My Cousin, Katsumi-san

Summary: Visiting my eldest cousin, his tragic and dramatic life story, and giving thanks for the many bonds between his family and mine.

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Aunt Masako-san

I have written a little bit about my eldest aunt, Masako-san, who died in World War II during the firebombing of Nagoya, and whose gravestone, erected by my grandfather, I sought out last year and revisited again this year. She died with her two infant children.

But her first child, a son, still lives. He is the eldest of all my first cousins, and I am the youngest. The fact he survived the war and lives today is a story that could easily be made into a novel or drama, and I feel very fortunate and blessed to have met him and his family.

Here is his story, much of which is contained in a chapter of my mother’s book Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon. My eldest aunt, Masako, was born in Hood River, Oregon, where my grandparents were growing fruit. When she was an infant, my grandparents brought her to Japan.

My grandfather’s mother said, “A girl will be of no use to you on a farm. Leave her here in Japan so she can get a proper Japanese education.” No doubt it broke my grandparents’ hearts to leave their daughter (and oldest child), but in that day and in that culture, one did what one’s parents ordered without question. So Masako remained in Japan.

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Aunt Masako-san

She grew up, despite my grandfather’s requests that she be returned to the U.S. The alleged response to his requests was: “You can’t send a young woman alone across the ocean!” So Masako never left Japan. She married, and then the war broke out. Her husband was in the army and sent to Manchuria, which was basically a death sentence. And she was pregnant.

She gave birth to a boy, which greatly distressed her in-laws, who did not want her to receive her husband’s inheritance. So one day, they came to her home and asked Masako-san where her uncle was. She answered that he was working out in the rice paddies.

“Go fetch him,” they said, and Masako left to do so. While she was away, her relations by marriage took her infant son, fled, and adopted him out to a family on the north coast of Honshu. Heartbroken and ashamed, my aunt moved from the small town to Nagoya, remarried, had two children, and was killed trying to rescue her babies when a U.S. firebomb fell on her house. After the war, my grandfather traveled to Japan to erect a gravestone for her, which I visited the last two trips I made to Japan.

Her orphan son, Katsumi-san, survived the war and lives today in Inuyama. He did not learn he was adopted until he turned 18. My mother was the first person in our family to meet him. In 1957, she received a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Japan, and that was when they met each other.

He is only 6 years younger than my mom, since he is the first child of the oldest of the eight children my grandparents bore, and Mom is the youngest of the eight. Mom was also the first to meet his fiancée. Their first child, a daughter, is named after my mother.

I first met my cousin and his family 19 years ago when his daughter, Mitsuko-san, got married. I am grateful to have met them all on each trip I have made to Japan. We visited Katsumi-san briefly last year, and this year spent more time with him and his wife, touring Inuyama, visiting the Sugihara Museum  and singing karaoke.

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Katsumi and his wife, Tatsumi, flanked by their American cousins

Our family history contains some rich and dramatic stories, and I am grateful to have gotten to know and meet some of the relatives who played a role in these stories. I hope you sit down and talk with your relatives, record and video these interviews, and learn the stories of your family. You will be grateful, I assure you.

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