Jimi Yamaichi, Curator of the San Jose Japanese-American Museum. July 2009

The next day started with a short drive to Redding for my first-ever In-n-Out burger. There’s nothing like doing it double-double Animal Style at 10:30 in the morning. Then we went into the restaurant [rimshot]!

The inland heat caught up to us somewhere on I-5, and we finished the drive into San Jose by way of the industrial East Bay, got set up in our justifiably value-priced hotel room, and headed to Japantown to meet Jimi Yamaichi. He’s the director and curator of the Japanese-American Museum of San Jose, and when Karyn contacted them to set up a walking tour of the area, he was to be our docent. We had brought with us a steamer trunk that belonged to her uncle, which he used to emigrate to the U.S. to a San Jose address, and which Karyn wanted to donate to the museum’s collection. As a result of this, or maybe simply as a greater act of hospitality, Jimi invited us to come down the day before Obon was to start for a peek into the preparations.

Everybody knows Jimi! Jimi knows everybody! We couldn’t get fifteen feet without a handshake or a brief conversation. “How’s your mother recuperating?” “Come by the office on Tuesday.” He’s like a Californian Uncle Bob. We watched as rows upon rows of volunteers put beef, onions and peppers onto skewers. Others were working the rice, the great ten-gallon tubs of teriyaki, the thirty-foot-long charcoal pits. Unlike other volunteer efforts I’ve been part of, there was a collective cheer in this room, like a samba school the day before Carnevale. Everybody just seemed to know where they were supposed to be.

One thing Jimi started to tell us about was a program during World War II in which the US orchestrated kidnappings of prominent community leaders in 13 Latin American countries and took away their passports before landing them in US internment camps, so that they arrived here as both prisoners and illegal aliens, and were treated accordingly. In addition to a 1998 settlement, petitions for Congressional redress of this little-publicized crime are still in the works even today, after many of those directly affected have died.

When the Peruvians agreed to the American request to detain the Japanese immigrants, most of the logistics were arranged informally, with phone calls and face-to-face meetings between officials and diplomats. Few decisions were committed to record, Gardiner says, because the officials involved were aware that “they were operating in a highly questionable area in terms of international law and in terms of fundamental morality.”

The first U.S. ship, the Etolin, sailed from Callao in April 1942, with 141 Peruvian Japanese. The abductions continued for the next three years.

Did you know about this? I sure didn’t. But Jimi laid it out for us on a personal level. Hearing it from him, even though I didn’t believe him at first, I could appreciate how these scapegoats got the shaft no matter where they turned. They had no homes to return to their home countries. Certainly the US wanted them only for their collateral value in prisoner exchanges. Nor did Japan want them, or the shame of acknowledging complicity in their treatment.

Afterwards, we had dinner at the counter at a diner called Gombei (no website). Karyn had the saba, her go-to menu choice in “kitchen restaurants” like this, and I had the kaki fry. The woman taking our order thought I had asked for a “Kentucky Fry,” and we all had a good beery laugh at that.

Pictures, as always, are here, and more about Obon later.