Sketches of an unusual life

Oh! Poston, Why Don’t You Cry for Me?

OH! POSTON, WHY DON’T YOU CRY FOR ME?: AND OTHER STOPS ALONG THE WAY
By Paul M. Okimoto (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris Corporation, 2011, 203 pp., $19.99, paperback)

Paul M. Okimoto’s new self-published volume is less an autobiography than a series of sketches from his unusual life path. In fact, if the phrase “Adventures of a Curious Character” had not already been used as the subtitle for a volume of stories by the physicist Richard Feynmann, it would have served ideally as a descriptor for Okimoto’s memoirs. Okimoto displays an attractive curiosity about people, ideas and art, as well as a thoughtful ability to examine his life for meaning.

Born in Japan (which makes him technically an Issei — a rare survivor of that bygone generation!) Paul Okimoto came to the United States as a tyke, after his father, the Rev. Tameichi Okimoto, was named minister of a church in San Diego — his religious profession exempted him from exclusionary immigration laws. The elder Okimoto had embraced Christianity out of obligation after being nursed by a missionary following an attack of tuberculosis, then met his future wife Kirie (an educated woman who had briefly taught school in Hawai‘i) while at seminary in Tokyo.

The Okimotos had barely time to become established in their new home before their lives were turned over by Executive Order 9066. The family was delayed in being moved because of an outbreak of measles among the Okimoto children. Once the quarantine was lifted, they were driven in Army trucks to Santa Anita, Calif., where Paul’s youngest brother was born, and subsequently on to Poston, Ariz.

The book presents some brief but compelling images of Japanese American removal and camp life, viewed through a young boy’s eyes. In one tender episode, Okimoto describes his bewilderment (and retrospective gratitude) at the appearance of a teacher from San Diego, who travelled all the way to Poston to check on her former pupil. One poignant story reveals how Okimoto’s father, who long refused to talk about his wartime experience, continued long after the war to have nightmares about it and shout in his sleep.

Still, Okimoto declines to dwell exclusively on the camp experience, which he insists should be viewed in perspective. Rather, much of the book is devoted to his description of life after camp. He describes the family’s return west and his temporary residence in ghettos amid African American friends.

He likewise examines his coming of age and his complex relations with his parents. Okimoto describes his mother as generous and almost smothering in her love — he jokes, “Jewish and Japanese males have something in common: They both have Jewish mamas.” Her early death would leave a great shadow on the family. Conversely, Okimoto refers repeatedly, if obliquely, to his clashes with his father. Though the Rev. Okimoto was a man of great wisdom and was laudably not-defensive about his Christian faith, he was emotionally distant, and Paul felt the burden of being a “preacher’s kid.” (It is interesting to compare the glimpses of Tameichi Okamoto in this book with the descriptions in Paul’s brother Daniel Okimoto’s still-powerful 1971 memoir “American in Disguise.”)

In the end, the young Paul rebelled against his parents and their expectations. “There is nothing more boring than having your life mapped out for you,” he notes in a revealing and deceptively casual aside. He decides to seek his own way — to see the world and experience many different things. Okimoto joined the Army and spent several years in Europe. There he studied medicine in France, discovered judo and became a lifelong adept, and developed a passionate love for classical music and opera. One intriguing portion of the book is its unsparing insight, still fairly rare in Japanese American literature, into the author’s intimate life. Okimoto analyses his successive marriages to two remarkable women — most notably Hanne, a German woman who fled over the Berlin Wall — and he narrates with contagious delight his experiences as a father to his four sons.

Paul Okimoto’s wonderfully readable book of sketches, like the author’s life, is resolutely nonlinear and remains incomplete — Okimoto himself seems uncertain of the overall message. He does succeed, however, in communicating his joie de vivre, a quality of gusto for daily living that seems almost as outmoded and unfamiliar today as the phrase itself.

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