Two sisters, Masako and Misako Futagawa, were born in California. Masako was born on January 9, 1922 in Madera, California, and Misako was born almost two years later on December 6, 1923, in Clovis, California.
Their parents, Japanese immigrants, worked as migrant farmers, making a living harvesting seasonal fruit. Moving around with two little girls and working long hours in the fields was not easy for the Futagawas. With no one to watch the children during the day, the Futagawas were often forced to leave the two little girls by themselves in a big empty box, with food and snacks for the whole day. On these occasions, the parents would leave the girls a watermelon with a hole in the top so that the girls could put their little hands through the hole and pick out the flesh when they were thirsty.
In December 1927, when the girls reached the ages of 4 and almost 6, respectively, their parents decided to move the children back to Japan to join their older sister Ayako, who was eleven years old at the time, and to receive traditional Japanese schooling. Their mother accompanied both girls on their journey to Japan and eventually returned back to the US to rejoin her husband and resume farming.
Back in Japan, living with their uncle and aunt on a farm in Hiroshima, Masako and Ayako worked along with the adults, growing rice and vegetables and breeding silkworms, while at the same time attending school. Misako was still too young to do much work. As part of silkworm production, the girls had to clean up and pick the mulberry leaves before sunrise, prior to rushing to school in the morning.
Five years passed this way, with the girls' parents working on farms in California, while their three young daughters were thousands of miles away attending school and working on a farm in Japan. Around 1932, the family finally reunited when the parents returned to Japan permanently. The reunion was not to be long-lived, however. The girls' father, Saichi Futagawa, arranged for his cousin Masaichi Nishimura's son Masataro to come to Japan from San Francisco and marry Saichi's middle daughter Masako. Masako was not even sixteen years old at the time and had never met her future husband. Masataro, ten years older than Masako, was born and raised in San Francisco and lived in Japantown.
In 1937, Masataro arrived in Japan and spent about ten months living with his uncle. When Masako graduated from high school, she and Masataro returned to the United States together aboard the steam ship Tatsuma Maru. Prior to their departure, they were married in a Japanese ceremony attended by the bride's family. The ceremony, however, did not constitute a legal marriage for the purposes of immigration to the United States.
Thus, according to U.S. law, Masako was not considered married and could not use her husband's last name. So she arrived to the United States using her maiden name, Masako Futagawa.
Masako's journey with Masataro to the United States lasted about two weeks. While on board the ship, the newlyweds had separate cabins. Upon arrival, Masataro was able to enter the United States, but Masako was detained by the immigration authorities, even though she presented a birth certificate showing that she was born in Madera, California, and was a natural-born U.S. citizen, just like her husband. Masako was kept on the Angel Island for several days so that the authorities could interview witnesses and complete the review of her immigration file.
The only witness testifying in Masako's immigration hearing was her mother-in-law, Fuki Nishimura. Because the Japanese marriage ceremony was not legally recognized in the United States, neither Fuki nor Masako could fully identify their familial relationship. Instead, Fuki described herself only as the wife of Masako's father's cousin, Masaichi. At the hearing, Masako stated that Masaichi would support her in the United States.
When Masako was finally granted entry following the hearing, she came to live with Masataro and his parents in San Francisco. Masataro was working in a coffee shop in Japantown. Masako was trying to learn English and doing house cleaning work around the Marina district. So that their marriage would be legally recognized, Masako and Masataro had to be married again in the United States. Shortly after Masako turned eighteen years old, the couple traveled to Reno, Nevada and obtained a marriage license there.
In February 1941, Masako's younger sister Misako returned to San Francisco from Japan. Like Masako, she was married by arrangement at the age of seventeen. After she graduated from the same high school that Masako finished a few years earlier, Misako traveled to the United States with her new husband aboard the ship Kamakura Maru. Her husband's family was in Stockton, and that is where Misako and her husband settled.
In 1942, during World War II and following the Pearl Harbor attack, Masako and Masataro, along with his parents, were forced to relocate into an internment camp. The camp was established by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which called for the evacuation and segregation of thousands of Americans of Japanese heritage. The family was first placed at Tanforan, one of seventeen "Civilian Assembly Centers," where civilians were placed before being sent to a more permanent "relocation center". The living conditions at the camps were very harsh; the camps were overcrowded, dirty and smelly, and the food was rationed and inhabitants were served meals in long lines. At Tanforan, a former horse racing track, families were housed in adapted horse stalls. From Tanforan, Masako and the family were transferred to Topaz, where the living conditions were a slight improvement. Meanwhile, Misako and her husband's family were sent to a different camp. While at the camp, twenty-year old Masako helped take care of preschool kids at a nursing school. She was paid about $9 per month. A couple years later, while Masako and her husband were still living in a camp, their son was born. During all the time at the camp and for several years thereafter, Masako had no communication with her family in Japan.
On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Masako and Misako's mother and older sister survived the horror of the bombing. Ayako, however, became ill shortly after the bombing and died of cancer at a young age, probably as a result of radiation poisoning. When her elderly mother later became ill, Masako traveled back to Japan almost every year until her mother passed away at the age of 88.
After World War II ended, Masako and Masataro returned to San Francisco. Without a place to live, Masataro went to stay at a Buddhist church, which was open for men only. Masako returned to work for one of her former clients, Mrs. Martindale, who offered her and her little son room and board. Even during the war, while Masako was living in an internment camp, Mrs. Martindale had been taking care of her, sending her food packages.
After a year, Masako's friend found a six-unit apartment, and the family was able to reunite by moving into one of the units. Masako continued working as a housekeeper until her son turned 8 years old. When he was old enough, Masako took a job at a Japanese cleaning shop owned by her friend and worked there for the next twenty-eight years. Masataro, meanwhile, was working at a women's clothing factory. When the cleaning shop owners retired, Masako was asked by another friend to work at a small wholesale food store, where she worked for another twenty years. Used to working hard all her life, Masako retired only at the age of eighty-five.
Looking back on her life, Masako does not regret that she spent her life here in the United States, despite the confinement in internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attack, the separation from her family and friends in Japan, and the incredibly hard work she endured until the age of eighty-six. A stellar example of perseverance and endurance for younger generation, even at the age of eighty-nine, Masako is still full of optimism and worries little about herself or any health issues she may have. She is glad that she came to America and was able to live a good life here.
Masako now lives in San Jose, California, which is near her son, granddaughter and great granddaughter. It was very hard to decide to leave San Francisco after living there for over 70 years. All of her good friends were there, but she is glad she made the choice to live in San Jose, where she is very happy.
This story was based on an interview of Masako Nishimura conducted by Eddie Wong on April 8, 2011.
Yulia B. Bartow is a volunteer at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. She is a graduate of Stanford Law School.