‘Historical portrait’ adeptly conveys Nikkei’s lifestory



Edited by Naomi Shibata (San Jose: Shibata Family Limited Partnership, 2014, 242 pp., $19.95, paperback)

One of my favorite songs by country singer Hank Williams, Jr. — whose political and social philosophy I revile — is “Family Tradition.” The book under review here falls into the same category as that particular record’s title, and does so in a very profound way. Indeed, it was precisely owing to family tradition that Naomi Shibata felt stirred to write “Bend with the Wind” in the first place, and which by her then doing so resulted in that tradition being significantly expanded and enriched.

In the spring of 1980, when I was a visiting professor of history at the San Luis Obispo branch of California Polytechnic State University, I taught a class that was consistent with that institution’s “learn by doing” philosophy. I tasked each student with transacting a tape-recorded interview with a longtime member of the San Luis Obispo County Japanese American community. To assist the students in their fieldwork, I sought out someone in that community to serve as a “key informant” and all-purpose guide. The multiple recommendations I received for someone to discharge this important role all pointed to the same person: Masaji Eto (1916-1999). 

Not only was he someone with personal connections to the Cal Poly campus, but he was also the only son of the man, Tameji Eto (1883-1958), who was arguably the first person of Japanese ancestry to settle in the Central California coastal county of San Luis Obispo. In addition, Masaji Eto was then president of the SLO Japanese American Citizens League chapter. As it turned out, he provided my entire class with useful background information and lined up interviews for all of the students. I was fortunate at this crucial juncture to befriend this congenial and enlightened man, to whom I was now deeply indebted, and to become acquainted at the historic Eto home site in the SLO town of Los Osos with his mother Take Yanahara Eto (1889-1985) and his wife Margaret Hisayasu Eto (1920-2001).

Then in 2005, a year after my wife and I established a vacation residence proximate to the Eto ranch, I was contacted by one of Masaji Eto’s nephews, Samuel Nakamura. A retired executive of a major commercial airline, he sought my counsel about publishing a discovered 1948 unpublished manuscript written by his deceased mother, Toshiko Eto Nakamura (1910-1994), relative to her World War II experience as a nurse at the Manzanar detention camp in eastern California. Four years later, this manuscript, edited and annotated by Samuel Nakamura (with a foreword by me), became a sterling publication entitled “Nurse of Manzanar: A Japanese American’s World War II Journey.”

To my great surprise, Samuel Nakamura again contacted me in late 2012, this time to see if I might assist his cousin Naomi Shibata with the manuscript she was writing about her mother, Grace Eto Shibata, the youngest of Masaji Eto’s seven sisters. In conversing with Naomi Shibata about her work-in-progress, I discovered that her father, Yoshimi Shibata (1916-2016) was the author of the 2006 book “Across Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Nisei Flower Grower” and that the World War II resettlement struggles of one of her aunts, Alice Eto Sumida, and her husband Masuo “Mark” Sumida (1904-1981) were spotlighted in Allen Say’s 2004 children’s book “Music for Alice.” By this time I became acutely aware that books had played an important part in Naomi Shibata’s “family tradition.”

As to her contribution to that dimension of her family’s tradition, “Bend with the Wind,” it is a stunning success, notwithstanding that it is a self-published work and does not bear the imprimatur of a prominent commercial or academic press. This is because Naomi Shibata, whose background is not in the humanities but in the high-tech world of business, is a very intelligent woman with an extraordinarily steep learning curve, someone who in her very first book has achieved estimable proficiency in the entwined crafts of historical editing, historical biography, and family history. By merely thumbing through the pages of “Bend with the Wind” a reader can grasp an appreciation for the research scholarship that its editor (and, I would argue, author) invested in her family project: the proliferation of well-selected and captioned photographs; the assortment of useful illustrations, including maps and documents; the profusion and penetration of her chapter endnotes; the array of diverse and revealing appendices; the carefully constructed and helpful timeline; and the serviceable index.

Upon reading the book, one will readily appreciate the quality of Naomi Shibata’s narrative skills and the fastidious care she has taken to organize her discrete and appropriately titled chapters into an order that facilitates meaningful consumption of their separate and combined content. One comes away from reading “Bend with the Wind” with much more than an appreciation for the challenging and rewarding life history and the noteworthy literary achievements of Grace Eto Shibata (whose writings command one section of the book). Rather, via an extended family perspective, readers are given a resourcefully grounded rendering of what thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry confronted as pioneering immigrants, wartime victims, and postwar survivors.

While I was privileged to write the Preface to “Bend with the Wind,” the best depiction of its value was supplied by Dan Krieger, a professor emeritus of history from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and the foremost historian of San Luis Obispo County and its Japanese American community. In his Foreword, he writes: “Naomi Shibata’s historical portrait of her mother fulfills what to my mind is the most important function of teaching and learning history: to communicate the sense that we who live in the present aren’t the first to encounter difficulties and crises. Others have traveled troubled paths before us and survived with dignity and grace” (pp. x).

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