By John Sammon NikkeiWest Staff Reporter
A new documentary film “The Ito Sisters” chronicles the struggles of a Japanese American family against prejudice and the upheavals of a world war, but also recalls individuals with an indomitable spirit, a stoic dignity that refused to be defeated by adversity.
It’s a story of women who were heroic back in a day when women weren’t supposed to be.
“Ito Sisters tells the story of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, my grandmother and her two sisters growing up as Japanese Americans in the 1920’s and 30’s,” said Antonia Grace Glenn, a Larkspur resident and director and producer of the film.
The Ito family had roots in Japan in Aichi Prefecture on the Pacific Coast south of Tokyo on Mikawa Bay. The family patriarch, Glenn’s great-grandfather Yetsusaburo Ito at the age of 16 came to California in 1897. Moving to San Francisco, he got a job as a houseboy and with the money he saved attempted to start a retail jewelry business.
“My great-grandfather lost his business in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906,” Glenn said. “All he could do was grab a few of the jewels he intended to sell and put them in his pockets and run. A trunk full of jewelry he had to abandon.”
Down on his luck Yetsusaburo Ito settled in the small Sacramento Delta town of Courtland and took up agricultural work as a laborer. His goal was to earn enough money to return to Japan. Not the oldest son of his family, he couldn’t hope to inherit a family business in Japan. He had to earn his own way from scratch.
He also wanted a wife.
Yetsusaburo met an acquaintance who told him he knew of a family in Japan with many daughters living in the Shizuoka Prefecture (south of Tokyo and home to Mt. Fuji). Based on the promising tip Yetsusaburo returned to Japan and met the woman who would become Glenn’s great-grandmother, Toku Suzuki. The couple married in 1913.
This period was known as the “Picture Brides” era. Japanese women agreed to marry Japanese laborers in California unseen after an arrangement had been made by a “go-between,” a third party. The only thing the bride had to go on was a picture she received in Japan of her intended husband. Such women were vulnerable. They made the journey to California alone most not speaking English only to arrive and find that the husband they were betrothed to was much older than the person in the photograph.
Sometimes the husband-to-be in a photo had posed next to an automobile as if he owned it to appear more attractive. His new bride would find out he did not own the vehicle in the picture.
“These brides were often disappointed when they arrived,” Glenn said. “But my great-grandmother (Toku) was not a picture bride.”
After marrying, Glenn’s great-grandparents stayed in Japan for six months. Prospects remained better in California so the couple returned on a steam ship with Toku six months pregnant.
“It was Asiatic steerage not a luxurious boat,” Glenn said. “Great-Grandmother had to battle seasickness and morning sickness crowded in with many other Japanese immigrants.”
U.S. Government officials by this time were growing alarmed at the number of Asians arriving in California despite the fact that Asians did work few whites wanted, the Chinese helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, and the Japanese 20 years later as pickers helping to establish California’s burgeoning multi-million-dollar fruit and vegetable industries.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880’s was followed by the federal Immigration Act of 1924 directed largely against the Japanese.
Three children were born to the Ito couple, Nancy in 1914, Lillian in 1916 and Hedy in 1922.
The girls along with their parents lived on a Courtland-area farm run by the Peck family.
“After working as a sharecropper Yetsusaburo worked his way up and became a foreman on the farm and managed farm laborers,” Glenn said. “He oversaw Mexican and Filipino workers. My great-grandmother Toku would prepare meals for the workers and there were 60 of them working on the Peck farm, so she served them breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition she washed their bedding, all of this while raising three children.”
Such back-breaking dawn to dusk labor Toku bore without complaint, Glenn noted.
The family began saving money hoping to return to Japan but their plans were dashed when a fire swept through the Peck farm killing two of the workers in 1926. Because the workers had lost their few belongings and livelihood Glenn’s great-grandfather reached into his own pocket and paid the workers the money he had saved so the workers could survive.
“It was his (Yetsusaburo’s) sense of honor,” Glenn explained.
The farm’s owner Mr. Peck made no such contribution.
The elder Ito would suffer yet another blow a few years later losing his savings when the bank holding his money closed in the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
“He had lost everything before, and now he lost it all again,” Glenn said.
The three Ito girls meanwhile attended school like other children; except it was a segregated school.
“People associate segregation with the American South, but we had segregated schools right here in California,” Glenn said. “In Courtland there was the Bates Elementary School for white children and the Courtland Oriental School for Asians.”
Mexican children, considered somewhere in the racial middle, also attended the Courtland Oriental School.
Both schools had only one school bus. The bus would stop at the Bates Elementary School. The Asian and Mexican children would walk the rest of the way a quarter-mile to the Asian school, getting soaked if it rained.
The oldest two Ito girls worked on the Peck farm packing pears and asparagus in boxes and when they reached marriageable age, in the old-fashioned tradition, arranged marriages were worked out for them by go-betweens. The go-betweens would bring the bride and groom and their parents together for an initial meeting.
“The oldest girl (Nancy) was considered beautiful,” Glenn said. “She had a man she loved and wanted to marry but couldn’t marry him. She couldn’t pick her own husband. She had to marry another man and on her wedding night he went out to gamble. It was a bad marriage. They had children but she couldn’t get divorced. They were married for 50 years.”
The coming of World War II in 1942 uprooted the family when 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast were incarcerated in concentration camps because of their ethnicity. A portion of the Ito family was sent to Tule Lake, a camp located in a remote part of Northeastern California.
“My grandmother and grandfather and my mother on the other hand were sent to the Gila River Camp (Arizona),” Glenn said. “The prisoners were given a loyalty questionnaire to fill out and some of the prisoners said I have to sign while others said, ‘I’ll sign if you let me out of prison.’”
Prisoners such as Yetsusaburo Ito were faced with a dilemma. They had not been born in the U.S. and had not been allowed to become American citizens. If they declared loyalty to the U.S. by filling out the questionnaire, they would still not be American— or Japanese—they would be stateless.
“All adults in the camps were ordered to fill out a questionnaire,” Glenn said. “So along with Yetsusaburo, Toku and the three daughters had to fill one out too. Tule Lake was converted into a high security segregation center. It was meant to house not only people who refused to fill out the questionnaire, but those who answered ‘no’ to questions 27 and 28.”
Question 27 asked if the prisoner would serve in combat for the U.S. Question 28 asked for a statement of unquestioned loyalty.
Yetsusaburo filled out the form declaring loyalty to the U.S. He was transferred from Tule Lake with his family to Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming for imagined less potentially dangerous offenders.
The elder daughter Nancy was pregnant and suffered an early labor probably triggered by a long arduous train ride from Tule Lake to Heart Mountain. Competent medical care was not available at Heart Mountain and volunteer nurses tried to delay the birth by pushing the emerging baby back inside the mother’s womb.
The child died.
Lillian, the second girl, came down with tuberculosis and Toku journeyed by train not speaking English from Heart Mountain to Gila River Camp to pick up Lillian and Glenn’s mother Evelyn Nakano Glenn, later to become a renowned sociologist.
After the war Yetsusaburo attempted to resume work on the Peck farm but Mr. Peck advised him because of the anti-Japanese feeling in the area it was not safe to return. Later Yetsusaburo, who had remained loyal to Peck, worked again briefly for him, then took the family to New Mexico and then to Southern California.
“My grandfather, grandmother and my mom moved to Chicago after the war,” Glenn said. “They lived there for 15 years and moved to Oakland where they bought a motel.”
Nancy moved to Los Angeles where she worked in a spice factory and ran a boarding house.
Hedy the youngest girl was allowed to leave Heart Mountain Camp during the war to enroll in a beauty school in Denver. She became a hair dresser, married, moved to Los Angeles and had two children.
Glenn said finishing touches are being put on the film which has been in production on and off for 10 years and will be completed by the end of June. The project was funded partly by a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.
The film will be submitted for screening to film festivals, Japanese American historic societies and museums. A trailer for the film may be viewed at the website www.itosisters.com
The year 2017 is the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 authorizing the imprisoning of Japanese Americans during World War II. Glenn said given that landmark and a recent surge in anti-immigrant organizing and legislation in the U.S. today, she believes the theme of the Ito Sisters is more relevant than ever.
“Some politicians and pundits are citing the internment as a precedent how the U.S. could be responding to Muslims in this country now,” Glenn said. “It is alarming. The Japanese American community has been insisting that the rights of Muslims not be violated in the way that the rights of Japanese Americans were 75 years ago.”
Asked what she hopes the film will teach, Glenn said knowledge of a little known chapter of Japanese American history through the eyes and experiences of a family, the struggles of her great-grandparents and their children and the remarkable story of their sacrifice and hardship.