About the series
The North American Post’s new series explores the family history of people in Seattle’s Nikkei community. This first article is delivered by two Seattle University students, Sharon Ideguchi and Minami Hasegawa. Two students interviewed Sharon’s aunty Yako who lives in Hawaii about Sharon’s family history and her great grandfather Miyoshi, who moved to Hawaii from Kumamoto, Japan.
by Sharon Ideguchi,
At first, her voice is scratchy as her phone connects to mine across thousands of miles of sea, me sitting in a dorm room at Seattle University and her sitting at home in Hawaii. It instantly brings a smile to my face to hear her cheery voice, and I am reminded of family reunions and summers in Hawaii. As I introduce my colleague, Minami, to my aunty Yako, my grandfather’s sister, I have so many questions in my mind. It is interesting to think about the little things that I never got around to asking anyone about my family. My whole life, I have been surrounded by people with so many memories, so many stories of past lives, but I’ve never heard the tales. As my aunty orients herself to the conversation, I ask her little things: how she is doing, what her day is like. She is busy most mornings and likes to stay active, which I have always admired her for. When I was little, I used to think Japanese people were immortal. We came from a land of dragons and sea monsters after all, visions of grandeur I got from a children’s book in my elementary school. I remember announcing proudly to my friends that I was Japanese and these were my people as I showed them the vibrant colors of a dancing dragon over an ornate palace. It may not have been the most realistic representation of Japan but it made me proud. That kind of pride in the place that you come from can sometimes be hard to find in a place like the US. This dichotomy is reinforced as I explain to my aunty that I am writing an article about our family and listen to her ensuing excitement. She almost yells when I tell her that I am getting a Japanese minor at school and I will be studying at a university in Tokyo in a year. Her voice crescendos with remarks about the Ideguchi name staying strong. She is among one of the last of my family who still speaks Japanese and it worries her that as our family stays here longer and longer, we are slowly losing our ties to Japan. After all, my father and his siblings were never taught Japanese, and it is only through the efforts of my brother and me that we have learned Japanese in school. When I think about why we try so hard to reconnect to our heritage, I always picture that dragon, beautiful and mysterious belonging in a land far away but that feels like home. I have always wanted to know that home.
With that in mind, we begin the interview broadly, asking what she remembers from when our family first came to America. Excitedly, she detours the conversation to tell us that my aunty Naomi has been trying to rebuild our family tree. I nod along as I look at the papers my aunty sent me earlier that week. In front of me are three pieces of copy paper, written on them in black ink is my life. Starting with my great great grandfather and grandmother, the tree extends down and out to encapsulate the many iterations of the Ideguchi family. There is my great grandfather Miyoshi whose name is my middle name, Sharon Kate Miyoshi Ideguchi; next to him my great grandmother, Tsuya. From them comes my grandfather Hisashi whose name is my older brother’s middle name, Elliot Hisashi Kalani Ideguchi. For a moment, I rest at Hisashi’s name, focusing on how meaningful it is to have the names of my family as part of my name, always standing as a reminder of our history.
Returning to the conversation, Minami asks my aunty what our family was like when we first came to America. I can feel the sun in her voice as she explains our life here. In 1914, my great grandfather Miyoshi immigrated to Honolulu, Hawaii. When asked why, my aunty gave the answer that seems to lie behind every immigration story: he was looking for a better life. Apparently, there was nothing left for Miyoshi in Japan; he could either accept life as a farmer in his home of Kumamoto Prefecture, or he could travel to America and try his fortune there. At the young age of fifteen, he decided to leave the only home he had ever known and came to the US; he would never return to Japan. According to my aunty, Miyoshi was a kindhearted man and he used the money he could spare to send his wife Tsuya back to Japan to see her family, but never himself. He worked hard for his family, he made a good life for them and subsequently, a good life for me. Arriving in Hawaii, he worked as a field laborer, the only work for any Asian person in Hawaii really, and began my family’s history of working on plantations. My great grandfather and my family worked on plantations for many years, first at a place called Mokuleia, or Dillingham Ranch, and then at the Takeyama pineapple camps.
Miyoshi and his son, Hisashi, my grandfather, were gardeners at Dillingham Ranch and each day they were responsible for watering the abundant foliage on the grounds. Listening to my aunty recount the story of my grandfather and his time on the ranch, I feel the smile grow on my face, reaching a peak as she begins talking about my great grandfather’s banyan trees. There were two banyan trees that my great grandfather planted at the gates of the Dillingham plantation — one on the right side of the gate and one on the left side. Beginning as seeds, those trees were watered every day by Miyoshi and Hisashi, a task that meant carrying water from the central part of the plantation, miles to the gates. The trees started as seeds, no bigger than the palm of your hand, and now they are gigantic, towering over the entrance of the ranch. When I was thirteen, I got to see his banyan trees in person, and the feeling of seeing those giant, healthy trees was one of joy and pride. My grandfather died before I ever got to know him, but his trees still mark the entrance to my history in Hawaii and while the Dillinghams are gone now, my grandfather’s trees continue to grow. Echoing my
aunty’s sentiment, these trees are a historical marker of our family and something we will always be proud of.
After the Dillingham Ranch, my aunty Yako began to recount some of the things her siblings and she did in their early days in Hawaii. The family lived in a pineapple camp called Takeyama Camp where the whole family picked pineapples for the popular company, Dole. Camps like these were the birthplace of many of the key characteristics of Hawaii today including Hawaiian Pidgin English, which my family still speaks when we are together. Pidgin is a form of communication created by workers on the sugarcane plantations that uses words from multiple Asian languages including Japanese, Cantonese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, Korean and English. Because so many different people were brought to Hawaii to work on plantations, they had to have a way to communicate and from the mixing of cultures and peoples came Pidgin. So while the work at these plantations was often extremely strenuous and physical, it was also the cultural center for many Japanese-American lives in Hawaii during the war. I can hear the nostalgia in my aunty’s voice as she recalls those days.
Besides the pineapple plantation, my aunty explains that during the war while she was still young, she and her siblings didn’t have school on Fridays so that they could go work at a Victory Garden. A Victory Garden is a garden planted during WWI and WWII that is meant to supply vegetables to the US Army. Listening to my aunty talk about her time picking potatoes, beans and tomatoes for the war effort, I am transported to another time. Often the war seems so long ago, but as a young girl, she lived through it and even participated in the “war effort.” Or as she musingly called it, “the supposed war effort.” I don’t think picking vegetables on a Friday was her definition of fun back then.
Trailing off, my aunty Yako gets quiet, having finished her story, and I wait a moment before responding. I love hearing about the rich lives I am a product of. Before I can speak, she interjects to tell us that there is a couple in Hawaii that specializes in finding people’s family histories. Apparently, this couple is going to Japan to look more into our family history. I smile at the idea of getting to know more about my family. The reality is we don’t know much about our history before the 1900s, and I can hear the delight in my aunty’s voice at the prospect of us finding more of our heritage out there. She tells me to call back often because soon there will be more news of our family.
Hanging up, I have a warm feeling in my chest as I think about my family. Sometimes, being a mixed-race individual can be hard in a world that values homogeny. It can feel like you don’t really have a place, that you’re neither here nor there. But learning about my family, learning about the courage they had to come to this country and start new lives, it gives me courage to find a place for myself, too. After all, my family comes from dragons and dragons never give up or back down.
Sharon Ideguchi is a sophomore majoring in business and Japanese language at Seattle University. Her father is a third-generation Nikkei who was born and raised in Hawaii. Sharon was raised in Tacoma with her father and Irish American mother. She will study at Sophia University in Tokyo as an exchange student for spring semester next year (pictured on the right).
Minami Hasegawa is an exchange student at Seattle University from Sophia University in Tokyo. She majors in journalism and interns at the North American Post. Born and raised in Tokyo, her stay in Seattle is her first experience away from home (pictured on the left).
Read Ideguchi Family history article by Minami Hasegawa in Japanese: