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Records of a Japanese woman married to a Kibei-Nisei: Masako Kato of Montebello, California - Part 2 The switch from a wonderfully surreal new life to a path of bitter struggle

Read Part 1 >>

A week after their meeting at Aiko Yamano’s home, Masako and Mitsuo Kato had their wedding. From their wedding album, one can tell how extremely luxurious of a wedding it must have been at the time.

Masako was outfitted in an edgy design made of lace, and her katsura (traditional headpiece) was a new-age creation made of netting, as opposed to the heavy, traditional pieces. On top of that, even the makeup for the bride was provided by Aiko herself, as she was a prominent figure in the beauty industry.

“At the time there were only monochrome photos available in Japan, but Mitsuo had gotten a hold of some color film, and since the color film worked well outdoors, we gathered everybody at the roof of the building and took a picture. Also, back in 1956, there were no such traditions as wedding cakes at Japanese weddings, but Aiko had the idea to provide a gorgeous wedding cake for the occasion.”

There is a strong sense of happiness that emanates from the photo of the groom feeding the cake to the bride—such happiness that makes it hard to believe that they had only met for the first time just a week before.

After the ceremony, they left for a honeymoon in Hakone and Kansai. After that, as soon as Masako prepared her belongings, they headed to America on a Pan-American Airline flight. This was in 1956, when heading to the US by boat was the more common method of transportation.

“The airport we left from was Haneda. My family in Japan saw me off from the observation stand.”
At 24, Masako had grasped a hold of her dream of life in America.

In Los Angeles, her mother-in-law, Hana, had gotten the newlyweds a hotel room nearby the Daruma Café, which she owned.

“It was called Metropol Hotel, and it was very close to ‘Daruma’. When you went in, there were two separate rooms, and it even had a bath area. She had gotten us a wonderful room. Mitsuo was out helping at the café, but I got pregnant right away, so I wasn’t at the store much.”

Eventually, the couple would purchase a home away from Little Tokyo in Montebello. It was one of the newly constructed houses built on what used to be a fig tree farm.

However, it was soon after the purchase of this house—the house in which she still lives today—that would bring an end to the American life that Masako had grown up dreaming about.

“We moved here in 1960. Our first daughter and son were already born. Just after that, the demolition of the property containing Daruma—which Mitsuo had taken over from his mother—was announced. We hadn’t heard or been notified of anything about the redevelopment plan for Little Tokyo, so we had borrowed $60,000 from the bank for remodeling. That’s $60,000 in a time when this house was worth $30,000. After remodeling, we had gone to the building owner to renew the lease, but they wouldn’t let us. That’s when we found out about the planned demolition of the property. The owner of the building wasn’t Japanese—I think he may have been Jewish.”

After completing the renovation and just as their business was about to boom, the Katos had lost their restaurant. Instead, what was left behind was a large amount of debt.

However, there was no time for stopping and sobbing if they wanted to survive. The couple soon opened a Japanese restaurant near their home on Wilcox Avenue.

“It’s a Japanese restaurant, but there weren’t many Japanese around the area, so we would make and serve hamburgers and such during lunch. Mitsuo, the culinary school graduate, worked really hard to make the food, and we worked hand-in-hand as husband and wife. We stayed open late until 11 pm, would chop the cabbage after closing in preparation for the following day, and we even headed out to Little Tokyo upon hearing that a Tofu shop was opening up sales at 2:30 am. We didn’t have time to look after our kids, so during that time we had to have them stay over at our friends’ place and asked them to babysit for us. Some nights, as we drove to the Tofu shop in the middle of the night, we’d say to each other, ‘How easy would it be if we just kept going—if we just crossed over to the other side (to die) like this…’”

It was during such a time that Masako’s parents contacted her from Tokyo, wanting to make a visit to see how she was living in America. Masako thought that there was no way she could show herself in the current state—hitting rock-bottom—to her parents, who had allowed her to leave Japan for America. The couple then abandoned their restaurant they ran for two years in order to welcome her parents over.

“At the time we had a tiny car, but in order to take my parents around town, Mitsuo bought a station wagon. Yes, I think we were [spending] over our means.”

Satisfied, Masako’s parents returned to Japan without ever finding out the truth.

Part 3 >>

© 2009 Keiko Fukuda

little tokyo restaurant