The Nakazawa Redwood


There is a redwood. Rather inconspicuous in the backyard of an ordinary residence in south Berkeley. It is an inconspicuous as the man who planted it some 70 years ago. Mr. Nakazawa was Japanese by birth and the Japanese were denied naturalization no matter how long they lived and worked in this country. They were not good enough to be American. Still, Mr. Nakazawa and his wife chose to say and raise a family. The tree began to grow. As their children grew, they could own their house in their grown child’s name.

During WWII, the Nakazawas were incarcerated at Topaz, Utah. When they returned at the end of the war, nothing was left in the garden except the redwood. Mr. Nakazawa died shortly after. Broken in heart and spirit.

The original house is long gone and much of the yard is covered with concrete. But the redwood is still there in the northwest corner of the lot watching the comings and goings of families that included Richard Aoki, the Nakazawas’ grandson, who became the Black Panther Grand Marshal.

The current resident, Jill Togawa, deeply touched by the rich layers of history of the place, devoted much time and energy in researching the Japanese experience in the neighborhood. The result is the three-day presentation of a uniquely inclusive performance program, titled “When Dreams Are Interrupted” given on Oct. 9, 10 and 11, 2009 at Togawa’s residence outdoors.

It was open to the public and people of all ages and from all walks of life came. Young children, infants, students, workers, elderly persons of well over 90 people, all came to the house on a quiet street south of Dwight Way. Before seated they stood silently along the driveway as the procession of four dancers entered the site each carrying a battered suitcase. They walked in slow motion with their eyes downcast. Two musicians accompanied them, one with a gong and another playing a bamboo flute. Their deliberate holding back of normal movement was excruciating to watch, but by the time they finally reached the inner corner of the backyard and settled around a pile of suitcases in tableau vivant, the audience was one with the performers in breathing in the sacredness of the place and bearing the unbearable pain of long ago.

The program opened with Janice Mirikitani’s recorded voice reading the names of the Japanese families who lived in the neighborhood; Yamadas, Yamashiros, Yamotes. Street by street, block by block. It was a moving invocation. Then unique personal stories were told through dance. Music was profoundly spiritual although not traditional Japanese.

The world was conceived by Jill Togawa, founder and director of Purple Moon Dance Project and carried out by many artists of all races and ethnicities. Had Mr. Nakazawa been here, he would have been astonished to see such diversity in the make ups of production personnel and audience. Such integration was no doubt beyond anyone’s imagination in his days. In his days, dreams were interrupted. Those dreams are now picked up by later generations. They are examined and cherished, and upheld proudly as a part of reality belonging to all peoples.

The show that started in somber notes with suppressed emotions ended with joyous outbursts of energy and optimism affirming that we are all interconnected. Any injustice suffered by one segment of the population affects the whole. The recovery of a people to health and growth is the cause for celebration for all. The show quietly reminded us of unfinished business in many minority communities in America. We stand with the people who suffer under persecution. We offer then support just as some of the non-Japanese neighbors did for us in our darkest hours. A Quakers group called the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) helped placing thousands of students in colleges in Midwest and finding jobs and housing for the families. The last day performance was dedicated to the interfaith organizations of temples and churches and others that helped the people of Japanese ancestry during WWII.

After-performance refreshments of hot tea, doughnuts and cookies were in offered remembrance of the tables that AFSC people used to set up for Japanese Americas at the time of evacuation. People stayed around talking to old friends as well as strangers.

On the same day at about the same time across the bay in San Francisco, a scholar and Nichi Bei Weekly’s frequent contributor, Greg Robinson of University of Quebec was giving a talk at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Robinson wrote in one of his books, “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America” about Sanji Abe, a Nisei senator of Hawai‘i whose life was ruined because of a Japanese flag found or planted among state property in a theater.

Jill Togawa is a fourth-generation Japanese American from Honolulu. These episodes are not new to her. Her mother and grandparents were incarcerated at Heat Mountain, Wyoming.

A few miles from Togawa’s residence on UC Berkeley’s campus, a two-day conference was held on the previous two days in the same weekend commemorating the 50th anniversary of UCB’s Center for Japanese Studies. Scholars from both sides of the Pacific gathered and discussed U.S. and Japan relations. The focus was on Japanese American history, literature and religion. The lives of Japanese Americans are closely studied from many angles and recorded for future generations.

All this attention, affirmation and appreciation indicates that Mr. Nakazawa along with the other Japanese immigrants and their children cannot be and will never be inconspicuous, nor the  redwood he planted.

Kimi Takemura is the former Nichi Bei Times Berkeley Branch chief. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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