By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
ON SUNDAY, JAN. 13, the new NHK World documentary, “Houses for Peace, Exploring the Legacy of Floyd Schmoe” (2018, 50 minutes) was screened at Kane Hall on the UW campus. The program reviews the life and work of the late Seattle-based peace activist Floyd Schmoe. He is best known for building houses in post-war Hiroshima as a goodwill gesture to the people of Japan.
The special showing was widely attended. Held in room 120, which holds 440, the room was packed! Many of our Nikkei community thinkers, movers, and shakers—the people we read about frequently in these pages—were there.
The NHK director and researcher in attendance found the tremendous community turnout gratifying. The Floyd Schmoe story is familiar to Seattleites. A Quaker conscientious objector who served as a stretcher bearer in WWI France, Schmoe was dismayed during WWII over what he saw as poor treatment of Japanese Americans. Accordingly he resigned his UW forestry faculty post to spend the balance of that war doing what he could to help JAs. The documentary points out that he was instrumental in helping 2,600 Nisei escape internment camps mid-war to attend inland colleges.
After the war, Mr. Schmoe did another unthinkable thing. Feeling badly for survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he made repeated trips there to do what he could to make a difference.
Kuniko Ishihara, then a young girl and A-bomb burn victim who watched the new houses go up in her neighborhood, describes the scene.
“Nan de, gaijin-san ga Nihon-jin to isshou [ni] natte, daiku-san mitai na shigoto [wo] surun kanaa… Fushigite fushigite kamawan…” [Why are foreigners and Japanese doing carpentry work together? It was strange and wondrous…]
A sign Mr. Schmoe erected on the work site says it all.
“Houses for Hiroshima 1. To build understanding. 2. By building houses. 3. That there may be peace.”
During the screening and the panel discussion following it, it was hard not to feel “Yokatta”—I am glad I came. The panel featured the two NHK team members as well as Jean Walkinshaw, who was a par t of a Seat tle team accompanying Mr. Schmoe to Japan in 1951. The descendants of another Seattle volunteer, African-American Daisy Tibbs, were also in the room, as were Mr. Schmoe’s descendants and second wife, Mrs. Tomiko Schmoe. The latter met him as a college-student volunteer on the home-building project. The director and reporter shared their experiences making the new documentary. The former spoke of spending days in the UW library with the Schmoe papers; the latter of writing a news story that evolved into the documentary.
Following the auditorium gathering, the word went around to those still chatting in the hall that there was an unpublicized reception in the library. As “anyone could attend,” I thought, why not?
FROM THE FILM, discussion, and later reception, I learned many details:
1. That Mr. Schmoe’s widely known period of serving as a winter caretaker for the old Paradise Lodge, at Mount Rainier, immediately followed his return from France. The quiet work, which involved becoming intentionally snowed in, gave him the peace and natural serenity he needed to recover from the psychological trauma of having participated in WWI.
2. That Schmoe was not acting on a whim in building houses in Hiroshima. He had spent 14 months doing so in France after WWI, so he knew the work. He also appreciated what a home means for war-displaced families.
3. That Schmoe made a conscious choice to include all kinds of American volunteers. He emphasized women, probably because the Japanese people already had plentiful opportunities to meet American men who were in country as Occupation troops. That is how Ms. Walkinshaw joined an expedition. She happened to meet him at a Quaker gathering, and was invited later that day. Similarly, in Ms.Tibbs, Mr. Schmoe saw an opportunity for Japanese people to meet a black woman. They would later touch her hair. The Tibbs family today is friends with the local Aki Kurose family.
4. That all building materials had to be brought from the US, as nothing was available in destitute post-war Hiroshima. This included lumber, of course, but also window glass and wiring.
5. That the summer volunteers were organized into crews of 40, comprised of Japanese and American volunteers, under a local Japanese carpenter who supervised the work. Newspaper articles were used to recruit the Japanese volunteers.
6. That Mr. Schmoe worked with the city of Hiroshima to ensure that the 21 houses built during the five years of his program went only to the poorest of the poor. These included the A-bomb injured, widows with multiple children, and Korean families living in the country (who face discrimination).
7. That Mr. Schmoe first arrived in Japan in July 1948 as a “herdsman” accompanying 250 goats, including 40 milk-producing nannies. The goats were destined for orphanages and TB hospitals. It was distributing the goats that first brought him to Hiroshima, where he hit on the idea of building his first house there. It was arguably the landscape of the worst American bombing of civilians. On returning to Seattle, he began fundraising with his Christmas card list.
8. That the work was continued in Nagasaki by a protégé.
12. That Schmoe’s work is remembered in Japan today. In Nagasaki, a modern Schmoe public housing complex occupies the site, where several of the residents grew up in the original Schmoe housing. In Hiroshima, the sole surviving house has been renovated as a
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
ALL IN ALL, Floyd Schmoe’s life serves as testimony to what one person can do. The new documentary succeeds in retelling his story exceptionally well for a new generation. It does so through interweaving firsthand interviews with participants on both sides of the Pacific, while doing so is still possible.
How Mr. Schmoe inf luenced the lives of younger people around him was evident at the reception, where I was able to sit down and talk with Jean Walkinshaw. Before Japan, she had never met Japanese people. She came home to start “Face to Face” (KING5), the first TV show in the nation to consistently feature minority stories. She described making a documentary on the George Tsutakawa family (represented in this newspaper by Deems).
THE LASTING POWER of Floyd Schmoe’s legacy comes f rom his morality authority of doing what is right, even when it is not popular. He believed in taking action instead of merely spouting words. His viewpoint was that to be a passive bystander is to be complicit.
In the latter spirit, I will close with an ancient Chinese proverb I recently came across that fits our reality today.
“When the wind of change blows, some build walls. Other s build windmills.”
PS. “Houses for Peace” is on YouTube; reviewing that unofficial reposting helped me write this essay.