By Rita Brogan, For The North American Post
On May 16, 1942, the Sakai family packed their suitcases and assembled at Ober Park with 111 other Vashon Island Japanese Americans. All would be herded onto Army trucks and onto a ferry that would take them away.
“We did not know where they were taking us,” said eldest sister Tillie Katsura. She was 17 at the time and is now 95 years old. “Our friends came to see us off. It was so sad.”
Her sister Metcko “Mets” Nakamoto agreed.
“As the ferry sailed away, we saw our friends who came to say goodbye get smaller and smaller until we couldn’t see them anymore.”
Barbara Steen was one of Sumi’s dear friends who went to the Heights Ferry Dock to bid farewell to her childhood friend, as she boarded the ferry into exile. Sumi and Barbara wrote to each other throughout the entire war. Sumi’s brother, Harry Sakai, sent Barbara a carving he did while at the Tule Lake, northern California, camp—an example of what would become known as Gaman Art—art produced at concentration camps. (The Japanese word “gaman” means “enduring what seems unbearable with dignity and grace.”)
“I don’t know how we managed it. There were six children. Freddie was 9 and Bobby was 6. How could we even carry two suitcases each? Maybe the soldiers helped us,” said Tillie.
“I don’t even remember what I packed in mine.” Mets added, “I only got one suitcase. We couldn’t bring any materials for reading or writing, just the essentials.”
After two days in dark, sweltering rail cars, with several layers of clothing, the Sakai family arrived at 8 in the morning at the Pine Lake “Assembly Center,” near Fresno, California.
“I will never forget our first meal,” said Tillie. “It was chili con carne, spinach, and sand. There was sand everywhere. It got into everything. It was terrible.”
Seventy-four years later, in the fall of 2019, Mets’ daughters, Karen Sundquist and Janie Nakamoto, visited Seattle for a conference and decided to take the ferry to Vashon, where they knew their family once lived.
Karen explains, “I was sitting in the back seat of the car and they gave me a magazine to look at to figure out what to do on Vashon. And I said to them, ‘Say, there’s this place called the Mukai House. Let’s check it out.’ We went there and there was an exhibit on the history of Japanese on Vashon. The first thing I saw was a photo of three luggage tags, one with my Aunt Sumi’s name on it. I shrieked. Then I saw the picture of a quote by Auntie Sumi that read, ‘Why did we have to move? We were American citizens.’”
The sisters took photos of Mukai and other places on Vashon, including Glen Acres, where the family once farmed berries, and shared them with their mother, Mets, and Aunts Tillie and Sumi.
The experience inspired Karen to do more thinking about her family history.
“We were making plans to all return to Vashon this spring, but then COVID hit.”
When her church launched its own “TED Talk” series, Karen decided to focus on story of the Sakai family.
“When I mentioned to my mom that I was doing the TED Talk, my mom told me that Sumi still had her old suitcase, gathering dust in the garage. I asked if I could use it for my talk and thought that the Mukai house could really use it afterwards.”
After two months, the Sakai family and the rest of Vashon’s Japanese Americans were relocated to Tule Lake. After being released from Tule Lake in 1945, Tillie and Sumi went to find domestic work in Oakland. The rest of the family moved several times before settling in the Morgan Hill area, near San Jose, where they grew strawberries as sharecroppers.
Mets said, “Mr. Ned Driscoll helped a lot of Japanese get back on their feet by giving them jobs.”
Tillie added, “Our parents could not speak English well, so my oldest brother Harry, was more like the head of the family. He was the one who decided that we would move to California and work for the Driscolls. Eventually, he and his wife bought a small farm and raised strawberries.”
Seventy-five years after the closure of the concentration camps and the end of WWII, Sumi Sakai’s suitcase has returned to Vashon. The remains of the cardstock tag that identified the suitcase as belonging to Sumi, are still tied to its handle. It sits on display, open and empty on a bed at the Mukai Farm & Garden, filled with invisible, but vivid memories.
Tillie said, “Even in those days, Vashon was one of the best places in the world. When I had my children, I often wished that I could take them there, just to climb the trees and explore the forest. And the people were the best. I had some wonderful friends. My closest friends were Amy Yee and Beverly White Cullen. I lost touch with Beverly over the years. I wonder how she is.”
She added, “In those days, we didn’t have much in the way of finances. We worked hard and we played hard. We made our own toys. Once we tipped over a wagon wheel and made a merry-go-round by tying chairs to it. And we climbed trees. I will never forget the wonderful fresh fruit.”
Mets recalls friends like Pamela Long, Vivian James, Phyllis Miller, Kenneth Johnson.
“I remember Mr. Kimmel, the grocer, and Mr. Prig, who owned the ice cream shop. We used to always go there after Sunday school and say, ‘We only have 5 cents. Can you please make this into two cones?’”
After the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, members of the public will have a chance to see Sumi’s old suitcase in the Mukai house. We hope at that time to also be able to welcome the Sakai sisters back home to share their many happy memories of a wonderful childhood on Vashon Island.
Rita Brogan is the president of Friends of Mukai, a Vashon-based non-profit dedicated to operation of the Mukai Farm & Garden. When not leading the activities of the Mukai Board, Rita is a semi-retired communications and public policy consultant and writes a blog, foodiesan.com. She has been active in Seattle’s API community for over 40 years.
This article is an expanded version of one first printed in the December 2020 FoM newsletter.