Yoemon Shinmasu, Life of My Grandfather in Seattle
Vol. 12 Atae’s re-entry into the U.S. and the family’s life afterwards
This is a series on the life of Yoemon Shinmasu, an Issei immigrant from a small fishing village in Yamaguchi Prefecture who made his barbershop business quite a success in Seattle, yet lost his life in an accident in his 40s. Yoemon’s grandson Ikuo was born and raised in Japan and has always been interested in Yoemon’s life in Seattle. He shares what he discovered through his research.
by Ikuo Shinmasu, translated by Mina Otsuka
In the last part, I wrote about Aki’s challenge and her two daughters’ re-entry into the U.S. after Yoemon’s death. This is the final part of the series in which I share the eldest son Atae’s re-entry into the U.S. and the family’s life afterwards.
Atae’s re-entry into America
Due to his father Yoemon’s death, Atae returned to Japan with his mother, Aki, in February 1929. He lived in Kamai and went to Japanese school. For Atae, who was bilingual and had studied at elementary school in Japan when he was little, Japanese school life was not a problem. In April 1930, one year after his return to Japan, he entered Yanai Middle School (currently Yanai High School) on the mainland. Yanai Middle School was one of the well-known prefectural middle schools in Yamaguchi Prefecture, famous for its strong reputation in both academic and athletic education. Just as expected, Atae excelled in English. His grades in Japanese and other classes were also above average. He was the captain of the judo club at Yanai Middle School, and he competed in prefectural championships. Upon entering middle school, he started living in a dorm because he couldn’t commute from Kamai. He became the head of the dorm, well-trusted by his peers.
In April 1935, he entered Doshisha Kosho (high school of commerce, currently Doshisha University). He joined the judo club again and participated in national championships. In those days, however, there were no weight classes in judo competitions, so participants competed all together. As Atae was rather small, he didn’t see much hope in his ability to continue doing judo any longer. He had a strong sense of attachment to his hometown Seattle, which led him to think about going back again and working there. With one thing leading to another, he dropped out of Doshisha Kosho in March 1936. And on June 20, he boarded the Heian-maru from Kobe and headed to Seattle where his mother Aki and sister had re-settled.
There was a work permit dated July 30, 1936, issued by the Department of Health and Sanitation in the city of Seattle.
In Seattle, Atae worked night shifts as an engineer for Alaska Railroad for about five years. I found his work clothes from those days in the house in Kamai. Working night shifts for trains heading to Alaska in the cold winter was awfully hard. Caucasian peers at work often acted violently against Atae because of his Japanese descent.
For the first three years after moving to Seattle, he was able to live with his mother, Aki, and his younger sister, but as I wrote in a previous article, on August 13, 1939, Aki closed her barbershop she had run for years and returned to Japan with her eldest daughter. All of a sudden, Atae’s life changed from the family of three to being alone.
On December 20, 1939, Atae’s uncle, Ryunosuke Yoshida, Yoemon’s business partner in his first barbershop business, passed away. This was a big shock to Atae. To him, Ryunosuke was like his father, who took good care of him after Yoemon’s death.
Atae mourned his uncle’s death. His thoughts were written in his journal. Ryunosuke’s death is written in detail in The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida as well. Atae and Jim Yoshida were cousins, and they had a good relationship in Seattle, sometimes practicing judo together. When this book was published after the war, a copy with Jim Yoshida’s signature was sent to Atae.
In the 1940 Census, there is a record of Atae noted as a 25-year-old living in a boarding house. His address was “218 5th AVE SO SEATTLE.” I also found his driver’s license issued in August 1940.
There were many photos of Atae on his days off when he took his neighbors and relatives for a drive to the suburbs of Seattle. Other times, he went out to see live orchestral performances. I found a lot of newspaper and magazine clips of popular conductors back in those days, such as Leopold Stokowski, Joseph Rosenstock, and Arturo Toscanini.
Atae’s return to Japan
Around the beginning of January 1941, the Shinmasu family in Kamai was worried about Atae because of the rising tensions between Japan and the U.S. Staying in Seattle would result in terrible consequences, they thought, and they wanted Atae to come back to Japan as soon as possible.
“Mother in critical condition. Come back to Japan immediately. Shinmasu.”
The message startled Atae. He soon went to get a departure permit the following day on January 9, with this telegram in hand. On this permit, it is written that the reason for his return is to visit his mother Aki. On the 10th, he went to Seattle City Hall and received a copy of his birth certificate. He needed the document to return to Japan. On the certificate, it is written that Atae was born on September 6, 1914, in Seattle to his father Yoemon, 30 years of age and his mother Aki, 20 years of age, and their work is in the barbershop business. Their address was that of Yoemon and Aki’s barbershop, “163 Washington St.”
Atae quit his job and quickly packed his belongings for his return to Japan. With many of his relatives and friends coming to see him off, Atae departed on February 21, 1941, after five years in his third period of living in Seattle.
Upon his return, Atae was startled again, seeing Aki in perfect health. He understood the true intention behind the telegram and felt relieved, yet at the same time was skeptical about the war approaching. It was nine months before the beginning of the Pacific War. Later, Atae said he would have been in the line of battle in Europe as a Japanese American if he hadn’t received that telegram.
Back in Japan, Atae didn’t want to live in the countryside. With an offer from his old friend, Atae decided to work at a major food product company in Osaka. Having forced Atae out of Seattle, Aki knew she had to support his decision. But it was when Atae was about to leave his house to get on a ship in the morning, carrying his luggage with his belongings, that Atae’s grandmother, in tears, begged him to stay and stopped him from leaving home. “Please stay in Kamai. We need the eldest son at home.” Atae had no choice but to give up going to Osaka and reluctantly stayed in Kamai. He started working at Kokumin Gakkou (an elementary school) on the island from October as a substitute teacher without a teaching license.
As the war began, Atae joined the army as a Japanese soldier even though he was Japanese American. Atae was unwilling to talk much about his experience during those days. There was non-stop bullying against Atae for being Japanese American. It was almost the same scene described in The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida, when Jim Yoshida served in the military as a Japanese soldier. Following the end of the war, Atae went back to Kamai.
After the war, Atae worked as an elementary school teacher in a village near Kamai. Teaching at an elementary school in Japan was like teaching Japanese and Japanese culture to Nisei children in Japanese schools in Seattle. Given the experience he had, he was far better at English than he was at Japanese. In the immediate aftermath of the war in Japan, he didn’t have a chance to teach English in elementary school. Once children found out that Atae was born in the U.S., moved back and forth between Japan and the U.S., and worked in the U.S. in his youth, they asked him to teach English. Elementary school teachers had to stay at school overnight, so he taught an English class when he was on the night shift. His class became extremely popular among children. Atae’s English was far more native than what was taught by other English teachers in the area. However, Atae wasn’t able to fit in the established educational system of those days and couldn’t build up his career. When drinking at night, he would often complain about his work.
I used to think that my father was an ordinary, mediocre, elementary school teacher. As I started writing this series, however, I came to realize that he was a Japanese American born in Seattle and spent his childhood and youth in America. For the first time, I realized that my father was actually one of a kind: a respectable teacher who had seen a much bigger world.
In his last years, Atae kept saying he wanted to go to Seattle once again, but his wish never came true. He said that he often dreamed a scene from his childhood in Seattle where he was playing on the street and eating bone-in fried chicken.
The family afterwards
Yoemon’s eldest daughter married into a family in Shidai, Kamai’s neighboring village, after the war. Every time there was an event, such as a Buddhist memorial service or a festive occasion, she would come home to Kamai, walking approximately five kilometers, helping the family with her loud and cheerful voice. His second daughter got married soon after the war, to somewone with a family member of a person who migrated from Kamai to Seattle, then she moved to the city. Every summer vacation, she took her family to Kamai. Her visit brought cheerfulness to Kamai with her joyful voice. The two sisters used to be very quiet because they spent their childhood missing their parents who left them behind in Kamai to live in Seattle. But the sisters overcame the hard times and their father’s death, grew older, and became pleasant people.
Aki was the most hardworking person in the village. Just by looking at her, it was easy to imagine how she tackled challenges in America. When I was little, Aki often gave me a haircut with the hair clipper she used in America. Her skills were simply amazing.
My mother Nobuko married into the family in Kamai from a village in the mountainous area, far from the ocean. She was scared of the rough sea when on an ocean liner. Aki, when hearing this, always told Nobuko that there was nothing to worry about: “A ship might tilt a bit but it won’t sink.” Perhaps for Aki, who had experienced traveling through the rough sea in the Pacific Ocean many times, the big waves of the Seto Inland Sea were really nothing to worry about.
Aki passed away on August 31, 1963, at age 69. It was 35 years after Yoemon’s death. Back in those days, people were buried in the village, but Aki had left directions in her will that she be cremated and that her ashes be buried. On her tombstone, her kaimyo (posthumous Buddhist name) was written next to Yoemon’s. The name was given to her when she was still alive. At the funeral, her remains were buried under the tombstone where Yoemon’s were laid to rest. “She is going to meet Yoemon,” the relatives said, mourning Aki’s death. I was in the seventh grade at the time and wasn’t really able to understand what they meant by that.
Yoemon and Aki overcame many hardships together in Seattle. The relatives said that they would comfort each other, saying, “You did a great job!” when meeting in the afterlife – now I can understand what the relatives meant. Together Yoemon and Aki are looking at the sea of Kamai from their graves.
I’m grateful that I was able to have this series of 12 articles published in The North American Post and Discover Nikkei in both Japanese and English and that I have received heartfelt messages from many readers. It’s been such a great pleasure for me to tell many people about my grandfather Yoemon’s life and the history of the Nikkei community in Seattle from a different perspective than I had when writing my graduation thesis. I’m sure that this has given a meaning to Yoemon’s life and that he is pleased in heaven now.
Reference: Jim Yoshida, Bill Hosokawa, The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida, Bunka Publishing Bureau, 1977
[Editor’s Note] : This series is a collaboration between The North American Post and Discover Nikkei (discovernikkei.org), which is a program of the Japanese American National Museum. It is an excerpt from “Studies on Immigrants in Seattle – Thoughts on Yoemon Shinmasu’s Successful Barbershop Business,” the writer’s graduation thesis submitted at the Distance Learning Division at the Nihon University as a history major and has been edited for this publication.