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Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, two men previously unaware of each other’s existence — one living in Hiroshima Prefecture and the other far away in the French territory of New Caledonia — renewed their ties of kinship online after they had been broken up by the vagaries of the war.

Robert Tagawa, 71, a resident of New Caledonia, talked in a video chat for the first time in early August with Tomonori Tagawa, 78, who lives in Shobara, Hiroshima Prefecture. Robert’s grandfather was Tomonori’s uncle.

Immediately after the war in the Pacific broke out, Kameichi Tagawa, Robert’s now deceased grandfather, was detained as an enemy alien and ousted from New Caledonia, to which he had emigrated. As a result, Kameichi was separated from his local family.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Robert told Tomonori with excitement on Aug. 2 in a video chat. He added he was finally able to have peace of mind after struggling to identify his true origins. The two men promised that they would visit Kameichi’s grave together after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

Tomonori Tagawa (left) prays in front of his uncle Kameichi Tagawa's grave on Aug. 14 in Hiroshima Prefecture. | CHUGOKU SHIMBUN
Tomonori Tagawa (left) prays in front of his uncle Kameichi Tagawa’s grave on Aug. 14 in Hiroshima Prefecture. | CHUGOKU SHIMBUN

Later on Aug. 14, Tomonori visited Kameichi’s grave near his home. As he placed his hands together in prayer before the tomb, he said, “Your grandchildren are living happily in New Caledonia.”

Robert had gone to great lengths in tracing the whereabouts of his late grandfather, whom he had never met in person. He sought help from Hiramatsu Ireland Benjamin, 30, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University who studies Japanese immigrants in the Asia-Pacific region. In July, Robert discovered that Tomonori lived in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Kameichi’s life was full of hardship. He was one of about 5,000 immigrants who left Japan for New Caledonia, now a popular tourist spot, during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and Taisho Era (1912-26) to work in nickel mines.

In 1914, he headed to the island of New Caledonia from his home in Hiroshima when he was 21 years old. After working in the mines, he owned a retail shop, married a local woman and fathered a son — Robert’s father.

Kameichi Tagawa | CHUGOKU SHIMBUN
Kameichi Tagawa | CHUGOKU SHIMBUN

Kameichi’s life took a turn for the worse in December 1941, 27 years after he arrived on the island. With Japan at war with the United States, Japanese residents in New Caledonia were detained by French authorities and their assets were confiscated. Some of them were sent to concentration camps, separating them from their families. Kameichi, then 48, went through a similar fate and was sent back to Japan in 1942.

In 1953, Kameichi’s only son died in an accident at sea. He was survived by his two children, Robert and his older sister, Geneva, 72. The only clue the two of them had of Kameichi was a letter he had written to his family from one of the concentration camps.

Tomonori, on the other hand, remembers Kameichi as a smart uncle who worked in the research department of a local steel company after he returned to his hometown in 1943. Kameichi re-married when he was 55 and died at the age of 80 in 1974.

After the war ended, Kameichi never revisited the island where he used to live and was reluctant to talk about his life there. But when Tomonori was very young, Kameichi showed him a photograph of his wedding ceremony on the island.

“I assume he missed his family in New Caledonia. He probably would have had a different life had the war not occurred,” Tomonori said.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Aug. 15.

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