An untold story of Japanese Americans living in Japan during World War II : Code Switch One of the most pivotal moments in Japanese American history was when the U.S. government uprooted more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry and forced them into incarceration camps. But there is another, less-known story about the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were living in Japan during World War II — and whose lives uprooted in a very different way.

Across the ocean: a Japanese American story of war and homecoming

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You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Lori Lizarraga. You know the bio section on your social media profiles? Mine is always some version of, you know, Latina, daughter of immigrants, middle child, CODE SWITCH co-host, journalist, napper. I mean, it's updated some through the years, but to be honest, it reads today a lot like it did a decade ago because some of our personal qualities induct us into certain identity groups for life, right? And group identity is a hugely central part of how we understand each other. In a lot of ways, it shapes what we come to know and to expect from people in certain groups, people outside certain groups and from ourselves.

Group identity often hangs on some central experience, a formative or historical event that becomes this story we hear about again and again, one that we all know and go back to. It's those big moments that often come to define a group's identity, for better or for worse, like slavery for African Americans or the Civil Rights Movement. For a lot of Mexican Americans, Tejanos specifically, it's when the land that belonged to Mexico became Texas, when the border crossed us. For Japanese Americans, one defining moment was being forced into incarceration camps in the U.S. during World War II. But understanding the culture and character of any community - understanding ourselves - it relies on the stories in the margins, the less well known but no less formative experiences of us, of our families. Kori Suzuki's story is about one such experience.

Kori is a San Francisco-based reporter who wanted to look more closely at one of his own group identities to better understand what it means to be Japanese American. To do that, Kori found a less well known but no less formative experience shared by tens of thousands that defined another side of what it means to be Japanese American. And he found it in a personal story, the story of his obachama (ph) - his grandmother. Here is Kori.

KORI SUZUKI: Can you just tell me what you see?

JOAN SUZUKI: It's a big ship. Someone that's on the ship waving. (Laughter) Yeah. Oh, little girl.

K SUZUKI: This is my obachama - my grandma. I'm asking her to describe a drawing that's been in my family for years, one that I've never really been able to get out of my head. It shows a little girl standing on the railing of a ship. In my memory of the drawing, she stares out over the water. Her straight, black hair dances in the wind.

J SUZUKI: Very lonesome (laughter) picture, isn't it?

K SUZUKI: And this is you.

J SUZUKI: This was me.


K SUZUKI: This drawing is of Obachama as a little girl coming to America from Japan in 1949. For four years, Japan and the United States had been at war. I'd heard Obachama tell these stories. She and her parents were living in Tokyo, right in the firing line. Some nights, they would watch as allied bombers passed overhead and the city glowed orange.


K SUZUKI: In this drawing, the war is over, and Obachama, just 16 years old, is on her way to California, alone.


K SUZUKI: For the longest time, I thought this was the moment, the one that so many descendants of immigrants hear about, the moment our families made the journey to this country. What I saw in that drawing was a lonely moment, but also a moment of hope, of leaving war-torn Japan and forging a new life in the United States. It wasn't until high school that I asked Obachama about it. I wanted to know what it was like to be born and raised in Japan. But her response shocked me.

J SUZUKI: I was born in San Francisco, Calif., August 1932.

K SUZUKI: That was the day I learned that Obachama was not born in Japan. She was born in California, an American citizen in the heart of the West Coast. When I learned this, I didn't know what to think. It was like my whole sense of where I came from had been turned inside out. I always thought Obachama was Japanese, but really, she was Japanese American. That drawing of that little girl on the ship, it wasn't of someone making the journey to a new country, it was a picture of someone making their way home.

I had so many questions. Why did Obachama and her parents end up leaving the United States? What was it like to grow up on the other side of the war? What was it like to come back? And then Obachama told me something else. There were others, she said. This wasn't just her story. There were thousands of people, tens of thousands - Japanese Americans who were in Japan when the imperial Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor and who were stranded on the wrong side of the ocean.


K SUZUKI: For generations, one story has defined what it means to be Japanese American. It's the story of the incarceration during World War II, of when the government of the United States uprooted more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry from their homes along the West Coast and forced them into federal incarceration camps, of a group of people who spent their entire lives trying to prove that they didn't deserve this injustice, trying to prove how American they really were. This is the flip side of that story. It's the story of my obachama's journey from San Francisco to Tokyo and back again. It's the story of a group of Japanese Americans who, instead of being forced to bury their Japanese heritage, were cut off from their American identity. And it's the story of me trying to figure out where I really come from and what it actually means to be Japanese American.


K SUZUKI: It was a bright day when I drove over to interview Obachama for this story.



K SUZUKI: Obachama still lives in Richmond, just across the bay from San Francisco, with my parents in the house where I grew up. Some parts of the house have changed since then. Others, like Obachama's room with its stacks of books and greeting cards and picture frames are the same.


K SUZUKI: Oh, your room looks so clean.

J SUZUKI: (Laughter) I didn't want you to come in here.

K SUZUKI: It really was not that bad. We sat down on her bed, surrounded by her books and photographs, and I asked her to start at the beginning.

J SUZUKI: I went to a kindergarten in San Francisco, which is called Kinmon Gakuen, Golden Gate Kindergarten. I didn't study English too much. They were more or less teaching Japanese.

K SUZUKI: It was the three of them - Obachama, her mother and her father. They were living in San Francisco in the 1930s when a lot of Japanese people were working on farms or cleaning houses.

J SUZUKI: My father was ambitious, and what they did was making Japanese produce because at that time, there were quite a few Japanese immigrant in San Francisco. And bringing Japanese produce to San Francisco was good business.

K SUZUKI: Obachama loved San Francisco. There was the fog and the rolling hills. There were the holidays, like Christmas, where the city would sparkle with light. But there was nothing like the crisp, spring day that 5-year-old Obachama got to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time the very day it opened.

Can you tell me about walking across the bridge for the first time?

J SUZUKI: 1937. Weather was nice. You know how a bridge is always cold? Yeah, so many people. And San Francisco people were always well-dressed. Man is in the suits and the hat and ladies with the hat and gloves.


K SUZUKI: There are videos of the day. It was May 1937. The sky was clear. Fleets of planes droned overhead. Thousands of people had gathered to walk across the bridge for the first time.

J SUZUKI: When I came to the center of the bridge, looking up, it's very, very unbelievable how people could build that.


K SUZUKI: San Francisco was a beautiful place to live, but it wasn't the easiest. Local labor groups organized protests against immigration from Japan. The city's school board had threatened to segregate students from Japanese families and barred them from white primary schools. The California legislature had passed a law meant to stop the Issei - the first generation of Japanese immigrants - from owning land.

J SUZUKI: Issei people who came from Japan first, they had such a anti-Japanese discrimination, and they couldn't have children to have a higher education and they couldn't even buy the house property. So Issei people encouraged children to go to Japan.


K SUZUKI: Historian Brian Niiya has spent years studying Japanese American history, and he told me that for all kinds of reasons, thousands of Nisei - my obachama's generation - are turning to Japan at this time.

BRIAN NIIYA: A lot of the kind of Nisei with college degrees and so forth go there because that's the only place they could get a job commensurate with their qualifications. And then for many younger Nisei, their parents, especially if they have means, send them to Japan for - to be educated, feeling that if they're bilingual, bicultural, they just have a better chance, going forward.

K SUZUKI: A lot of people, Brian says, also went back for family reasons.

NIIYA: One of my wife's cousins - kind of a distant cousin, but she was born in Tacoma. Then, at age 13, gets sent to Japan to take care of a grandmother or grandfather who is not well.


K SUZUKI: For a while, Obachama's parents didn't feel like they had to leave California. The produce business was going well, and it seemed like things were stable. Then they got the news - Obachama's grandmother back in central Japan was sick. Her health was failing fast. So in 1937, the same year they walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, Obachama's parents told her they needed to talk. They had to leave San Francisco. They were going back to Japan.

J SUZUKI: We were just visiting half a year or one year - planning to.


LIZARRAGA: Coming up - more on the story of Japanese Americans caught in Japan in the line of American fire during World War II.

NIIYA: It's kind of the biggest unexplored episode in the history of Japanese Americans.

LIZARRAGA: Stay with us.


LIZARRAGA: Lori. Lori and Kori. I had to. CODE SWITCH.


LIZARRAGA: In every community, there are generations of stories that define what it means to be American and Chinese, American and Indian, African American, Mexican American. One painful story that's been a defining one for Japanese Americans is that of the United States government uprooting more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes along the West Coast and forcing them into federal incarceration camps during World War II.

But there is also another story, one shared by tens of thousands of Japanese Americans in the early 1900s of American citizens, children of Japanese descent whose families left the U.S. to return to Japan when suddenly war broke out, stranding them on the other side of the ocean, forced to try and survive the violence in their homeland inflicted by the nation of their birth. While looking at what it means to be Japanese American, reporter Kori Suzuki uncovered the details and depth of that story and its influence on Japanese American identity through someone very close to him who lived it, his grandma. Here again is Kori.



K SUZUKI: That plan to stay for half a year, maybe one year, stretched into two, then three. And then in the winter, they heard that something had happened.

J SUZUKI: At that time, we didn't have TV. So radio was the only source.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We have witnessed this morning in the distant view...

K SUZUKI: Japan had attacked a U.S. Navy base called Pearl Harbor.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We have witnessed this morning the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese.

K SUZUKI: Obachama remembers being confused. She was still just 9 years old. And she didn't understand what the news meant. But Obachama's mother was worried. They should have left Japan earlier, she said to Obachama. There was no way they could get back to San Francisco now.

J SUZUKI: She liked America, so she was so regretful she didn't come back before, you know? And she said, I'm going to put the American flag on the top of the roof (laughter) so they don't drop the bomb, which was a very ridiculous (laughter) thing.

K SUZUKI: They didn't actually end up putting a flag on the roof. For a few months, things were quiet. It was winter in Tokyo. Obachama and her parents were living in an industrial part of the city. She was going to school. And her father was working in a factory. Something to do with electrical cords, she says. They stayed with other workers in factory housing. Then in the spring, the United States hit back. They launched their own surprise attack, a retaliatory air raid on Tokyo.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The planes sweep in without being discovered. They separate into groups to attack the several objectives carefully selected by means of accurate intelligence.

K SUZUKI: They targeted factories and industrial areas.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: To ensure that only targets of military value will be hit.

K SUZUKI: Obachama remembers putting everything they could carry on a small cart and running.

J SUZUKI: We didn't have a truck or anything, so we put the immediate necessity on a wagon. And we start running. And I still remember fire just getting closer and closer as we moved.

K SUZUKI: I should say here, Obachama doesn't go around casually telling these stories about living through the war, but when she does, she doesn't shy away from them. She tells them with a smile, sometimes a laugh. I don't know why that's how she tells these stories about terrible things that happened at the hands of American soldiers. Maybe it's just because this is what things were like when she was growing up in Japan. These are her middle school stories, her childhood memories. Anyway, the company housing, Obachama says it was all burned. They couldn't go back. Instead, she and her parents moved in with another family, the Takemuras (ph), who lived across the city. It was a lonely time for Obachama. The Japanese government was starting to evacuate children and older people to the countryside to try and get them out of the path of future bombings. Obachama's parents asked her if she wanted to go.

J SUZUKI: I wanted to go because I'm the only child, and to live with everybody is kind of so nice. And I volunteer and my parents agreed, and I went.

K SUZUKI: But she wasn't there for long. Soon, her parents came after her.

J SUZUKI: (Laughter) And they say, if we have to die from bombing and whatever - war - they wanted to stay together - you know, family. And so I had to come back to Tokyo.


K SUZUKI: As the war continued, life in Japan got worse and worse. Food and other supplies were hard to find.

J SUZUKI: We were lucky only three of us in the family, but people didn't have enough to eat. And clothes - you cannot buy anything, you know? Of course, no candy. It was getting worse.


K SUZUKI: Even during all of this, there were also moments where things felt normal. Obachama kept going to class. Every day, she would commute from Setagaya, where the Takemuras lived, to her school in the center of Tokyo. She would take a train to Shibuya Station, where she would catch a streetcar to the school. There were exams and homework.

J SUZUKI: We had English subject, but I hate it. I was very bad student.


K SUZUKI: But the war also brought complex feelings. At home, Obachama remembers her mother speaking out against the Japanese government. At school, she says, they were taught loyalty to Japan.

J SUZUKI: We were all brainwashed. And we were told England and U.S., they were the enemy to us. So...

K SUZUKI: So you felt Japanese?

J SUZUKI: During the war, yeah.

K SUZUKI: Obachama still remembered San Francisco, though, too. She thought often about Christmas and Halloween and going to her kindergarten. That was the one thing she knew for sure. She wanted to go back to California. In November of 1944, American planes returned to the skies above Tokyo. U.S. forces had captured the Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific, and were using them as a base to bomb Japanese cities. Every night, Obachama says she and her parents would draw black curtains over the windows and turn off the lights to hide their home. That spring, Obachama learned there had been a major air raid in the center of Tokyo right where her school was. They said it had been burned.

J SUZUKI: But I liked it - the high school - so much, and I wanted to see myself, you know?

K SUZUKI: She got on the train to Shibuya Station. When she arrived, the streetcars she used to take were gone. So she started walking across the city, past glowing embers and bodies.

J SUZUKI: Sure enough, school was all burnt.

K SUZUKI: Obachama didn't laugh when she told that story.


K SUZUKI: Across Japan, tens of thousands of other stranded Japanese Americans were also living through the war. Researchers say their experiences varied. Some lived in the countryside, isolated from the violence of the war. Some were conscripted into the Japanese military. Some were even sent over by the U.S. government during the middle of the war.

NIIYA: My mom was also in this category.

K SUZUKI: Historian Brian Niiya again.

NIIYA: Her story was that her father was a prominent newspaper editor in Honolulu, so he was arrested and interned on the night of December 7. They were among the handful of Japanese who are exchanged, basically, for American prisoners. So she starts out in Hawaii, but she ends up going to Japan in the middle of the war. But, you know, her situation is similar at that point. Conditions are getting really bad, and here are more mouths to feed. And they're Americans, on top of that - you know? - who's - in some ways, are being blamed for this whole predicament.


NIIYA: You know, a really sad part of the story is that, of course, Hiroshima is one of the main prefectures that Japanese immigrated from to the U.S. And, of course, many of them ended up back in Hiroshima.


K SUZUKI: We know what happened next. Nine days after American forces bombed Hiroshima, Obachama and her parents heard there was going to be an announcement.

J SUZUKI: People told us to listen to the radio at 12 noon.

K SUZUKI: They tuned in. At first, it was just static. Then a voice.


MICHINOMIYA HIROHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

J SUZUKI: That's the first time we heard the emperor's voice on the radio. He was very sorry. We were surrounded and told us it's the end of the war. No more suffering.


K SUZUKI: In September of 1945, when Obachama was just 13 years old, Japan surrendered. American planes started to land, carrying soldiers and military equipment, and they also carried something else - hundreds of American movies.


J SUZUKI: The very first American movie I saw was "Madame Curie." It's a nice movie theater - it used to be - but all the chairs were burned. So we sat on concrete where used to be chairs were placed.


WALTER PIDGEON: (As Pierre Curie) If we can prove the existence of this new element, it may enable us to look into the secret of life itself deeper than ever before in the history of the world.


K SUZUKI: Across the ocean, the government's incarceration of Japanese Americans in the U.S. was also ending. One by one, the camps closed down. People were handed what would be about $350 today and were put on trains bound for the West Coast.


K SUZUKI: When I think about this moment, I think of a tide, thousands of people, like Obachama, swept across the ocean for years. But now the water was turning. The current was calling them back.


K SUZUKI: It was April 1949 when Obachama was finally able to get passage on a ship to California. Her parents, who had never been American citizens, had to stay in Japan. But a distant relative in San Jose said they could take Obachama in.

J SUZUKI: Everybody wanted to come to Americas, you know, because of the influence of those movie and American lives.


J SUZUKI: But for me, I still remember childhood memory from San Francisco, so I wanted to come.


K SUZUKI: So one morning, Obachama went down to the docks. It was a bright spring day. She said goodbye to her friends and stepped out over the water, onto the deck of an American ship. She was 16 years old and finally heading back to the United States.

J SUZUKI: Once I got on the ship, of course, I start feeling - I feel sorry for my parents, you know?

K SUZUKI: Obachama was sad to be leaving her parents behind, but a big part of her was also thrilled. She was so excited to be going home.


K SUZUKI: The ship was called the USS General Gordon. During the war, it had taken American soldiers to Normandy and brought German prisoners back to the states. Now it was ferrying passengers across the Pacific.

J SUZUKI: It was a very plain Army ship, and I got stuck getting seasick in bottom of the ship. And - but it didn't bother too much when you were only 16.

K SUZUKI: It was a long trip - two weeks across the ocean. So Obachama started getting to know the other passengers. She was surprised to find out that a lot of them were like her - Japanese Americans who had been stranded in Japan.

J SUZUKI: I was treated very well because I was the youngest, and they look after me.

K SUZUKI: Halfway through their trip, the ship docked in the Hawaiian Islands. Obachama spent a day wandering around Honolulu with the other former strandees (ph).

J SUZUKI: We had one day we could see the city, and I still remember how pineapple was delicious. And we had a good time. And finally, we had to get on the ship again.


K SUZUKI: After two weeks, the moment came that Obachama had been waiting for for what felt like her entire childhood. In the distance, they could see land. Obachama stood on the deck of the ship and watched as her California appeared over the horizon. It was the scene from that drawing, the one I had been thinking about for what felt like my entire childhood, of that little girl on the deck of a ship staring out over the water, that image of hope. But all Obachama felt was sadness.

J SUZUKI: When I saw Golden Gate Bridge on deck, I start crying because I didn't want to get off the ship. Everybody was so nice. I had to say goodbye to all the friend.

K SUZUKI: After everything, after years of running from bombs and burning buildings, of waking up hungry and tired, of trying to survive long enough to make it back to the United States, all she wanted to do was to stay with the other Japanese Americans on that ship. She knew that once they got off, everyone was going to go their separate ways, and she was right. So every Japanese American who had been on that ship, every Japanese American who had been stranded in Japan, had something to share now. There was a new name for them.

Can you read it one more time?

J SUZUKI: Kibei nisei - ki means return. Bei means an abbreviation of (non-English language spoken), which is America. And ni is No. 2. Sei is a generation - second generation.

K SUZUKI: Return to America.

J SUZUKI: Return to America.

K SUZUKI: The Kibei Nisei - the generation who left and came back.

I guess, like, who - what do you - you know, what do you consider yourself? Like, are you Japanese? Are you American? Are you Japanese American? What...

J SUZUKI: Japanese America. Japanese American. Not complete American and not complete Japanese. Kibei Nisei.


NIIYA: I think the general story of Japanese Americans in Japan during World War II is kind of the biggest unexplored episode in the history of Japanese Americans.

K SUZUKI: Historian Brian Niiya.

NIIYA: It just does not fit the kind of standard, grand narrative of going to concentration camps, the 442nd, resettlement. I mean, the grand story, the "Farewell To Manzanar" story, you know, the Kibei, they're not part of that. This is really a story that we need to know a little bit more about and that kind of complicate our understanding of the whole Japanese American story.


K SUZUKI: Where are we?

J SUZUKI: Golden Gate Bridge.

K SUZUKI: Last August, my sister and I took Obachama to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. We do it every year for her birthday. And every year, it's cold, like that day she walked across for the first time back in 1937.

How are you feeling?


K SUZUKI: Are you excited?

J SUZUKI: Yes (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter) You completely...

K SUZUKI: What does it look like?

J SUZUKI: Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. I wonder if I can do it next year.

K SUZUKI: As we walked out over the water, the clouds split and the sun came through.


K SUZUKI: I've been thinking about something Obachama said earlier about how she cried when they finally got back to the U.S. What I was expecting to hear next, what I was waiting to hear next, was that those were tears of joy. That she was so happy to be back. But that wasn't it. She was crying because she didn't want to say goodbye to the other Kibei Nisei on board with her. She didn't know when she was going to be able to see them again. I think I get what she meant now. I used to think she looked so lonely in that drawing, standing there on the deck of the ship. But I realize now that she wasn't alone. Those other people on the ship, they understood. She didn't need to explain anything to them about her life, about the things that had happened, about what it was like. They already knew.


K SUZUKI: We drove back across the bridge and went home.


LIZARRAGA: That was Kori Suzuki. He's a reporter and visual journalist currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area and a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

And that is our show. Thank you so much for listening. If you're not already, you can subscribe to our podcast on the NPR app or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch or, you know, if email is more your thing, ours is A quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. Thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it really helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at

This episode was reported by Kori Suzuki. It was originally edited by Shereen Marisol Meraji, head of the audio concentration at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Additional editing came from Ethan Toven-Lindsey, Lisa Armstrong and Queena Kim. Special thanks to Scott Kurashige, Michael Jin and Naoko Wake. Thanks also to Anna Sussman, Erika Aguilar, Lauren DeLaunay Miller, Olivia Zhao, Corey Antonio Rose, Nish Harjani (ph), Sabrina Pascua, Ruth Dusseault, Zhao Wu (ph), Kathryn Styer Martinez, Andrew Lopez and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

This episode was produced for CODE SWITCH by Kumari Devarajan and edited by Leah Donnella. Our engineer was Brian Jarboe. And last, but never least, a big shoutout to the rest of the tremendous CODE SWITCH massive - Dalia Mortada, Courtney Stein, Christina Cala, Jess Kung, LA Johnson, Veralyn Williams, Steve Drummond and my co-hosts, Gene Demby and B.A. Parker. I'm Lori Lizarraga. Call your grandma.


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