Nisei bears witness to ‘looking like the enemy’


Mary Matsuda Gruenewald was 17 when her life fell to pieces, shattered by the U.S. policy of interning Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Now age 81, she is visiting her ancestral homeland for the first time ever, accompanied by her daughter Martha and sister-in-law Miyoko. It is, she says, a time of reflection and soul-searching. “I need to find a place for Japan in the remaining years of my life that is fruitful and consistent with both the eternal and my own values.”

As well as touching base with family roots, Mary is promoting her book, “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps.” Published last year by NewSage Press in Oregon, it describes how because of their ancestry, the Matsuda family (along with 120,000 other mainland Japanese-Americans) faced years of fear, hardship and discrimination.

For 60 years, Mary refused to think about her experience. She felt a sense of guilt, shame and confusion: what was it she could possibly have done to warrant such a measure of abuse, apart from being of Japanese ancestry? “Most internees felt the same way. The sense of being a lost generation remains pervasive.”

She has not wasted time, however. When Japanese-Americans had to choose where their loyalties lay in 1943, and her only brother, Yoneichi, chose to be drafted into the 100th/442nd Combat team of nisei soldiers, she became a registered nurse. In 1971, she helped establish the Consulting Nursing Service within Group Health Cooperative, a health care organization that later became a model for U.S. health-care providers.

Not only did she receive an American Living Pioneer Award in 2004 for her work in health care, but she was involved in the establishment of Minidoka Internment Camp — the last she lived in — as a national monument.

When Mary’s children asked her 10 years ago to open up about her early experiences, she was initially very resistant. Her brother, Yoneichi, had never talked about the war; she too had never discussed her time in the camps, not with even her husband, a World War II veteran whom she met in college after the war, and whom she had married in part as an act of rebellion: He was Caucasian.

“But I began thinking. There were my own three children, four nieces and their families and future generations to consider. My parents (Heisuke and Mitsuno Matsuda) and Yoneichi had all passed on. This is when I realized it was up to me.”

In January 1999, Mary was invited to join a writing class, aimed specifically toward publication. “The hardest part was not wanting to face my sense of repressed anger and self-alienation. I was afraid that if I opened up I would begin to cry, and then I would never be able to stop.”

She persevered in part because of her teacher’s encouragement and support. “She told us — we were just eight students in a very safe, protected environment — that it was not only desirable to cry and share our feelings, but mandatory.

“I remember once,” Mary continues, “being very choked up and another student reached across and put his hand on my shoulder. That was enough to stabilize me, to help me go on.”

It also helped that she was able to talk with her family about what it meant to be a Japanese-American. “We discussed where we are now, what we had learned, and how we saw the future. Through this, I realized the importance of using my story as a vehicle of appeal. I want people to pay attention to what’s happening right now.”

She fears the tightening of reins in the U.S. — the restrictions of freedom of speech, the buying out of the media, the library card issue. “Having experienced such repression, I’m determined not to be silent. Anyone looking even vaguely Middle Eastern in America is now viewed with suspicion. I know how that feels. I know what looking like the enemy is like.”

She tells of a Romanian friend with dark skin, dark hair and eyes who feels uncomfortable every time he flies, always in fear of being questioned.

“Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither,” Mary says forcefully, quoting Ben Franklin. “As a witness to history, it’s my duty to do what I can: speak publicly, lobby like crazy. These days I sleep very well at night.”

Based in Seattle, she has brought along Martha (living in Oakland, Calif.) and Miyoko, originally from Canada, to keep her grounded and on track. Together they’ve visited Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and now Tokyo, and still Mary is tireless. “I’ve met so many groups and organizations, reading excerpts from my book.”

Excerpt One describes the first camp, and the implications of internment.

Excerpt Two is from the second camp, where Mary tried to work out her identity.

By the time she reaches the third camp, she has plunged into a total rejection of her Japanese self. Only her mother’s wisdom comes to her rescue, replacing despair with courage: “my benchmark for facing all future difficulties.”

Now she wonders why she chose to live in silence for so long, but supposes she feared losing control of that hard-gained serenity. “I was scared to rock the boat. All those Japanese proverbs and phrases I learned as a child: to ‘gaman’ (endure), ‘shikata ga nai’ (it can’t be helped). Well, I don’t have to endure, it can be helped and I’m happy to be a nail sticking up that will never again be hammered down.”

The most moving part of Mary’s trip was to meet her mother’s second cousin, worship in front of the family “butsudan” (Buddhist family altar) and visit the family tomb in Shimizu, Wakayama Prefecture. “We then visited Koyasan — breathtaking!”

Imagining Japanese people to be stuffy, she’d been surprised to find quite the opposite. “We’ve had the most amazing reception everywhere. I’m filled with awe and gratitude to be the recipient of such graciousness and hospitality. I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to come. “

With the book in its second edition, Mary appears to be moving in a new direction. Before leaving for Japan, she was filmed reading from “Looking Like the Enemy” for showing on national television. Also another book may be brewing: “Let’s just say I’m thinking about it.”

Mary says she never thought she’d break out of the self-imposed barbed wire fences she’d built around herself. “Now this new big mouth that loves to speak is having such a blast. I really am on the most amazing journey.”