PENINSULA LITERATURE: ‘White Road of Thorns’

Mary Yoko Nakamura, 87, with her new book in her Rancho Palos Verdes home. Photo

A longtime Rancho Palos Verdes resident honors her mother’s legacy in a new book detailing firsthand accounts of the Japanese-American experience during WWII

Mary Yoko Nakamura, 87, with her new book in her Rancho Palos Verdes home. Photo

Mary Yoko Nakamura, 87, with her new book in her Rancho Palos Verdes home. Photo

Mary Yoko Nakamura was just 12 years old when the Pearl Harbor bombings ignited a war between her motherland and adopted home. The Hawaiian born Japanese-American citizen does not remember too many details of those havoc-ridden days, but her mother Aoki Hisa, a renowned writer before her death at age 63, diligently kept a journal that would become a best-seller in Japan.   

Originally published in 1953 in Tokyo, White Road of Thorns is a raw account of her mother’s experience in the Japanese internment camps during WWII, a composite of observational and intimate journal entries documenting her day-to-day life in the Santa Anita Internment Camp and Gila Relocation Center in Arizona.  

As the sole survivor in her family, Nakamura, 87, recently decided to issue an English version of her mother’s journal after her friend Archie Miyamoto read the original book and offered to translate it. He noted that an authentic account of the WWII internment camps did not yet exist. Most writings on the matter are based on interviews conducted decades after the fact — “Just hearsay,” Nakamura said.

“They’re interviewing people like me and my husband,” said Nakamura, a 47-year Rancho Palos Verdes resident. “They ask, ‘What do you remember?’ You don’t remember the daily things. They’d be my age now and they interviewed them starting 10 years ago.”

White Road of Thorns (Xlibris Publishing) is 217 pages and includes old photographs of her family as well as her family’s history, from Japan to Hawaii to Los Angeles. The cover is a painting by Nakamura of the Arizona desert landscape where the barracks of Gila Relocation Campsite stood.

IMG_20160218_145816“I, of all people in my family, am not the writer,” she conceded. “If it was to be done, it should’ve been my second brother or my younger sister. They were the writers. They were like my mom. I was always good at mathematics. I didn’t have any interest, but I’m the only surviving one. I had to take the responsibility.”

Nakamura remembers her mother writing every night after she and her sister went to bed as kids. She laughs when recounting her favorite memory of her mother: sitting in her bed and chewing on a candy bar while feverishly jotting in her journal.

“I knew she was writing,” Nakamura said. “For me and my sister, it was nothing new. It was her natural thing.”

Her mother, widely known in the Japanese community by her pen name Yamamoto Asako, shared her pointed observations about living in Los Angeles in a popular column for Kashu Mainichi, the largest daily Japanese newspaper in the Los Angeles area at the time. She covered politics and culture, including the Academy Awards. She was invited to a premiere screening of “Gone With The Wind.”

“My mother was always a maverick,” Nakamura said.

She was also fiercely intelligent. As the daughter of a university professor, she was one of the first three women accepted to the University of Japan in Tokyo in the early 20th century. She nursed an urgent curiosity about different cultures. She spoke four languages and could read and write in six.

When war with the United States broke out with the Pearl Harbor bombings on Dec. 7, 1941, she and her family’s lives were turned upside down. Nakamura’s parents ran a Japanese language school out of their rented home, an old Victorian mansion in East LA. That was reason enough for the FBI to harbor suspicion. Her father was questioned and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. He would be separated from his family for two years. Her mother, 12-year-old Nakamura and her younger sister were confined in a temporary internment camp at Santa Anita.

“When we went, we were very unlucky and sent into the horse stables,” Nakamura remembered. “We had a very small family and we were put in one of the worst horse stables. My mom couldn’t sleep, of course.”  

Five months later, they were transferred to Gila Relocation Center in the Arizona desert, where they stayed for approximately a year before their selection as passengers on the Gripsholm for the second wartime exchange of nationals between the U.S. and Japan. Life in Japan was not much easier. The family’s home was bombed during an air raid and subsequently the children’s school was shelled as well.

When the war ended in August 1945, 17-year-old Nakamura got a job as an interpreter and accountant for the Military Post Exchange in Tokyo, where she would meet Edward, her now-husband of 65 years. Edward, a Japanese-American from Seattle, also spent some time in an internment camp before being drafted into the U.S. Army. He took a discharge six months later and got a civil service job in Tokyo. He is 90 today, lively and playfully interjecting in Nakamura’s recounts of the past.

At 19, Nakamura and her siblings returned to Los Angeles after saving enough of their earnings for ship fare and renting out space in their old piano teacher’s duplex. She attended night classes at Roosevelt High School, where she would earn her diploma, and worked a number of temp jobs to make ends meet, from nannying in Hollywood to working at a necktie factory. Edward earned a B.A. in accounting from UCLA, and in 1950, the two had a big wedding at a church in Los Angeles. She was 21, and he was 25.

They lived in Gardena for 14 years before moving to Rancho Palos Verdes for the schools. They have lived in the same home for 47 years, raising their two children, Nora and Rodney, who both went through the Palos Verdes school system. Their two grandchildren currently attend Palos Verdes High School.

Since the book’s release last August, a copy has been donated to the Japanese American History Museum in Los Angeles. Nakamura said she has not been able to hold signings due to health issues, but she hopes younger generations will relish the honest and accurate accounts of the Japanese-American experience during WWII.

“The intent was to leave a legacy of the Japanese Americans, Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation),” Nakamura said.  

White Road of Thorns is available on, at Barnes & Nobles and Target. PEN


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