Writing Home: Commentary

10. Kazuo Ito, Poems by Issei

Migrants to the Pacific Northwest from around the world used imported literary forms to describe the region and their experiences in it.  From the time of their first arrival during the late nineteenth century, immigrants from Japan set down on paper their thoughts and feelings about the place and society to which they had come. To prepare a history of the Issei in the Pacific Northwest, Kazuo Ito (1973) compiled memoirs, letters, and verse (in Japanese) from a variety of these immigrants. Ito often reproduced these texts without dates, and in some cases without complete names, in order to illustrate Issei reactions to the new country, their treatment by whites, and the struggles they endured to succeed in North America. Ito attributes the first poem below, beginning “Blue sky sad and far,” to Kibun Miyazaki, who wrote from Wapato, Washington, on February 26, 1918 (Ito 1973:422).

The next selections come from Teiko Tomita, who had been given the pen name “Yukari” as a student. Coming from Osaka Prefecture in Japan, Tomita was a “picture bride” who married her husband, Masakazu, in 1920, and joined him on his leased farmland on the Yakama Indian Reservation near Wapato in Washington state. Tomita recorded her experiences as an immigrant woman by writing poems, some of which she sent from the Yakima Valley to acquaintances and publishers back in Japan. A favorite form was the tanka—a Japanese fixed form of verse of five lines, with the first and third lines containing five syllables and the other lines seven. Tomita continued to write as she raised five children, and after her family moved in 1929 to run a 14-acre nursery in the vicinity of today’s Sea-Tac Airport, just south of Seattle. During the Great Depression the family skimped by, growing vegetables while they waited for the saplings to mature into marketable trees.  Tomita wrote both hokku (the generic form of haiku, consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively) and tanka—using Japanese literary forms to convey her Japanese American experiences. She found herself less isolated than she had been in eastern Washington, and more in touch with a community of people of Japanese descent. Indeed, in 1939 Tomita even joined a tanka club in Seattle (Ito 1973:429, 448; Nomura 1988:208-214).

American entry into World War Two uprooted Teiko Tomita’s family once more.  It also destroyed much of her writing.  Fearing that the many poems she had saved could be found by white authorities who would regard them as incriminating evidence of loyalty to Japan, Tomita gathered her manuscripts and burned them all in the nursery fields.  This act did not keep her and her family from being incarcerated for most of the war, first at Tule Lake, California and then at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.  Like many other Issei, Tomita found some solace in writing verses during her confinement: “Within the iron stockade/ Always composing poems/ From the sorrows of war/ A little consolation.”  By 1945 Teiko and Masakazu Tomita had been relocated to Minnesota, and from there she wrote with mixed feelings about the war’s end: “Among whites jubilantly shouting/ ‘The war is over’/ My husband and I/ Cried throughout the night.” The Tomitas returned to the Seattle area, where they acquired their own home and she took a job as a garment worker. She continued to write poetry into her eighties (Nomura 1988:215-23).

The other verses taken from Ito (1973:442, 457) come from apparently anonymous Issei, most of whom worked as farmers in eastern and western Washington.

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