TERAJI: Family’s Japanese history appears before their eyes at Steinbeck Center

Henry Teraji looks at an exhibit at the National Steinbeck

Imagine my family’s surprise when we walked into the National
Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the very first photo we saw on
exhibit was one of our relatives! We were there to see the current
exhibit on Japanese history in the Salinas Valley area.
Imagine my family’s surprise when we walked into the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the very first photo we saw on exhibit was one of our relatives! We were there to see the current exhibit on Japanese history in the Salinas Valley area.

“That’s Uncle George!” my brother-in-law Roland Teraji began exclaiming. Soon my husband’s three brothers, his father, and the rest of us were gathered around to see Ikuzo “George” Nakamura in a soldier’s uniform.

The Teraji and the Nakamura families were early pioneer families who settled in the Salinas, Prunedale, Watsonville, Hollister and Santa Cruz areas. They were among the very first ones to own farmland in the area.

It was a thrill for all of us to see the photo of Ikuzo Nakamura, who was born in Shiga, Japan, in 1901, and who married into my husband’s mother’s family and became Uncle George to us. We were celebrating the Fourth of July weekend with my 85-year-old father-in-law, Henry Teraji.

As we took him through the exhibit in his wheelchair, he was fascinated to find photo after photo that included parts of his own family history.

Although Ikuzo “George” Nakamura became a U.S. citizen, married Helen Ninomiya, my mother-in-law’s sister, and had eight children, their whole family was declared non-citizens and “enemy” when WWII was declared. Their citizenship was ignored and they were herded into temporary prison camps hurriedly set up at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds. Then they were shipped by train, not the passenger trains that were in operation then, but trains that were taken out of circulation due to old age – they were old rattle traps.

“When we arrived in Arizona in our overcoats (my mother didn’t know where we were going, so she prepared us for the worst possible weather), it was so hot!” recalls George’s daughter, Marion Masada, who was 10 years old at the time.

“We arrived in Parker, Arizona, and were transported by bus to our final destination way out in no-man’s land with nothing but desert and cactus. We shed our overcoats and were overcome by the heat because we were not used to such heat. So this is what was to be our ‘home’ for who knew how long!”

While the families of U.S. citizens like George Nakamura were held in internment camps, many of the men volunteered or were drafted to fight in the U.S. military in WWII. Imagine knowing your family is imprisoned and has no rights in the country you call home, yet you are fighting for that very nation!

George and his many fellow American citizens lived by allegiance to the Japanese-American Creed of May 9, 1941, which says in part: “I am proud I am an American of Japanese ancestry, for my background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future.

“Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people. I am firm in my belief that American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play will judge citizenship and patriotism on the basis of action and achievement and not on the basis of physical characteristics.

“Because I believe in America, and I trust that she believes in me, and because I have received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places; to support her Constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her Flag; to defend her against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to actively assume all my duties and obligations as a citizen cheerfully and without any reservations whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a great America.”

Uncle George came home, raised his family, and lived up to his oath, always loyal to the U.S., never bitter, and always believing in the greatness of the nation he called home. If only we could all do as much to live up to the example set by Uncle George and his fellow Japanese Americans and their descendants to this very day.

This is the final weekend of the Japanese American exhibit at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Details: (831) 775-4726 or www.steinbeck.org.

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