Japanese Family Protocols
By Shokichi Tokita
For The North American Post
Have you ever had a discussion about your family protocols with your father, mother, or both? In the Kamekichi and Haruko Tokita family, it was a regular topic that came up an awful lot of times. Basically, it was between my father and me. Generally, a short discussion occurred between us, followed by a prolonged litany about why from my mother. And, you know what? It was, I swear, just me–never with my seven younger brothers and sisters! Let me give you some examples.
Before World War II, we lived in the Cadillac Hotel, located on the north side of Jackson, between Second Avenue and Occidental. It’s where the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park is now. The Tokita family of seven (with five children at that time) lived in the hotel manager’s suite on the second floor. There was a set of four rooms: kitchen, living room, my parents’ bedroom and a bathroom. The doors were located in such a way that there was an island with a closet, shelves, and dresser that formed a play area where we children could walk and run around. Fortunately, or unfortunately, when we played tag, it became a perfect place for us to carouse around causing hysterical yelling, laughing, or crying when falls or injuries occurred. Guess who was always singled out and admonished when the parents couldn’t stand it any longer? You guessed it–me! I was the oldest and had to be made an example of, for the rest of the children to learn from.
When WWII started, we were part of the 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans placed in ten or more concentration camps located in isolated places around the country by the U.S. government. Our family wound up in the camp at Hunt, Idaho, near Twin Falls. For me, at age 8, it was a “coming out” lifestyle, since I had had no friends my age to play with at our hotel home in downtown Seattle. In camp, I had four to six friends who were classmates living within the same block! What a change for me! There were guys to play with, learn in school with, go fishing with and get into trouble with!
One of the strict rules my father established was to be home when the sun went down, so that he didn’t have to go looking for me in the dark. Unlike an established town or city, there were no public lights in and around the barracks where the families lived — only along the main road.
Invariably, I would forget and meander home when whatever we were doing came to a standstill. I would suddenly realize that it was dark and that I was supposed to be home! A trudging walk home would usually find the door locked and I would have to go through my fake-crying jag, which my father readily recognized so he wouldn’t open the door.
Finally, Mom would get tired of hearing my cries, open the door, allow me to go over to Papa and get the whack on the side of my head, along with a short Japanese lecture in harsh tones about complying with his rules. Then Mom would go through her spiel about listening to Papa, explain to me why I needed to get home on time, how parents worry when one of their children is out in the dark, the problems that occur after dark, and so on. Basically, I needed to listen to Papa and do as he “commands or dictates.” All Japanese boys need to do as their Papa states without exception. That was what I was taught to live with, doing as Papa dictated.
But, what about Mama? Did I need to do as she dictated? Not much was ever discussed about that subject, but it was implied in many instances when she needed help and Papa was at work. Invariably, discussions about women and girls in the family came up from time to time, especially since we had our share of girls in the family. It was generally directed toward what they can and can’t do in various discussions. This was primarily between Shizuko, the sister who was second in line after me, and Mom, though sometimes with Papa. Generally, the same rules applied to her as did to me, except that she was cared for much more tenderly by Papa. No whacks at all!
Later on, in one of my discussions with Mama, the subject of how Papa and Mama got married came up. It seems that when Mama became of marriageable age, she lived at the Wilson Hotel which was where the present Uwajimaya outdoor parking lot is on Dearborn (“The Seattle Uwajimaya Parking Lot,” napost.com, Mar. 2022). A number of eligible men started coming over to meet, visit and socialize with her, one of whom was Papa. This went on for a period of time, but eventually, Kamekichi quit visiting and Haruko started wondering why he didn’t come over anymore. So, Haruko decided to go visit him at his workplace, the sign shop on Sixth Avenue between Main Street and Washington. This was against all Japanese women’s protocols, but she went anyway. She explained that upon meeting Kamekichi at his place of residence behind the shop, she asked him why he quit coming to see her. He explained that he didn’t feel that he had much of a chance to win her over with so many who were interested in her. However, she explained that she liked him, which eventually led to their marriage on January 24, 1932.
Many years later, when my wife Elsie and I were visiting the Tokita family in Japan, the topic of Papa came up and the events that led him to move to America. He had just returned from two years in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War (Feb. 1904-Sept. 1905). At the time, he wanted to go to America and asked his father for permission to do so. However, his father refused to allow this because Wahei (his older brother) was already in America and he did not want both sons away from Japan. Therefore, according to his family, Papa rebelled by refusing to shave or get a haircut. So, when I heard that Papa, a very strict disciplinarian did not respond to his father’s conditions, I could not believe it! When we were growing up, we always had to toe the line and do as he said.
Finally, his father acquiesced under the condition that he go to Chicago as a tea salesman and that Wahei return to Japan when Kamekichi went to America. However, since his brother was in Seattle, Papa visited Wahei who eventually returned to Japan. The end result was that Papa did not go to Chicago, but remained in Seattle, again contrary to his father’s conditions.
So, when I heard that Papa, a strict disciplinarian, had not obeyed his father’s conditions, I could not believe it! I always had to toe the line and do as he said. There was never, ever a chance to grumble and express my feelings about the discipline that he extolled on me.
Not only that, Mama also did not comply with the Japanese women’s conventions of not going to visit and/or make overtures to a man. It was obvious that neither of them lived within the strict family protocols of Japanese men and women!
My incredulous conclusion to all of this was that they both rebelled against the protocols! It is something I have a hard time believing after all that I went through.
But, you know what? The most important part of all this is that it’s a good thing they did because I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t done what they did… and there wouldn’t have been this article to entertain you with!
Editor’s notes. Many Seattle Issei men were veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, which gave them preference for immigration visas. The presence of Japanese in Chicago at the dawn of the 20th century is described by Takako Day in “Illinois Japanese Unknown Heroes, Chapter 1: Introduction” (napost.com, July 2022).