Return to Japan
On January 23, 1939, the Japanese consulate was informed of President Roosevelt’s decision to release Yamamoto from McNeil Island under the condition that he return to Japan immediately. The United States government demanded the $3,000 Yamamoto owed be paid by the Japanese consulate, probably out of pettiness. The Japanese consulate paid the fine immediately, and quickly arranged for Yamamoto’s return to Japan.
It was the Japanese consulate that would inform Yamamoto’s wife that he was being released.
A consulate motor vehicle made its way to the Yamamoto’s house on Judkins St. that afternoon in 1939. The news was very much a surprise to Mrs. Yamamoto. Kanekichi had not communicated this to his wife, lest he raise her hopes and cause even greater confusion. She was advised to pack all, or most of her belongings, and be ready to leave on a day’s notice. The consulate would take care of everything to ensure the safe transport of her belongings, herself, and her two young children, George now 5 and Ed now 3. A car would arrive the next day in the morning. Mrs. Yamamoto, barely 22 years old, was not completely aware of her husband’s activities since the had gotten married, and comprehending what had happened in the past several months were even more concerning. However, she had faith in the Japanese consulate – a faith that Kanekichi had instilled in her. With the help of a crew arranged by the consulate, her house was hastily packed. Leaving the packing of things to this crew, she gathered up her two children, George and Ed, to spend the last day in America with her mother, Fuku Nakatani, her father, Ushinosuke, and her siblings, Kenny, Kinuko, and Roy.
On the next day at 2pm on January 24, 1939, the same consulate vehicle, a black Lincoln Continental, pulled up to the Yamamoto house, now empty of all personal belongings. However, Helen was instructed to leave her children with her mother. While quite nervous and unsure of this request, she did as followed. They would return shortly, she was assured. The car quickly departed with Helen. Ten minutes later, they arrived at the Japanese consulate. The head consular was awaiting them. Mrs. Yamamoto was taken deep into the consulate, and then downstairs to the basement. Japanese security attaché line the corridors as they approached a back room, containing a large safe, about 20’x20’ in size, with a thick steel door to match, protecting whatever was inside. After a nod to the head consular was given, the safe was opened, and a suitcase was revealed. With ease, the suit case was lifted out of the safe and placed in front of Mrs. Yamamoto. The consular then asked, “Can you lift and carry this?”
She struggled to pick it up, but she was able to do so.
“Please take these to Kimpachi. And thank him for his service,” the consular stated.
Unaware of the contents, she surmised that they are of importance, and decided that guarding them was of upmost importance. The consular, then escorted her back to the front of the consulate, where the Lincoln waits for her, with the engine still running. The two men that brought her here, take her to the car, and the all departed back to the Yamamoto’s Judkins St. house.
There, Fuku, Ushinosuke, and Helen’s siblings were waiting. There was little time for long goodbyes. Helen hugged and kissed her siblings, her father, and then her mother. She was not sure when or if she will see them again. Her children were playing in their front living room with their dog, Ado, largely unaware of what was transpiring. Helen called them and tells them to say goodbye to their grandparents and aunt and uncles. The adults hold back tears – George and Ed were largely unaware of what was happening. Helen and her two children piled into the car. Helen was careful to make sure the suitcase was still in the car, and the three of them, plus their two escorts and the driver, left for the Port of Seattle.
It was past 6pm when they arrive at the port. Amid much fanfare, a passenger ship was being readied for sail. Families and singles abound, were boarding the Hie Maru. It was a bifurcated affair; some were festive, as many Japanese were returning home per their plan, after spending years working in America. They had come to provide for their families, and now they could be reunited. Streamers, rolls of ribbon, and confetti were thrown from the bow of the ship to the dock in celebration by those that have succeeded. Friends and family have come to see them off, bid goodbye, and dream of the day that the too might return to Japan. Others, mostly single men, boarded under different circumstances. Having failed to achieve their goal of riches, they too were returning – but having to admit defeat. The quietly plodded to their lower class cabins, dejected, and typically without anyone to bid them goodbye. They returned in poverty, disgrace, and wondered what might await them on their return.
Helen’s family has decided to follow the consulate car to the terminal. One last chance to say goodbye, one last moment to savor time together, not knowing precisely what will happen to Helen, George, Ed, and of course, Kanekichi. The family was encouraged that the Japanese consulate has indeed taken care of them. They watched their belongings being loaded on to the boat, and realized that Helen has 3 first class tickets for their return. There was comfort in being in familiar surroundings with the escort of consulate personnel. However, there was uneasiness as Kanekichi was still nowhere to be found.
After watching the last of their belongings loaded on top the ship, Helen and her children bade their family goodbye one last time. George, upon realizing that they were leaving for a long time, shouted out in worry, “What will happen to Ado? Why can’t he come with us?” He knew not to cry, so he holds back his tears. He realized that he has not seen his father in nearly a year, and now wondered what was happening.
“We’ll take care of him. Don’t worry,” said Helen’s younger brother, Roy. Roy was all of 21 years of age himself. But, he was more aware of the situation at hand. Of Helen’s siblings, he was the smartest and most educated. He was studying at the University of Washington and would go on to earn his PhD in Fisheries. He was grateful to Yamamoto – Kanekichi quietly funded all of his education, unbeknownst to anyone else in the family. Further, as a university student, he was exposed to the liberal politics of the time, understood the militarization and industrialization of Japan, and was concerned over the rise of fascism in Germany. He was torn by the irony of receiving an education funded by an increasingly his successful Japanese Nationalist brother-in-law.
With that, the Yamamoto’s, sans Kanekichi, boarded the Mie Maru. It was now dark – the sun has set hours ago. They made their way up to their cabin, where most of their luggage has been delivered. No sign of Kanekichi. Helen worried a bit more. It now occurred to her that neither she nor her children are Japanese citizens. None of them spoke Japanese. She had visited only once before. She knew little about Japan. She assumed that she would be reunited with her husband, at the assurance of the Japanese consular. But, now, with little information, she had a moment of doubt.
To take her mind off her worry, she led her boys to the bow of the boat. Streaming ribbons and confetti continued to be tossed, horns and noise makers blared, and the festive mood reached it’s peak as the Mie Maru blew its horn announcing its departure. Ropes holding the ship steady were released, the ship’s massive steam engines powered up, and the ship departed, slowly at first then quickly picking up speed.
In the darkness of night, it was hard to tell where the ship was going. West, towards Japan, was obviously the strategic direction, but as the Mie Maru made its way out of Elliott Bay, it was not clear. It was nearly a new moon and a cloud covering and fog made the night sky even darker. An hour passed, and passengers paying attention wonder where their ship was going. Instead of heading north towards the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the Mie Maru appeared to be heading south towards Tacoma. Inquiries were made as to the ship’s heading, but the crew gave vague answers at best. As the ship passed through the Tacoma Narrows strait, it was clear the ship was not going out to sea. A new bridge was under construction at the strait, and, using that as a landmark, passengers recognize where they were.
The fog has gotten thicker, and the night’s temperature has dropped to near freezing. A few passengers, bundled up in wool jackets and blankets, stood at the bow, wondering where they are headed. From the distance, a lighthouse spewed a ray of light every 60 seconds or so, as the light made its 360 degree turn to illuminate the water and surroundings.
The Mie Maru approached the island with the lighthouse, and it came to a stop a half mile out. An hour passed. Passengers began to wonder what was transpiring, concerned by the lack of information. Many worry that, at the last stages of their stay in America, their plan to return to Japan would be aborted. The fog thickened, decreasing the visibility even more. However, in the distance at the island, a group of men emerged to the waterfront. And, a small motor boat was prepared for launch. A handful of men boarded and set sail for the Mie Maru. A gangplank was lowered from the Mie Maru. Five Japanese naval officers emerged from the ship and quickly make their way down the plank to meet the boat just as it arrives. Four men from the approaching boat get off. From the bow of the Mie Maru, murmurs of a discussion between the two groups of men ensued. It was hard to understand what was being spoken, but dialogue was formal in nature. A handful of documents are signed. Then, man in a white suit and white hat emerged from the boat. He was looking down, allowing passengers who were over 200 feet away to see only the top of his hat, not his face. All are curious who he was. While it was hard to tell from the passenger deck, the man was handcuffed behind his back. But, one of the four men, immediately and quickly unshackled him and he raised his head and glared directly into the eyes of each of his captors with much contempt. It’s as though as he was taking names and notes, plotting for revenge. But, he quickly diverted his attention forward to the five Japanese Naval officers and shook the hands with each as he begins his walk up the gangplank. A light from the ship was turned on, and shone on the man. Helen and her children leaned in and watch with much curiosity. The man looked up, just as he reaches the top of the gangplank and was about to enter the ship. All eyes are on the person in the white hat;
It was Kanekichi Yamamoto.
In May of 2019, Penguin Classics re-published “No-No Boy” by John Okada. The novel is the story of a Japanese American man’s struggle ...