A woman's quest to discover what happened to her Japanese grandfather after WWII
By DENISE WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: August 18, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Regina Boone pulled the papers out of the fireproof bag.
For more than 20 years, she protected the thick package through her moves from teaching in Japan, to her years as a graduate student in Ohio, then as a photojournalist in Richmond, Norfolk, and now, on this December night in 2016, in Detroit. She’d skimmed the pages before but she was finally ready to make good on her promise.
She read page by page, absorbing the details: Her paternal grandfather, Tsuruju Miyazaki, was born in Japan in 1897. He created a life in America — in of all places — rural Suffolk in the 1930s. At the start of World War II, the government designated him an enemy alien, stripped him of his life and shipped him away. Regina lingered over the love letters he'd written to the black woman he had built a family with in Suffolk. He asked about their two boys, one Regina's father. Her grandfather wanted to return home, the letters and formal requests show, but he never made it. He died shortly after the war ended but nothing in the papers said how or when. Then there was his photo — a handsome man in a tweed three-piece suit, his dark hair and suit crisp, the slightest tease of a grin.
Regina's father was only 3 when Miyazaki was taken away, and he rarely discussed his childhood. The most her father discussed his dad was in his final days in late May and early June 2014, before he succumbed to cancer. That’s when he asked her to sit by him. She took his hand.
He then told her: “Find out what happened to my father.”
Tsuruju Miyazaki was 14 when he left his mother, brothers and sisters in a seaside village in the Nagasaki Prefecture. If he left for adventure, he found it.
He heaved coal on a ship and worked as a steward and cook. He learned French from his time in the port city of Marseilles and was a well-traveled 24-year-old by the time the Japanese steamer, Texas Maru, brought him to Norfolk on Aug. 17, 1922.
Asians immigrants landing in the south were welcomed more hospitably than those on the West Coast, where anti-Asian hatred thrived. The Japanese appeared to be so rare on this side of the Mississippi that they didn't threaten the racial status quo. They sat in the front, white sections of segregated buses. They studied at Virginia colleges that refused African American citizens.
In Norfolk, Japanese single men and those who married black women tended to live and work in African American communities around Church Street and Brambleton Avenue. Several answered to nicknames like "Harry" and "William." Miyazaki went by "Mike."
Miyazaki spent most of the '20s working for the Philadelphia and Norfolk Steamship Company before leaving it in 1928. By that time, a Chinese or Japanese restaurant seemed to be on each block in the Church Street area. Maybe that’s why Miyazaki looked to the less densely populated and quieter Suffolk to start a business.
In 1928, he took over the Horseshoe Café in the black section of town at 360 E. Washington St. He spent time in Skeetertown, a part of neighboring Nansemond County that was known for its interesting 18th-century origins. It was where whites co-mingled and married free blacks, producing generations of folks whose skin color ranged from cream to butterscotch with surnames like Milteer, Faulk and Boone.
The Depression of the 1930s was kind to Miyazaki. He owned a couple of cars including a 1936 Chevrolet Coach. He kept ties to Japan, contributing to the Japanese Wounded Soldiers’ Fund and attending the occasional Japanese Association Inc. meeting. He also donated money to the local Salvation Army and Red Cross.
He wrote letters and sent money to his family in Nagasaki and once included a photo taken at a local studio, his trim 5-foot-3-inch frame looking taller in that tweed suit.
At some point he met Lethia May Boone, who was almost 20 years his junior. They didn't wed. They had their first child, Raymond Boone, on Feb. 2, 1938. Their second, Gerald, was born 10 months later on Dec. 27, a day after Miyazaki’s 41st birthday. Gerald's middle name was "Miyazaki."
Miyazaki was enjoying his young family in Tidewater while the world was speeding toward war. Germany, Italy and Japan were creating a lethal alliance bent on dominating the globe. In 1940, the United States reacted by passing the Alien Registration Act that required foreign residents to let the authorities know where they lived. Miyazaki dutifully went to his local post office to be fingerprinted.
His mind was on his new home, though. In May 1941, Miyazaki plunked down $1,000 to open Mike’s Café in the 300 block of Market Street in Norfolk. He did not know that federal agents were tracking the activities of the local Japanese. Around Sept. 21, an informant overheard Miyazaki say, “I am going to get things lined up for the right time.”
Miyazaki could have been planning an order of 7Up or proposing to Lethia; the agent wrote it down nonetheless as suspicious.
Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombers unleashed war on a Hawaiian military outpost that few on the American mainland had heard of — Pearl Harbor.
The news hit Virginia around 2 p.m. and the reaction was swift. Police swept through Norfolk and arrested 14 Japanese men. In Portsmouth, police hit Charlie’s Cafe and the Oriental Cafe on High Street and rounded up eight workers. By 5 p.m., Suffolk police picked up Miyazaki and his employee from the Horseshoe.
Miyazaki was allowed to appoint a manager to run his business for three days, but authorities were not going to let him go. A month later, Miyazaki and others were shipped to Fort Howard Detention Camp, a compound of old Army barracks in Baltimore.
He tried to soothe Lethia from afar. He also mailed letters to keep Mike’s Cafe going and to track his restaurant equipment and his bank accounts. He got letters back that the landlord of his Suffolk restaurant had already rented the Horseshoe to another tenant.
Miyazaki was paroled in March after being deemed a non-threat, but he was not freed.
Executive Order 9066 issued in February forced about 120,000 Japanese families into internment camps. While some Italian and German families were included, most were Japanese. Most of them were American citizens.
On Dec. 4, Miyazaki was put on a train to Rohwer War Relocation Center, newly built in Arkansas swampland. A few days after arriving, he wrote to Lethia. He, like several others, spelled her name “Leather.”
“My Darling Leather:
I am here at Rohwer Relocation Branch, came in last Saturday night. Here I found 8500 Japanese men, women and children from west coast. Mostly from Los Angeles. This people is divided in barracks, each Brooks are capable of 250 people each….Each blocks has a mess hall, laundry room, men’s and women’s Lavatory and shower each room on the center of the block. Each one of us is given .50 cash a month, room and board to live on. If we work, get the pay $16 with board and room. Meals are as follows: Sunday= breakfast. Orange, hot cake, syrup, butter. Popped rice with sugar and milk, bread, butter and coffee. Dinner: Beef with gravy, rice, vegetable, fruit, jello, bread butter. Tea.”
He mailed Lethia earnings from his job as a timber worker and then cook’s helper and was looking to return to his family. He'd written a friend about getting him a job in Suffolk and got a reply in May: The owner of the Busy Bee Cafe would love to have him at his restaurant.
The government, however, would not allow it. Japanese aliens, even those deemed peaceful, could not be go back to areas with military installations.
In late 1943, Miyazaki was shipped to Chicago where some 20,000 Japanese were being relocated to fill a wartime labor shortage. He got a job, rented a room in a boarding house and reported to a sponsor twice a month.
He longed for home. He wrote to Lethia on Feb. 12, 1944:
“My Dearest Leather:
I thank you for your dear letter….I am glad to hear that Raymond is growing bigger. Is he going to school now? Please tell him and write to me. I would like to see how his school record. I hope he will keep up his school and stay always nice boy as ever.”
It would be another year before the war ended and Miyazaki must have received the news with some anguish. Its conclusion could mean he go home to Suffolk. But, the fighting ceased only after United States dropped an atomic bomb on his home, Nagasaki, on Aug. 9, 1945. Forty thousand people died instantly.
Miyazaki was officially released from parole that November and put $100 in a letter to Lethia in December. It was his last.
Regina left her job as a photographer at the Detroit Free Press in late 2016, packed up her blue Volvo and was pointing it to Virginia in January 2017. Home was Richmond and the Richmond Free Press, the African American weekly her father launched in 1992. The hours-long drive through the cold winterscape was what she needed to hash out her career and how to unravel this family mystery.
The three years since her father’s death had been a long, dark blur. Regina and her dad had been close, and she still grieved. Revisiting the papers, the photo, the promise plunged her deeper into the loss he must have carried.
Not many knew his gentle side. She remembered how he cried when his kitten Lolo died.
People knew him as this brash, undeterred champion, a man who constructed a career reporting on civil rights and did not mind ticking off people along the way. Regina wondered how much of that passion was born in his childhood. The family's main source of income evaporated that Dec. 7, 1941, when Raymond was a toddler. Poverty became another enemy and he knew it.
Regina had no idea what her grandmother went through, either. She’d died when Regina was a teen. Regina's father and his brother were raised separately by aunts, with Raymond cared for by one who lived next to his mother.
Raymond called his mother "Lethia," not "mama."
Regina also knew there was an air of secrecy that surrounded the Boone boys. She didn’t know if it was because their father was Japanese or because their parents weren't married. Still, Raymond was seen as something special. Extended family and teachers wrapped him in their collective spirit to make sure he would not get lost. People like dentist Edwin Sullivan, who practiced in the building next to his father’s old restaurant, watched over Raymond like a son.
Raymond's upbringing was defined by his blackness — legally bound to separate neighborhoods, schools and even to where he could walk and eat. This other part of him was also marked by his ethnicity and also torn apart by law.
When Raymond graduated from East Suffolk High in 1955, he was an honor student and president of the youth chapter of the NAACP. People often whispered that he looked more Asian than black, but they didn't question his ambition. They saw a young man determined to write about the injustices they knew too well. Raymond went to Norfolk State, the local branch of Virginia State College. He became editor of its newspaper and worked at the Boston University student publication where he later transferred and graduated. He was a reporter in Massachusetts, taught at Howard University in Washington D.C. and served as editor and vice-president of the Afro-American Newspaper Group in Baltimore.
When Regina was a young girl her friends would often ask, “What’s your father?”
She thought it was a bizarre question and answered bluntly, "He’s black.”
When she was about 13, she drove with her father to the airport to pick up his college roommate, who was Japanese. He mentioned to her casually as if pointing out a highway sign, “Oh, your grandfather was also Japanese.”
Her teenage brain waited for him to say more. He didn’t and she didn’t ask.
Years later, she studied political science at Spelman College in Atlanta, graduated and joined the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program to explore this part of her ancestral story.
She taught English in Osaka starting in 1992 and she spoke to her parents frequently. But in January 1993, she got a package from her dad. It included her grandfather's car insurance card and a couple of letters, the first pieces of the parcel she would start carrying for years.
It read, in part:
I am enclosing, finally, a photograph of your grandfather along with copies of letters that he wrote to your grandmother.
The letters are from many that he wrote to her while he was unjustly deterred during one of America’s most horrible periods.
My delay in getting this material to you may be related to the pain that is experienced when I review it. Also, I was reluctant to transfer this pain to you.”
She tucked the letter into a scrapbook. It was enough of a nudge for her to call the National Archives and Records Administration to request her grandfather’s records. When she got the pile of papers, she set them aside. Her father didn’t ask about them and she didn't offer. Her reticence was another piece added to this inheritance.
The timing wasn’t right then. Now, in January 2017, it finally was.
During that drive to Richmond, she remembered a sabbatical opportunity, a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan. The university had an internationally known institute for Japanese studies. If accepted, she could learn new skills and research her grandfather.
She applied and was named a finalist. Regina flew to Ann Arbor in April for an interview. The panel of judges asked her about the project she proposed in her application — "Family, legacy and the viability of the black press."
During the last few minutes of the interview, one of the panelists asked Regina what she liked to do in her spare time. She hesitated, then told them the story of her father’s wish and her journey to find out about her grandfather.
The room was silent. She thought she’d goofed in mentioning such a personal mission.
She became one of 19 fellows and moved to Ann Arbor that August. Whenever she discussed her study plan she also tacked on the family story. People wanted to know more about Miyazaki.
By the fall, even the director of the fellowship program told Regina to drop her fellowship project. Even she could tell that the mission Regina had taken on for her father had now become her own.
Regina wasn't sure though. Would she be selling out her black heritage if she ditched the black press project? When would she have this opportunity again, though, the director asked. The fellowship included a trip to Korea in March 2018. While there, she could take some personal time and visit Japan.
Regina needed permission to let go. The director's support gave her what she needed.
In November, Regina decided to begin at the end. She knew Miyazaki last lived in Chicago, so she applied online for his death certificate. Within seconds of punching in her credit card information, she received an emailed document:
Miyazaki was under a doctor’s care beginning on May 18, 1946, according to one line. This was five months after he sent that last $100 home to Suffolk.
He died in Cook County Hospital, another line read. Tuberculosis.
Another: “Married.” Regina smiled. It brought her some comfort that he told someone he considered her grandmother his wife.
She kept reading: Montrose Cemetery in Chicago.
Regina couldn’t believe it. Had she found her grandfather?
She searched for the phone number and called. A man answered.
Could he tell her where her grandfather was buried, she asked. She wanted to visit.
She listened as he clicked and typed into his computer.
Sorry, he said. Records from the 1940s were not online. They were in a box in storage.
Regina held her breath.
“Can you find that box, please?”
The man hesitated.
“Are you serious?”
“Please,” she begged. “I need you to go and find that box.”
He placed the phone down. She waited for what could have been two minutes or 20. Then he picked up the phone.
“Oh, my God!” he said. “You’re not going to believe it. I found his name. It was spelled incorrectly but I found him.”
Regina’s spirit soared.
Miyazaki died on the Aug. 1, 1946, he said. But he wasn’t buried. He was cremated.
His remains were transferred to another funeral home.
Regina was tense with excitement. She was a step closer.
“But that funeral home is closed,” the man said.
Regina's hopes crashed. The man apologized.
“Wouldn’t your grandmother have gotten his remains?” he asked.
“It’s a long story,” Regina answered, devastated, “and not that simple.”
She got off the phone. She thought she was going to throw up.
Regina spent the last of the year planning her trip to Japan in late February; it worked to keep depression at bay. If nothing else, she’d “Eat, Pray, Love” her way through Japan, she thought. She’d visit Osaka, where she taught for three years and visit the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. She would at least be able to walk in the land her grandfather did.
Her friends also hadn't given up. One friend posted Regina’s quest in a Facebook group. The NHK-World Japan News group responded and asked Regina if it could do a documentary about her journey. She agreed. While a film crew met her in Michigan, a group in Japan searched there for records.
Regina arrived in Japan on a Sunday at the end of February. NHK had an evening news program in Nagasaki run a clip of Regina’s story that Monday. Anchors asked viewers to call in if they knew anything about Tsuruju Miyazaki. They flashed Miyazaki’s photo, Regina's photo, on the screen.
Two elderly women were watching the news that night in their own homes. They both saw the photo and called each other.
One woman had her daughter-in-law call the station.
That Tuesday, Regina got a text from the producer of the documentary.
We might have heard from one of your relatives, it said. We need you in Nagasaki by Thursday. We’ll meet you at the train station.
Regina didn’t know what to think. Was this a false alarm?
She got another text: “We might need you to take a DNA test.”
“OK,” she replied.
Later, another: “No, we don’t need you to take a test. Just get here.”
Regina’s head was spinning.
"What's going on?" she asked.
The producer wouldn’t say.
“Just wait. Just wait.”
That Thursday, a van with a film crew picked up her and a friend for the two-hour drive to the seaside village of Minamishimabara. The van slowed as it entered a narrow road in front of a collection of homes. It parked near a house with a white car in its driveway. Another camera crew waited several yards ahead as a knot of neighbors started collecting.
They were focused on two elderly women, one with a cane, waiting by a tall stone fence in front of the house.
Regina stepped out of the van to a smattering of applause. She did not know who these women were, but she started to weep.
She walked toward them, then paused to bow, to greet them properly. She clutched her hand to her mouth and walked haltingly forward.
The women moved closer, bowing their heads.
“My name is Regina,” she said in Japanese, her voice breaking. “So nice to meet you.”
The older woman wiped a tear from her right cheek. Her name was Sumie Miyazaki. Her father was Tsuruju Miyazaki’s older brother. The woman with her was her sister, Yurie Murata. Sumie was 91 and Yurie was 86.
They took Regina, who was still crying, into the house. They her across a floor strewn with large cushions to the Butsudan, the family’s Buddhist altar. The dark wooden cabinet was lit from within by lanterns, its center shelf decorated with candles and vases of purple and pink flowers.
Sumie Miyazaki reached behind the vase on the left. She pulled out a picture frame and showed it to Regina. Regina yelped.
It was grandfather, the same slight grin, tweed suit, the image that she’d been carrying around for more than 20 years.
“Oh, my God!” she said with a watery breath. “Wow!”
She knelt on a cushion and caressed the photo as if seeing it for the first time.
“I recognized him instantly,” Sumie said in Japanese, referring to the news broadcast.
This is why she didn't need that DNA test, Regina realized. A producer had met the cousins earlier and saw the photo.
“This is amazing!” Regina said. A translator relayed her words. “He brought us together.”
Regina reached into her bag. She pulled out her copy of the photo and then one of her father. She told them of who he was how he didn’t get to know his father. The women told her that they were born after her grandfather had left Japan, so they did not know him either. But they knew of his letters.
Sumie looked at Regina.
“This must be the reason that I have lived so long,” she said in Japanese. “Your grandfather has been waiting for you.”
Regina could not register what she'd just heard.
“Oh, my God,” she asked. “Wait. What?”
Sumie, through the translator, said it as a teenager it was her job to pick up mail from the post office. Once, around 1950, a box was waiting. It was from Chicago. It was Tsuruju Miyazaki’s ashes.
Sumie didn’t know who sent them. The family honored Miyazaki and gave him a proper funeral.
They could take her to the cemetery.
In a daze, Regina climbed into the van. During the ride, she looked at the passing farmland. It reminded her of Suffolk and she could see why her grandfather felt at home in the Virginia countryside. In less than 10 minutes, the van stopped.
As the women walked toward the field of towering stone memorials, Regina thought of her father. Sumie's quick bustle looked so much like his walk. The women led Regina to a tall spire and pointed to a vertical line of kanji, Chinese characters. That was her grandfather's name.
Sumie began to kneel to reach into the chamber inside the stone. She was going to pull out his urn of ashes.
Regina stopped her. No, she said. It was enough, more than enough, to be there. To know that her grandfather had been resting in peace all this time. It was more than she could have imagined.
They lit incense and Regina prayed to her ancestors. She prayed to her grandfather. She remembered her dad. She wished he could be here, but she also knew how proud he would be.
The sisters later took Regina to the waterfront where her grandfather had likely left from more than 100 years before.
The day was too much to take in. Had Miyazaki not left Nagasaki, she would not be there standing in that spot. She now had this family, this very real family, on the other side of the world.
The journey to find her grandfather had ended and a new one had begun.
Regina completed her fellowship and returned to work at the Richmond Free Press. The documentary was released in March and she gets the occasional email from someone who saw it and also lost a relative after the internment camps. They want her guidance.
Like her grandfather, Regina writes letters to her family in Japan, getting friends to translate her words into Japanese. Her cousins send her care packages, tucking in old family photos and a hand-embroidered tapestry of the family crest.
She travels around the country lecturing about her grandfather. She feels it's her duty now. Regina sees history being revisited with immigrant families being put into shelters and separated. Her father wouldn't be quiet and she can't be. She knows it is something her father would want her to do. Regina believes her grandfather would, too.
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