By Jonathan vanHarmelen —
One of the more difficult questions historian are asked is not about history itself, but their work as historians: “Why do you write about this topic?” Of course, like other people who study history, I do so for a variety of reasons, whether to understand broader issues affecting society or as part of an introspective journey. History is, after all, a form of storytelling that uses the past as a medium for discussing issues, past and present. In more recent decades, historians have sought to collect personal stories of individuals that add a personal touch to seemingly impersonal topics. For me, history is a beautiful subject because it not only helps us understand society as a whole, but it also allows us to see how individual experiences contribute to a greater story that affects everyone. To illustrate this from my own life, I began studying Japanese American incarceration thanks in part to the life experiences of two key individuals: Tetsuo ‘Tets’ Furukawa and his wife Betty Imada Furukawa.
I grew up in Santa Maria, California. Nearby is the town of Guadalupe, which was once among the largest Japanese American farming communities on the West Coast before World War II. While Guadalupe sits immediately next to Santa Maria, the communities were separated as the result of intentional racial segregation. Japanese Americans – along with Mexican and Filipino Americans – mostly lived in Guadalupe and farmed strawberries and sugar beets in Betteravia. Though they were key to the agricultural success of the Santa Maria valley, they were largely excluded from Santa Maria itself. Following Executive Order 9066, members of the Guadalupe Japanese community were incarcerated at the Tulare Assembly Center and later the Gila River concentration camp in the Arizona desert, where they remained for most of the war.
Growing up on the Central Coast, I learned about the camps and the suffering of Japanese Americans, but very little about how this story was rooted in the places I lived. I finally came face to face with this history one day while working as an intern at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. As I was moving artifacts from storage, I came across a baseball uniform marked “Guadalupe Y.M.B.A.” I asked my mentor Noriko Sanefuji, the curator of Japanese American history, if this was the Guadalupe near Santa Maria. She said yes, and added that the initials Y.M.B.A. represented the Young Man’s Buddhist Association. It hit me at that moment how much of this history had existed around me my entire life, and yet I knew so little about it.
A year later, I started working on a thesis on Japanese American agriculture in the camps, and decided to interview a number of the Japanese American farmers who still worked in my area. As I was looking for people to interview, one woman suggested I contact a friend of hers in Santa Maria, a man named Tetsuo ‘Tets’ Furukawa. I immediately recognized him as the original owner of the baseball uniform in the Smithsonian. When I finally called him and asked if he was the same Tetsuo Furukawa, he replied ‘yes.’ I knew then I needed to talk to him, and we decided to meet at his house. I drove down to Santa Maria, where I was greeted by Tets and his wife Betty (whose own story I will mention later). I sat down with Tets, and we spoke for four hours about his childhood in Guadalupe, his time at Gila River high school, and as a member of the Gila River baseball team. Tets played baseball under the guidance of Kenichi Zenimura—a legendary figure who had played alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and known as the founder of Japanese American baseball. The Gila River team played multiple games in camp, including an intense game with the local Tucson High School that ended 11-10 in favor of Gila River. Although a rematch was scheduled, the game was cancelled because locals in Tucson refused to have Japanese Americans come to their town. The uniform Tets wore was saved as it was included among the few belongings families could carry to camp. Tets also brought out his old baseball glove and a stick carved from wood at Gila River, then showed me perhaps the most startling artifact of all: a preserved film of the day that Japanese Americans from Guadalupe left for camp on buses. Tets narrated the film, and noted that days after Pearl Harbor, local whites in Santa Maria vandalized Japanese-owned businesses in Guadalupe. The film had been taken by a local Santa Maria teacher, and Tets had preserved the film with help from a professor at Allan Hancock college.
Before I left, Tets presented me with two books on Japanese Americans and baseball to which he had contributed, autographing each with a message. He also showed me haikus he wrote for meetings of local Japanese Americans and paper crane sculptures he made, one of which was used at the opening of the Smithsonian’s recent exhibit on Japanese Americans – Righting a Wrong. When I later returned to work at the Smithsonian, I would show visitors Tets’s baseball uniform and tell them his story as part of my narrative of events.
As I continued my studies, I remained in contact with Tets, and I was able to learn more from him about his life and Santa Maria’s Japanese American community. A few years later, another play of circumstances brought me to the story of Tetsuo’s wife Betty. Betty Imada originally grew up in Lodi, California, and was a young girl when she was sent to the Rohwer Concentration camp in Arkansas. There her father Seizo Imada was assigned to work as a lumberjack in the nearby forest, gathering wood for the camp. One day, when Betty’s father was sent to work during a storm, a tree fell and killed him. The tragic event helped set off a strike among inmate workers over safety. I came across this story in historian John Howard’s book Concentration Camps on the Home Front, one of the leading works on the camps in the South. I googled Betty Imada, and I was stunned to see her name registered as Betty Imada Furukawa, the same woman I already knew. I called her, and she elaborated on the story and the enduring effect it had on her family. As I was acquainted with John Howard, I wrote to him and told him the story. He wrote back that he was moved to tears by it. I told him Betty would like to get in touch with him, and they soon began corresponding.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure to meet many former incarcerees and hear amazing stories about camp and resettlement that continue to inspire my work. As I write, I always look back on my first encounter with Tets’s baseball uniform, and reflect on where it has taken me in my academic journey. Most of all, it reminds me of the importance of individuals within history, and how these stories continue to live with us. And for that, I am forever grateful to Tetsuo and Betty Furukawa.