, Ontario, and Takeo Onodera moved back to Vancouver in 1988. I have a sister (Nobe Atsumi) in New York; we went for a visit in 1985. (Another sister, Yasu Atsumi lives in Saitama, they both married Hawaiian Nisei brothers who were U.S. soldiers). My oldest brother Hideo “Hyde” Onodera died in a car crash a few months prior to our visit. Still, we had a wonderful reunion with relatives and friends. Hyde’s two Sansei daughters, Shirley Mieko Clark and Elaine Kazue, live in Los Angeles and were wonderful hostesses for us. Shirley feels especially close to Japan.

I certainly do think that it’s important for the Sansei and Yonsei to stay in touch with Japan. Their ancestors are Japanese, so they must not forget that. They must learn to speak the language and know the culture of Japan. Still, you must never forget that you were born in Canada.

I’m sure that if Niseis and Sanseis come to live here, they’ll feel as I did 58 years ago. Most common folk still don’t have heating or modern home facilities as you do. Kotatsu and kerosene heaters are about all. (*The Kamadas recently rebuilt their family home three years ago, a modern western style with two tatami rooms and six western style rooms.)

Japan is very beautiful place for sight-seeing in all seasons. Many people who have come here have told me that people are very polite and helpful. I don’t know who said that contentment is “taking a Japanese wife, living in a western home, and eating Chinese food.” Maybe it’s true.

I live in Miyagi Prefecture in Tagajo City, Tsurugaya. Tagajo has a population of about 60,000. My district, Tsurugaya, is blessed in every way: two tennis courts and a very large baseball field. This is all within walking distance from my home. I guess I’ll live the rest of my life here as my four children (Mari, 60, born in Vancouver; Nori, 58; Tsuyoshi, 56; Kenjiro, 54) are well settled near by. I’m getting on in years, anyway.

I think that it’s great that young Japanese children are travelling and brushing up on their English. But unless they have some kind of special talent, I think they’d still be happier living in Japan. Perhaps the young ones would say, “You’re ages behind!”

I think about my close friends who are still living in Canada, but I don’t know if they remember me that well. I think about that a great deal.


*This article was originally published in the Nikkei Voice in April 1999.

© 1999 Norm Ibuki

Canada Japan nikkei returnee World War II

About this series

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.