BY BIF BRIGMAN
Where do you start finding information on a grandfather who immigrated to the Pacific NW one hundred years before? How do you start to find out about a man who died before you were born? These were some of the questions facing a local Sansei not too long ago.
Dale H. Watanabe often wondered about his grandfather Masahei Watanabe but information has been tough to come by. Fading memories in the family have produced scattered bits of information – Grandpa came from Kumamoto prefecture and survived the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, although he was badly injured and would carry the scars for the rest of his life. Masahei worked as a cook for a title winning boxer but the memories slip away when trying to recall the name of the boxer. Dale’s father, William Watanabe remembers his father also worked as a cook at a hospital in Vancouver, but no one can quite recall the dates. And just one precious photograph remains.
There are other short bits of information and stories Dale remembers hearing about his grandfather and the hotels he managed and owned. Hotels in both the Central District called the Star Apartments and a Nihonmachi hotel, the Welcome Hotel, once located on Jackson where the Seafirst Bank is now located. Dale’s mother Shizue Watanabe remembers a thoughtful, hardworking couple as her in-laws and relays her memories of visiting the hotels as a young bride.
Dale thought he would be able to track down more information when he went to Japan to teach. With the assistance of some co-workers at the school he worked at in Japan, Dale attempted to find family members or items of historical significance to his family by writing letters to the Kumamoto prefecture government. With the idea that his grandfather’s name was unique enough, Dale thought it would be easy to track down some information from them. The government was happy to assist but unfortunately all historical documents are organized by address, not name. After more searching Dale was unable to identify an address and uncles and aunts did not recall or maybe never knew the last address in Japan, and soon he abandoned his search for information about his grandfather and family. It was a pivotal point that made him realize his history can begin with his grandfather’s arrival in America.
Dale’s experience in Japan would prove to be a powerful centering point for him.
Dale relays stories of growing up in Seattle feeling “not 100 percent American,” and feeling like stories on TV reminded him that he and his Japanese American family were somehow foreigners or interlopers. These feelings would linger until Dale moved to Japan in 1992 and stayed for three years.
During the years from 1992 to 1995, Dale was able to meet lots of different kinds of Japanese people. He worked at a small rural school in Hyogo prefecture for three years and felt a connection with the people and had much time to reflect as he experienced daily life and customs. He certainly saw cultural similarities between his family and the students and parents he worked with. Omiyage – gift giving is one example. Bringing gifts back for co-workers was no surprise to him. Likewise, he was also taught not to go to someone’s house empty handed. Many of the locals he met in Japan were quite surprised at how many of the Japanese cultural customs, holidays and festivals such as Girl’s and Boy’s Day, and Obon Odori that Dale knew. People were especially shocked and delighted that Dale had even pounded mochi back home in America!
In Japan he also discovered how American he really was. There was a distinctly different way of thinking, group thinking especially – of not saying what you thought that seemed different to Dale. Also, rigid schooling and ceremony was very different for him. The contrast helped Dale to see himself and his family in new ways. He was able to see and more appreciate his ethnic heritage in new and meaningful ways. He also learned to appreciate more deeply that he and his family are truly Americans – unique Americans with Japanese ancestry – thanks to his pioneering Issei grandfather from Kumamoto.
While in Japan, Dale had an amazing opportunity to visit Kumamoto, his grandfather’s home town, when his parents came to visit him in Japan. He marveled as he looked upon Kumamoto Castle, thinking about how his grandfather had looked upon this same Castle before immigrating to the US. It was a sad moment when he found out that Kumamoto Castle had actually been destroyed in World War II bombings and that the Castle he was seeing was a recreation of the Castle his grandfather saw so many years before. But Kumamoto Castle remains a special place, a special place he remembers visiting with his parents and sharing a moment with the spirit of his grandfather.
Once Dale returned home, he resumed his search for his Issei grandfather with a renewed connection and closeness to him.
Searching American records have produced some nuggets of information: Masahei immigrated to America in 1899. A military registration card from 1918 lists Masahei being born on June 1, 1878 and operating a hotel at Fourth and Yesler with his wife Chiyo (Ono). The 1930 Census lists Masahei aged 53, his wife Chiyo 42, and their five children Hiroshi (William) 12, Takashi (Henry) 10, Makoto (Edward) 9, Kimia (Mary) 7, Naboto (Tom) 1 years old.
The search for information continues. Looking for records in the National Archives and other government sources is still underway with new little bits being uncovered all the time. While it is still hard for Dale to fathom his grandfather immigrating to the U.S. 16 years before Boeing was founded and two years before Nordstrom was started, he is beginning to see his grandfather in new ways and be closer to this pioneering man who left his homeland to make a new home that Dale has inherited.
If he could ask his grandfather one question, it would be: “What made you stay in America?”
And if he could say one thing to his grandfather it would be: “Thank you for coming and staying in America. I am proud to be an American with Japanese roots.”